The Kanaleneiland-Zuid neighbourhood of Utrecht is the focus for a five-year EU-funded €5.3 million project that is intended to create a sustainable urban district. In focus is a low income area to the south-west of the Dutch city with a lot of 1950s and 60s social housing and, along with two other ‘Lighthouse’ cities within the scheme, Nice and Gothenburg, the projects are meant to be shared and replicated elsewhere within these cities as well as beyond.

I met municipal manager for the project, Mirjam Harmelink, in the centre of the neighbourhood, at a converted school that is now a focal point for Kanaleneiland’s diverse community. There is a community-run café and spaces for a range of social enterprises, such as Affila, which works to provide social and practical support for refugee mothers.

These are early days for the Lighthouse project itself, having only kicked off in October, but one selection criteria was that there were existing city projects that could be built on, so the team is not starting from scratch.

There were already plans by large local housing association, BO-ex, to renovate and retrofit twelve of the 1950s/60s apartment buildings, which span more than 640 households. Those plans will now form one of the cornerstones of the Lighthouse project. An already planned move from the current F and G energy efficiency ratings to a B rating will now be extended beyond an A rating, meaning the properties will become close to zero energy. There will also be incorporation of smart grid and battery technology and electric vehicle car-share.

“We can now go one step further and demonstrate specific technologies,” says Mirjam. “The aim is to show how we can reduce demand on a local level and match demand with supply.” She adds: “We do not want to just demo and then it is over, there needs to be a business model that can be sustained after the project.”

Citizen Involvement

According to BO-ex, households in its apartment blocks only have around €50 per month beyond essentials, such as rent, insurance, utility bills and food. “So anything we can do to reduce energy bills and make their lives more comfortable is a plus,” says Mirjam.

On the one hand, this should aid citizen buy-in, as the projects will bring tangible benefits. On the other hand, when someone has pressing day-to-day priorities, such as how to afford their children’s education and how to pay off personal debt, it can be difficult to engage on longer-term initiatives.

One concern of residents is always that rents will increase, which might be construed as an outcome of improvements on the properties, “so we will need to be careful that we frame the messages in just the right way”, says Mirjam.

Another challenge is that the Lighthouse project is somewhat ‘prescriptive’ – its high-level priorities and goals are set so it is a case of now finding the scope for citizen involvement whereby they can still help to shape the detail.

The plans for electric vehicles reflect this, points out Utrecht city council communications manager, Chris Verhoeven. There is already a successful EV car-share scheme in the more affluent Lombok neighbourhood of Utrecht which will now be extended to Kanaleneiland. The former, albeit limited to only a few households, was a ‘bottom-up’ initiative by the residents, who started the engagement with the city council and other partners. In its Kanaleneiland phase, it is anticipated that it will be on a much larger scale and applied to a neighbourhood with an appreciably different social and economic demographic. While car ownership in the district is more or less on a par with elsewhere in the city, it is much lower in the BO-ex apartments, at around 20 per cent.

Rebuilding secondary education for refugees

Kanaleneiland district. Photo by Remke Spijkers


The retrofitting will include insulation, new windows, new ventilation systems, solar panels and a new energy heat pump, with the specifics of the latter still to be decided. Around 30 per cent of the neighbourhood’s energy is from private provider, Eneco, via a gas-powered district heat system but with an intended move to biomass, via two facilities with a combined capacity of 60 megawatts (this in itself has been a topic for fierce debate in the city, says Mirjam, related to whether it is sustainable, including whether the city produces enough material for that sort of capacity).

There will be smart meters for all households, to show usage, but these need to be straightforward to read and operate so that they are usable by people who do not have Dutch as their first language (the majority of the Kanaleneiland residents are from north Africa).

The Lighthouse project will pioneer batteries to store electricity, with a bi-directional capability so that excess capacity from the solar panels and EVs can be fed into the grid. The vehicle partner, as in Lombok, is likely to be Renault, as it has the bi-directional capabilities, although the speed with which EV and battery technology is moving means other options will open up.

Mirjam also foresees work with the local bus company, Qbuzz. This has one electric vehicle at present but has an ambitious roll-out plan so that the batteries for its vehicles might be connected as well to the network. The household consumption patterns, with mid-evening peaks when there are fewer buses running, might provide synergies for exchanging power at different times of the day.

Rebuilding secondary education for refugees

Kaneleneiland community café, Coffeemania, in a former school on Amerikalaan in the centre of the neighbourhood

Timescales and Partners

The Lighthouse project will follow the schedule of BO-ex, which will start work on the first apartments in September or October. The initial EV car-share is already planned and will encapsulate not only the housing association blocks but also private households in the area.

Also involved will be a couple of local colleges, with the Lighthouse team working with pupils and with the campuses as showcases, along with the community hub building. The project will build more or less a Utrecht ecosystem, says Mirjam, by strengthening relationships between the likes of the local utility company, grid provider, bus operator and housing association, as well as trying to work with universities and other educational establishments that have courses for the skillsets that will be needed for the project.

There is also a data sharing dimension to the plans, with the Lighthouse initiative intended to feed into an evolving Utrecht City Innovation Platform for structured data exchange. This could help with, for instance, a wider linking of energy generation and storage across the city.

Utrecht hosted the kick-off meeting with its Gothenburg and Nice counterparts and follower cities, Fucsani in Romania, Alexandroupolis in Greece, Vaasa in Finland and Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain. There will be the exchange of ideas and experiences between these cities. Solutions can be shared and, as an example, Mirjam expresses interest in the 3D modeling that Gothenburg has pioneered, which provides a strong visual representation of, for instance, the Swedish city’s air quality from online sensors.

For the three cities, this is just the start of the journey but the Lighthouse scheme appears to be well-grounded and a natural evolution. It represents a scaling up of previous much smaller pioneer initiatives and will have a direct, demonstrable impact on the lives of a relatively large number of households.