The renovation of ‘De Motten’ as a recreational City Park with full disclosure of an historic branch of the Jeker River is a good example of how water can give the transition towards climate adaptation and quality of life a solid boost in city centers.
After more than 60 years the Jeker flows again through the center of the oldest and a former Roman city of Belgium called Tongeren. The aim of the project was to use the disclosure of an old derelict and once-covered riverbed to redesign its surroundings as a valley area within the city. A city park with water experience was created around the river. Today, the area has become a revitalized meeting area with open spaces for recreation and retreat.
The guideline was the restoration of natural functions combined with experiences. The contrast between the old city and the natural environment was used as a design principle. The Jeker follows the old city walls and thus forms the link between the city and the valley. The river has a hard urban and a soft natural bank. Along its course, it opens up the door to the valley and brings the natural treasures and outdoor qualities of ‘De Kevie’ within reach of the people of Tongeren and its visitors.
A new beginning for the Jeker River, with the various forms and meanings of transition embodied by the Roman god ‘Janus’ as a metaphor. In conjunction with the disclosure of the Jeker over more than 1 kilometre and the redesign of the park, the opportunity was taken to reduce the amount of hard-covered surfaces in the park and its surroundings, linked to a new vision of mobility. Existing roads throughout the park and parking lots were removed, and alternatives were sought in the surroundings or partly moved to the edges. The result is now a large cohesive whole that can fully play the role of a central City Park and a vital link in the valley.
Based on the Sweco motto ‘Transforming society together’, the underlying idea was to focus on transition. A new City Park is created to last a long time, opening up a river even more so. A new beginning is based on the idea of connecting with a forgotten past and reestablishing old key values. The answer was, of course, to begin with, the reconstruction of the riverbed to breathe new life into a place where the city had turned its back on the river. The riverbed follows the old Roman and Medieval ramparts. A set of new bridges rebounds the city with the park and living areas on the other side of the valley. Existing Community gardens were not wiped out or hidden away but integrated into the park and city life.
Meanwhile, a new fresh wind blew through the streets of the lower city with a new circulation plan in function which emphasizes heritage, the residential character and safe school environments. Parking was shifted to the edge and integrated into a new distribution system for the entire city centre. Covered surfaces with no further use were removed and transformed into water surfaces and green open spaces with footpaths and bicycle lanes.
The Jeker as a river is just as atypical as the city of Tongeren. A former Roman city based on the banks of a river mainly watered by rainfall. Therefore the water flow varies greatly according to the whims of the weather gods and the seasons, the extent of human water management and the impact of climate changes. Flow control on the different branches regulates the flow and rate of the river to prevent flooding and shortage of water. Fish ladders in the course of the river make upstream fish migration possible again.
In a bend of the river, comfortably nestled against the old ramparts of ‘Kastanjewal’, a new ‘Water Square’ forms the ‘heart’ of the park and a new focal point at the foot of the old city. The ‘Water Square’ makes the vital role of water tangible and visible and links it to experience. A unique ‘three-pointed’ bridge completes the picture was once an old Roman crossroad and gate engaged with the river.
The ‘Water Square’ follows the natural contours of the terrain and forms an open meeting space with a lowered amphitheatre centred around the experience of water. It forms a safe and controlled water environment for all ages that is visually linked to the Jeker without actually being connected to it. In summer it’s being used as a play fountain while in winter it can be transformed into an ice-skating pond. Ultimately, when the entire water system of the city centre is remediated, it will be fed by clean rainwater flowing down from the hill, but in the meantime, it’s still being fed by tap water.
‘De Motten’ and disclosure of the Jeker is the result of a successful collaboration between various governmental institutions and administrations that took part in a strong ‘design and process-driven’ project. It’s an example of the interdisciplinary approach that we at Sweco and BUUR stand for. Within a complex assignment and constellation of actors involving many disciplines and partners, design was key. Not only to carry the goals and ambitions through all the steps of evaluations and decision-making but also to clearly communicate the core message throughout the entire process.
With visual power, both stakeholders and the general public were involved in an intensive journey with a compelling story that was feasible and technically substantiated. From survey through masterplan and design to execution, the entire process was completed in the short lead-time of 5 years and with 90% of the masterplan already realized.
Today everyone can find some form of leisure activity or retreat in the park. Sports, heritage, nature and culture play a central role in a City Park that is the starting point for many cycling and hiking routes. The result is a significant improvement of the public domain and local mobility. A useful public action that supports a safe and pleasant living environment and one that strengthens the tourist and recreational potential of the old city centre. The social network of the neighbourhood was strengthened. As a new ‘crowd favorite’ the park and riverbanks receive broad support which let them grow into a beautiful and meaningful meeting place.
Over more than a hectare of covered surfaces were depaved. We’ve seen a restoration of natural functions along the course of the river, both in the valley and the urban environment. Afterwards, the city council of Tongeren implemented the overall vision and goals in its climate adaptation plan. As a result the city recently planted 200 extra ‘climate trees’ within the park.
In 2021 the ‘Renovated city park ‘De Motten’ with disclosure of the Jeker River in Tongeren’ won the Public Space Prize. Every year, the Regional Knowledge Center for Public Space presents an award for the ‘best’ public space in Flanders. The Public Space Prize is a prestigious recognition for good commissioning and high-quality design and execution of a project. Both professionals and the general public can cast its vote for its favourite project. We are very proud for this recognition, and we will continue to work on the design of sustainable public spaces in the future.
Landscape Architecture: Sweco Belgium and the Infrastructure division of Sweco
Client: City of Tongeren
Photo: Bram Goots