Highways and Regeneration: the urban evolution of Etten-Leur

The design of some highways, although acting as an enabler to economic development, can sometimes have unforeseen negative social and economic consequences.

Reconfiguration of Etten-Leur, The Netherlands
Reconfiguration of Etten-Leur, The Netherlands

Communities can sometimes be separated and inhibited by the very infrastructure that was designed to help them develop. This case study explains how the relocation of existing highways infrastructure acted as a catalyst to regenerate the town of Etten-Leur.


In the 1960s, a major highway was built through the town of Etten-Leur. Although this maintained a very effective economic vibrancy link to the area, assisted by a newly developed Shopping Centre, it effectively divided the community.

Despite its contribution to the local economy, the presence of the main Highway created environmental issues and was always recognised as a major barrier and segregator within the community. But, what could be done to retain this key piece of infrastructure as an access function, yet remove it as a dividing line through the local community.

The Municipal authority agreed to design and construct a new highway to bypass Etten-Leur, and a number of additional improvements to the public realm in the city centre. The bypass would be designed, not only to improve life for the local population, but to expand economic development and facilitate additional industrial development.

Developing the city-plan

Providing this by-pass however raised a number of questions and concerns within the community, such as the potential negative economic impact that removal of the existing highway could have, and the potential loss of trade. To address these concerns, a development strategy was established to ensure that the town maintained its economic vitality and relevance as a Shopping Centre.

The town's rural setting and limited access to Public Transport meant that vehicular traffic had to be accommodated in the plans, but it should not continue to be the dominant factor. The development strategy would also place strong emphasis on developing and improving the historic public space of Etten-Leur in the Centre, and a commitment that this public realm should be enhanced and maintained as a desirable 'place' for both residents and visitors.

A major advantage in controlling the proposed development design was that the Municipality had ownership of the land over which the original highway ran. This, together with the adjoining Shopping Centre provided sufficient space to make the envisaged development an attractive commercial opportunity to a Private Developer.

Funding was a combination of National Government, as compensation for the old Highway, and local Municipality contributions. This, together with land of the old Highway being sold to the Developers to build on, providing additional private funding, made a viable and a realistic social and commercial development.

Public realm improvements

The Municipality set out a range of development requirements in return for land and opened the overall project up a competitive design under European tender conditions. Municipal City-Plan requirements consisted of:

  • Underground car parking with 1000 places
  • 14.000 m2 shops
  • 2000 m2 catering (to assist disabled people into work)
  • 350 apartments
  • 59 houses
  • New city office 7500 m2
  • Total of 8,5 hectare new area

A 5-year construction period would be required, which reflected the large site and its city-centre location. Since the underlying sandy soils and high water table were present, interlocking sheet piling would be required to facilitate the car park's construction. This soil type does lend itself to good compaction and therefore more durable modular surfacing materials.


Separate cycle lane
Separate cycle lane

The scar through the town, from the 1960's updated highway, needed to be healed but also retain a reduced function. The redesigned road space accommodated pedestrians, cycles and vehicles. The community agreed to use rows of trees to soften the impact of the original highway, enhance green space and in addition use narrow trafficked lanes to emphasise a change in infrastructure nature.

To emphasise the place-making aspect, a range of Art details were included into the overall design. The car park was recognised by all to be a key "public space" to enable vitality and placing it underground added project value. As such it would be a safe, clear, bright area. Since the car park had a range of coloured areas, it was included in the design to create a pleasant atmosphere and assist in locating parked cars.

Pedestrian access to the car park was via covered ramped escalators that could accommodate shopping trollies directly from a pedestrianised/shared space above. Vehicular access to the underground car park used the route of the old highway and is formed where the line of the original highway meets the new development. In conjunction with these new access points, provision was also made for a public transport stop.

Shared surface areas, mixed occupancy and care facilities

The Development's central shared surface area created a clear public space with no obstacles. To generate and encourage footfall and create a recognised and vibrant community centre, the Municipality arranged a variety of events, markets, marathons etc. every week. A range of housing was incorporated to accommodate and encourage a mix of occupancy types in a city centre location.

In addition, what had been termed "proportionate care buildings" was incorporated into the design. This provision predominantly focused on those who could be considered disabled to older people who were coping with decreasing abilities. These buildings provided a range of functions including "health and well-being" by employing disabled in catering facilities or to meeting a more demanding medical function.

Landscaping and green space

Etten-Leur was very proud of its Environmental responsibility, generally there was a lot of green space and this was accentuated on the land the old highway occupied. Also included within the development were a range of green technologies consisting of wind turbines and ground source heating to name but a few.

Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS) were also incorporated to produce "swimming pool" quality ponds for public space. SUDS, consisting mainly of rainwater were naturally filtered to achieve swimming quality water. The Municipality together with the community identified, early on, that maintenance was essential to keep areas clean and well-functioning long into the future.

Benefits of the project

The final scheme addressed major issues with the highway, an urban barrier, traffic noise and other issues related to a major urban highway. The final design resulted in a change in perception by the population. Locally the transformed road was now referred to as the 'Champs-Elysees' of Etten-Leur, clearly there was a great deal of civic pride in the transformation. Consequently adjacent house values had increased.

In addition to the road improvements there was more and varied housing within the centre of the community all of which was within a walkable distance. The combination of these aspects had generated a noticeable increase with the on-street community.

Municipal Waste Management was considered at the design stage, such that it was unnoticeable by being designed either into the buildings or underground in the street. Indeed, increasing land value by under-grounding car park functions has generated multiple benefits.

From a traffic management aspect the transformation was a resounding success. The Municipality reported a major reduction in traffic-lights now with only four sets of lights remaining. In addition, the accident statistics had dramatically reduced, along with improved journey times.

Observations and Conclusions

The key relationship between transport and economic development is clearly demonstrated here. In addition and fundamental to this study case was that the Municipality had ownership and control over land to enable this project.

Nevertheless, the concept that building a by-pass will have negative economic impacts on a community is false if a municipal authority takes positive and holistic planning, design and development decisions in conjunction with the local population.

Town square
Town square

Interested in seeing your project featured?

Do you or your company have a project you'd like to share with civil engineers from across the globe?

Our Knowledge Marketing team sources content from across the world of civil engineering, as well of as offering opportunities for sponsorship.

Training opportunities from ICE

ICE provides world class training for civil engineers looking to develop their skill set.