Daan Quaars has until recently been the alderman who has also been responsible for the GreenQuays project. Aldermen in the Netherlands are local politicians. Together with the mayor they exercise the executive power of the municipal government and implement policies. In an interview with Birgit Georgi, UIA expert at the end of August 2023, he shared his personal experience with this innovative project of building nature-inclusive quays.
Interview with Daan Quaars
Birgit Georgi: When was the first time, that you had heard from the idea of building nature-inclusive quays - instead of using conventional quay wall design?
Daan Quaars: I have been familiar with the river Mark re-development, which GreenQuays is a part of, already a long time ago, actually starting when I was still a trainee. That was of course long time ago when the city thought about re-opening the covered river again. The idea of making the new river much greener and nature-inclusive came only later around 2018 / 2019 when the idea has been further developed into the GreenQuays project. At that time, I was the alderman for Building and Living. I was not responsible for the project, but of course, the topic related closely to my topics and quality of life in the city. Since then, I have closely followed the project. In 2022 however, I became the alderman for Urban Development, Accessibility and Digitalisation and thus directly responsible for the GreenQuays project.
Birgit Georgi: What have been your thoughts about that unusual idea of building quay walls that will not be greened by setting plants but by providing wall structures where nature finds appropriate space to invade and green the walls by itself?
Daan Quaars: That sounded like a crazy idea. You do not know in advance, how nature will green it. Will it work? Will it look nice? There have been a lot of crazy ideas. Just think about planting trees in vertical walls! It is however a fact that we need much more green in the city, and if space on the ground is limited, we have to try out new ideas.
Birgit Georgi: What has been your specific role as the alderman in the GreenQuays project?
Daan Quaars: Simply expressed: Making decisions. And we had to take many decisions because a lot of new solutions have been tried out in this project and questions needed to be answered and decided: Should we go for these solutions or not? Will they work? Do we need to go other ways? Where to take extra money from?
I was in the comfortable situation of having a great team around me. You can imagine, as a politician, I do not have the detailed technical knowledge on the problems and possible solutions, but the people we had gathered in the partnership of GreenQuays have been very knowledgeable each in their specific area. Together, they have formed a great team. Good and continuous communication and trust have been also important. We had regular meetings every month. In addition, team members could walk into my office (and have done so) whenever a new issue arose that needed discussion and a decision. This trustful environment and the knowledgeable and collaborative team enabled us to find solutions for every problem and enabled me to take decisions on good grounds.
Birgit Georgi: The project went through difficult times. In 2020–2022 the COVID 19 pandemic turned our lives and the way we work around. Which role played GreenQuays during these times?
Daan Quaars: The pandemic was a challenge, but the project has never been put into question for us. It had to be done and we needed to find ways to do so, even if at the beginning of the crisis it had been a bit difficult to rearrange work. We also felt a lot of energy to continue because we knew that people would appreciate the nice and healthy place that we aimed to build. They have requested that quality from us, have dreamed of it. Also looking from the perspective of climate change, it is obvious that we need a greener city, in particular, where areas are densely built. That’s why it is so important for us to get the project and the wider redevelopment of the new river Mark delivered to citizens.
Birgit Georgi: The next big external challenge has already been around. In 2022, the war in Ukraine broke out. It also brought scarcity in energy and building material leading to sky-rocketing prices. What kept Breda going with the project, nevertheless? How did you manage the situation?
Daan Quaars: Yes, the sudden rising costs have posed big challenges to us. What helped? Good communication with colleagues, with other aldermen, the mayor, the project team members – all together we looked for options to solve the problems and work around the challenges. Aside from rising costs for us, there was also the risk of companies going insolvent in the worst case! Hence, we also had lots of conversations with our construction company on material and financing questions to mitigate that risk. In fact, within the years I have been an alderman, I experienced this project as having had the best collaboration and frequent exchange between us as the city and the contractor on finding solutions jointly.
One of the practical solutions we have found has been to reallocate funds that had been foreseen for water management in the area. As the new river can manage excessive run-off of surface water from heavy rain, less sewage structure is needed in the area. The funds could be transferred to the project. We presented this idea to the City Council, who agreed and thus, it happened.
Birgit Georgi: Looking at GreenQuays, do you see it as a path-breaking project for Breda‘s city development?
Daan Quaars: Definitely. Our vision for Breda is to become a city in a park by 2040. This project helps us a lot to realise this vision in the heart of the city. GreenQuays may be small in area, but it shows us a way, how we can boost nature even in difficult terrains. It will be a blueprint for the further sections of the new river Mark. Its approach to nature-inclusiveness and covering multiple functions, like climate change adaptation, health, nice public space, etc. demonstrates new ideas that can be implemented in other green areas. It has been a great testbed, and we are still about to learn how the new and innovative solutions will work. This project will help us to green spaces that we hadn’t thought we would be able to make green. Thereby, the funding received from the EU gave us the flexibility to test these new solutions including the option to fail here and there and using that experience to develop even better solutions.
Birgit Georgi: You will change jobs and give over the duties to the next alderman in September 2023. Are you confident the activities initiated by GreenQuays will continue?
Daan Quaars: I am confident that work will continue. We do this project and the wider redevelopment of the area not (just) for fun. It is a necessity. We have no choice. There is a long-standing culture in the city and among council members to approach the future like this as it is also expressed in our long-term vision. The now established GreenQuays will demonstrate the values of nature in the city as a real and tangible experience and will encourage my successors to go on with this way.
Birgit Georgi: From your experience with the project, what would you recommend other cities that may want to implement similar innovative projects?
Daan Quaars: Don’t just think about it. Do it! You have to take risks sometimes, even as a politician. Sometimes solutions are working and sometimes they may not work out as planned. But that is then an important lesson to learn from and to do it better. Communicate it and discuss broadly with people. They will understand.