The Dyle River winds though the City of Leuven and flows into three other rivers, eventually reaching the major seaport of Antwerp and the North Sea. Once important to trade and transportation, the Dyle has also flooded Leuven repeatedly over the centuries. For the past decade, Leaven, a city of almost 100,000 people located 15 miles east of Brussels, has been retooling the Dyle by recapturing some of the original floodplain, installing innovative flood management infrastructure and using water as an urban design feature to fashion a sense of place. As a result, Leuven is improving its ability to safely withstand storms while also creating green/blue space that expands recreational opportunities, biodiversity and Leuven’s already considerable charm. In addition to rediscovering the river, Leuven excels in overall sustainability, prompting the European Commission to choose this city, (as well as Vaxjo, Sweden), for its 2018 European Green Leaf Award.
Leuven is now known for its knowledge economy, thanks largely to high-tech firms and institutions, notably Catholic University Leuven, Belgium’s oldest university (Leuven 2016). But the city was once a center of textile production with mills powered by dams and channelization of the Dyle River. Although the mills are now gone, Leuven is still the home of the Stella Artois brewery, an institution that offers good examples of how the city’s attitude has changed from “bury the water” to “live with the water”.
Founded in the early 1700s, the Artois breweries eventually grew over the next two centuries, replacing entire blocks of houses, businesses and streets on the north end of the city, often covering the Dyle and its tributaries as it expanded. In 1993, the brewing process was moved to a nearby modern facility, leaving Leuven with a huge redevelopment opportunity. With guidance and financial assistance from the Flemish Environmental Agency (VMM), the city systematically liberated subterranean streams and built riverbank features that allow public access while often adding capacity to retain floodwater. The scope of this effort is documented in the drawings, maps and photographs of a book entitled The River Dyle in Leuven – a Blessing and a Curse (La Riviere 2014).
As one example of this process, portions of the former brewery site have been transformed into Sluispark, a park/civic space surrounded by new housing, repurposed brewery buildings and a redesigned segment of the Dyle. Similarly, the Dyle was resurrected from below a bottling plant and storage area, creating Klaverpark, a terraced riverbank that serves as a recreational and design element for new residential buildings. Upstream, a neglected bend in the river was rebuilt as public space with terraces that offer a view of the Dyle on sunny days while being capable of storing floodwater during storms. Downstream, Leuven converted the former commercial port north of the brewery to a marina now lined with retail, restaurants and upscale residences overlooking the water, which is now a favorite site for kayaking (La Riviere 2014).
In addition to rediscovering its waterways, the European Green Leaf Award recognized Leuven for its commitment to become climate neutral by 2030. To reach that goal, Leuven Climate Neutral 2030 was formed and now consists of 60 stakeholders plus over 300 organizations and individuals. The city is leading by example, targeting a 30 percent reduction of energy consumption by 2019 and requiring every new city structure to meet passive house standards. Electrical generation form renewables, (including biogas, wind and solar), increased ten-fold between 2006 and 2015. When extracting drinking water from an aquifer below Abbey Park, Leuven uses a heat pump to warm and cool the abbey, reducing energy consumption and lowering carbon emissions by 130 tons per year. To motivate its citizens to pursue renewables and energy efficiency, Leuven offers free consultation, no-interest loans and facilitation of collective renovations within neighborhoods (Leuven 2016).
Leuven plans to achieve a transportation mode share of one third car, one third public transport and one third bicycle. Toward that goal, public transport ridership increased five-fold in 20 years and bicycles already constitute 20 percent of modal split. To become a cycle city, a cycle highway to Brussels has been completed and another is under construction. Bike storage capacity at Leuven’s rail station was scheduled to more than double, to 11,000 stands, between 2016 and 2018. In addition, the 2016 mobility plan called for the car free zone in the historic city center to double in size. To raise public awareness, Leuven holds a car-free Sunday every year (Leuven 2016).
The daylighting of the Dyle has expanded Leuven’s blue zones and the restoration of these waterways has been essential to the city’s targets to expand its environmentally-sensitive areas and biodiversity. Leuven is home to 13 natural and forest areas as well as 10 recreational parks. Between 2000 and 2015, the city grew its green space from 200 to 300 hectares largely by the redevelopment of underused industrial areas and the 2010 opening of Keizerberg Abbey Park. Leuven maintains butterfly- and bee-friendly plants at its botanical gardens, (Belgium’s oldest), and throughout the city. To demonstrate the resilience of nature, Leuven transformed a landfill into a nature center in Kessel-Lo Regional Park. The city also motivates citizen engagement in biodiversity by subsidizing gardens and bird breeding boxes on private property (Leuven 2016).
Leuven has reduced its waste stream partly by using economic incentives. Residents are charged per bag of non-recycled domestic waste, an expense that can be minimized by changing to reduce/reuse/recycle behaviors. Citizens can recycle biodegradable waste at communal compost facilities or create their own composting systems with the help of volunteer “Compost Masters”. As another indication of its commitment, the city gives the parents of newborns a 150-euro refund for buying reusable cotton diapers (Leuven 2016).
After evaluating applications from 14 European cities, the European Commission’s expert panel ranked Leuven number one for the 2018 European Green Leaf Award. Although partly for its leadership in climate action, eco mobility, biodiversity and waste reduction, the judges were clearly impressed by Leuven’s monumental efforts to reopen its buried streams and use water as a catalyst for urban revitalization (European Commission 2017). Moving forward, Leuven is committed to building on its success, with plans to daylight even more waterways as a way of adding blue zones for recreation, place-making, flood management and improved habitat for all species, including humans.
European Commission. 2017. Expert Panel Technical Assessment Synopsis Report: European Green Lead Award 2018. Accessed on October 13, 2018 from
La Riviere, Justin. 2014. The River Dyle in Leuven – a blessing and a curse. Flemish Environment Agency (VMM).
Leuven. 2016. Application Form for the European Green Leaf 2018 Award.