District-U

Redevelopment of former Unilever R&D campus Vlaardingen, The Netherlands

Project details

In late 2019, after sixty years of operation, Unilever Research & Development left its native soil in Vlaardingen, a mid-sized city west of Rotterdam. While this is a considerable loss for local economy and employment, it also presents a grand opportunity for developing a new district for Vlaardingen providing space for living, working, and public programmes, and to fulfil the potential of (finally) bringing the city to the river.

The former Unilever grounds will transform from an introvert area on the periphery, to the dynamic, full-fledged urban neighbourhood of District-U (working title). It realises a gradual transition between city and port and really connects the city to its riverside. A pleasant neighbourhood, a little rough around the edges, that is committed to maximising quality of life and the development of an environment that is humane, healthy, and responsible.

District-U will be an intimate district, where the combination of old and new buildings form a new structure, offering space for families, first-time buyers, young adults, and weaker members of society. Characterised by strategically programmed plinths, ‘eyes on the street’, and a nice place on a street corner to have a cup of coffee. With solid but personal housing blocks and timeless facades, where inside and outside are optimally connected. A pleasant, green, and inviting public space – both abundant and intimate – for meeting your neighbours, for children playing, and for workers, makers, students and the elderly to come together, with a nice terrace and occasionally an event. With passionate entrepreneurs, high-quality amenities, and a vibrant programme created for and by the community.

A neighbourhood that is driven by solidarity and community spirit, at a time when there is a growing need for togetherness. A neighbourhood emphasising freedom in use, and strong ownership amongst residents and users. Valued existing elements are reused in a step-by-step evolution and maturation of the district, cultivating constant renewal and sustainable development over time. With stimulating, synergetic work and production spaces for makers and thinkers. With progressive and inspiring learning environments for future generations, strongly linked to real-life practice. A district where city life and nature go hand in hand, with green streets, the waterside Maaspark as a vast and spacious backyard, and a proud view over the Nieuwe Maas river. With integrated systems for energy generation and reuse, creating a sustainable and visibly responsible neighbourhood.

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Background

With the departure of Unilever, Vlaardingen is confronted with the freeing up of a substantial industrial complex at a rugged location: adjacent to the river Maas, in the wind, next to one of the most grotesque panoramas in the country, with strong environmental influences as a result of the surrounding industrial activities. At the same time, it is a crucial location in both city and region. Rotterdam and the neighbouring city of Schiedam have always clearly profiled themselves alongside the river Maas, fully integrated with their identity. Vlaardingen, however, has historically been cut off from the river, due to the barriers imposed by the railway, dike, and roads that have been constructed over time. The historic city centre is located north of the railway, while the southside is known as a peripheral area dominated by industry, which – due to its introvert constitution – has acted as a barrier between the city and the river in the past decades.

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9 SFNR District U Bird view

The redevelopment of this specific location has enormous potential to contribute to the diminishing of these barriers and the cherished desire to bring the city to the river. Simultaneously this means that the project at hand is highly complex and vulnerable. In order to realise a truly well-functioning transition from port activity to housing, in which programming, quality of use, environmental constraints, and spatial appearance come together fittingly, a plan driven by usage and programming was developed. At once it became clear that small interventions will not suffice to create a true connection to the city and to realise a high-quality urban district with actual value for its residents.

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What are the conditions for realising a unique and proper development with maximum significance for the city? And how can this development make a contribution to the social challenges of wider society, such as employment, inclusivity, sustainability, and health?

The bigger picture

First of all, it is imperative to clarify the potential position and role of this location from a (substantially) wider perspective. The redevelopment of the former Unilever grounds enable the city to take the leap to the river, anchoring Vlaardingen right at the waterside of Maas and Nieuwe Waterweg, which serve as the backbone of the region. But in order to fittingly fulfil this potential, it is necessary to define the potential position and role of this city district: the Vlaardingen River Zone. Several regional potentials that the city could make much better use of are joined together in this area: the recently opened Hoekse Lijn metro line running from Rotterdam to seaside Hoek van Holland, the diminishing cycle distances due to the rise of the e-bike, and the vicinity of high-quality recreational areas such as Midden-Delfland, Broekpolder and Hoek van Holland beach – giving the River Zone a strategic location right in between the city of Rotterdam and the North Sea coast.

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By taking advantage of the robust and industrious character of the River Zone and developing the area into a proper and humane urban district, the unique potential to further develop the city into a ‘dual city’ presents itself. In this way, Vlaardingen can enlarge its city centre with an area offering complementary qualities: land city versus water city and historic city versus new city. This will create a powerful base for developing programme, use, character, and design for the area. Within this wider development of the River Zone, the redevelopment of the former Unilever grounds can serve as a flywheel. It focuses on the development of a district in all its urbanity and vibrancy. By creating a symbiotic relation between port activities, workspaces and places to learn, and new housing typologies, a productive district arises which can act as the accelerator of further development of the River Zone to an attractive, park-like environment, with an urban character and space for new public programmes, thus enhancing a clear regional significance.

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A strategic package of programmatic and spatial interventions

Secondly, a package of strategic interventions is needed to create a pleasant living environment that will truly be part of the city, and answering to the unique potentials of this location. A strategic package of programmatic and spatial interventions helps transform this currently monofunctional, introvert and peripheral area into a maximum humane urban district with all the corresponding amenities that go with it. To make this happen, a series of steps is needed:

  • Clean up the current grounds and remove the existing fences with preservation of those elements considered valuable – literally opening up the area. By demolishing a number of blocking buildings, a visual and physical connection is created between the city and the river.
  • A clear main structure, providing access to the area from its flanks – enabling a car-free inner area and the relocation of the access route to the Maaspark in order to ‘heal’ the park.
  • A gradual and robust transition between port activities and area to work and live, by way of a ‘programmatic chain’: a logical concatenation of programmatic components that will be established in the area.
  • Creating a pleasant, green public space, connecting to existing routes in the surrounding areas and an enjoyable, humane place to live and dwell, offering space to meet, play and do sports for all ages as a unifying element.
  • Solid building blocks, answering to the scale of its surroundings while decreasing scale to realise a human-scaled neighbourhood.
  • And the strategic programming out of the district, in which active places of interest are created through a combination of the reuse of existing, meaningful buildings and the positioning of new public programmes as 'anchors'; centrally located in the area and at the park, and where education, sports, and healthcare are optimally positioned.

In doing this, the conditions are created for the development of a dynamic urban district with maximum quality of life.

A maximum humane, dynamic urban district connecting city and river

This foundation, and all its components, are elaborated on with a focus on maximising quality of use:

By dividing the building blocks into more human-scaled properties, the sense of a human dimension is amplified, while leaving space for extraordinary initiatives strengthens diversity. The optimal positioning of higher volumes results in a sunny public space, sheltered from the wind. By optimising volumes and creating inner courtyards in blocks with more depth, the resulting housing blocks are oriented optimally with regard to daylight and sunlight. Additionally, these blocks will be developed with the intention to maximise the relationship between inside and outside and freedom of use to be able to adapt to market developments.

The public space in between buildings offers pleasant places to live, play and stay: car-free, as green as can be, abundant with trees and designed to amplify quality of living and to leave space for a varying programme. Diverse ‘places’ stimulate and support use for the people who live, work, learn, make and visit, to meet, play sports and play for all ages. With a so-called ‘circular zone’ and visible installations, responsible behaviour concerning energy, raw materials and waste is supported and encouraged. Uses with a public outlook and appearance as well as ‘stoops’ result in buildings with maximum interaction all-around. Small streets on all sides of the district make the connection to the park, river, and city.

The district will consist of around 650 dwellings, with small-scale retail, services, hospitality, and social amenities included on the ground floor levels. The development includes around 6.000m² of educational functions, with around 2.500m² of sports facilities and supporting functions integrated in the so-called ‘Multihal’. The possibility of 90-120 care homes is currently being investigated. In addition to the lively plinths of the housing blocks, the district’s central space will be surrounded by about 1.500m² of cultural and social functions with supporting hospitality, and business hub for small and mid-sized businesses of around 1.500m². On the western edge of the development, 2.5ha will be dedicated to (industrial) business, the northern end providing around 10.000m² of office space.

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Steps towards realisation

In June 2020, the masterplan was approved by the Vlaardingen local council, and the anterior agreement signed. In late 2019 and early 2020, multiple participation activities took place for nearby residents, stakeholders and people otherwise interested. A new land use plan (Dutch: bestemmingsplan) is currently in procedure, and will be made available for consultation in late 2020. In the meantime, the area is put to meanwhile use, a growing community laying the social foundations for the future district. Behind the scenes a new name and branding for the district are in the works, as well as the further elaboration of the buildings and an aesthetic quality plan (Dutch: (beeld)kwaliteitsplan). The latter serves an emphatically broader interpretation than just aesthetics, to guarantee the quality of the other priorities to the same extent.

More information will follow in late 2020.

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2 March 2020

Final Master plan and follow-up steps

A new owner and start temporary programming
Monday 2 March was an important moment in the redevelopment since the transfer from Unilever to the Van Adrighem Group took place. After 60 years of Unilever's association with Vlaardingen, the Unilever site now definitely faces a new future. Since Van Adrighem is now the owner of the site and the buildings, the temporary management by Gapph will start.

Read more

13 September 2019

Newspaper Algemeen Dagblad interviews Jeroen Zuidgeest about the future of Unilever Campus.

"Ten minste 600 nieuwe woningen op Unileverterrein Vlaardingen" (Dutch)

Role Masterplan and architecture Client Van Adrighem Group Delegated developer Inspire Real Estate Program Mixed use Size 7 hectares; approx. 60,000 m² existing buildings Year 2018 - ongoing Status Concept Masterplan RO advice Rho Adviseurs voor leefruimte Team Studio for New Realities Jeroen Zuidgeest, Ryanne Janssen, Oleksandra Tkachenko, Juliana Giraldo Sanabria, Rozemarijn Stam, Michele Maritano, Tom Thijssen, Zhu Huadong