“The idea of making part of the city center car-free was an innovative idea in 1972, because then the king of cars was really king,” says Tatjana Scheck, chairwoman of Vooruit Antwerp. “But the time was right in Antwerp. The Hendrik Conscienceplein was previously made car-free, the result of campaigns set up by hippies and artists such as Panamarenko. But the Wilde Zee was an initiative of Bob Cools, the very first Alderman for Spatial Planning in our country. It was a courageous decision and thanks to him this is now a bustling pedestrian shopping area and one of the most famous places in Antwerp.”
Pants off your hole
The Wilde Zee owes its name to the fact that a bridge was built over the vest in the 15th century. At that spot, the moat made a sharp bend, causing the water to sometimes splash high. It then looked like a wild sea. Now the whole consists of five pedestrian shopping streets, but until 1972 that was very different.
Bob Cools (now 88): “I lived on the Oudaan at the time and came here regularly. You had to be very fast if you didn’t want your pants to be run off your ass. It was a terrible short cut for people who came into town by car.”
After a survey of local residents, no less than 80 percent were in favor of making the Wilde Zee car-free. Although there were concerns about parking spaces, an alternative was found. The problem was that the mills of a city council grind slowly, but that was beyond Bob Cools. “I said: no, we’re going to do that right now, immediately and immediately, temporarily, as an experiment. I had a few concrete blocks placed at the beginning of the streets and voila: the Wilde Zee was car-free.” The pilot project turned out to be a success and a year later, in 1973, the Wilde Zee was redeveloped as a shopping pedestrian zone. Bob Cools and Mayor Lode Craeybeckx cut the ribbon.
Get rid of that!
That was just the start of Bob Cools’ ambitious plans. “I pretty much started on my front door, but I wanted to rid the entire city center of cars as much as possible. There is now a lot of debate about the climate, but we already knew what was causing the problems: the cars fighting to get into Antwerp. Get rid of that! Later on, for example, we also took care of the streets around the cathedral and Groenplaats, Meir and Hoogstraat.”
A few weeks ago you could read in Gazet van Antwerpen that residents of the Hoogstraat, which will soon be redeveloped, are happy that the ‘patchwork’ of cobblestones and asphalt is finally disappearing. Bob Cools: “When we wanted to make the Hoogstraat – near the house of Jacob Jordaens – car-free in 1981, an unexpected problem arose: madamekes They immediately wanted to remove the cobblestones because they couldn’t walk well on them with their heels. As true democrats, we have found a pragmatic compromise: in part of the street the cobblestones remained, but in addition there was also macadam so that the women could stroll smoothly.”
Cake and Antwerp Hands
On Thursday Bob Cools was treated to cake from bakery Goossens, which has been located on the Wilde Zee since 1884, and passers-by to Antwerpse Handjes. Liliane Vaningelgem (81) from Berchem likes such a cookie. “I remember that cars were driving around everywhere in the city center, but fortunately Bob Cools put an end to that. After all, you can also get to the center by public transport. As far as I’m concerned, he can become mayor again, although I don’t think he’s really looking forward to that anymore.”
Although the former mayor still has plenty of ideas: “Antwerp is the most car-free city in Europe, with no less than 300,000 square meters where cars are not allowed. In the city center itself, but also beyond. But there is still much work to be done. Just think of the Reyndersstraat, the Vlasmarkt, the Meirbrug or the Sint-Katelijnevest,” says Bob Cools. “As far as I’m concerned, the historic city center should be made completely car-free.”
Alderman for Mobility Koen Kennis (N-VA): “The Antwerp city and district authorities are currently working on a pedestrian-friendly 16th-century city center and want to put Antwerp on the map as a ‘walking city’. The ultimate goal is that up to 83 percent of all streets between the Kaaien, Oudeleeuwenrui, Leien and Kronenburgstraat become a pedestrian zone or car-free zone. we are on to live in and in addition, in the city center also have nine specific commercial atmospheric areas, each with its own look. Just like Bob Cools at the time, we draw up these plans in close consultation with all those involved.”
After all, former mayor Bob Cools is proud of the achievements of himself and his successors. “Compare it with Bruges. A very beautiful, ancient city full of monuments. But you can drive around everywhere by car. They’re still riding the pants off your ass there. Antwerp, on the other hand, is a real success story.” (mibl)