Three large cities in the Netherlands are now participating in the Sustainable Squares Project. In developing plans for a public square, the choice is made to procure products and materials which have been produced sustainably, wherever possible. In the East district of Amsterdam, the Sustainable Squares Project has been actively involved in the refurbishment of the Beukenplein from the beginning. ‘This is a way to raise awareness regarding the environmental and social issues that play a part in the production of stones and street furniture, not only among council employees and project developers, but also among civilians and users of public spaces,’ says Liesbeth Unger of Human Rights@Work, who is the project leader of the Sustainable Squares Project.

In addition to the East district of Amsterdam, Utrecht (with Stationsplein Oost) and Rotterdam (with Benthemplein) have been taking steps to realise their ambition to go beyond the government brief in the area of sustainable procurement. Sustainable Squares (Dutch website Duurzame Pleinen) is a joint project shared by SOMO, CREM and Human Rights@Work.

In Utrecht and Rotterdam the designs for the squares are almost finished. Liesbeth Unger: ‘Here, we can incorporate sustainability criteria for the project in the procurement stage. We have agreed that we are involved in the contracts with the suppliers of materials, e.g. stainless steel, concrete and natural stones. For these materials there are no certification systems. By entering into the contracts we agree on, the suppliers are committing to making improvements in the supply chain of their products. These improvement must be in line with the basic standards of the International Labour Organisation (ILO); promoting issues such as freedom of association, for example.’For the Beukenplein in Amsterdam, Sustainable Squares was already involved prior to the design stage. In January, discussions were held with the Amsterdam East project group about which social and environmental criteria are important for the sustainability of the square. Next the project group formulated their own wishes and ambitions. The factsheets about materials (in Dutch language) that were compiled by SOMO could help the project group reach their decisions.

Liesbeth Unger: ‘That session was very interesting. To reduce social risks, for example that of child labour, they selected as a criterion that all products for the construction and furnishing of the square need to be manufactured within 1500km of the square. We are not sure if this will also be feasible. In Utrecht, again, this kind of choice was made in the procurement of natural stone. They picked a stone that is only available in Spain. The council said it would be a nice bonus that this also meant social and sustainability issues were taken care of. While this is logical, it also rather bypasses the purpose of this project. Sustainable Squares, after all, is about stimulating large companies to bring about improvements in their production chains.’

The project group had a lot of questions about how one is supposed to measure or recognise sustainability. International engineering consultancy Royal Haskoning has offered the East district of Amsterdam a tool that may help make sustainability issues visible. Liesbeth Unger will be speaking with Royal Haskoning soon to discuss the options for incorporating social criteria in this tool. ‘Moreover, it would be nice if this tool would also be used by other communities.’

Around the Beukenplein, civilians and shopkeepers are now also chipping into the discussion. In this way, Sustainable Squares contributes to raising a greater awareness of the importance of choosing sustainable materials. Liesbeth Unger: ‘We hope this will help all participants recognise from the start the importance of social and environmental criteria in sustainable procurement, and that we will be able to see the results in the procurement contracts.’