Utrecht-Leon initiative boosts Nicaraguan city

A view of the León South East housing project.

This article is part of our special report Towns’ and regions’ cooperation on climate and development.

SPECIAL REPORT / An attractive and colourful new district of León, Nicaragua’s second city, where 20,000 people live, was created thanks to an initiative in cooperation with Utrecht.

The financial contribution of the Dutch city of €500, 000 was multiplied twentyfold thanks to the blending of funds mechanism.

Two university cities, Utrecht and León, engaged in a twinning since 1983. The two cities have about the same size – about 250,000 inhabitants.

Utrecht has assisted the local government of León on municipal tasks as urban water management, strategic planning, urban expansion, reforestation and urban mobilization among others. Utrecht is a member of VNG International (International branch of The Association of Dutch Municipalities), and a member of PLATFORMA, the European network of local and regional authorities for development.

But the most notable program started fifteen years ago as a project for the urban expansion of the South-East part of León.

Etienne de Jager, project manager at the city of Utrecht, who has just returned from another mission to Nicaragua, told EURACTIV that at that time, there has been a strong demand in housing. Initially, the plans were that the houses be destined for low and middle-income people.

Initially, land was purchased for plots for 5,000 houses. The production of plots included the buying of land, design of new neighbourhoods, construction of roads and rainwater management, reservation of areas for services (school, public health centres, parks), the construction of infrastructure and participation of the population.

Building an Alley in León South EastBuilding an Alley in León South East

A starting point for the project was the sustainable design of the neighbourhoods based on rainwater management as a guide for the use of land and streets. The issue of ownership of the initiative was also very high as a priority. The population itself participated in all phases of the program from planning to execution and maintenance.

Eight years ago, the strategy became more ambition, De Jager explained. Plans developed for building an entire district where people would feel comfortable, safe and enjoy life. Sustainability and environmental care remained as leading priorities.

Stimulating exchange of knowledge

Local experts in Nicaragua are hired on specific topics as capacity building and management. Exchange of knowledge is achieved during study visits of the León team to Utrecht. Members of the project team participated in trainings and studies in Nicaragua and other central American countries to stimulate exchange of knowledge within the geographic area.

NGOs and international organisations have also been involved in additional projects like latrines,  a community house,  schools, parks, and even an orphanage. Local organisations have provided loans to stimulate local economic development or social programs involving children, women and adolescents.

A school being built in León South EastA school being built in León South East

As a result of all these efforts, today 20,000 people live comfortably and safely in the district.

“I’m not aware of any project of such magnitude, not only in Nicaragua, but in the whole of Central America,” De Jager said.

Both municipalities are very proud of this program, and Utrecht is determined to stay on until it becomes totally independent.

The money obtained from selling the houses has been used as a revolving fund. With this fund, León buys new land and develops new areas as a continuous process.

Asked about the financial input of Utrecht, De Jager said that during the last five years, the money the Dutch city has spent on the project is €100, 000 per year, totalling half a million euro. The money was spent mostly for building streets and lighting. The city council of León and the World Bank also participated.

Asked how it was possible to build an entire district with such little money, De Jager explained that the mechanism of blending of funds was used, and as a result, the contribution of Utrecht was multiplied by 20.

>>Read: Commission says blending of funds produces ‘huge’ results

De Jager said that in the district, the majority used to be from low and middle-income classes, but as this area improved, higher-earning persons began moving there, including doctors and lawyers. This has improved the social mix, he stressed.

“And the mayor of León is very happy – he satisfies the housing needs of the city”, De Jager said.

Waste processing plant in León South EastWaste processing plant in León South East

León has been recently declared the safest city of Central America thanks to the absence of slumps.

But it also may be awarded for being a very green city. The municipality of León has also teamed up with Utrecht Centre for the Environment (Milieucentrum Utrecht) and is contributing to a more sustainable environment worldwide by planting forests in proximity of the city.

Local and regional government play a big part in not only raising awareness among citizens of the importance of development cooperation, but also helping share knowledge to make aid more efficient and effective.

Since its inception in 2008, PLATFORMA has been the voice of European local and regional governments active in decentralised cooperation - the town-to-town, region-to-region development cooperation.

PLATFORMA’s role is to increase recognition of the work of local and regional governments in international cooperation, deepen the dialogue with European institutions and promote effective decentralised cooperation for the development of partner countries.

Its 34 members include associations of local and regional governments at the national, European or world levels as well as individual cities, provinces and regions. Based in Brussels, its secretariat is hosted by the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR).



PLATFORMA is the pan-European coalition of cities and regions – and their associations – active in city-to-city and region-to-region development cooperation. Its 30 partners are all engaged in international cooperation for sustainable development. PLATFORMA is co-funded by the European Union and its secretariat is hosted by the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR).


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