After Venice, The Ambition of the Territory travelled to deSingel in Antwerp. The second edition was much more than just an exhibition. With the new structure as the backdrop we organised an intensive series of lectures, debates and design studios.
During one of the seminars, Griet Celen from the Flemish Land Agency (VLM) spoke with André Loeckx, professor of architecture at KU Leuven and chair of the Urban Policy Committee. André Loeckx explained to Griet Celen: “I have worked for years with Flemish Urban Policy on urban renewal projects. You have already worked for years in urbanised Flanders. How come we have never sat down around the table together?”
The question was telling. For decades, policy for towns and the countryside was separate, as if they were two completely different worlds that each require their own expertise. This has changed in recent years. The boundary between town and countryside increasingly appeared to blur in practice. 'Urban renewal' expanded its field of work to the outskirts of the city and land parcelling in the suburbs, while 'land use planning' increasingly extended to urbanised areas.
The debate in deSingel was a pivotal moment, in which we, together with our partners, put our weight behind creating support for a sustainable approach to the open space. The seminar ended with a call for a regional-oriented and integrated policy that considered the city, landscape and territory as a single spatial, societal and social system. A system in which open space and urbanisation no longer competed but were mutually reinforcing.
And so the seeds of a new vision were sown. Open space and urbanisation are essential components of one large, cohesive metabolism. We must ensure that the open space is no longer threatened by encroaching urbanisation, but that it jointly provides direction to the urban environment. Therefore, the logic is reversed. Open space now serves a steering function for urban development, instead of vice versa. The open space is going on the offensive.
In 2013, the Flemish Land Agency (VLM) celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. On this occasion, together with the architectural firm Bovenbouw, we examined what the blurred boundary between town and countryside could mean for the agency's future. Based on an introspective reflection on the operations of the VLM, we outlined six future scenarios in which the open space is not under pressure from urbanisation, but jointly steers it. We visualised these future scenarios in six ‘tableaux’. Each one raises an issue that inspires the development of new programmes and projects. They call for cooperation and for a sectoral approach to the open space to be transcended. The Open Space Offensive was the beginning of an ongoing collaboration with the VLM, which has lasted for years, in which we not only elaborated our insights in theory but also in terms of implementation on the ground.
The outskirts of the city represent a crucial work domain for an ‘open space offensive’. It is where the pressure on the open space is often greatest. On the Contested Lands map we mapped out the region around Brussels. The metropolitan region of Brussels is one of the most densely populated areas in Europe, with a total of four million people and a density of 820 inhabitants/km2. The map shows an amorphous pattern of urbanisation interwoven with snippets of open space and agricultural land. Due to encroaching urbanisation in the conurbations around Brussels farmers are pushed further and further away. The fragmented agricultural areas are no longer suitable for a large-scale farming model aimed at exports. Agricultural land is increasingly ending up on the residential real estate market, causing prices to rocket. Local food production is put at risk and thus also biodiversity, space for water, ventilation and cooling for the city, and options for recreation. In short, the health of this urban area is at stake.
Dispersed urbanisation also offers opportunities. The interface between urbanisation and open space is up to seven times greater in Brussels than in compact Paris. The proximity between our living environment and small areas of open and green space is an opportunity to bring locally produced food closer to the consumer. It creates possibilities for integrating an alternative agricultural model, for which proximity to the city is an asset instead of a handicap.
Compared with other European cities, the open space in Brussels is larger in terms of surface area and nearer, but it is highly fragmented, inaccessible and often even invisible. The photo reportage by Tim Van de Velde provides an impressive view of the open and green space in and around Brussels. Tim Van de Velde produced the reportage in relation to the Atelier In Between. This is a preliminary policy process in which we led an inter-regional dialogue between diverse actors, civil society organisations, sectors and policy managers that have an impact on the open space in the Brussels metropolitan area. The choices made in each sector and at each competence level (regional, provincial, municipal) are forced to come together in the same space. Therefore, a cross-sectoral and integrated approach is needed. This applies all the more in the complex administrative context of Brussels and Belgium. With a shared vision and integral policy we can steer in the direction of a new future for the open space, in a more vigorous, transparent and efficient manner. We could add up and merge the many green residual spaces to produce a strong, cohesive open space system. The Atelier In Between laid the foundations for the Metropolitan Landscapes study.
If we want to take the agriculture that still remains in these snippets of open space seriously as an important local food producer and landscape manager, we must dare to question current urbanisation processes. In Urbanising in Place we examine the possibilities of ‘agroecological urban planning’. This is an alternative organisational form for the city that makes sustainable food production possible once more. We do this in a diverse international collaboration with the founders of the agroecological programme of Rosario (ARG), sociologists from Wageningen University & Research (NL), urban designers from Ghent University (BE), architects from Riga (Latvia), land activists from London and the agroecology lab in Coventry (UK).
The action study in Brussels strived to build a bridge between the remaining farmers in the Pajottenland and the upcoming movement of young urban farmers, spearheaded by BoerenBruxselPaysans. In dialogue with these actors we outlined the building bricks for a Brussels metropolis that makes room and provides support for nature and socially inclusive food production and distribution. The international exchange inspired the government of the Brussels-Capital Region to include the foundation of a 'centre for urban agroecology' in the coalition agreement for the current parliamentary term.