VIIO Borgloon, a2o architects. Photo: Tim Van de Velde

The challenges related to agriculture, water, energy and the environment are closely interwoven, but our structures and our policy are not organised accordingly. Too many studies and too much research by design involving the future of our living environment end up shelved and hardly any are implemented. However, if everything is interwoven it can also be organised to reflect this situation. The underlying dependence of challenges and ambitions is not a threat, but an opportunity for bundling resources and knowledge and increasing our impact. This requires a new method and new ways of collaborating. We must take the step from research by design to action on the ground: the step from dreaming to action. 


In the Operation Open Space publication for the first time we outline a new, active and integrated approach to the open space in Flanders. We make a plea for a ‘programme operation’, a method for tackling urgent issues on a large scale, as a multitude of smaller, bite-size projects. A programme operation identifies ‘recurring’ or very similar problems that occur in many different places in Flanders. Per ‘family of challenges’ we forge coalitions of services from the Flemish government, local authorities and private actors. 


Thanks to the programme operation we dispense with the one-off nature of the pilot project. It is a lever to achieve accelerated implementation and the necessary multiplication of concrete projects in the field. The first test was the Water+Land+Scape programme: lots of small-scale projects jointly make up one large one. 


Due to climate change we are increasingly confronted with flooding and long periods of drought in Flanders. Agriculture is already suffering considerably as a result. Action on the ground is desperately needed. Therefore, in 2017, partners of the Open Space Platform launched a call for the Water+Land+Scape programme. The programme aims to identify urgent needs related to water management in agricultural areas and find suitable solutions together with farmers, water managers, landowners, nature associations and local authorities, which involve a win-win situation for healthy agriculture, a sustainable water system and a robust landscape.


The call resulted in over forty proposals for initiatives to address very specific, water-related problems, from which fourteen projects were selected. The Flemish government allocated a budget of 818,500 euro for the first series of demonstration projects. The subsidies allow local partners to test new solutions for water management in a changing climate with farmers and landowners. Work will begin in 2020. Some of the projects will run for ten years. 


The Water+Land+Scape programme aspires to accelerate and multiply specific achievements in the field. This is done by taking action at different locations simultaneously, learning during the process and continuously exchanging knowledge. The fourteen coalitions are not separate projects that operate independently. The intention is that each of the projects can learn from what happens in the other projects, and that the knowledge acquired is made accessible. Future coalitions can build on this. The fourteen demonstration projects represent the seeds of a much broader multiplication across the Flemish territory as a whole. 



Unsealing map

The programme operation method relies on support, and is also successful when it arises from an urgent social need. Flanders is one of the frontrunners of hard surfacing in Europe. The demand for unsealing increasingly crops up in ever more places in Flanders. Local momentum has built to remove hard surfacing, abandon housing expansion areas, combat heat island effects or tackle water infiltration problems differently. 


Support for unsealing was first widely endorsed at the Unsealing forum we jointly organised in 2018 with the Department for the Environment. In September 2018 and April 2019, there followed two calls that were supported by an intensive guidance trajectory, focusing on process and design-based support, communication and participation, as well as legal and financial support. In this trajectory AWB served as process supervisor and the party that recorded the lessons learned. The objective is twofold: on the one hand we aim to achieve effective and systematic unsealing in a number of places in Flanders, on the other we want to learn from these unsealing practices and apply the knowledge acquired in other places and with other partners.


During the project we bundled the lessons learned in a workbook. It became clear that unsealing involves much more than literally removing the hard surfaces or demolishing the built-up space. Unsealing is an action that creates conditions for addressing several problems at the same time, such as water infiltration, heat stress, biodiversity or healthy soil. Unsealing stimulates a cross-sectoral approach, creates new design challenges and requires the development of a new practice.




Families of challenges (OSP map)

We tested the new 'programme operation' method with different partners in various contexts. The Water+Land+Scapeprogramme taught us how to create a neutral context to ensure a hydraulic engineer from the Flemish government that models flood plains in 2050 and a farmer that struggles with drought issues today not only understand each other, but are also on the same page. Water as Leverage demonstrates that not only can we rely on public resources, but we also have to obtain private and international funds by developing the right business cases. The Unsealing projects on their side, made it clear that the bottleneck not only results from a lack of resources, but at times from a lack of legal or technical expertise. 


We also formed new coalitions in relation to other integrated open space themes, especially in the context of the Open Space Platform,  co-founded with the Flemish Land Agency (VLM), the Department for the Environment, the Association of Flemish Provinces (VVP) and the Association of Flemish Cities and Municipalities (VVSG). Meanwhile, the Food+Land+ScapeLand Matters (Grondzaken)Sanctuary Oases (Luwte-Oases)Cleaning up the Open Space(Op(en)ruimen)Landscape parks and Drought experimental gardens programmes were initiated. Programme teams were compiled for all these programmes that each work on the alignment and integration of diverse policy objectives, instruments and knowledge to support initiatives on the ground. The publication Open Space Works casts a constructive look back at the experience gained and a critical look to the future on programme operation as a method for the open space in the coming years. In this sense the Open Space Platform is an experiment for a new culture of working, which does not focus on what can already be achieved, but strives to make what we need possible. 

Onwards and upwards for Open Space Works!