Following a successful initial unsealing forum on 14 September 2018, the Department of the Environment & Spatial Development launched the Unsealing Experimental Gardens call for projects on 27 September 2018. Over 300 proposals were submitted, and in 2019, 23 Experimental Gardens were set up, good for an investment of over five million euro. The initiators were assisted through subsidies and project support to remove concrete, asphalt or buildings and apply a quality design to the space freed up as a result. The aim was to achieve effective unsealing on the ground, as well as to acquire and share knowledge about how unsealing is possible. The large number of project proposals demonstrated the need and the will to shift towards unsealing and to contribute to the spatial transformation of our space consumption. 

In this project Architecture Workroom was responsible for substantive process coordination in close cooperation with the Department of the Environment & Spatial Development on the one hand, and five design supervisors, legal, financial and communication experts on the other.

Flanders is one of the frontrunners when it comes to hard surfacing in Europe: 14.2% of the Flemish territory has a hardened surface, and the social impact of our large-scale and fragmented spatial consumption is far-reaching. Doing more with less, or: organising more activities on the same surface area, is now the priority according to the strategic vision of the Spatial Policy Plan for Flanders (BRV): not carving up any open and undeveloped space, but transforming the space already in use. The development dynamic is no longer dominated by expansion, but by a balance between reconversion, densification and unsealing. 

Although there is obvious momentum, it is not yet clear how we could tackle the unsealing process, because as yet there is no unambiguous planning framework, and this also requires new economic, legal and financial logic. This is something we can only develop by conducting tests on the ground, and through learning by doing. Therefore, the Unsealing Experimental Gardens constituted a learning process, for the Department of the Environment & Spatial Development as well as initiators of the experimental gardens. They produced material to work out the policy options, and provided a support trajectory with process and design-based support, communication and participation support, legal and financial support and overarching quality monitoring. The support trajectory was thus a resource for achieving effective and/or methodological unsealing, while allowing lessons to be learned from the unsealing practice. 

A flexible classification of the initiatives, which were linked to a design supervisor, was drawn up for the organisation of the support trajectory. This means projects could be supported not only according to their type (quick-win, coalition-forming, systematic vision formation), but also according to their content (families of challenges related to recurring themes, such as schools, streets etc.) or methodological focus (such as a legal or systematic approach), which created a broad learning environment. 

To sustain the learning process and further encourage the wave of unsealing initiatives, in the autumn of 2019, the Flemish Government decided to continue to support unsealing initiatives and made additional resources available from the climate fund, for a second call for Unsealing Experimental Gardens. It continues to build on the previous one, but this time focuses on three themed objectives, devoting additional attention to the climate goals related to unsealing: ‘school and surroundings’ experimental garden (for better quality school environments), ‘space for water’ experimental garden (for more space for water) and ‘away with roads’ experimental garden (for increased mobility with fewer roads, and less fragmentation).

Type: Atelier, Programme

Theme: Open Space, Soil, Food, Water, Air, Community 

Year: 2019 – 2020

Initiators: Flemish Department of Environment & Spatial Development