16 October, 2019

Converting an office town for ‘people’? Re-designing Kirchberg, a public panel







by Markus Hesse,

I had another encounter with big politics and the planners from the famous office of Gehl Architects in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Thursday night 10th October. (See the entries on the 2018 podium and related issues in this Blog, here and here). This time they presented their ideas for renovating and upgrading public space on the Plateau Kirchberg, by means of urban design. For some awkward reasons, this meeting did not take place on the Kirchberg itself, which might have brought more life to the 1960s+ office town … but in the city’s quite wealthy Limpertsberg district. Anyway, it attracted a certain interest from the public, and including some attendees who obviously lived either on Kirchberg or in adjacent neighbourhoods. 

The Kirchberg is a 365-hectare site on Luxembourg City’s eastern edge which provides a home to the financial market and plenty of EU-institutions – the country’s built manifestation of its role as a hot spot of the services industries. At the meeting, Minister Francois Bausch – who is not only in charge of public works and transport/mobility, but is also the authority that oversees the state’s Fonds Kirchberg development agency – underlined the goals of his policy for the area, which aim to make the Plateau with its office blocks, motorway-like streets and voluminous urban layout more suitable for what he called the ‘human’ scale.

Following the minister’s introduction, two representatives from Gehl Architects presented their ideas on what to do with the public space on Kirchberg. They ignited a whole firework of urban design ideas that would help to improve the accessibility and usability of the site’s assemblage of boulevards, asphalt sidewalks and empty spots. Benches, cafes and shops, an open swimming pool next to the Coque-arena and a number of street design features are part of the plan, which will be discussed and assessed for implementation in the near future. Interesting also was their impression of the huge underground capacity on which the Plateau Kirchberg is actually positioned: According to the government’s plans, the public and private parking garages that currently provide parking for just under 28,000 vehicles, would be expanded to a level of more than 40,000.

This is really striking, but only one among several features that make the future development of the site a subject as exciting as it is delicate from an urban planning, policy and development perspective. While the Kirchberg is already subject to constant change in most general terms, the site is foreseen to increase the total job occupation from the roughly 42,000 that is there right now to more than 65,000 by the mid- or end 2030s; most of this growth will be covered by foreign employees. In contrast, the number of residents, currently counting less than 4,000, is foreseen to increase to 7,600 in the short term and about 14,000 in ten years’ time. These are the predictions of Fonds Kirchberg. The question is: How can one urbanize an office town, and what might the urban geographer’s contribution to this debate be? 

Of course, one aspect that deserves to be highlighted here is time: Kirchberg is built history – a child of the infamous 1960s/post-WWII planning guidelines and paradigms, with their overall functionalist and narrow-minded determination that left a legacy of major challenges for contemporary urban planning. However, the Kirchberg shouldn’t be simply assessed from today’s standards. It needs a fair judgement from a realistic perspective that reflects upon on-going planning practices and cultures, and doesn't simply blame its odd and outdated urban layout.(1) Secondly, urban design can indeed provide useful improvements to the overall shape of the site, and give, let's say, ‘new dresses to the emperor’. Yet, while one should welcome efforts towards the improvement of cities, the very expectations and promises that are associated with such new design features need to be cautiously balanced. In this respect, one should not confuse cause and effect: If Kirchberg will continue to be the machine that keeps much of the country’s (political) economy at work – and this is a reasonable expectation – then it requires the constant flow of people, jobs, investments into and out of the area. The related imperative of both providing sufficient office space and organizing seamless circulation (mostly cars bringing people from outer parts of the Greater Region) will determine the Plateau, regardless of whether or not there will be new benches to sit on or not. But seriously: will there be any enjoyable public space remaining if not 50,000 but 60,000 cars will be rolling up and down Kennedy Avenue on the average workday?

Thirdly, the future of Kirchberg as a site of residency also deserves cautious discussion. On the one hand, increasing the number of local residents on site is an indispensable requirement of any urbanization scenario. For this reason, housing plans are necessarily welcome. On the other hand, what urban planning will essentially ask for is: What sort of land use should go to what sort of location, and what will the future relation between jobs and housing look like? And, how will the new mixture then contribute to fostering a liveable urban district? As to the first question, there are massive plans for housing underway, including affordable housing, e.g. at the north-eastern end of Kirchberg. This brings more people in, particularly to the edge of the site. Given the high densities envisaged, this raises the question of designing the fringes properly. Since the Kirchberg ended up overly packed with office space, it might be unhealthy to do the same with multi-storey housing, simply because there is rising political pressure to do so and the land on Kirchberg is under state control. Filling empty slots with massive housing injections may include the risk of creating a new banlieue. As to the second question: If Kirchberg employment will increase further according to the government’s prediction, indeed, the job-housing mismatch will become more modest. However, the site as such will still be determined by its function as an office town. As a result, is it realistic to assume that all the measures mentioned above will have a causal effect in invoking liveable neighbourhoods, given that the DNA of Kirchberg remains unchanged?

View of the eastern end of Plateau Kirchberg from above/south, 10 yrs ago (Hesse)

Finally, when talking about the ‘human’ scale and politics for people, the question, of course, is: Who are the people? Are we referring to the global investment banker, the EU- or government official, the programming herds of the financial industries, the tram driver or cleaning staff, or the local residents? Given the variety of different interests and mindsets present in one city alone, it might be difficult to provide one-size-fits-all solutions. Cities have grown on an enormous degree of variety and diversity, and this applies to late-modern societies. This gives some reason to turn the attention to politics and governance in more general terms. The Kirchberg is an exciting case in this respect, as it offers a delicate policy constellation with a strong state and a barely visible municipality. The city was also absent from the panel discussion last Thursday, for whatever reason. So, the vertical arrangements as to how local and state authority interact, and include and negotiate citizens’ interests, is worth exploring in more detail. The same applies to the horizontal linkages between the various Kirchberg sites (office, retail, housing) and its adjacent neighbourhoods such as the long-existing Weimershof and Weimerskirch.

Having said that, the urban geographer’s (and geographers’) contribution to this debate would not be about arguing against improvements to an urban setting that is perceived as rather lousy so far. If such a judgement was shared by the public officials who were also attending the meeting, this alone would be considered a success. However, the real aim of the discussion ought to be about providing context and discussing the fuller picture within which the built environment and the whole revitalization efforts are embedded. While public urban space is only one component of the built environment, the full range of the associated interactions between people and space would deserve more attention, such as concerns about land use patterns, social composition, and governance strategies and the like.(2) On the next occasion, it might be wise to pay more attention to such fundamentals. This is nothing abstract, theoretical, or academic; rather, it merely points at the imminent characteristics of the site, which have direct ramifications for practice.(3) Of course, it would then be reasonable to hold such a meeting exactly on the site which is subject to debate, the Plateau Kirchberg, not in the central city or elsewhere.

Index

(1) It is most likely that a huge development such as the Kirchberg may only change in the long run. However, past analysis has also pointed at the role that the site has played in the country’s planning practice elsewhere. Hence, a reflective modernization of planning attitudes may offer potentials for improvement more generally; cf. Hesse, M. (2013), Das «Kirchberg-Syndrom». Grosse Projekte im kleinen Land: Bauen und Planen in Luxemburg. disP-The Planning Review 49 (1), 14-28.

(2) In the urban studies literature, large-scale urban projects are observed to be quite persistent as building blocks that develop according to intrinsic logics, that might be less adaptive to changing demands or to other concurring interests. This may also have a significant impact on the ‘sense’ of place, which is the main target of urban design measures; see e.g. Breux, S. & Bédard, M. (2013), The urban project and its impact on sense of place: Methodological propositions. Geography Compass, 7(1), 75-84.

(3) Three aspects might be considered essential here: i) governance patterns and practices in the triangle between state, city, and citizens; ii) the relation between work and residency in general; and iii) the future trajectory of the office market as the major determinant of the site’s land use patt

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