31 May, 2018

Keep off the grass - even if the grass is not grass

1. Some guerrilla commentaries about Campus greening. Someone has a sense of humour! 

1. The Large Scale Urban Planning of Nature

The ‘Cité des Sciences’ (Science City) in Belval – where our new University Campus was created on a brownfield site more or less from scratch (Becker/Hesse 2013) – is a template case of large-scale urban project policy (Leick 2016). In successive steps over a time span of roughly twenty years, 120 hectares of land are under development following a layout prescribed in a masterplan and commercial concept that leave little space for improvisation: Return on (public and private) investment is the key objective here. There are several large-scale projects in the small but rich nation-state of Luxembourg, developed in the context of a small but rich country, where stakes and ambitions are high (as are the buildings), but a sort of flawed urbanization and unintended improvisation is the outcome both in terms of settlement patterns and planning policy.

The country has a certain tradition with huge development sites, most notably visible in the case of the European district on the Plateau Kirchberg, formally located on the grounds of the Capital City, but implemented on behalf of the central government. On a massive 365-hectare plot of land, the office town stretches across both sides of the seven-kilometer John F. Kennedy Avenue like a city within a city. And, it is meanwhile part of a narrative of roughly 60 years of large-scale urban development, that includes its own rounds of upgrading and urbanization over the past three decades.

While Kirchberg struggles to fulfil the desire of becoming an urban environment, Belval inhibits respective hopes at the get go. Different from the strangely composed assemblage of office buildings, commercial sites, and pieces of infrastructure on Kirchberg that are garnished with empty slots in between, the case of Belval marks a new approach to big projects in the Grand Duchy: Belval is supposed to be about coherence and sustainability, attempting to mimic elements of the clichéd European city as a dense, mixed and quality space for everybody, designed to serve different purposes.

It is certainly too early to assess Belval in this particular context, but what is becoming increasingly clear is that density also has a certain downside (Affolderbach et al. 2018; Carr et al. 2015; Caruso et al. 2015). There are disadvantages and pitfalls of agglomeration that have to be taken into account, and dense/compact neighbourhoods need to be steered cautiously and wisely. (This, btw, is a planning approach rarely practiced in this country).

2. Promotional leaflet distributed by le Fonds Belval, 2018

Green space is one essential component of this debate. How can the dense and compact city ensure that living conditions do not suffer as a result of the sheer mass of built fabric? Is skyscraper living – as density is understood in other cities – in fact, healthy and equitable? There are studies that demonstrate otherwise (See older blog post). How can the creation of heat islands be avoided? This is an issue that may increase in importance and relevance due to climate change, as average temperatures and the likelihood of extreme weather events increase. Ignoring these debates (and coveting their profits), developers are rather consistently clear in that, firstly, density provides sustainability and thus contributes to solving a range of related problems, such as accessibility and circulation. Secondly, corporate PR suggests Belval offers a greenish, if not truly green setting (fig. 2).

3. Mastering nature contracted to Vulkatec
A closer inspection of both the grounds and aerial photographs of Belval may reveal a different picture (fig. 3). For various reasons, most land had to be sealed. Greenness was mainly provided on the roofs of buildings, which unfortunately has not yet really materialized on the ground surface, where residents, consumers and workers tend to interact and make use of public spaces. It is also controversially discussed whether one can adequately compensate for the lack of green space on site by providing a park situated almost a kilometer away – which is the argument brought forth by the developer.

2. Our solution: Let’s redesign and re-engage with natures!

4. Stadionbrache Hardturm, Zurich - A community meeting point and co-operative process

Yet, despite the grand plans and high hopes for what the Cité des Sciences’ will be, Belval is already a lived space, or in Lefebvre's (1974) words, a 'social space'. While Agora expects  a population of 8000 someday and 25000 work places, currently, there are over 2000 residents, roughly 5000 workers, and approximately 5,300 students on site (Agora 2018). And, some of these are already actively trying to generate a sense of place and a feeling of community. Whether this is about calls for improved publicly funded infrastructures (such as transport) or services (such as physicians, pharmacists, or postal services), some are trying to influence social space through nature. Urban gardening in Belval, organized by a local transition group, is one such example. Questions orbit around central dilemmas of who gets to style what nature and for what reason – debates that were not foreseen in the masterplan.

To step back from Belval and Luxembourg for a moment, one can draw a comparison by way of examples of urban gardening in Zurich. In Zurich West (District 5), on a derelict football stadium one can find a little paradise, called (simply) Stadionbrache Hardturm (fig. 4). Officially approved and funded by the City of Zurich, an association has the right to manage activities on the site until redevelopment plans are finalised. Over the past seven years, a rather extensive urban garden has emerged. While the specific activities and actors change through time (a recent list of individual projects can be found here), currently, the projects range from a community kitchen, a climbing wall, bee production, a kinder garden, and a skater park – in fact, the skaters in the skater park were the original initiators. (We have some older posts on Lux skaters too.)

5. Urban Gardening orchestrated by the SBB
The variety that can be found in this rather improvised and co-operative garden stands in stark contrast to the urban garden at Zurich's main station. Immediately upon arrival in Zurich by train one is met with the large-scale redevelopment site orchestrated by the SBB, called the Europaallee (picture), touted as "Zurich's newest district" of tower development for office, retail, and residential uses. Following this model, practices of urban gardening are restricted to 2 m flower beds distributed across a concrete pedestrian zone. The SBB also capitalize on the notion of urban gardening as a community experience by advertising workshops (fig 5.). In some respects, one might argue that urban gardening has reached the mainstream. But this, first, awakens debates about how to translate alternative practices to the mainstream without them being co-opted or losing their original meaning or intention (Carr/ Affolderbach 2014). It also raises questions about the techno-nature fantasies promoted by developers. 

The authors of this entry are the last ones who would reduce urban gardening down to these two scenarios: indeed, urban gardening is a vast and old subject in urban studies as it and otherwise general forms of food production in urban settings has taken on many forms, organizational structures, ideologies, and objectives, over the decades (and centuries!). However, the two opposing examples in Zurich offer some food for thought in terms of the role of institutions in greening urban space, which are cautionary tales that we can apply to Belval.

Returning to ‘Cité des Sciences’ in Belval, the Gaart Belval is a community garden project that aims at creating a green space open for everyone living or working in Belval. Located between the University’s cafeteria, the red Building and the new library, it will offer a place to let the soul breathe, work together or alone, and enjoy lunch in the sun. The asbl is the first local participatory initiative in Belval and works in close cooperation with the municipality of Esch and the CIGL, as well as the regional chapter of the Movement Ecologique and the Transition Town movement. Info: gaartbelval@gmail.com

The association aims to harness the positive effects of engagement with the natural environment: a place to eases stress, establish relationships and a sense of belonging, and care for each other and the environment. Working in a garden together side-by-side, be it silently, or in stimulating exchange, Gaart Belval aims to foster a sense of community.

The Gaart Belval is also an opportunity for the transition town movement in south Luxemburg to mobilize the resident and highly multicultural network, as it has served an important integrating function where people develop projects to work together, side-by-side, in hands-on projects that serve their community. The group recognizes that, as urban gardens have become popular in cities all over the world, they have become a place where immigrants and newcomers can find and develop shared experiences. They have even become something that they expect to find in a new place, not just as a leisure activity, but as a form participation in their social and build environment.

The benefits of a community garden on the Cité des Sciences go beyond the usual arguments for green and diverse urban spaces. In Belval, people from all over the world are working next to each other in highly specialized fields, while very few of them are actually living in Belval, let alone staying after work. Many only spend but a couple of seasons on campus and soon move on to other places. By the time students have understood how things are working here, they already have to think about the subject for their thesis and need to buckle down and focus on their dissertation.

Being part of a community garden project helps integration, and facilitates a means of connecting to Belval and feeling a sense of belonging. As people work side by side, networks emerge, and ideas are created and shared. Getting our hands dirty together during lunch break, or enjoying a beer in the garden in the evening sun contributes to an inspiring study work environment. Gaart Belval is an opportunity to develop the Cité des Sciences in a way that not only harnesses the motivation of local users of the space, but also enables a sense of connection and belonging.

Markus Hesse, Jan-Tobias Doerr, Constance Carr

Affolderbach, J., Schulz, C., Preller, B. (2018.) Luxembourg: A Policy-Led Approach Caught Between Green Growth and Affordable Housing. In: Affolderbach/Schulz (eds.) Green Building Transitions: Regional Trajectories of Innovation in Europe, Canada and Australia. pp 159-188.

Agora (2018) Belval - Market Figures 2017. Accessed May 31, 2018. Available here: http://www.agora.lu/fileadmin/AGORA/user_upload/06-presse/17_03_10_Presentation_Market_figures__Belval_FR.PDF

Becker, T., Hesse, M. 2013 “Building a Sustainable University from Scratch: Anticipating the Urban, Regional and Planning Dimension of the ‘Cité des Sciences Belval’, in Esch-sur-Alzette and Sanem, Luxembourg” In König, A. (ed.) Regenerative Sustainable Development Of Universities And Cities The Role of Living Laboratories. Edward Elgar.

Carr, C., Affolderbach, J. (2014) Rescaling sustainability? Local opportunities and scalar contradictions. Local Environment, 19(6), 567-571.

Carr, C., Becker, T., Evrard, E., Nienaber, B., Roos, U., McDonough, E, Hesse, M., Krueger, R. (2015) Raising sustainability/Mobilising sustainability: Why European sustainable urban development initiatives are slow to materialise/Territorial cohesion as a vehicle of sustainability/Sustainable urban development and the challenge of global air transport nodes and spatial integration/Distorted density: Where developers and non-governmental organizations on sustainable urban development agree/Overcoming politics with markets? The co-production of sustainable development in urban and regional planning. Planning Theory & Practice, 16(1), 99-125.

Caruso, G., Cavailhès, J., Peeters, D., Thomas, I., Frankhauser, P., Vuidel, G. (2015)."Greener and larger neighbourhoods make cities more sustainable! A 2D urban economics perspective" Computers, Environment and Urban Systems, 54, 82-94.

Lefebvre, H. (Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith) (1992) The Production of Space. Wiley-Blackwell.

Leick, Annick, "Kleines Land, Große Projekte. Diskurse, Praktiken und soziale Welten im Entscheidungs- und Planungsprozess der Großvorhaben Belval und Kirchberg in Luxemburg" thesis successfully defended at University of Luxembourg, 2016.

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