05 October, 2023

Is Belval so cool that it needs redevelopment?

Surprise, surprise: we are slowly but surely moving towards a greener, safer, more human #Belval in Luxembourg’s old-industrial south. This pre-Christmas gift was presented to the public on the 29th September 2023, shortly before the national elections, by three ministers (Mobility & Public Works; Energy & Spatial Planning; Environment) jointly with the development agency #Agora and the two municipalities of Esch-sur-Alzette and Sanem. Their proposal for a new mobility design of the district was already called “an extensive redevelopment” of Belval by Delano-Magazine. The place is well known for some iconic buildings such as the red Dexia-tower or the old high furnace, which was refurbished as industrial heritage; last but not least, Belval hosts the University’s premises, among them the Maison du Savoir (House of Knowledge) and also the library with its impressive mélange of modern and industrial construction features.

The ‘redevelopment’ of development

Belval has emerged on the grounds of a steel-production plant about 20 years ago, after one of the two high furnaces had been decommissioned in 1997. Cleaning-up the site and initial development took place in the early 2000s, while most recent data from the developing agency Agora indicate that the site is meanwhile developed by about 60% of its floorspace and facilities and sold out to investors or users by about 80%, as of 2023. A true success story, as the government has put it. However, one may wonder why a new site that is even not yet completed already needs redevelopment, after a relatively short period of existence. Could it indeed be the case that the area is not yet the vibrant urban neighbourhood that was once promised by its founders and financiers? Did the government eventually recognize that its car-oriented layout and street design has fallen out of time, from the very beginning? Less than a year ago only, when our colleagues from Architecture @uni.lu had organised a set of roundtables on Belval, the community of developers (public, private) demonstrably claimed that if they would have to do it again, they would do it exactly in the same way (“by 100 percent”, quote). That must have been a different theatre.
    As members of the UL and thus one of the main public users of the Cité des Sciences, we just went through our rentrée number nine since we were moved to Belval in fall 2015. That gives sufficient evidence to discuss the pros and cons of the area and its environment, and to assess the most recent promises of the government. Our answers to both questions may add some ‘varieties of interpretation’, particularly when looking at the non-built environment, that is, people, community, politics and organization. (I leave aside the ways of how the University’s affairs, buildings and infrastructures are managed—a separate story).
    As to the first point, a lot has been written about Belval also on this platform, which does not need to be repeated. In a nutshell: one concern is about the overall development that has rendered the site a rather dense and sealed surface. There seems to be a significant lack of green space that has made Belval becoming a windy heat-island. The urban fabric obviously inhibits environmental problems that result from a narrow-minded reading of sustainability as density. Moreover, little to no space is offered for non-market based use, for example the self-organization of students. It looks as if every square-metre will have to find its ultimate market value, being subject to development, management, and control. Newly built large-scale projects often need decades to develop their urban patina, while the benefits of truly public spaces with social mix, accidental interaction across social classes, and adaptation to change are yet missing. Such properties are admittedly difficult to plan for, but one wonders whether this point has been part of the planning at all.
    Another source of long-standing commentary is its car-oriented approach to accessibility, which only recently started to become improved. This brings us to the second question: What to expect from the new plans presented by the government? Is it good to see that politics has actually acknowledged the poor shape of both mobility infrastructure and street-urban design with respect to the site? Yes, it is, improvements are as welcome as needed. However, it is hard to accept that a seamless, comfortable connection of the district to other nodes in the country, notably its capital – provided by the tram – will not be ready before 2035 or 2038. That would be more than two decades after the Cité des Sciences was inaugurated. In the light of this timing: Is it serious to install displays on Belval streetscape that announce the coming of the tram—as if it would be tomorrow, not in 15 years …? Also, it remains to be seen whether hastily painted ‘pop-up bike lanes’ will improve the real situation, or just indicate bad conscience of the authorities.

The politics of infrastructure and planning at large scale

Inertia in changing infrastructure systems is well-known, and it is a common question whether large-scale urban projects should precede the provision of infrastructure, or follow it afterwards. Answering that question depends on market conditions, the pace of implementation, state funding etc. In the case of Belval, the proclaimed mobility revolution will be late, if at all, given the persistent flow of the poorly occupied automobile that has already gained supremacy today. This is due to the ‘relational’ setting of Luxembourg that depends on the influx of remote (that is, foreign) workforce, thus linked to the necessarily unbalanced relationship between housing and occupation. How many of those who will work in Belval do live around, or will do so in the foreseeable future? Do we create just another ‘terminal’ that maximizes throughput (in order to generate taxes), without adding a sense of place to the area? These are structural questions that new projects can’t escape from, but that are rarely asked or answered in the phase of conceptualization.
    Apart from the technicalities that the concept brochure provides in the very detail over dozens of pages, we see some familiar patterns of development and planning policy, governance and governmentality (that is, the conduct of conduct). These include, first and foremost, the predominant state as the central actor. Municipalities use to play a minor role when it comes to strategic projects. This was already the case when Belval came into being; consequently, the mayors’ part in the presentation of the new project – while indeed being present at all – is limited to one out of 41 pages of the document. The lion’s share is taken over by state and state-led agencies. This principle already applied to the very beginning of Belval, which was localized based on state decision making in concert with the landowner, not following the preference of the municipality of Esch-sur-Alzette.
    The new plans for Belval also embody a strong emphasis on technology and infrastructure – a policy that seems typical for Luxembourg: building, building, building. Of course, catching up with growth means providing the required infrastructure, especially for the preferred means of a) land use and b) transport. However, in terms of steering transport demand and supply, infrastructure provision alone is necessary but not sufficient as a framework condition. Organisation comes into play as does the question of aims and objectives in more regulatory terms. We recall from early planning that connecting Belval to the train system (by the new gare Belval-Université) had made the government to predict a modal share between cars and transit of 60 to 40 percent for the future. We don’t know in how far this has been achieved, the new concept might be understood as an attempt to strengthen the policy. The open question is what else is foreseen to be implemented for steering the demand side other than the supply of infrastructure and a new street design. Otherwise, the desired outcomes would lack probability. It looks as if the provision of infrastructure is considered to be the end, not the means of the policy.

The conduct of conduct

Finally, the discursive framing of the project follows a common pattern. It includes a handful of steps that we do know too well: First, when a new project is presented to the public, it is sold as a game changer that will resolve the majority of current problems. In a development trajectory that is as complex as contested (such as planning for the small-but-global metropolis), promising “solutions” turns out to be a risky endeavour. As a result, in a second phase the projects earn critical commentaries, either on their outset or after realisation. For a while, this criticism is either rejected or ignored by the authorities. As soon as the deficiencies of real developments can’t be overlooked, officials start to contend critical voices. This criticism is then used in order to escape from the murky reality of today’s development pressure, moving on to praising future projects that would make everything better. This is a narrative cycle that goes on again and again …
    The speed of change in the Grand Duchy is enormous, not only compared with other countries. Development, wealth and growth have a massive impact on society and economy. which is by and large perceived as beneficial. Hence, development and growth enjoy political priority in most fields of practice, also revealed by the election campaigns. However, it unfolds at a certain price: The downside of growth is that both infrastructure and institutions can hardly catch up with the ever rising population of residents and employees. Most of the professional elites are aware of this, yet the underlying conflicts and contradictions are not addressed. 
    Only in rare moments these issues are openly articulated in public discourse. As a notable exception, the lead-candidate of the socialist LSAP conceded in a press-interview prior to the October 2023 elections: “Wir haben die Bedeutung des enormen Wachstums nicht richtig eingeschätzt” (‘We did not properly estimate the importance of the enormous growth’, Luxemburger Wort, 30th September 2023, p. 2). This concession, related to the pandemic and health policy, can certainly be applied to many fields of policy making, such as education, housing, or mobility. There is no solution in sight. However, a reflective, more cautious attitude to contemporary problems and possible mid- and long-term strategies would also be useful to apply in the ‘wicked’ field of development, movement, and mobility. And better remove the tram promotion for a while?

Markus Hesse

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