International
Federation for
Housing and
Planning

Urbego workshop in Antwerp

Splendid Isolation.

How do you grow those beautiful roses?
Gliding through the streets of Brasschaat can be but a pleasant and cheerful journey. A lush forest gently surrounds a dream-like carousel of villas: there is the one with a lovely straw-roof, here’s a picturesque brick castle, and – oh wait – look at that pretty pink cottage!

Suburbs have always stood as uncomfortable evidence to planners, as they do not seem to be the perfect fulfilment of the aspirations of their inhabitants, nor they show any kind of the outstanding problematic that usually make other kind of sites (e.g. former industrial areas, informal settlements) so very appealing as a subject of study to planners and designers.

However we, an international team of 20 young professionals with the most diverse backgrounds, tried to challenge this seemingly efficient model, by asking the uneasy questions, and bringing to surface the implicit realities that cannot be hidden simply by growing a thicker fence.

Investigations and fieldwork
The four-day workshop was structured on two converging paths:

  1. The first consisted in a number of talks given by external experts of urbanism, planning and sociology, which provided us a vast panorama of the reasons which led to the process of suburbanization.
  2. The second, more site-specific, consisted in debates with professionals working at different levels of the administration. This allowed us to collect evidence of the tensions and problematic that threaten Flanders Region, and, more specifically, the city of Antwerp with its peri-urban territory. A cycling tour in the case-study area of Brasschaat, guided by the local municipality representative, was eventually the occasion to understand the spatial qualities of the local sprawl and its underlying rules.

Problem definition
A scenario of impending unsustainable conflict soon emerged from the information we collected. Present trends picture the city of Antwerp as a centre of sole consumption, functioning as a an infrastructure and jobs provider also for its small-towns belt. At the same time, the inner city is experiencing a progressive overcrowding with immigrants, leading to potential increase of deprivation levels.

Suburbs like Brasschaat appear to be on the other hand more and more constrained and rigid to the demographic and market dynamics, as a result of an anti-urban system which is constantly struggling for self-reproduction and preservation.

The process
We decided to tackle the problems by forming four investigation teams; each one had to deal with a specific key-issue, namely, mobility, resources, density and identity. This way of working allowed us to explore in detail the complex relationships and implications of each main theme at several levels (from the regional to the neighbourhood scale) and led to the definition of different scenarios which were presented the last day of the workshop, in a public arena held at “De Singel” cultural centre. The debate was opened by an image of five blood-red roses slightly swaying in front of a white picket fence and a cloudless blue sky. It is the beginning of “Blue Velvet”, the Lynch movie that revealed the ambiguity and shallowness beneath the shiny surface of the middle-class suburbs. We also wanted to look beyond the immediate stereotypes and try to understand the identity of suburbia and imagine new directions in the urban development.

The first group envisioned a future of “superbanization” where new transportation projects contribute in preserving and intensifying the suburban living. The second team outlined a model for densification and progressive transformation within the suburbs, while the last two groups described respectively small-scale biomass projects as a way to limit and reverse the energy dependency from the inner city and short-term incremental interventions that spotlight specific issues and generate a more substantial change of the area. The people gathered together in De Singel were soon captured and involved in an active debate about possible evolution of the suburban city.

She wore blue velvet, bluer than velvet was the night; softer than satin was the light...