Els Vervloesem. Visual Storytelling to Re-imagine the Future
Architect and researcher Els Vervloesem reflects on the Kolenspoor City project, aimed at developing the Limburg region in Belgium, as a new form and method of urban planning.
Text Els Vervloesem
Three hundred people who live and work along the Kolenspoor [Coal Line] in the Belgian province of Limburg gave free rein to their imagination in the Kolenspoor City project. They went to work with pen and paper, building up step by step a new vision of the region’s future. The result is a piece of visual theatre that combines dreams for the city of tomorrow. The project not only demonstrates the power of collective imagination, but reveals how new stories can contribute to change and to co-create habitable space.
Limburg in limbo: imagination sought and found
The shock of an economy that is there one day and gone the next had devastating consequences in Limburg. The sudden closure of the Ford Motor Company plant in Genk in 2014 marked the end of one era and the start of a new one. In a single blow, Limburg lost one of its main employers, and thousands of people found themselves out of work. The Flemish Government responded by launching the Strategisch Actieplan voor Limburg in het Kwadraat, or SALK, a strategic plan with an unequivocal message: a new future for a region in crisis. While the regional industry had hitherto been treated as a single economic player, from mining to vehicle assembly, the focus was now to be on a broad range of innovative niche economies. Regional restructuring was backed by a substantial investment programme which targeted developments such as sustainable energy systems, innovations in care, circular economies for materials and waste, and new manufacturing enterprises.
Limburg is currently in limbo. It was quickly realized that the transition to a different kind of economy must go hand in hand with a spatial transformation process. In a preliminary stage, Ruimte Vlaanderen, the Flemish regional planning authority, produced a territorial development programme called T.OP Limburg – Territoriaal Ontwikkelingsprogramma Limburg. Its stated goal was “to reinforce coherence among the detailed mechanisms of the SALK plan on the basis of an integrated and territorially localised approach”. Architects, urban designers and planners and artists all took part in applying their creative skills to developing a future narrative for the region and designing the form it could take.
The Kolenspoor emerged from these activities as a strategic project that functions as a “collector” and “connector” at various levels. This 70 km long largely disused stretch of railway infrastructure, which served the region’s once thriving mining industries, now forms a link between past and future, between, living, working, natural and recreational landscapes, and between various municipalities. The Kolenspoor Project was made up of a research-through-design segment, conducted by architects and research teams from the universities of Leuven and Hasselt, together with a cultural segment elaborated by the Z33 House for Contemporary Art. The activities included an experimental initiative by designers and artists under the name Het Kolenspoor Getest [The Kolenspoor Tested] with the aim of implanting the notion of reviving the Kolenspoor’s hidden potential in the minds of the Limburg public.
The cultural haven as a space for experiment
Z33 House for Contemporary Art chose a secondary or enabling role during the startup phase. Instead of launching yet another new plan or initiative, the Art Centre brought all the existing studies, visions and ambitions together so as to make them accessible to a wide audience. Z33 developed a website, an attractively designed book and a high-tech installation that turned the wealth of local knowledge and visionary ideas for the Kolenspoor into a visible and tangible experience. In the end it was the accompanying exhibition at the International Architectural Biennale Rotterdam (IABR) that provided the boost needed to shift the project into a higher gear. The invitation of important local players, such as the Deputy of the Province of Limburg, several mayors and other relevant individuals, to a “Limburg Day” at the IABR kindled growing confidence in a follow-up programme. The IABR, as a cultural haven and a “safe place for dangerous ideas”, demonstrated the potential of design and imagination.
This moment was crucial in developing the momentum which would lead to the Kolenspoor City project, initiated by Z33 together with Space Caviar. Martina Muzi (Space Caviar) and Ciel Grommen (Z33) launched a process aimed at involving Limburg citizens actively in the design of their own future narrative. They took a highly visual, concrete and accessible approach inspired by the Incomplete City method. The power of this open source design methodology, developed by Joseph Grima, Dan Hill and Marco Ferrari at the Bartlett School of Architecture, lies in its simplicity. Participants armed with pens, paper, scissors and photocopiers proceed step by step from “everyday elements, smaller than a building but bigger than a telephone” to give substance to their ideas for the future development of various promising locations in Limburg.
Ciel Grommen and Martina Muzi translated this methodology in an intelligent way to the Limburg context. In a series of 25 workshops in six municipalities, they created a succession of temporary “safe havens” in which participants were challenged to think, independently of known structures and institutions, about the future of their residential environment. The purpose of this exercise was not to deliver ready-to-use solutions, but to collect stories which appealed to the imagination or which conveyed a message. These stories ranged from fairly concrete ideas, such as a neighbourhood park, an ‘off-grid campsite’ or a solar roadway, to more poetic contributions such as vast wings capable of being raised to cover an oversized traffic node. This approach, which actively builds a human infrastructure into the way these workshops are organized, differs from more traditional participative approaches that appeal solely to the “usual suspects”. For example, a system was established in which responsibilities were gradually passed on, giving the participants a more active role. Finally, the approach made it possible to surmount the characteristically non-committal character of a cultural haven by proactively hooking into the local context and existing projects, and by attracting relevant dialogue partners.
Constructing a visual story for Kolenspoor’s future
The result of this collective effort was eventually combined and merged into a single, impressive, large-scale collage and an Atlas of Elements which were exhibited in Luchtfabriek Heusden-Zolder. Both the collage and the Atlas have succeeded in touching a sensitive spot among the visitors. The collage demonstrates how drawing can be an extremely thought-provoking and powerful medium. Against the background of a highly computerized, individualized society, its converse, the hand-drawn collective image, still exerts a considerable attraction. The Kolenspoor City project moreover supplies a wealth of visual stories. The Canadian town planner and filmmaker Leonie Sandercock stresses the importance of such stories: “Stories and storytelling can be powerful agents or aids in the service of change, as shapers of a new imagination of alternatives.” In this case, these visual stories enable us to take a positive yet critical stance towards the future of Limburg, and to widen the democratic debate that surrounds the region’s economic and spatial restructuring.
In this respect, the working method also appeals to the design discipline. Creating urban fabric or open space is no longer seen as the exclusive right or privilege of the architect or planner, but as something that arises through mutual interaction between a multitude of “space makers”. This vision resonates, by the way, in the research-through-design segment. The Multiproductief Kolenspoor project in Genk, for example, draws on concrete coalitions among local players in order to bring the proposed railway park into play as a social condenser and catalyst. This constitutes an important change of focus. A central function is reserved not only for the virtuosity with which a built space is designed, but also for the quest for ways in which the spatial environment can deliver positive benefits to society in general. The role of urbanism in society seems in this respect to undergo a new transition. In 1995 Rem Koolhaas wrote, proclaiming the official death of urbanism in his well-known essay Whatever Happened to Urbanism?, “Now we are left with a world without urbanism, only architecture, ever more architecture.” Today urbanism appears to be undergoing resurrection, and research-through-design stands out as a way of supplying options that offer a positive counterweight to a world dominated by scenarios of doom. In this respect, the Atlas of Elements is exemplary for the ongoing mental shift in the design world. Dan Hill, one of its progenitors, encourages us to open our eyes and to “focus on everything but architecture” when thinking about habitable space.
The Atlas of Elements and the incremental approach towards urbanism leads moreover to highly recognizable drawings. These contrast sharply with the considerable level of abstraction that typifies the largely conceptual drawings we normally receive from designers. The special attention to everyday elements in the Atlas ensures that the representation of space accords very closely to our day-to-day experiential world. The anthropologist Ruth Soenen, who has made a speciality of “everyday life”, has argued for years in favour of greater regard for “small” or “commonplace” matters, because this will perceptibly boost the chance of success in implementing design ideas in practice. A striking aspect of the Kolenspoor City project is how special attention to the micro-scale has led to discovery of the countless developmental possibilities for “in-between” zones. Not only does the Kolenspoor’s potential emerge as a “backbone”, capable of hitching together a succession of projects in the North-South direction; but the importance of the neighbourhood scale and of the many meaningful places that constitute the glue between these projects becomes apparent.
Spreading the action
The initiators of Kolenspoor Getest emphasize that it was a deliberate choice to establish a process gauged to the long-term rather than the short-term. That is why a chain of successive research studies and interventions was established at the outset, with the aim of accumulating knowledge step by step, reinforcing existing networks and gaining new insights; in other words, learning by doing. This modus operandi has proved highly fruitful, with the result that various lines of development will continue to be followed even after the end of the Kolenspoor City project. Important players and landowners on and around the Kolenspoor are thus beginning to realize the potential of the region. The results of research-through-design are being taken up and elaborated in follow-up projects, new coalitions have formed between local partners to collaborate on subprojects, and various initiatives have arisen towards further knowledge exchange with local educational institutions.
A promising concrete example is the way the Social Spaces research group from the University of Hasselt has embraced the Incomplete City methodology and has actively applied, combined and merged it with methods of their own. Besides their involvement in the research-through-design phase, they later acted as facilitators for the Kolenspoor City workshops which took place in Genk. Masters’ degree students in Art and Architecture at Hasselt University were tasked to hold interviews with various local players. The Incomplete City methodology served as the basis, but it was further extended with three additional layers: people, nature and relationships. The method gave them a means to reach a wider public as well as to engage in discussions at an extremely concrete level and thus to expose potential conflicts. The nature conservation society, for example, considered that too many people and too many elements were drawn into the proposals. The students recently applied this method once again in their WegenWerken [Road Works] project; complementary to inventorying slow-traffic roads, the method proved very useful for studying how Genk residents use these roads at present, and how the roads might serve in future for promoting community-building and employment opportunities in the city.
The storylines thus continue into the foreseeable future. The Kolenspoor Getest initiative has succeeded in enticing a wide and very diverse group of people to dream of a better future. Enticement is in this case not just about creating a base of public support. Practice has shown us that trying to raise people’s awareness with the aim of getting them to accept a specific top-down vision simply does not work. Engaging their enthusiasm from the outset, giving them responsibility and making the people themselves the authors of a collective story yields a much more direct and personal degree of involvement. The art of enticement should not be underestimated. In this respect, the devisers and makers of the Kolenspoor City project have understood perfectly well what is required to achieve a much-needed change of mentality in Limburg. •