Fringe Urbanism. The integrated development and design of open space in the rural-urban fringe of Brussels, Belgium.

  • Elke Vanempten ((PhD) Student)
  • Bruno De Meulder (Promotor)
  • Michael Ryckewaert (Promotor)
  • Maarten Loopmans (Co-promotor)
  • Kelly Shannon (Advisor)
  • Hubert Gulinck (Advisor)
  • Louis Albrechts (Advisor)

Scriptie/masterproef: Doctoral Thesis


The research studied the integrated development and design of open - unsealed - space in the rural-urban fringe of Brussels, Belgium. In the contemporary hybrid spatial environment, integration is increasingly considered a prerequisite for qualitative development. Although it might seem fashionable nowadays to call a plan or project 'integrated', the presence of the concept within planning theory signals there is more than meets the eye. The concept has however only been explored to a limited extent from a theoretical point of view. The research presented here therefore aimed to contribute in expanding the knowledge about this concept. In order to understand the integration concept fully, at least three aspects need to be taken into account: the meaning of integration, why (or when) it is called upon, and how it is or can be established. Therefore, this dissertation looks into the what, why and how of integration within spatial development.

An empirical focus was placed on open spaces in fringes for two main reasons: first, since the calls for integration resound especially loud in these environments at the frontline of development; and second because attention is increasing for open spaces as crucial and strategic assets to deal with a wide range of environmental, social and economic challenges. The fringe is here defined as the hybrid transition zone between densely urbanized and more rural areas. Open spaces within such a fringe context often experience a multi-layered development problematic, arising from their position in between spatial entities, policies and functional uses. They are not just literally in the fringe, due to their location at the edge of a dense urban core, but metaphorically as well, concerning perception, valuation and policy attention. As a result of this context, integration is often called upon.

Also, in the last decades, attention for spatial design as a medium of communication has been growing. Design's roles have shifted from delivering a clear picture or masterplan of 'the one and only' future, towards being a medium to explore challenges, to provoke and enable discussions, to communicate with a broad range of actors, to research various options and alternatives, to generate consensus, and so on. After being mobilized in urban renewal projects in urban centers or in the 19th century belt, lately, the 20th century fringe is increasingly design's field of action.

Based on this problem setting, it was hypothesized that (1) spatial design as a creative medium plays a role in establishing certain forms of integration, and (2) design and planning approaches that start from the 'open' rather than from the 'urban', have a larger capacity to achieve the 'holy grail' of integration.

The research showed that integration is multifaceted and always needs to be related to something else, namely that which is being integrated. Within the context of spatial development, integration can be a goal, a process as well as a product. It points at either substantive issues and/or the development process, indicating a linkage of spatial, societal or institutional elements, or a combination thereof. An integrative act usually aims to bring such elements together into a coherent and qualitative whole, a spatial solution, or design. The research found multiple purposes and reasons for calling upon integration. Motives largely fall within three categories: necessity, added value, and ethics and values. Ideally, integration does not erase the characteristic differences of the combined variables. It nevertheless still implies being selective. Establishing actual integration thus is no easy task, nor a guarantee for quality. Clarifying questions, such as whose integration is it? what is the strategic agenda behind the concept? and why is integration used? are crucial to avoiding an integrative act that is merely post-political consensus.

In a next step, it was further clarified why a quest for integration appears today in the macro-case of Brussels. An analysis of changing urban-open relations throughout Brussels' development history has enabled a better understanding of the spatial, institutional and socio-cultural complexity of the contemporary fringe that is leading to abundant calls for integrated development. In trying to substantiate the hypothesis, the research furthermore investigated the land development project 'Plateau of Moorsel' in the north-eastern fringe of Brussels and organized an expert design workshop on open space in Brussels' fringe. The Moorsel case enabled a look into the roles attributed to spatial design with a possibility to establish (certain forms of) integration. Subsequently, design was used as a method to provide workshop participants with a different perspective, reasoning from the open rather than the urban. The goal was among other things to investigate to what extent such a different perspective, applied through design, contributed to establishing integration.

Given the qualitative and experimental research involving design workshops, landscape and spatial analysis, urbanization history, and a multitude of other methods in the highly complex context of Brussels' fringe, it would not have been possible to 'prove' the hypothesis. Nonetheless, the research provided important clues on how design research on open space can be mobilized successfully in spatial policy-making processes by making conflicts explicit and visual. Moreover, it discovered the importance and power of the 'land development' instrument for open space planning.
Datum Prijs9 okt 2014
BegeleiderMichael Ryckewaert (Promotor), Bruno De Meulder (Promotor), Maarten Loopmans (Co-promotor), Kelly Shannon (Advisor), Hubert Gulinck (Advisor) & Louis Albrechts (Advisor)

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