Flanders has a high number of homeowners and single-family houses. 70 per cent of households own their house and almost 80 per cent of the housing stock is made up of single-family houses. This situation is rather unique in Europe and casts a long shadow back over the history of Belgium as an independent nation-state and its politics in support of home ownership.
Since the late nineteenth century, Belgium’s housing condition has been characterised by the hegemony of the single- family home as a way of life – a condition created by the long-standing ‘anti-city’ policy promoted by the Belgian government.1 After its rise as an independent nation-state, Belgium went through a rampant process of industrialisation, which triggered a number of social conflicts. Fearing a high concentration of urban-dwelling workers, the Liberal-Catholic government pursued a policy of dispersing the labour force throughout the rural territory by promoting homeownership and affordable railway transport. Far from the celebrated phenomenon of ‘Wilde Wohnen’, urban sprawl in Belgium was a carefully orchestrated political project with a threefold objective: the ruralisation of industrial workers, the promotion of homeownership and the reinforcement of family values.
An important aspect of the Belgian single-family home is its resistance to change. This has led researchers like Wouter Bervoest and Hilde Heynen to define the problem of housing in Flanders in terms of ‘obduracy’.7 What the political and economic process succinctly described above has left on the ground is very difficult to modify or alter. Not only are domestic habits extremely enduring and hard to change since they give a sense of orientation especially within uncertain times, but also, the house itself speaks to a system in which a specific spatial condition is linked with deep-seated social and juridical frameworks. It is hard, for example, to imagine that those who are accustomed to living in a detached home would allow the further subdivision of their property or the sharing of their garden, but the future of baby-boomer-built suburban housing in Belgium raises many questions especially when considered in light of recent social and economic changes. In Europe there is a visible trend that sees the reduction of household size to an average of 2.5 persons per house, and there is a growing mismatch between the number of suburban houses and the newer generations’ desire to live in cities. After secondary school, many people in their late-20s leave their parents’ suburban houses. Another urgent issue is the elderly population, which finds itself increasingly isolated and lacking adequate care. While the countryside offers some respite from the hectic life of cities, the increasing depopulation and lack of social services make their lives lonely and devoid of social interaction. This condition is not only negative for the elderly, but also for the social wellbeing of the suburban territory.
With this in mind, the following pages illustrate a possible alternative for urban dwellers – a scenario that reimagines the suburban context of the Lanaken-Maasmechelen territory by considering two key issues: the introduction of both public space and new forms of domestic living beyond the single-family house. The proposal goes beyond architecture and urban design, taking into account all the factors that produce the city – such as politics, economy and culture. We believe, however, that architecture can give a tangible form to these factors by not only showing what transformations are necessary, but also by revealing their spatial impact.
Our proposal consists of three distinct, and to some extent, consequential steps. The first step is a short-term scenario, which proposes punctual interventions primarily focused on public facilities. One of the most remarkable aspects of this territory is its lack of civic space besides commerce and town centres. By civic space we mean space that is beyond commerce, housing and circulation. Rather than scattering these interventions across the territory, we have positioned them to form a coherent urban structure – a territorial urban park – that highlights the meaningful relationship between the existing settlements, the forest, canal and river. This step is not only feasible in a short time, but also lends a sense of civic orientation without drastically changing the existing condition.
The second step proposes a planned partial demolition of existing houses in order to shrink the footprint of built space and to enhance open land for agricultural use. Most of the houses in this territory are detached family homes that are resistant to any alternative use, and many are either underused or vacant. Moreover, a number have been built outside concentrated settlements as self- standing structures along roads. Given the current demographic of this territory, which itself faces increasing depopulation, it is easy to imagine that in the next ten years a majority of these houses could become redundant. This is both a problem and a unique opportunity to put forward a scenario in which municipalities can financially support homeowners who decide to demolish their over-dimensioned and underused home to invest in more sustainable and collective forms of dwelling.
The third step resists the current situation – that of an increasingly depopulated suburb – and instead proposes that, given the evolution of the ways in which we live and work, suburban sites may become attractive once again. Yet this assumption is plausible only through a radical transformation of the economic and spatial rationales that have produced the suburban way of living in the last century. This step addresses the possibility of re-populating the suburbs, focusing on the retrofitting of existing settlements. This retrofitting would take place by subdividing existing plots of single- family homes to allow different uses of the home as a space for living, working and caring – thus allowing single-family dwellings to be united as more collective entities.
Study for urban transformation and new housing typology in Limburg (Belgium)
Pier Vittorio Aureli and Martino Tattara, with Andrea Migotto, Elena Calafati, Ezio Melchiorre, Tommaso Mola Meregalli, Matteo Novarino, Antonio Paolillo
Departement Ruimte Vlaanderen