Faced with increasing dead zones in the city centre and severe traffic congestion, Antwerp successfully revitalised its environment through a strategy of ‘slow urbanism’ – where small-scale projects targeting problem areas were implemented while the city took time to develop longer-term, holistic solutions.
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Aerial view of Antwerp © jbyard22/123RF
Home to Europe’s second largest port and global centre of the diamond trade, Antwerp is today an attractive city known for its rich culture and liveability. Three decades ago, however, it was markedly far less liveable, with a slew of challenges from swathes of derelict buildings in the city centre to chronic traffic congestion.
Most of these challenges were a legacy of Antwerp’s post-war building boom. Since its rise to prominence in the 14th century, Antwerp has always been a key port in Europe, with the river Scheldt as its economic artery. As one of the few European ports that emerged relatively unscathed from the war, Antwerp’s shipping trade prospered in the post-war years, leading to rapid construction of buildings and infrastructure to keep up with economic demands.
By the 1980s, the downsides of a lack of holistic planning were becoming apparent. Mass out-migration took place as citizens preferred the suburbs with more accessible housing and cleaner air. As the port moved northwards, former port facilities along the Scheldt were abandoned. The city’s ring road infrastructure was no longer adequate for the high traffic volume. Faced with growing dead zones, lack of connected public spaces, and traffic congestion, the city finally began to explore solutions in the 1990s.
Short-term projects and a long-term plan
The revitalised Park Spoor Noord © Damien Woon
In many ways, Antwerp’s approach to tackling its urban issues reflects the Belgian culture of building consensus in complex governance issues. Recognising that its challenges were systemic, Antwerp adopted a strategy of ‘slow urbanism’ – implementing projects to tackle specific problem areas while taking time to deliberate and build consensus for longer-term solutions.
Tapping on funding from the European Union and both federal and regional governments, Antwerp embarked on area-specific projects in the 1990s and 2000s. One of the first was the rehabilitation of Sailor’s Quarter, a disused former port area along the Scheldt which had become notorious for prostitution and criminal business activities by the 1990s. In the early 2000s, the city brought the prostitution trade under control, pedestrianised roads, tailored housing policies to attract residents and investors, and introduced green spaces and walkways. By 2007, the number of vacant houses had dropped drastically, building applications had increased, and criminal activities had largely disappeared.
Another notable project in the early 2000s was the conversion of an abandoned former railway site into a park. Spoor Noord was then surrounded by densely built-up neighbourhoods, with only one in eight homes having outdoor space. The city thus rezoned the area as a landscape park, undertook extensive engagement with residents, and launched an international design competition for the project. Considerations that were incorporated into features at Park Spoor Noord, which opened in 2008, included the use of sustainable building materials, internal water management, facilities for sports, recreation, and culture, and the repurposing of former railway buildings.
The city, however, recognised the need for a long-term plan to ensure coherence in urban redevelopment. After three years of intense collaboration with an Italian design team, the 15-year Strategic Spatial Structure Plan for Antwerp was launched in 2006. It provides an overarching vision for the city’s transformation, details an area-oriented, project-based translation of Antwerp’s urban renovation, defines strategic areas for intervention, and provides guidance on developments.
Following that, area projects were designed to align with the overall vision. With the success of Sailor’s Quarter, the city drew up plans to redevelop abandoned quays along the Scheldt, with interventions to preserve heritage, mitigate flooding, improve mobility, and create public space. The renewal of Antwerp’s residential districts takes guidance from the structure plan as well, as districts are envisioned to have distinct centres reflecting local character and equipped with quality public spaces and community facilities. This can be seen in the renewal master plan for the district of Hoboken, which focuses on transforming the existing centre dominated by parking lots into a cohesive core where historic sites, parks, and public spaces are connected through cycling and walking paths.
Ensuring long-term sustainability for ‘slow urbanism’
“As a city we really benefited from the participation and input of citizens and citizen movements, inspiring and pushing us to be as ambitious as they were, making a giant leap for Antwerp in terms of mobility and liveability.”
— Koen Kennis
Deputy Mayor, City of Antwerp
A long-term commitment to ‘slow urbanism’ is only viable when the city’s leadership, stakeholders, and people own the processes. As with other Belgian cities, Antwerp’s governance rests on six-year coalition agreements signed by its governing parties. The latest agreement in 2018 committed to making Antwerp ’the liveable city’, ensuring that resources continue to be allocated.
Over time, the city has implemented various solutions to safeguard its approach. In 1999, the function of ‘Stadsbouwmeester’, or the Chief City Architect, was established to provide independent advice on the city’s projects from the perspective of spatial quality, and to create tools such as expert panels and design guides to help the city in commissioning projects. The city has also installed a team dedicated to research by design. Led by the ‘Stadsbouwmeester’, it carries out spatial research to support planning processes and provide data to facilitate negotiations among stakeholders.
Most critically, Antwerp is committed to involving its citizenry in remaking the city, from ideating solutions to implementation and stewardship. An ongoing project, ‘Over the Ring’, currently the biggest urban renewal development in north-western Europe, illustrates this commitment. For years, the city’s ring road infrastructure, built in the 1960s, has been a source of traffic congestion and pollution while cutting through neighbourhoods and parks. In 2014, a group of citizens, architects, engineers, and teachers proposed that the city government divert the traffic underground and cover up part of the ring road to reduce pollution, reconnect districts and improve mobility.
The city took the proposal, began an extensive effort of engaging citizens, gathered more than 5,000 ideas from over 4,000 citizens, and appointed an external curator to negotiate competing demands and visions. After some years of intensive research and consultation with stakeholders, the city resolved to construct underground tunnel systems connecting to the ring road, remove part of the existing ring and rebuild it underground to increase road capacity, reduce air and noise pollution, improve connectivity, and create new public spaces.
The first phase of the project kicked off in 2020. Koen Kennis, Deputy Mayor of Antwerp, says of the project, “As a city we really benefited from the participation and input of citizens and citizen movements, inspiring and pushing us to be as ambitious as they were, making a giant leap for Antwerp in terms of mobility and liveability.”
Facing the future
The ‘Smart Zone’ is a living lab where smart technologies are piloted © stad Antwerpen
Antwerp’s approach of ‘slow urbanism’ extends to future-proofing itself. In the Antwerp Smart Zone, located in the Sint Andries district, smart city innovations are trialled with residents and visitors providing user feedback. Experiments range from safe crossing and smart lighting to detecting heat stress and building climate-friendly behaviour through technology. By piloting the technology in this living lab, city authorities are able to assess its impact and readiness for large-scale roll-out.
The Stadslab2050 urban lab focuses on finding solutions to help Antwerp become more climate-ready and adapt to a harsher climate reality, such as more frequent and severe floods, and intense heat waves. It works with different stakeholders, from entrepreneurs and citizens to public servants and experts, to pilot projects in areas such as climate-robust roofing, smart energy management, greening streets, and flood management.
By focusing on quality outcomes over time, Antwerp has demonstrated that ‘slow urbanism’ based on genuine long-term commitment, has a deep impact on the city. Not only does it allow urban renewal to be thoughtful and continually adjusted to evolving ground realities, the processes of co-creating and co-producing solutions with citizenry and other stakeholders contributes to social cohesion and helps build a city that truly belongs to its people. O