THE GROEN LINT: transforming the urban periphery into a productive landscape park for the city of Ostends

Presentation at the 1st European Green Urban Infrastructure Conference, Vienna, Nov. 2015

 

Introduction

Urban by Nature, was the title of the International Architectural Biennale Rotterdam in 2014, stating that by nature mankind is urban. And indeed globally, 54 per cent of the world`s population resides in urban areas in 2014. Since the 1950`s (30 per cent) this number has grown rapidly and by 2050, 66 per of the world`s population is projected to be urban. (United Nations, 2014). Urbanization has historically been associated with economic and social transformations, which bring greater mobility, better healthcare, higher levels of education, and enhanced opportunities for economic, cultural and political participation. These transformations also triggered negative social and environmental effects, as social-inequality and sub standard living, environmental pollution, food insecurity and climate change. Effects that have been described by the Club of Rome, in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and more recently in An Inconvenient Truth and led to environmental protection and urban planning based on zoning.

Unfortunately, these methods, based on a paradox between `nature` and `culture` do not provide sufficient solutions to mitigate the negative effects of (future) urbanization. It has resulted in a dichotomy between urban and natural environments and a landscape pattern that has become scattered. These landscapes can be defined as urban periphery, terrain vague (Ignasi de Solà-Morales, 1995) or drossscape/waste landscape (Berger, 2006) and hold both urban and natural characteristics and lack clear spatial relations. This essay however identifies the potential of these landscapes to overcome the negative effects of urbanization by integrating both ecological and cultural processes into a productive green infrastructure. The city of Ostends, Belgium, serves as case study.


Urbanization and evolving spatial relations

The first patterns of urbanization, the early agrarian settlements, were closely related to the evolution of agriculture. Innovations in agriculture, navigation and energy supply further intensified the exploitation of the surrounding environment and agrarian market cities were formed. Industrialization in the eighteenth century further diminished the relation between the city and its surroundings, with the development of international networked cities. This process further accelerated from the 1950`s with the rise of mass-production, mass-recreation and digitalization which created cities which were less grounded into their direct physical context, but more related to each other. (Soja, 2011)

This urban history is visualized in Cedric Price`s “Three Eggs Diagram”, with the modern city as a scrambled egg, a hybrid landscape based on both `natural` as `cultural/human` processes related in a complex, layered and global way. Further urbanization will intensify this hybrid pattern and it is this pattern in which solutions should be explored to deal with the challenges cities and society is facing today. (Brugmans, Strien, 2014). Not by redefining borders between natural and urban environments, but by integrating their inherent productive characteristics into new spatial organization. In doing so, the urban periphery can be transformed into a productive urban landscape.

Landscape strategy: a system approach

Given the more complex, layered and scattered context of projects, a spatial strategy is fundamental in defining sustainable solutions to overcome effects of climate change, food insecurity, environmental pollution, biodiversity loss and social-inequality. According to Corner (2005): `a good strategy is a highly organized plan (spatial, programmatic, or logistical) that is at the same time flexible and structurally capable of significant adaptation in response to changing circumstances.` In other words a project should be resilient and adaptive, which implies spatial organization should be based on an understanding of processes in stead of a static formal composition.

Landscape lends itself to be a strategic medium, since landscape form is the direct result of both natural and cultural processes. Second landscape evolves in time, making it adaptable and flexible. Finally it deals with large-scale organization and relational structuring which remains dynamic. Acknowledging these characteristics, landscape should not be perceived as a scenic composition, but as a system of production (Berrizbeita, 1999), a productive entity within the scattered modern city. A landscape strategy initiates potential productive relations by staging both ecological and cultural processes. This involves understanding of these processes and the physical spatial context, or site, in order to tactically shape the landscape to preform in a productive manner.


Elementary design: beyond scenic representation.

Traditionally landscape design was focused on the physical qualities and characteristics of a site, resulting in a static beatification based on visual representation of nature of the site. Focusing on the site as a system of production implies the notion of an ongoing evolution of the characteristics and nature of a site. A landscape strategy can only become a physical reality, in form, geometry and material, if shaped in accordance to this evolution. In doing so, the strategy can be articulated on site creating a place of exchange, expression, experience and production integrating both culture and ecology into a productive landscape.

This calls for a design approach that is open-ended and process driven, but at the same time articulates the sites specific enduring qualities. In the first, process is engaged with the ecological (nature making itself) and the phenomenological (the subjective experience) characteristics a site. The second, site specificity, deals with the designers reading, or conception, of the site at a particular time. (Berizbeita, 2007) Integrating both results in an approach that includes history, ecology, recreation, and perception as an ongoing process of site formation instead of a purely visual scene. As a result design interventions should be elementary, they should not become an object in themselves, but should articulate and facilitate the evolution of a site in time by establishing new productive relationships between site and spatial context.

Within this discourse the plan for the Groen Lint in Ostends was developed. A plan that proposes a landscape strategy, which formulates potential programmatic transformation to deal with issues as water management, energy production, food production, increase of biodiversity, urban mobility, large scale recreation and cultural expression. Moreover, it presents tactically positioned interventions that can facilitate and steer this transformation of the urban periphery into a new productive public space, a green infrastructure vital for a sustainable future of Ostends.

 

Observing Ostends

“This vision ... takes as a starting point the `reading and writing` of the site itself. Such a view is less focused on the program of a proposed building project than on exploring the possibilities of site characteristics and hidden phenomena. As such it outlines a critical and reflective approach to making new landscapes.” (Marot, 1999)
Ostends is a rather compact city along the Belgian coast. It has about 70.000 inhabitants, a number which can double during summer due to seasonal fluctuations. This directly explains the cities main (spatial and economic) orientation towards its coastline, rather neglecting its hinterlands. However, both coastline and hiterlands played an important role in the development of the city. During the 16th century polders in the hinterlands were inundated, by clearing the sea dike, protecting the city form Spanish invasion. Relicts of this time can still be found in the landscape as creeks penetrating the polders. During the 17th and 18th century the harbour of Ostends was developed, which today still is an important productive entity in the city with the production of off-shore windmills. During the 19th century Ostends expanded as Belgian king Leopold II declared it the ‘Royal Bathing City’, and developed the Royal Villa, Royal Gallery,the Wellington track (a horse riding arena) , the Kursaal (theatre and casino) along the coastline and all connected by the coastal promenade.

In the 20th century mass-tourism further accelerated the development of the cities seafront. Within the cities hinterlands, the airport was developed, landfills were created, and industries and commercial strips were created along infrastructural lines. It has resulted in a kaleidoscopic landscape with different characters, structures and relations based on their own logic. Purely functional entities, historic polders, small villages and agricultural land are juxtaposed in a scattered way creating a typical urban periphery. The city of Ostends set the ambition to transform this periphery by launching a design competition for the development of the Groen Lint. Teams were asked to propose a strategy and design for the development of a cycling route around the city connecting these landscapes and creating new recreational potential for the city. At the same time a vision had to be developed on what role these landscapes could have in dealing with climate change, food production, increase of biodiversity, sustainable mobility, and sustainable energy production.

 

The Groen Lint as a series of productive landscape parks

“The emphasis on materiality and the unveiling of the technical means of construction eliminate the transcendental in the park and invalidate the conceptual separateness of the park from the city. Rather than being presented as isolated and protected from technology and capitalism and, in turn, offering the individual shelter from these forces, the park is understood as one of many productive entities within the metropolis.” (Berrizbeita, 1999)

The identification of the different landscape entities was the basis for a landscape strategy in which intensification and/or adaptation of their characteristics and spatial structure is envisioned in order to transform them into productive landscape parks. Each entity could take a role in energy production, increase of biodiversity, water retention etc. This would give a new function and meaning to each entity while strengthening its identity and more firmly embed it within its spatial context.

The airport with its long runway surrounded by grass meadows could be turned in an energy production field. Rapeseed could be harvested along the runway, producing biofuel for ground equipment on the airport. Along the retail strip, trees on parking lots are proposed, not only creating a more pleasant image of the street but also producing shade for the parked cars. Urban agriculture and water retention could give new meaning to the historical polders, while providing amenities for recreation. The creek systems could become water retention areas, not only dealing with climate change, but also increasing the potential for the increase of biodiversity. The city forest on the former land-fill site could produce biomass and the harbour can transform into a new residential area with a strong green and blue character.

By envisioning the landscape entities as productive entities for the city of Ostends, they have gained new meaning and new (spatial) relations between city centre and its urban periphery are created. In order to become a reality, the cycling route is a strategic element that should become more than just a physical connection; it should become a new public space.

 

The Groen Lint as a new public space

“... I like the idea of discrete, tactical operations over the clumsy “totality” of the master plan. I believe that the largest of territories can be irreducible restructured through small, laconic interventions as opposed to the unbearable excess of everything - object, forms, materials.” (Descombes, 1999)

Within the landscape strategy the cycling route is envisioned as the backbone connecting the landscape parks. It provides both access to the parks and a means of orientation. It is a kind of boulevard that gradually materializes on the surface in a very simplistic way. The route itself is not envisioned as spectacular, it is the surrounding productive landscape that gives the cyclist an exceptional experience. In order to strengthen this experience punctual interventions along the route are proposed. These interventions are tactically positioned to create a dialogue with the landscape. By way of their topographical position, shape, size and materiality, the interventions articulate and reveal the existing elements along the route.

As a result the punctual interventions create spaces of greater intensity along the route. Spaces that enable exhange and observation: exchange of goods, ideas, experiences, energy, water, ecology, … and observation of the surrounding landscape, nature, water, human activities…. As such the interventions are public spaces ‘pur sang ‘ and form a stage for a new urban culture in an intense relationship with the landscape. The positioning of the interventions is done out of necessity, they are proposed to uncover history, create a connection, provide information, open vista’s, create places, generate energy, show ecological/hydrological processes, provide a space for events, a space for everyday use, …

Six interventions are introduced, not as a blueprint but as a way of ongoing processes and projects, and they are platforms, passages, plateaus, gardens, water edges and avenues.

Platform: A platform intensifies the relationship between city and landscape. A platform is a space for exchange and observation between city and landscape. Visually, physically, immaterially... relationships are made present through a platform. A platform is precise and elementary in design: a quay, a pier, a podium, a hall, …. A platform can consist of specific programmatic elements – a recycling park, wind turbines, a school, … And undesignated spaces are also amply present. This gives the platform a high degree of flexibility in the ways it can be used. A multiplicity and diversity of collective activities can take place on a platform, both formal and informal.

Passage: Passages intensify the experience of movement. A passage is a linear spatial articulation. Raising the route up off the ground, taking it through tree canopies, covering it, taking it underground, or even letting it float … creates a particular relationship with the surroundings. This articulation creates a sensory connection that intensifies the spatial experience that walking or cycling through the landscape has to offer. Although designed for movement, the passage is also structurally able to accommodate other usages. A passage is both a space and a connection. A passage creates a unique way of observing the landscape and/or certain elements in the landscape.

Plateau: A plateau is an earthwork that rises up above the landscape. From the plateau, the landscape can be seen from a different perspective. Plateaus are large undefined spaces that lack of a clear designation is the strength of a plateau. It makes it possible for many varied initiatives to take place on the plateau. To encourage the use of the plateaus, access is provided by a series of slopes made in the embankment. These interventions also strengthen the architecture of the plateaus. The adaptation of existing plateaus or the creation of new ones can be achieved using earth that is dug from water retention sites in the area.

Garden: A garden is an enclosed collective space of a constructed nature. A garden is both recreational and productive, both interior and exterior. Relaxing, playing, gardening, dancing, … are just some of the activities that can take place in a garden. A garden can take on various forms: a community garden, leisure garden, water garden, flower garden, ‘bosquets’, ….  Vegetables, fruit, flowers, plants, small animals … can be bred in the garden. Integrating water into the garden increases biodiversity, provides cooling, creates possibilities for water recycling, … In a garden, the rhythm of nature is highly palpable.

Water edge: The water edge heighten the awareness of the existing bodies of water (the creeks, the Spuikom, …) and the rhythm of the water in the area. Where possible, the water is given more space by the creation of natural riverbanks and wetlands. This increases the biodiversity around the water. It also creates more opportunities to bring the user in closer contact with water. Punctual interventions – platforms, benches, lawns, and picnic areas – are brought closer to the water and thereby ensure a greater and more varied use by the public.

Avenues: Avenues give structure to the landscape. They often mediate between city and landscape or between different landscapes. Avenues also form an ecological structure and an attractive public space for walking, cycling, relaxing, playing, … The planting of trees, shrubs and undergrowth creates a pleasant micro climate and increases biodiversity. The selective use of hardened and semi-hardened surfaces, and furniture – benches, picnic tables, lighting, … increases public use of the avenues.
These six interventions are positioned in such a way that they articulate and facilitate the evolution of a place in time by establishing new productive relationships between site and spatial context, the surrounding landscape. They create a starting point or stage, from which the landscape strategy can become reality. As a result the Masterplan for the Groen Lint, containing both the landscape strategy and the six design interventions have resulted in two strategic projects, het Geuzenbos en de Tuinen van Stene. 

 

 

The Groen Lint as project: Het Geuzenbos en de Tuinen van Stene

“Landscape is never finished or completed, like a can of preserves; it is an accumulation of events and stories, a continuously unfolding inheritance. I wanted to amplify this aspect of landscape, to begin something that was already there. At the same time, I wanted to avoid pretentious references; I wanted to build a semantic void, allowing walkers to interpret their experiences however they saw fit.” (Descombes, 1999)

The first project as result of the Masterplan, is the plan for Het Geuzenbos. Het Geuzenbos is a newly planted city forest on a former landfill and also covering several clay-pits, formerly used for making bricks, and agricultural land. Situated along the forest lies the Gouweloze Kreek, a creek through which all polders drain towards the see. The creek forms a physical connection between the urban periphery and the train station the city center, making it a potential cycling connection. Moreover the plating of the city forest potentially gives new recreational facilities and ecological improvement to the city. As a result it was decided to redraw the trajectory of the Groen Lint through Het Geuzenbos.

The fist conceptual design proposed the route to enter the city forest via a passage, creating a safe crossing of the busy road and a memorable entrance through the canopy into the forest. Further on the route follows a historical dike after connecting to the excising road, which will become the backbone of the future forest. Platforms are located along the creek and the ponds, making the water accessible. A former storage ground of the municipality, enclosed by trees, is envisioned to transform into a forest garden, with fruit and grape trees and meadows.

Currently the Gouweloze Kreek has little ecological quality; it has the character of a drainage canal. In order to increase its ecological potential a winter bed is dug, on which reeds will grow. This will increase the ecological qualities of the creek while providing more space for water retention. Furthermore a planting strategy is developed, aimed to maximize diversity of plant species by proposing different ecological gradients. The conceptual design has been further developed and construction of the final design is planned to start at the end of 2016.

A second project, in which the conceptual design will be further developed, will start in the beginning of 2016. The project is entitled the Tuinen van Stene, and it deals with the transformation of an area of historic polders, which is currently neglected and situated between a retail strip, the village of Stene, a secondary school and a large-scale agricultural polder. In the initial conceptual design an urban agriculture park was proposed penetrated with canals to make it possible to explore the area by boat. Also a large scale platform along the retail strip was drawn to provide a market space, space of a biomass installation (providing energy for the commercial buildings) and a recycle park.

In the new project the idea of the urban agriculture park will be further developed. The project will explore possibilities to introduce a new food structure within Ostend, connecting the large-scale agricultural polder, the historical polder and a neighborhood in the city center. A spatial food-strategy, developed via intense public participation and co-creation, is to be delivered in the summer of 2016 after which a design and construction of the agri-park can begin.

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

The Masterplan of the Groen Lint and both projects show how a landscape strategy, based on a larger organization and relational structuring can bring new meaning to the urban periphery. An elementary design approach further introduces elements by which this strategy is materialized in a site-specific manner. By articulating both ecological and cultural characteristics of a site into a productive manner, landscape identity can be strengthened and former neglected of peripheral areas can become vital green infrastructure for the city of Ostend.       
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