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November 13, 2015

Disused Docks Create Opportunity in BXL

Disused Docks Create Opportunity in BXL

A massive brownfield development in the Brussels Canal District looks to be a transparent gambit to gentrify an area long troubled by industrial decline, unemployment and racial segregation.

Critics say the development offers little of what residents of the adjacent  Sint-Jans-Molenbeek district need. Instead, it's designed to displace them with a demographic linked to upscale townhouses, shops and restaurants.

But that won't be for a few years. In the meantime, the edge of the Tour and Taxis site along the Brussels-Charleroi Canal serves as a temporary haven for area youth: a warehouse has been equipped with ramps and quarterpipes for skateboarders, and another building has powertools and benches for wood and metal working and bike repair. Outside, raised flowerbeds sprout vegetable crops cultivated by neighbourhood gardeners. And all around the site, the exterior walls of buildings are covered with elaborate spraypainted murals by local artists.

Called Allee du Kaai, the site is managed by the community group Toestand, whose mission is to "reactivate empty buildings and forgotten spaces into temporary socio-cultural centers" around Brussels.

The site's landlord, the Regional Government of Brussels, supports the project by leasing the land for free and providing a grant that supports 2.5 of Toestand's staff members. In return, Toestand animates the site with contructive activity that presumably reduces the developer's liabilities.

During a the recent SEiSMiC Forum on New Public Space, participants were given a tour of the site hosted by Toestand project manager Pepijn Kennis. (It was part of a more expansive "walkshop" covering the entire Tour and Taxis development and parts of Molenbeek. The walkshop report can be downloaded here.)

Kennis explained that in about four years, the strip will become a park, one that's designed to serve the hoped-for wealthy future occupants. The developer, the Extensa Group, hopes it will blend well with an already gentrified strip on the opposite bank of the canal.

In the meantime, the Allee du Kaai site caters to the very different needs of the existing residents of the surrounding neighbourhood. The youth who frequent the site comprise immigrants and second-generation immigrants mainly from Africa and Eastern Europe. As many of them are unemployed, the site gives them an assortment of contructive things to do. One of those things is to create the site itself. Practically everything here, from the skateboard ramps to the furniture in the site's recreation/lounge area, was built or reconditioned by the centre's own clients from donated materials. 

One of Toestand's principles is the recycling of used material. So, for instance, an outdoor skating bowl is being built from donated bricks and concrete. In a big recreation room, counters and furniture are also donated and, in many cases, "upcycled" in the onsite wood shop. The co-creation between Toestand's volunteers and the project's "clients" allows the project to develop much more than if it relied on cash support alone. 

Seeing what's been created by the project in such a short time, it seems a shame that it will all soon be destroyed. According to Toestand's contract, some of the site's buildings will be demolished in 2016 and in four year's time the entire property will be wiped clean.

Kennis said Toestand has indeed lobbied the landlord to retain some of the site's features in the new park. But he doubts the suggestion will be taken on board. The park is planned to cater to the area's future tenants, not the existing ones, Kennis said, and this was known from the beginning.

But Kennis points out Allee du Kaai has already made a valuable contribution to the neighbourhood and will continue doing so for another four years. And hopefully, the project will have given participants skills, knowledge and social contacts that will pay dividends in the years beyond.

Asked what Toestand will do afterwards, Kennis replied that there are no worries. Brussels has a wealth of disused buildings and vacant lots to keep the group busy well into the future.