News & Events

Cosmopolis Lunch Seminar: Sofie Vermeulen (VUB)

17 September 2014 , 12:00-14:00, Dep. of Geography library (6F331), VUB

Informal academic seminars to share research results, working papers, or anything else that is in progress, and to get feedback, opinions and ideas from colleagues. The Cosmopolis Lunch Seminars are open to everyone.

Sofie Vermeulen - The roles of ‘spatial visions’ in urban development projects. The Brussels Canal Zone: a case of post-industrial reconversion

Over the last decades the ambitions and results of post-industrial urban renewal are a key theme in urban studies and spatial planning. It takes place in a global context of accelerating neoliberalisation, privatization and increasing deregulation. In line with a parallel shift towards governance, the ad hoc ‘urban development project’ (UDP) became increasingly popular as a planning and policy device for reshaping run-down and impoverished (parts of) cities, most of them relicts of previous post-war industrial activities. Regardless the actor initiating them, such UDP’s envision changes in the built environment and/or social-cultural space. Consequently, UDP’s become processes in which visions, policy-making, participation and urban design  articulate with one anotherin a setting of different spatial scales, different policy scales and a multi-actor environment. Where most studies focus on participation or the urban design of UDP’s, this study zooms in on the normative visioning processes that take place in such a multi-actor setting. So far, little has been paid to the roles such visions play in urban policy making and spatial planning practice, while they are generally considered as key elements in UDPs.

The literature review shows that visions on how the future should look like are omnipresent in most organisational cultures, political programmes, urban renewal initiatives and resident’s s. The same is true for professional spatial planning practice - a conceptual spatial vision serves as a normative frame and underpins most urban designs and master plans. In business and politics such visions generally materialize as corporate identity strategies, business plans, political programs, policy agreements or manifestos. In spatial planning practice visions often have an outspoken spatial component and therefore take the form of cartographic representations, sketches, design proposals,

master plans, collages, renderings and so on. Especially in urban development projects, planners and designers generally consider ‘spatial visions’ as essential elements of the global project design. In practice however, it often occurs that policy makers, civil society and urban planners/designers propose diverging visions on future reconversion, reflecting their proper interests. This gap tends to jeopardize the realization and the final socio-spatial quality of an urban project. Current research on visions and visioning often focuses on (1) the management of the planning process, (2) the (lack) of participation by various actors such as inhabitants, public authorities, private companies or organisations in civil society, (power relations) or (3) the impact vis-à-vis the initial project goals.

Few studies engage into the question what exactly ‘spatial visions’ are about, which role they play in urban development projects and in which way they contribute to the eventual quality and legitimation of the urban development project. These aspects are emphasized in this study on the specific case of the contemporary renewal of the Brussels’ Canal Zone. The qualitative analysis is based on data obtained through a combination of literature research, policy analysis, thematic cartography and a series of expert interviews. Informed by urban regime theory and discourse analysis, each project is discussed. Not only the ambitions, the development coalitions and eventual realization are detailed, also the content, the form (discourses and designs) and the roles of different spatial visions are scrutinized. The results show that two conditions are required for the successful realization of an urban project and a widely supported appropriation by the end users after realization. The first condition prescribes the collaborative formulation of the problem at stake. The second condition demands for a shared construction of an image for the future development of the problem defined, a project-story which is shared.