Environmental Aesthetics

20.03.2018 | Nadia Casabella

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A visit to the CIVA exhibition Operational aesthetics (02.02-15.04.18) invites new ideas about nature in the city. What role could urban renewal, and the Neighborhood Contracts more concretely, play therein?

The Brussels’ neighborhood contracts are programs for the “revitalization” of disadvantaged neighborhoods, undertaken by the Region in conjunction with the municipalities. They are one of the few planning instruments everyone is proud of, and probably with a reason. Each new contract starts with a 15 million euros budget, to be invested in a specific neighborhood over a four-year period. Their goal is to create affordable housing and facilities, improve public spaces, and invest on job creation (indirectly through training, or directly by supporting the creation of new business and retailing). Between 1994 and 2015, 78 neighborhood contracts were launched in the Brussels-Capital Region. Intended to benefit all, in reality they sometimes fail to meet the expectations of the inhabitants as only a modest number of housing units get finally realized and the improvements in public space are rather seen as a strategy of municipal authorities to attract higher incomes to their territory, unintendedly contributing to gentrification. As an instrument though, they have largely demonstrated their potency to bring about transformation in a short period of time, a definite quality within the complicated institutional context of Brussels. 

The exhibition at CIVA, curated by Mathieu Berger and the CIVA itself, can be seen as a confirmation of the effectiveness of such urban renewal tool. The architectural quality can be seen and felt, thanks to the magnificent display of models representing some of the mostly successful projects. In the same central space, around these models, fourteen ‘significant situations’ traversing the history of neighborhood contracts hang from the walls. This central space flows here and there into four distinct rooms showing the long history of cities, a rather iconic part developed by Philippe Potié. The ‘situations’ and the historical rooms are thematically disconnected. As a matter of fact, only a real-life visit to the exhibition can result in an inspiring intersection between the two. Here I just wish to recall one of those crossbreeds prone to happen in a visit to the exhibition, and that has to do with the way we have of conceptualizing the ‘urban’ today in relation or opposition to ‘nature’.

Coming back to the ‘situations’, one of them discusses the introduction in 2010 of the Sustainable Neighboorhood Contracts by the ecologist Evelyne Huytebroeck, Brussels’ Minister for the Environment, the Energy and the Urban Renewal at that time (2009-2014). The new Contracts placed the preservation and improvement of the environment at the center of the urban renewal actions and citizen participation became strengthened [1]. While the curators interpret these new Contracts as a whimsical truce by the Minister to claim ownership of the tool, one panel after, KARBON’, an office who could access the neighborhood contracts thanks to the introduction of the new procedure (e.g. Masui in Brussels or Abbey in Forest), questions this position openly. In fact, what they explain, is that the ‘sustainibility’ in the new neighborhood contracts helped to value their sensitivity towards the issues raised by Huytebroeck, and allowed the introduction of new methods to generate knowledge and tools to intervene upon the existing city, “seeking to enhance and see the natural environment, in particular hydrography, as a necessary component of an urban project”. In the concrete case of the contracts drafted by KARBON’, the old Senne riverbed was transformed into a linear park in Masui, and the flooding problems that cyclically affect the lower part of Forest were addressed by incorporating rainwater into the design of public space.

That this still happens inside a (post)industrial understanding of our cities, fully embedded into an ethnocentric perspective, matters little. Within this perspective, it is relatively easy to criticize these projects as green gentrification: What is the sense of greening the city when we are loosing our jobs? What is the value of less flooding when I cannot pay my rent? As Hillary Angelo [2] wrote recently,  the political economy of greening the city has a perverse effect: the jobless (post)industrial population accepts this jobless situation because of clean air.

However, the time is ripe to re-conceptualize the urban beyond the ethnocentric, (post)industrial logic that still dominates the renewal of the existing city. The ‘Time’ of the city has not always been the one of ‘Men’, the profane time of human activities, like the part by Potié shows so evocatively. Perhaps the moment has come to act differently, and to look at green other than a compensatory solution for a low living quality or the daylight of a river as a real estate trick to increase land values. Cities give raise to a series of dependencies and strong interconnections we need collective arrangements for. This collective needs to be more-than-human and include the river and the air other than what they do to us, and rather as full-fledged urban actors.

Hence the plea here for a Sustainable Neighborhood Contract v.2 where natural, human and human-influenced environments, all together, weave new alliances in which, for instance, the Senne’s right to be there, in our public space, will not be discussed in terms of what it does to us but instead of what it does to the growing fish populations that start inhabiting its waters, or of the chances of dangerous intercourse between the river and the centuries long sink of soil pollution that sits on top of its culvert.

Ready for the challenge?

[1] http://archive.wikiwix.com/cache/?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.quartiers.irisnet.be%2Ffr%2Fmode-d-emploi%2Fhistorique-et-evolution

[2] Hillary Angelo, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California – Santa Cruz, http://www.hillaryangelo.com/ 

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