Seraing resumes its long journey of commoning where it all began
The ground floor of La Maison du Peuple, today
La Maison du Peuple was built in 1916 in Seraing as a gathering place for the working class. “Before, social-democrat activists gathered in the old theatre of Seraing, which was rented. In order to have their own place, they joined together: they bought bricks for 5F each, when most of them earned just 30F per week!”
Today, this historic building is being transformed, after being neglected for a while, into a new and contemporary community centre for the neighbourhood and Seraing citizens.
For the APTBC project, the improvement of the quality of life in the central neighbourhoods of the city of Seraing hinges on three pillars: 1) the transformation of existing parks and small wastelands into greener and more convivial spaces, where both biodiversity and social cohesion can possibly find opportunities to expand; 2) a sound knowledge about local resources and needs built through surveys, mapping and psychosocial interventions; 3) the promotion of a collective process aimed at mobilising and engaging Seraing’s civil society and extending the possibilities of collaboration between the public administration, other local institutions, civic organisations and citizens.
In this article, we will explore the launching of the process that, through the renovation of the ground floor of a 20th century building and the co-design of a community centre inside, aspires to boost a collective dynamics, encourage citizens participation and offer new opportunities for gathering, socialising and revitalising neighbourhood's social life.
The project of a community centre for the city of Seraing to arise in its most deprived neighbourhoods fits within the framework of the larger debate on commons and commoning practices as alternative models of building collective spaces in contemporary cities, sharing decision-making and co-managing resources. Discourses on active citizenship and the commons have seen practical implementation in the last decade through policy developments, the introduction of new governance tools and the establishment of new forms of relationship between civil society and the state.
In Seraing, the fostering of civic participation and co-production of the common good are ambitions that take two forms: on the one side, the provision of spaces that may become a symbol of a new civic movement and where sharing and collaboration can materially happen; on the other side, the organisation and management of a multiphase process that may transform an empty site into a space of democratic and inclusive experimentation of citizenship. In practice, to make this happen, the APTBC project is expected to realise one temporary community centre (La Ruche à projets), working as a venue for project partners to meet, share and collaborate to launch common initiatives with citizens, and two permanent community centres where the collaborative process could find the opportunity to experiment, adapt and expand.
 Some very known examples can be drawn from Italy, where experiences such as the Ex-Asilo Filangeri In Naples, the Bologna Regulation and the recent UIA funded Co-City project in Turin have paved the way for experimenting new institutional arrangements and peculiar forms of governance.
One of these permanent community centres will see the light within the walls of La Maison du Peuple, a building that had hosted a political, social and cultural venue since its construction in 1916, it was turned into a café and later a bistro between the 1960s and 1980s, until it was left unoccupied in 2011. It was acquired then by Eriges, the autonomous local authority in charge of the urban development of the city of Seraing. In the summer of 2020 the City of Seraing and Eriges signed a long lease restricted to the ground floor, which will host the community centre.
The opportunity to establish the future community centre in a building that was born to celebrate the autonomy and independence of the working-class movement in the past century has a highly symbolic flavour. Les Maisons du Peuple (Houses of the People) arose in Belgium at the end of the 19th century as places for workers’ cooperative societies to gather their members, organise and make their space in the city. At the beginning in major cities and later in most of small municipalities, they grew as central spaces for the socialisation of the Socialist Party: they always contained a café, sometimes even a shop and a bakery, some meeting rooms and a library, and invariably a multifunctional room for celebrations, parties and cultural activities. But most of all, les Maisons du Peuple were “places of independence and maturity (…), autonomous creations, territories of self-management, bastions of solidarity and dignity…”, ultimately places of empowerment and emancipation.
 A. Brauman, B. Buyssens, « Voyage au pays des maisons du peuple », in Architecture pour le peuple. Maisons du peuple. Belgique, Allemagne, Autriche, France, Grande-Bretagne, Italie, Pays-Bas, Suisse, Bruxelles, Archives d’architecture moderne, 1984, p. 3
The renovation process started with the assessment of the needs and the launch of the tender process to select the designer. After the designer was identified, in December 2020, the project partner Lema kicked off in January 2021 a consultation with local civic organisations on the one side to explore the possibilities and limits of their engagement, and on the other side to collect the needs for the future community centre. In the end, 13 organisations answered the call, of which 4 with a strong interest in being involved in the governance of La Maison du Peuple. A collaborative process was planned to build a shared vision for the project and 4 co-design workshops were held with the most engaged stakeholders during the months of March, April and May 2021.
First, all the involved actors established a common ground, recognising the need for accessible social and cultural spaces in Seraing’s central neighbourhoods, and agreed that the main goals of the initiative would be the following:
Fight against exclusion through the enhancement of social cohesion;
Promotion of synergies amongst a great variety of actors;
Implementation of varied, innovative and accessible activities for all citizens;
Development of socio-economic initiatives led by citizens;
Central neighbourhoods’ revitalisation;
Experimentation of forms of innovative and shared governance.
These objectives are in line with the Transversal Strategic Plan (PST) of Seraing, which is the road map for the development of the city and outlines the actions needed to implement the desired programme, including the creation of a civic space for local organisations, neighbourhoods’ revitalisation and the promotion of social cohesion through citizen participation.
Second, they established an initial draft of possible activities that might be implemented in the new community centre, such as cultural and sports activities, social activities (language courses, trainings for youngsters and adults, after school programmes…), creative practices (sewing, dancing, circus, furniture making and restoration, repair cafè…), events (festivals, exhibitions, conferences…), digital services and trainings. This list will be completed and fine-tuned through a survey that each stakeholder has committed to disseminate among its members and recipients and whose results will be analysed collectively from September.
Three main challenges have been identified during the workshops and have emerged from my interviews with the representatives of two civic organisations.
Accessibility. As both Sarah Steffens from Form’Anim and Christel Smets from the Cultural Centre of Seraing acknowledge, the residents of the area do not spontaneously enter civic and cultural spaces unless they are already familiar with this or that institution or organisation. “Most of the people do not know that they can just get in”, Mrs Smets explains. Before the pandemic, the Cultural Centre had free access to a café and to temporary exhibitions, but some invisible barriers stopped many residents from negotiating the crossing. For both Steffens and Smets, the future Maison du Peuple will need to become a space where people can meet informally and where they can share common interests. “We will have to avoid the risk that a limited group of inhabitants takes over the place so that others might feel rejected or unwelcomed”, Smets sustains. This objective will be achieved, according to Steffens, by finding the most suitable communication strategy with respect to the neighbourhood and local residents’ specificities.
Governance. What is deemed to be more important and of more concern and will need the most careful attention is the model of governance, which is expected to be as horizontal as possible and to guarantee that every partner has a say in the decision making process and the same share of responsibility. The results of the workshop point out a strong will to build synergies among local organisations and with the municipality, and to involve residents step by step in the management of the centre. Smets also stresses the importance for civic organisations and institutions to be autonomous and independent as a collective and to count on the municipality as a partner of the project on an even footing. Moreover, Steffens considers a participatory management as an opportunity for their organisations to think in more collective terms and to identify common values for the good of the neighbourhood.
Funding. Every civic organisation and institution involved in the project of the Maison du Peuple depends on public funding to carry on its activities and implement its programme. For this reason, they wish through this project to find new ways to collaborate instead of competing for shrinking resources. With the aim to reach financial autonomy, the team is planning to organise itself as an ASBL, a not-for-profit organism that would ensure the desired horizontality for its members. The agency would be run by a management team composed by those entities that have the will to engage in the organisation and management of the civic centre, with the logistic and financial support of the Sports and Culture Department of the city of Seraing and on the basis of a shared agreement.
In the central neighbourhoods of Seraing, where residents suffer from social and economic precariousness and participation in the common thing is rather underdeveloped, the initiative that has been prompted through the project funded by the EU’s Urban Innovative Actions programme can be regarded as the first step of a multiphase process of experimentation, which includes 1) a mapping of potential stakeholders, 2) the creation of synergies among ongoing projects, initiatives and actors and 3) the definition of a governance framework for the community centre which could be further tested, developed and expanded to become a sort of urban lab.
A mapping of civic organisations active in the two neighbourhoods has been conducted and its outcomes serve two purposes: on the one side, mapping is the foundation on which an overarching survey on local organisations has resulted in the mobilisation around the APTBC project; on the other side, it is an invaluable source of knowledge, for institutional and civic actors and residents alike, about the richness and diversity of local associations and services provided. This knowledge will also be shared through a digital platform, Seraing en poche, which aims to communicate about the project, centralise and localise on a map relevant information about the city of Seraing (initiatives, events, services…) and facilitate citizens’ participation.
The co-design workshops have kick-started the collaborative process and encouraged some actors to engage and share a vision for a community centre. The next step, the urban lab, is the most challenging one because it concerns not only the future of the space itself, its sustainability in the years to come, the evolution of the relationship between the local administration, civic organisations and the residents, but it also questions the possibilities for the city to grow in its participatory and inclusionary dimension and the capacities of both public institutions and civil society to confront with their values, their visions and expectations.