Expert article
Project
A Place to Be-Come Seraing, Belgium
Edit 09 June 2022
by Francesca Ansaloni, UIA Expert

Under what conditions can we assure a real access to green areas in Seraing?

Seraing - A Place to Be-Come project
Promoting access to parks in Seraing © Arebs
The city of Seraing has a bold plan to redevelop its post-industrial territory after decades of decline. In particular, some urban projects, such as a renovated access to the city centre, new buildings and public spaces, and the development of a new mixed neighbourhood on the site of the former HF6 blast furnace, aim to bring new activities and inhabitants into the less advantaged area of the city centre.
In this context, the APTBC project has the ambition to make this development process benefit everyone and especially the most vulnerable and precarious people who live within the central area. To achieve this and the broader goal of enhancing the inhabitants’ well-being, a special effort has been put into the restoration of three parks, by locally transferring knowledge on how to sustainably manage them, improving their accessibility, enhancing biodiversity and making them more attractive to residents and users. In this article, we explore some risks that can be related to urban greening interventions and possible mitigating measures.

While most of academic and political discourses on urban greening interventions emphasise their positive impacts, especially on environment, human health and inhabitants’ well-being, new concerns are emerging in environmental justice scholarship about who eventually benefits from green development. This recent literature, through the analysis of some case studies, has highlighted some risks associated with green areas planning and regeneration, which are considered, in some instances, as generating exclusion and invisibilisation of those marginalised groups who are claimed as the target of greening improvements. Could it be the case in Seraing?

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According to literature on environmental gentrification[1], two are the main risks that may stem from greening urban transformations and that may be overlooked if not taken into consideration in advance. First, even when accessibility to green areas is enhanced for different social groups, including the most disadvantaged ones, the actual use of the green infrastructure might be limited, thus minimising the potential impact on health. This might be related to lack of health habits, feelings of unbelonging or lack of sense of community that these groups might experience.

The other risk that may come with greening interventions is related to the neighbourhood where they take place and the possible undesirable impacts on its transformation in the mid-long term. What some researches seem to suggest is that the implementation of green amenities in some disadvantaged neighbourhoods can contribute to the increase of the neighbourhood’s desirability that may eventually lead to an increase in property values involving undesired gentrification processes. According to such scholarship, the conditions that might contribute to fuel so-called green gentrification are multiple, to cite a few:

  • Revitalisation / redevelopment projects in progress in the neighbourhood;
  • Attractiveness of the housing stock (such as in historical neighbourhoods);
  • Presence of cultural amenities in the area;
  • Good accessibility;
  • Good connection with central sites…

 


[1] For example: Anguelovski I. et al. (2018), New scholarly pathways on green gentrification: what does the "urban green turn" mean and where is it going? Progress in Human Geography 43 (6): 1064-1086; Anguelovski I., Connolly J.and Brand A. L. (2018), From landscapes of utopia to the margins of the green urban life. For whom is the new green city? City 22 (3): 417-436

Why should we care about environmental gentrification in relation to the APTBC project?

There are at least two reasons. First, APTBC seeks to fight urban poverty and exclusion through an integrative approach that includes the regeneration and revitalisation of green areas in the central neighbourhoods of Seraing. Target groups are residents living precarious and marginalised lives who could gain a lot from a greener and healthier environment, but their use of parks is not obvious. Actually, the results of the research that the two partners Psykolab (now Nunaat) and PsyNCog have conducted in Seraing illustrate how the most vulnerable residents - those more recently arrived or in transit - show little if not any attachment to their neighbourhood, while long-term residents view it as filthy and dilapidated but are more willing to engage for it. In other words, the most disadvantaged residents in central Seraing face so many hardships that survival is their main priority, while self-care or even care for the environment are secondary.[1]

Second, the project intervenes in the context of a master plan that aims to bring coherence to a series of redevelopment projects of brownfields and abandoned areas that characterise the Seresian valley, as a result of the glory and decline of its steel sector. One of these projects has completely remade the image of rue Cockerill, the main street in the central target neighbourhood, by transforming two sites into an administrative centre with a new public space (place Kuborn) and a mixed-use building, and planning to redevelop a brownfield into the future shopping mall Gastronomia “dedicated to food, organic and gourmet”. In addition, an important redevelopment project will be launched on a former blast furnace site, the HF6, next to the central district and in close proximity with the new day centre of APTBC . These projects have the declared goal of attracting new residents and new investors in the area.[2]

Project area - aerial view
Parks (green) and redevelopment areas (red) within the target districts - © The author on a background map by Lema
 

The main goal of the HF6 redevelopment project is to establish new connections between neighbourhoods that have been separated for decades by a 30 hectares steel plant, while implementing a mixed-use neighbourhood that offers housing, economic activities, public spaces and services.[1] As it is claimed in APTBC application form, the HF6 project has the potential to become an opportunity for the most disadvantaged citizens to benefit from the redevelopment of a large area next to the city centre; nonetheless, it is acknowledged that “the main challenge in relation to the HF6 redevelopment is to create an open and inclusive district extension, and not a gentrified ghetto.”[2] When the APTBC was submitted, the HF6 development was expected to begin over the project lifetime and was therefore integrated in the overall strategy as an opportunity to reduce poverty. As a matter of fact, the reconversion of the site has been delayed and its master plan is still so indeterminate that ultimately it could not be held as a reference for APTBC.

In light of this evolving context, it can make sense if not to worry about the future, at least to think about all the possible impacts of the APTBC project in the mid-long term, so that any risk can be taken into account well in advance.

With this objective in mind, I asked APTBC partners to answer a few questions on this subject and reflect on the conditions for the marginalised residents of the target neighbourhoods to access parks and green areas that are being regenerated through the project. Here’s their answers.

1) Since parks in Seraing have been improved, who do you think the users have been, according to your direct experience? Do you think that the target population is being reached?[3] If not, what can be done to achieve this goal now? What recommendations could be provided to local actors if we want this to remain a priority?

The three main green areas in the city centre have different users today as they had before. They are all close residents, but they differ from one park to another, for reasons that range from location to residents’ habits. Most of them are dog walkers, families or parents with children, young people. The overall feedback to the work that has been done to regenerate the parks is very positive, but to evaluate qualitative change is difficult because it has not been so radical. A quantitative assessment is ongoing to get objective data. The park des Marêts seems to have gained more visitors compared to the other green areas and, in particular, it is perceived as the place where the continuous presence of APTBC workers and events organised by partners has made the activity of drug dealing less visible than before. In fact, drug dealing and its territoriality is considered as negatively influencing its use and appeal for people experiencing vulnerable conditions of life and for residents more broadly.

It is difficult to say if the most disadvantaged residents have been reached, but partners feel that they have probably not. To meet this goal, they should have been targeted specifically through the most appropriate strategies, some say. Conversely, “the improvement of the parks is a response to their need (of the neighbourhood’s residents) to have a more qualitative environment, places to go for a walk, which was not the case before.”

According to partners, there is still something that can be done to generate more interest in the parks for those people who would most benefit from their use:

  • Addressing the target with dedicated activities and an information point. This recommendation could easily be further developed within the project for the creative station in the park des Marêts;
  • Implementing regular activities in the parks by engaging local associations, especially those that work to support vulnerable people;
  • Informing about the advantages of green sustainable management and making it an institutional practice in the long term.

 

2) If green gentrification can be a risk with the future development of the HF6 brownfield, which conditions are likely to occur in the case of Seraing’s central neighbourhoods that might facilitate this process?

Partners recognise the existence of possible risks associated with the future development of the HF6 brownfield and, more globally, with the ongoing process of urban regeneration of the city centre. In particular, Seraing’s urban policies of development - aimed at fostering economic dynamism - are seen as critical by current residents. As a partner recalled, during a workshop about Seraing’s urban development, some citizens declared that they felt excluded by ongoing urban projects, in that they contributed to improve the image of the city, “without fostering any economic development for current residents, without including them.”

The main risks linked to these policies are an increase in housing prices and the creation of new green areas in the HF6 neighbourhood for new residents, which would not encourage the integration with nearby neighbourhoods. Nonetheless, most of the partners consider green gentrification as a limited threat, on the basis that improvements in the parks are not sufficient to justify an increased appeal of central neighbourhoods. To put it in another way, despite the augmented attractiveness of the three parks, the centre of Seraing remains mostly an artificial landscape of concrete. In addition, the characteristics of the population that is associated with these neighbourhoods (drug addicts and dealers, homeless, vulnerable people…), the socio-economic level of the inhabitants, the filth, the lack of entertainment and activities, the presence of abandoned brownfields, can curb outsiders’ willingness to invest in the area.

On the one side, partners see the need to address the target population in the short-medium term through tailored interventions that bring them to the parks; on the other side, in the medium-long term it would be appropriate to conceive public policies that mitigate the risks of gentrification. For example, by trying to link urban and economic development with social progress, preserving green areas accessible to everyone and providing a minimum quota of social housing in the area.


[1] Source: Eriges

[2] A Place To Be-Come application form

[3] Data were collected during Spring 2022 and will be analysed to provide a quantitative picture of parks’ use and appreciation

Green gentrification is an already known and analysed phenomenon in cities around the world. Scholars in this field have identified some risks linked to the possibility that developing or renovating green areas could contribute to the marginalisation or exclusion of vulnerable groups.

In Seraing, according to APTBC partners, green gentrification is not a major threat to vulnerable and marginalised inhabitants’ opportunities for inclusion and accessibility to a wealthy environment. On the other hand, they have identified some risks that might hamper inclusion of those groups in the short and medium term, thus reducing their chances to benefit from the presence of green areas in the neighbourhood where they live. In fact, encouraging people suffering from social hardships to use parks is the main challenge that the APTBC team has still to face in the coming months: addressing directly this specific target; conceiving activities tailored on their needs; not only raising awareness on the benefits for well-being, but showing these advantages in practice.

In this respect, a set of four recommendations coming from scholars in the field of environmental justice[1] can be reported here as a reminder of good practices that can be implemented in the mid-term and as an integration to the planned activities of the project:

  1. Establish or preserve affordable housing units near renovated parks;
  2. Management services’ employees and staff should reflect the diversity of local communities in social and ethnic characteristics;
  3. Outreach activities meant to revitalise renovated parks or green areas should engage people with different ages, incomes, origins and social backgrounds, while putting a particular effort in facilitating the meaningful participation of marginalised residents;
  4. Longtime residents should be engaged in green areas’ recreation programmes as well as newcomers.

[1] Rigolon et al. (2020), More than “Just Green Enough”: helping park professionals achieve equitable greening and limit environmental gentrification. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration 38 (3): 29-54.

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