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When the topic of urban renewal is brought up, some people immediately think of gentrification and about bringing the creative class, affluent citizens, and new businesses into a specific urban area. A well-known dark side of gentrification is the displacement of other socio-economic groups currently inhabiting neighbourhoods going through this process. This raises the question, can urban renewal processes be improved to represent the views and needs of everyone? The project SYNCITY tackles the challenge in a direct way, as they help policy makers gather a wide range of opinions and put forward solutions that work for everyone. In this interview, Marco Ranzato, one of the researchers involved, tells us all about their findings…
A picture of Cureghem
It’s important to clarify that although this project involves an international partner in Austria, it’s focused on just one neighbourhood called Cureghem in Anderlecht, located in central Brussels. Unusually, for an area located so centrally in a major European capital, it’s a place with vibrant industrial activity and work opportunities for low skilled workers. A lot of the economic activity in this area centres around an abattoir and market building. The market is so successful that it actually provides its service to the wider region and not just Cureghem. But despite being a thriving economic area, Anderlecht is now under immense pressure to change.
Anderlecht’s location right at the heart of a European capital makes it an area of immense real estate value in a city where demand for property is already very high. Also, there’s a downside to the existing economic activity: it produces pollution and waste, which no one wants in the middle of the city. This makes Cureghem a very stark example of where an obvious pressure for change presents potential anxiety for the people who already live there. This is why SYNCITY chose it: it’s a perfect testing chamber for creating more inclusive urban renewal structures.
Embracing experimentation in the neighbourhood
Unlike many projects, SYNCITY wasn’t committed to a single methodology: the whole point of the project was to test out what kind of engagement models work. Researchers took an experimental approach and tried lots of things: interviews, observations, mapping out changes visually, and even bringing in architecture students to create designs for the area. If the project was flexible when it came to methodology, it was uncompromising when it came to eliminating barriers between its researchers and the local residents. So, they decided not to have an office of their own and work within the existing spaces in the neighbourhood.
“One element of the project that seems to have really worked is their living labs. These were spaces within Cureghem which were extremely visible and easily accessible.”
Marco thinks that being out there in the open meant it was much easier for them to understand what people wanted. The first lab was located in the market mentioned earlier, another was a street with a lot of Syrian restaurants, and the last was a popular square. By doing their work out in the open it was much easier to see what people wanted. In the case of the street with the Syrian restaurants, people wanted better garbage disposal, and in the popular square, people wanted better playground facilities for children whilst others wanted pleasant spaces to sit about and drink a coffee.
You have to work with what you have
Reflecting on another thing that made the project a success, Marco talks about the need to have support from the local municipality and local actors. Without them you don’t get the big picture plans in the area, you don’t understand the political interests of councillors, and you spend longer working out what’s happened in the past to create the modern context. Marco believes that being a part of a consortium with Austrian partners was very helpful. He clarifies what he means by saying, “when we tell people our Austrian partners were coming to Cureghem to help us with engagement techniques, we get more credibility.”
This project has also shown how researchers have to exploit networked effects in organisations operating in an area. Marco explains that when they spoke to the right actors and organisations, they quickly developed a picture of what the many other actors in the area were doing and thinking. Once a research project builds trust with one network, they are much more likely to access others that operate in the same area. There is reciprocal support between these different networks, so smart research can access a lot of information if the right networks are targeted. One example from this project was Inter-Environment Bruxelles, an association very embedded in the neighbourhood. By building relationships with this one organisation, the project was able to get an overview of what was happening in Cureghem on multiple levels.
It’s always political
One final thing to note from this project is this kind of research is always political. Marco says “this is not something you have to be afraid of, it’s something you have to be aware of.” So, good research has to understand the local political context and how policy recommendations would go down. However, that doesn’t mean researchers should favour civil society actors over policy makers or the other way around. Instead, Marco adds that researchers should “have to talk in both worlds.”