Illustration : Luc Schuiten © végétalcity
The lac de Louvain-la-Neuve (“Lake Louvain-la-Neuve”), the Bois de Lauzelle (“Lauzelle Woods”), various green spaces…UCLouvain coordinates and strengthens its long-standing actions for the protection, management, and restoration of fauna and flora. One way, among others, of contributing to achieving the Natura 2000 conservation objectives and to preserving the species and habitats present there. A dynamic that also takes into account “ordinary” nature, just as essential to the well-being of the University community and of the inhabitants of UCLouvain’s campuses.
#United for biodiversity
UCLouvain has joined the #UnitedforBiodiversity Global Coalition, a global movement to put the resolution of the biodiversity crisis on the agenda of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity’s CoP 15 scheduled for 2021. Scientific data demonstrating the urgency of resolving the biodiversity crisis are plentiful: the IPBES, in particular, warns that a million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction.
This is why European Commissioner for the Environment Virginijus Sinkevicius launched the coalition in March 2020 by calling on all the world’s research centres and universities, botanical gardens, science and natural science museums, zoos, aquariums, and nature reserves to join forces to inform the citizens of the world of the crisis facing the natural world and call on everyone to act for biodiversity.
The Global Coalition seeks to broaden global awareness and calls on world leaders to ensure that the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity’s CoP 15 is as ambitious as CoP 21 and the Paris Climate Agreements of 2015.
The Lauzelle woods
A true carbon sink bordering the Louvain-la-Neuve campus, the Bois de Lauzelle belongs to the University and is managed by theService de gestion du patrimoine – Espaces Extérieurs (GPEX), the forestry team of the Earth and Life Institute and the Faculty of Bioscience Engineering. A Natura 2000-certified site, this wooded area fulfils several functions that require a balance between human activity and respect for nature, by:
- serving as a space for teaching and research;
- welcoming the public;
- producing timber
The protection of various biotopes is a priority in this space. Turf-cutting, a technique that involves removing surface soil to promote the appearance of pioneer species and re-naturalisation, is practiced in two specific areas. Here, fauna and flora live in symbiosis. A community of around twenty deer self-regulates without hunting. The surrounding automobile traffic thins several members from the herd each year.
In the Bois de Lauzelle, tree regeneration occurs naturally. Although peri-urban, the wood, which performs the vital functions of water purification and carbon capture, retains its wild character. Trees may be felled only in accordance with a forest-management plan guaranteeing species sustainability. Under-represented species benefit from special protection and strict harvest control guarantees that the number of trees cut is lower than replacement.
Protected in many ways, especially against invasive species such as Prunus serotina, this silvicultural heritage is now partly catalogued in an arboretum focusing on non-native species. Nearly four hundred trees have been planted defensively in order to perpetuate oaks, beeches, hornbeams, and even pines capable of living another four or five centuries. These registered specimens have become untouchable, sheltered from all human activity, left to their own natural destinies.
Haven for rare species
The pampered environment of Bois de Lauzelle welcomes an ever-increasing variety of animal species. Trout reproduce in its waters each year, for example, joined by animals that have become otherwise rare in the area, such as beavers, bluethroats, and great white egrets.
The lake in Louvain-la-Neuve
The lake is Louvain-la-Neuve’s rainwater and storm basin, but it also provides a place for biodiversity. Its five hectares offer nature breathing-space at the edge of the city. It is also a stopping place for certain species of migratory birds.
Closely monitored by the Service de gestion du patrimoine – Espaces Extérieurs (GPEX), the Lac de Louvain-la-Neuve regularly requires full or partial drainage as it accumulates pollution, particularly from storm drains. The most recent drainage took place in 2019 in response to the disappearance of water lilies and cattail reeds, among other things. After the transfer of fish, such as small roaches or rudds, to UCLouvain’s fish farms and the Walloon Département de la Nature et des Forêts, the lake was completely emptied and its waters channelled to the Malaise and the Dyle. The exposed lakebed was then able to begin the remineralisation process. In spring, the vegetation – water plantain, willowherbs, speedwell, cursed buttercup, etc. – gradually returned. In all, more than 150 different plant species have reappeared.
Drainage also provided an opportunity to redesign the concrete edging, rehabilitate the lagoons, and restore the five floating islands before the gates were opened and the wildlife returned. Enough to allow joggers on the Finnish track or passers-by in “the reverie of the solitary walker” to make the most of this urban haven of nature.
Created in 1984, the Lac de Louvain-la-Neuve was drained a third time in 2019. The first time, during which it was completely emptied, took place in 2009. The second, partial, drainage of 2014 ended in failure because silt remineralisation could not be carried out properly. The lessons learned were kept in mind when planning the next attempt five years later.
In Louvain-la-Neuve, 63% of river water follows surface flow routes, compared to only 10% in most urban areas. This situation, unique in Belgium, was part of the university’s original design: to create a city capable of conscientious and integrated water management. Despite the speed at which the campus was built, no compromises were made, and the balance of the water table was respected. Fifty years later, the situation has, if anything, improved. What are the specifics?
Several design choices were made specifically to allow water to infiltrate directly into the soil. Gardens, paving, car parks, and green spaces were designed and distributed to directly supply the water table, which has a volume of nearly 240 times that of the lake. It also serves as a storm basin capable of harvesting runoff thanks to the site’s partial permeability.
To create a city in the middle of the fields, water was pumped through catchments, of which there are now four. Only as much as needed is drawn. By choosing systems that require less water, Louvain-la-Neuve was able over ten years to reduce water consumption from 400,000 to 250,000 m3/year.
Double drainage network
Improve wastewater purification by avoiding dilution. This simple but ingenious idea is put into practice via a double drainage network. One network handles rainwater, which is channelled directly to the lake. The other handles wastewater, which is directed to the treatment plant.
Rigorous quality monitoring
To meet or even exceed legal minimums. In Louvain-la-Neuve, water quality is monitored at every step from the water table to the tap in order to prevent any possible damage to either people or the environment.
And the other campuses?
The other university campuses are supplied by the city water utility, but benefit from rational water management. In Brussels, two older catchments are used for industrial cooling.
Respect for urban nature
No more glyphosate. The process began in 2011; in 2016, UCLouvain and its Service de gestion du patrimoine – Espaces Extérieurs (GPEX) decided to completely eliminate all phytosanitary products in its green-spaces management. This decision preceded a ban by the Walloon Region, which became effective in 2019.
Weeding in the Leuven districts is done with water vapor, a natural method that doesn’t affect biodiversity. Late mowing is also becoming the standard in our green spaces. The 240,000 m2 of total surface area of Louvain-la-Neuve now accounts for 86,000 m2 of mown land. On the 100 hectares of the Centre Alphonse de Marbaix, some two kilometres of hedges have been planted at the initiative of Kap Vert as an ecological method of enclosing the University farm.
Among the University’s other initiatives to promote urban biodiversity are the installation of insect hotels and nesting boxes, the planting of flowering meadows, currant hedges, or small orchards.
A new flight of swallows
Louvain-la-Neuve, a new haven for swallows and black swifts, whose local populations have decreased by 45% over the last 30 years? With the University’s support, a group of staff members have created a concrete and collaborative action plan to make it a reality. After a preliminary census of the specimens on the site, this programme brings together staff, students, locals, and schools. During the winter of 2018, two hundred swallow nests and 36 swift nests were created for the purposes of scientific studies into the protection and ethology of these two species.
Hof Ter Musschen
Adjoining the Brussels-Woluwe campus is the Hof Ter Musschen wet meadows, a Natura 2000 site typical of the Brabant countryside. The nearly ten ha – of which six ha belong to the University – are managed by the Commission de l’Environnement de Bruxelles et Environs (CEBE).
Wet meadows, reed beds, poplar groves, oak groves, ponds, orchards, hedges, sunken paths: so many biotopes favourable to significant biodiversity.