Since 2016, Metrolab, a collective project coordinated by UCLouvain sociologist Mathieu Berger, has analysed our capital from the inside. Funded by European ERDF policy, this ambitious experiment engages UCLouvain and ULB in a unique applied urban research collaboration. Their recent publication, Designing Urban Inclusion, uses four Brussels cases studies to establish findings and recommendations for more accessible and welcoming urban spaces.
It’s both a European project and an urban laboratory. First a project, started in 2016 for a period of five years, then a laboratory which brings together more than 20 researchers in Metrolab’s studio on Quai du Commerce, 1000 Brussels, in front of the new Kanal building. ‘For us, it was important to establish ourselves in the canal area’, explains Mathieu Berger, a UCLouvain sociologist and the project’s coordinator. ‘We wanted to be at the heart of the city and region’s urban issues.’
Co-managed by UCLouvain and ULB, Metrolab is an inter-university project funded by more than €5 million from the European Regional
Development Fund (ERDF-Brussels). Three themes guide it: inclusion, ecology and urban production. ‘Three classic dimensions of sustainable urban development that our research collective captures in an interdisciplinary way’, Prof. Berger says. ‘Architects, urban planners, geographers and sociologists gather in the same premises. The objective is to develop research on these themes via concrete cases, but also to follow and support many of the 46 projects funded by €220 million from the ERDF in Brussels. Our project therefore proposes to follow up these investments, not administratively but with action, through interdisciplinary research.’
What is an inclusive space?
After two years of work on urban inclusion, the book Designing urban inclusion was released last November. Edited by Prof. Berger and Louise Carlier for UCLouvain and Benoît Moritz and Marco Ranzato for ULB, the book tackles the first of the project’s three themes and reveals the results of four case studies carried out after a masterclass that brought together 60 international students and researchers at Metrolab. The case studies concern four ERDF-funded projects in Brussels, approached from the perspective of inclusion.
What is an inclusive space? One answer may seem ingenuous: ‘It's a space that opens up, quite simply’, Prof. Berger says, smiles. He then specifies, ‘Creating urban inclusion means making an enclosed space, containing goods or services for use by a certain public, open up to newcomers, to a wider and more varied public. This work of opening up plays out on several levels: material, legal/regulatory, institutional, symbolic, communicational, etc.’
Profs Berger and Moritz translate this attention to the issue of opening up as ‘gatekeeping’. ‘Research on improving the social character of urban spaces is often limited to the study of public space, and often only open and outdoor public spaces (streets, squares, parks, etc.). But we also need closed spaces and interior spaces for public interaction. An enclosed place is not necessarily non-inclusive. If we take the example of an urban kindergarten, the gatekeeper takes care of welcoming children and verifying that everyone has arrived before closing the gates. These two gestures, opening and closing, are necessary to create the conditions for interacting with small children. For various urban spaces and their purposes (education, culture, leisure, care, food, etc.), our work aims to understand how to enhance city locations in order to add value to the properties they contain and make them more accessible to the public.’
Proposing ‘inclusive enclaves’
‘Of the 46 projects funded by the ERDF, the selected four were first because they highlight inclusion in the capital, an issue made even more pressing by the current dynamics of migration’, Prof. Berger says. The Anderlecht slaughterhouses, the Forest Abbey, a Cureghem health centre project and the Boitsfort racecourse make up this list. ‘We cite the fact that all these sites are, in terms of urban planning, enclaves. How can barriers be eliminated while maintaining qualities of interiority and making the sites "inclusive enclaves?" With the urbanist Benoît Moritz, we concluded that we must not seek to open up Brussels compulsively, to get rid of its enclaves, but rather to make its enclaves more accessible and welcoming for all. Hence the inclusive enclave concept, a bit paradoxical of course, but it seems to us to suggest the type of places in which the future of social cohesion in a city like Brussels plays out.’
Thus, from the case studies, Metrolab researchers try to conceptualise and generalise. ‘Our thinking goes beyond the simple framework of Brussels in order to shed light on more general urban issues. And we’re not alone. Similar initiatives, in Europe and North America, are trying to reconstruct urban studies based on interdisciplinary research and action.’
On 28 January 2019, a new 15-day MasterClass began. Professors, researchers and international students are gathering around the theme of ‘urban ecology’ adapted to the concept of ecosystems. Following an October 2018 conference that explored ways of thinking about urban ecosystems, the 30 MasterClass participants, all of whom have intercultural profiles, are now working on designing urban ecosystems based on real situations in the city of Brussels.
This Brussels institution is, through its market, ‘one of the most vibrant spaces in the city in terms of public interaction. Paradoxically, this important public place is actually a private place. Through the site transformation project, the challenge is to see how it will attract new consumer audiences while remaining accessible and hospitable to its most popular audience.’ One of the proposals raised in Designing Urban Inclusion is to consider how this space could offer information and support to the vulnerable migrants to whom it serves as a real gateway to Brussels.’ Students and researchers working on this case propose ‘reorganising the site by taking advantage of the verticalisation of slaughterhouse activities in order allocate part of the freed-up space for the social functions of reception and orientation.’
‘This place, enclosed by definition, received ERDF funding to become a cultural centre’, Prof. Berger explains. ‘The challenge here was to transform a site by changing its vocation as well: an old religious space is transformed into a cultural, educational and artistic space; but also, once again, in order to open it up to different audiences. Once transformed and revalorised, it’s important for it to be usable by different types of actors. Masterclass participant proposals emphasised the flexibility of the created space and opening up the cultural programme to popular actors and young people, for example. The challenge, which the project leader (the Forest Municipality) fully grasps, is to prevent the cultural site from making the abbey enclosure a site that excludes.’
Two Cureghem health centres
The NGO Médecins du Monde received ERDF funding to open two health centres, one in Anderlecht and the other in Molenbeek. Prof. Berger explains, ‘They’ll be aimed at vulnerable and debilitated persons, whether they are homeless or migrants. Architectural design is crucial to effective cohabitation. Following the masterclass, our researchers who are specialised in these issues were asked to draft specifications for the architectural plans. Discussing dignified reception areas for very vulnerable people led Metrolab to get in touch with actors at the forefront of welcoming migrants in Brussels, such as the Citizen Refugee Support Platform, which is interested in working with us on the spatial conditions for managing refugees in reception and accommodation areas.’
This former racecourse at the edge of forest itself contains a green space of metropolitan scale. The ERDF-funded project aims to create a recreational, sports and leisure space. As for the other projects, the redeveloped site’s inclusion capacity and accessibility raise questions. Unlike the other selected cases, the Boitsfort racecourse is on the Brussels Region’s periphery. Masterclass students and researcher proposals thus emphasised mobility and governance aspects.
A glance at Mathieu Berger's bio
Sociology professor Mathieu Berger develops his research on issues such as citizen participation in city policies, urban coexistence, social aspects of architecture and land use planning. After his PhD thesis (ULB, 2009), his interest in city policy led him to become a Brussels Region neighbourhood contract policy adviser (2009-11). A UCLouvain professor and researcher since 2011, he has been investigating the spaces and institutions of urban democracy in major American cities such as New York and Los Angeles for the last ten years. He was a visiting scholar at the New School for Social Research (NYC) in 2012 and 2013, and at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2018. Co-founder of Metrolab with his colleagues Bernard Declève (UCLouvain) and Benoît Moritz (ULB), he has been its general coordinator since 2015. He is the author of many articles, one of which received in 2012 the Jean Widmer International Prize, as well as the author or co-author of books such as Bruxelles à l’épreuve de la participation (2009), Du civil au politique. Ethnographies du vivre-ensemble (2011), Designing urban inclusion (2018) and Le temps d’une politique. Chronique des contrats de quartier bruxellois (2019).