Balanced Planning for a Healthy City

Interview with Bob Cools, Mayor of Antwerp

Bob CoolsI base my vision of cities on a theory, and this theory proposes that a city is like a human being. The health of a human being is based on balances, and that is true of the city as well. If those balances are distorted then the city will not be healthy. Most of us saw that happening in the United States.

First of all there is the balance between the people who are living in the city, and the people who are working in the city. During the Sixties, in most European cities, we saw fewer and fewer inhabitants and more people coming into the center of the city to work. This is the first equilibrium that was distorted and that we tried to restore.

People should be able to live and to have decent accommodation even in the most important places in the city. We based our renewal policy on trying to restore, in the first place, the equilibrium between the inhabitants and the people working in the city. The new housing (Antwerp New Housing.JPG) we are going to visit is an example of this policy because we tried to bring inhabitants right into the heart of the city again. In the Sixties no one lived in the center any more. There were car parks, and my predecessors only had ambitions to build hotels. We did the contrary.

New Housing

The second equilibrium concerns the age structure of the population, If we look at the age structure of people living in cities, we can see that there is an increase in elderly people, and there are fewer families with children.

In trying to give new opportunities to inhabitants – one should also recognize that the inhabitants should also include children. As we proceeded, we also created a number of squares. All of the streets (New mixed-use street in city center.jpg) and squares are for pedestrian use. One can’t have children living in a city unless cars are restrained.

Outdoor Restaurant

That brings us to the third equilibrium, and that is the balance between stone and green. The city is by priority of stone, of course, but we think that one should also have green. And green is not meant only as earth and trees, but as public squares, where people can sit and play, as we have near here in sight of the cathedral at the Handschoenmarkt.

Handschoenmarkt

Then there is another equilibrium and that is the balance between the historic architecture and new architecture. In the case pf the Sixties again, people were great sinners against this equilibrium. Everything that was built in earlier times was despised and looked upon as slums to be knocked down at once. So terrible quarrels took place.

Grote MarktWe had quite a fight to convince some Aldermen that we should try to list and to protect the older buildings that we considered essential for our inheritance. So we started to list about 1,000 buildings and parts of buildings and parts of buildings, because we believe that the most essential characteristic of a city like Antwerp is its major architecture for instance the gabled houses. We have restored and reconstructed some fine examples of these on the market place.

We don’t even give permits to knock things down even if they once looked upon as slums.

Then we have another equilibrium and that is the balance between pedestrian movement and motorized transport. We have tried to discourage the car in the inner city by creating a 130,00 square meters pedestrian area and we tried to move through traffic onto an inner ring road around Antwerp.

It was such a great relief for us because it led immediately to a 40% decrease of through traffic. But today even that ring is over its capacity so we are again now tackling the same problem. I think now that the next step forward will be not to allow cars in the inner city any more unless people pay for it.

I always make a distinction between the inhabitants of Antwerp and the non-inhabitants. And this is a very difficult issue, but this is the 6th equilibrium, the one between the real inhabitants who live in the city, and pay taxes, but bring the nuisance – the cars, the noise, and pollution.

We try to tackle this issue, for example, by a policy that makes the museums of the city free for inhabitants but asks others to pay.

The seventh equilibrium is between the real inhabitants of a neighborhood and those who merely use its facilities. You will see that in neighborhoods in the center of the city, there is always nightlife with noisy people. It is very agreeable to sit here, and many do, and we encourage them to live here, don’t enjoy all the noise, so we have to protect by regulations, and by technical means these areas of the city in favor of inhabitants.

In many definitions of cities, the city is described as a fantastic romantic area where there is a mixture of all sorts of activities but the mixture is a relative concept. We can’t ask people to live above the pub. They will be the very first to complain about the noises. So the mixture of functions in the city is a very relative mix. You have to watch what you’ve done and you have to protect it in a material way, otherwise the new inhabitants won’t forgive you.

To make a livable city it is necessary to monitor a series of equilibria, and we have to do that daily. It’s not that we will turn working people away, no, but we must protect the possibility to inhabit the city. Because if we don’t have inhabitants, the city will inevitably die.

The ideal is to have people living and working in the same neighborhood. Then you don’t need any transport, because the cheapest transport is the transport that doesn’t occur. The same neighborhood doesn’t mean just around the corner, but we have seen that a walk of twenty minutes in Antwerp brings you very far. So people, don’t even need a bicycle. People want cars, but we discourage cars!

But all out work derives from these series of equilibria that are expressed in our architectural guidelines.

Old Town FestivalWhenever we do something the inhabitants are immediately consulted. Ever since we started to build up the area and to create the pedestrian area we always tried to consult people in a dual phase process. We organize a meeting of the Alderman of myself and try to explain what is going to happen. We have a discussion about it, and then ask all the people in the area to vote. We have to be very careful, because no everyone attends public meetings. It is, therefore, necessary to have a vote from all concerned on who is in favor or not in favor.

The incentive for rebuilding the city center and for creating the pedestrian area comes from the city. I have made speeches to introduce the idea of a pedestrian area. Then we had a vote and we only had a 52% majority, which is not very much. Now, of course, everyone is in favor, but one has to be very careful.

There is another area in the city, the main street from the railroad station to the city center that we wanted to turn into a pedestrian street. I tried three times to convince the citizens of Antwerp, but they said no. We live in a democracy; I just tried to show by example. Last Christmas we pedestrianaized the street for a fortnight, to convince by experience.

The housing project we are going to see now was done after we expropriate and bought up the land. It is a public project. The public initiative is meant to be a demonstration. The municipality must do something first, and then people in the private sector see that it works and they can join in. That’s the way it works!

We couldn’t have done it with higher land prices, so we had to expropriate the land. It is not really the city that built the housing. We have three cooperative building societies in the field of what we call social dwellings. We gave them the land and our municipal building cooperatives built the dwellings. At that, of course, precludes all speculation, This also discourages the land in surrounding areas from rising in value too much.

We must control what private developers can build – we control the height of buildings, scale, general forms, materials, etc. In the whole of the inner city we require that new buildings be designed with what we call “harmonious integration”. So if more than 60% of the buildings are no more than a determined height, then new buildings must adhere to that height.

We have only one tower block in the inner city, that was built 20 years ago and that provides an example of what we do not want in the city – it is 20 stories high. But here in the inner city we don’t allow that any more.

First published in the Making Cities Livable Newsletter, October 1989.