Sofyan El Bouchtili and Julia Weinzierler report-
Deprived neighbourhoods and the goal of giving the people an outside area to improve their life – that was the written commitment behind the European investment in “Park Spoor Noord” in Antwerp, Belgium’s second-largest city. However, in all the enthusiasm over this award-winning project, the possible after-effects of such a revitalization project were seemingly overlooked. With the creation of an attractive park neighbourhood, investors came along.
Nine years ago, “Park Spoor Noord” was opened to the public. Next to being funded for over a third of the investment by the EU, it was a project that was partly financed by involving other project developments in the area.
It was aimed at uplifiting deprived neighbourhoods Dam and Seefhoek/Stuivenberg. What follows now is the spreading of a recurrent urban trend: “Lots of groups are being pushed around the city to provide safe places for investments,” says Maarten Loopmans, professor in social geography at the University of Leuven.
When plans were made to create Park Spoor Noord, it was presented as an investment for the neighbourhoods surrounding the park that were – and still are – not the best in the city. Tom Van den Borne, from the Belgian Green party, is the alderman for the district of Antwerp. For 12 years now, he’s also been a resident of the area. He describes his neighbourhood as one of the poorest of Antwerp, with high density of housing and people as well as a lack of green space. “Only 1 in 8 houses has an outside area. That’s why this park is important. There are often larger families in smaller homes, which means you need an outside area,” he concludes.
RICH CITY, POOR RESIDENTS
The area he’s referring to is called Antwerp-North, consisting of the neighbourhoods Stuivenberg, Dam and Borgerhout. The condition of this area is in stark contrast with the rest of the city. Antwerp’s economical state is the best in the Flemish region. With the second-largest seaport in Europe and other strong sectors like the diamond industry, tourism, chemicals and metal industry, the region itself is relatively rich.
But most wealth is held up in suburban areas around Antwerp. Not all people profit from these employment generators. The city continues to battle unemployment, having the highest unemployment rate in Flanders.
The paradox is felt particularly in Antwerp-North, the poorest region of the city. In the multi-ethnic neighbourhood – there are more than 150 nationalities – people suffer social and economic problems.
In 2001, the municipality of Antwerp decided to transform an abandoned railway site of 24 hectare into a large park. “The first thing they wanted to do at the time is creating a new green space that would be used by the people who live in the surroundings,”says Toon Wassenberg, sustainability expert and citizen of Antwerp, “It is quite clear that part of the goal is reached”. Today, Park Spoor Noord is a common meeting place, bringing people of all social strata and all ethnicities together. “It is such a nice place to be and it has an attractiveness that goes beyond the streets that connect to it”, Wassenberg adds.
A GREEN HEART AS A LEVERAGE FOR URBAN IMPROVEMENT
However, the goals behind the development of the park not only stated the creation of a recreational park for the neighbourhood, but also – and this is where the issues arise – the improvement of the social mix of the surrounding park area. The city wanted to combat the problem of residential segregation.
But Loopmans stresses the negative implication of this goal: “If they say that we need to have a better social mix, it implies that the current social mix is not good. And that you want at least a part of them to move out.” The researcher adds that “it was always very much emphasized that the kind of people they wanted to attract to this centre area was young, middle-class, white families with children.”
According to Loopmans, the explanation lies with the low tax base of cities: “The income that a city generates from its population is a lot lower than the income that a suburban village can generate.” Around 2000, the Flemish government wanted cities and municipalities to become more financially independent and to provide more own funding for public investments. “If the city governments must pay for their services themselves while getting less support from higher level government, then they will push people out of the city and attract richer people in return”, explains Loopmans.
“That’s the main reason behind investments like Park Spoor Noord. They didn’t use the word gentrification, but they spoke about urban renewal, about social mix. But the real intention was to stimulate gentrification so that the city tax base can become stronger” Loopmans concludes.
REPLACING THE POOR
There’s no denying that neighbourhoods like Dam, Stuivenberg and Borgerhout needed residential improvement. “Everybody was happy in the beginning and everybody said: ‘Finally they’re doing something!’ but then the result is that you get gentrification,” says Wassenberg.
Gentrification is the mechanism of higher income groups moving in an area where lower income groups lived before. Even when these kinds of investments are desperately needed, they often merely replace the problem instead of solving it.
Loopman’s verdict of the revitalization project is harsh: “When a government is investing in public space, the risk of gentrification increases”. As a result, it’s not only harder to buy a new house or apartment but renting prices simultaneously go up. “These people are literally pushed out of the market,” says Loopmans.
He explains the mechanism at work: “Very simple you have a house which was affordable for lower income groups, when higher income people come and say ‘Oh we want this house’ they can overbuy them and say ‘We offer more money for the house than you can do’ and so they push them out through the market.”
As a community worker of the area, Jeroen Buytaert knows the fear of the citizens in the Northern parts of Antwerp who feel that they are being replaced and pushed to other parts further away from the city. “Ten years ago, you could buy a house for a lot less money than you can do right now and that’s why a lot of people are moving,” he says.
RHETORICAL TRICKS AND RITUALS
Looking at the goals of the park, this outcome seems to be the wrong one to help the in the beginning targeted audience. However, it comes as no surprise for Loopmans: “Writing that you want to do something for the people living in the neighbourhood is more of a rhetoric trick. In reality the goal was already to push them out from the centre than to provide better facilities for them”.
The city as well as developers use strategic words like revitalisation, regeneration or social mix that can be defined in very different ways. According to Loopmans “they always use these kinds of words that sound very beneficial and innocent but then in practice when they start working out the project it provides them a lot of leeway to move in a completely different direction than people might have expected.”
Park Spoor Noord was co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund, which contributed 14.000.000 euro, about a third of to the total investment. The Fund’s purpose is to invest in projects that want to reduce environmental as well as socio-economic problems in underdeveloped regions.
But in this case, the pendulum seems to have swung too far away from the initial objective and it seems as if the EU is not trying to control possible adverse effects of their regional projects. “They don’t want to be too strict with what happens with their money as they believe that local governors know much better what their city needs”, says Loopmans. “They do check it, but it is more a ritual than really making a difference”.
GOVERNMENT OPENLY FOR GENTRIFICATION
This (dis)stance of the EU also fails to take into consideration the possible change in political governors when elections take place. The direction in which a city drifts is always influenced by the ideology of the government. “The current city government is completely and openly for gentrification,” Loopman says.
The major from the Flemish National Party is mainly pursuing pro upper-class policy in terms of inner city development, especially since he does not have an electorate that could be harmed by this.
Loopmans adds the nuanced remark that the previous government with a social-democratic leader may have seen the Park Spoor Noord project as an improvement for all, but at the same time they were pursuing similar goals as the current government. The only difference being that they used vague and positive rhetoric to circumvent controversy. In fact, over the past 20 years, Antwerp has gained about 100.000 habitants. However, almost no public houses have been built and affordable housing is reduced.
Tom Van den Borne made the same observation. “Most of the housing projects right now in Antwerp are aiming at middle-class or high-class incomes,” he says. The new projects are mainly being built in former wastelands – such as the Park Spoor Noord area – but, in a long term, they are affecting the whole neighbourhood.
As a community worker Buytaert directly sees the problems that accompany this urban development. “They are doing a lot of good stuff for the middle class, but sometimes it gets more difficult for people who have fewer opportunities.” he says.
According to Wassenberg, the current approach to help the lower class in Antwerp is a kind of acupuncture in the city. The initiatives, like renovating worn out buildings, are “quite small-scaled and it takes some time to see the effect,” Wassenberg says.
What those people really need, according to Wassenberg and Van den Borne, is an appropriate housing policy. “If prices go up, everybody feels the effect and if you’re not an owner of your house, the positive effect is not yours,” Wassenberg says. According to Van den Borne, there should be more for social housing as well as affordable housing in the area of Northern Antwerp.
“In first place you did it to make the neighbourhood better for the people who are living there but the effect might be on a long term that you’re just speeding up gentrification. And that’s one of the things that is lacking often is the long-term guarantee that something is payable today, that it stays payable in the future,” Wassenberg says.
With a government that openly argues for gentrification and puts no emphasis on low-income groups, that seems unlikely to happen.
Foto’s: Sofyan El Bouchtili en Julia Weinzierler