The holy trinity of Sint-Anneke Plage

19 November 2018 - Published by Ellen Kelder

Every once in a while, the pieces just fall into place. Several challenges you’ve been struggling with all of a sudden appear to be compatible and their increasing overlap makes it seem like it was predestined.

It dawned on the team working on the renewal of Sint-Anneke Plage that “multiple projects in this area seamlessly coincide,” according to project leader Lien Engels. They baptized the project ‘The revival of Sint-Anneke Plage’. Lien Engels

Climate change, the expected rise of the Scheldt river water level, the urban heat island effect (to which we’ve already been introduced past summer) but also urban development, neighbourhood renewal and the feasibility of co-creation and governance, are all intertwined within this project. “This odd combination makes it a somewhat atypical project for Antwerp,” Lien adds “which is why this is right down Stadslab2050’s alley. The ideal format to experiment and try out different things.

The ‘plage’ to be

The place used to be packed with people,” according to Tripadvisor. Sint-Anneke plage, on the left bank of the Scheldt river, was the place where you’d go for a leisurely stroll along the water, some sunbathing or just gorging on divine mussels along the beach. “Today, however, things have slowed down significantly,” the review continues.

Sint-Anneke Plage used to be a household name in Antwerp,” Lien says. “That’s why the project aims to reinstate this area to its former glory while at the same time make it fit in today’s setting. ‘How do we turn it into a modern hotspot? A sustainable modern hotspot?’

Nothing is quiet on the waterfront

Sustainable. We’ve thrown it out there. Future-proofing waterfront areas is becoming increasingly self-evident now that news flashes about floods and heavy rainfall are hitting us at a dizzying rate. The Scheldt river and its affluents are therefore under scrutiny of the Flanders Sigma plan, which has been drafted not only to solidify Flanders’ river banks, but also take into account the environment and economic and recreational activities. The Sigma plan evidently dedicated a chapter to the city of Antwerp, focusing on both the right and left bank of the Scheldt river. The ‘left bank’ chapter covers an area ranging from the municipality of Burcht to the Sint-Anna forest, including Sint-Anneke Plage.  

Merely building dykes does not suffice however” Lien says. “We should rather look at how we can redevelop that area in a comprehensive way.” By this she means restoring the relationship of the area with the Scheldt river, integrating green into the environment and appreciating the water that’s already there. This conviction comes as no surprise with Lien being the ‘blue-green networks’ project leader. “Water is not the enemy, on the contrary. For years we’ve been pushing out the water in our city and indurating the surfaces,” she says “but now we realize this was a mistake. The sewerage system cannot cope with heavy rainfall and we can’t use the water for cooling purposes during periods of extreme drought. We should therefore take water back to the surface.”

How to go about meeting these safety requirements and at the same time attain the ideal combination of water, green surroundings and recreational activities, is a second major challenge in Sint-Anneke, for which the Plage is the perfect testing ground.

Fresh eyes

Both challenges – reinstating Sint-Anneke Plage to its former glory and combining water management with recreation - are ‘experience-oriented’. Views and suggestions from potential future users of this area should thus be considered. This constitutes the third leg of this project: social inclusion. “We’d like to include all stakeholders in the process, not for a mere pad on the back, but rather to obtain valuable local input,” the project leader elaborates.

Easier said than done, because how exactly does one include local stakeholders in something as complex as ‘urban renewal with a focus on integrating blue and green infrastructure’?

For people like us who are professionally occupied with BGI integration, this is our bread and butter, making it sometimes hard to image this is not the case for everyone else. But most people couldn’t be bothered with this or just aren’t keen on changes or construction in their neighbourhood.”  

That’s why we are looking to stimulate and appropriate personal involvement of the neighbourhood residents in the best possible way. Sint-Anneke Plage seems especially suitable: “Here, more than anywhere else, people have a strong sense of ownership of the area - and the beach in particular. We’re hoping to capitalize on that ownership.

A hope we share with Europe, who’s BEGIN project is partly funding the renewal of the area. As this EU project aims to ‘integrate blue and green infrastructure through social inclusion’, the renewal of Sint-Anneke Plage will most definitely be on its radar.

Tempering expectations

Co-creation and civic participation are no novel concepts, yet they require further research and experiments. Besides the many proven advantages, possible drawbacks are starting to emerge as well. “Co-creation processes always bring about tensions” Lien explains. “The road from initial idea to actual product can be a long, winding one. We set expectations which we cannot immediately meet, often resulting in disappointment.”  

The Sint-Anneke Plage project team realizes that mismanagement of expectations or involving local stakeholders in too early a stage of the process holds the risk of losing support along the way. So, knowing this, how does one proceed? First involve entrepreneurs and only in a later stage, when you’re able to offer something tangible, involve local residents? Those are the types of questions we’re looking to answer. Project leader Lien, for one, is looking forward to those experiments, which will run their course in the summer of 2019.

Atypical urban lab

As our loyal followers well know, ‘experiments’ and ‘Stadslab2050’ are two peas in a pod. The project team concurs. “Stadslab2050 offers manoeuvrability,” Lien elaborates on the cooperation with the Lab, adding “we can shed the bureaucratic constraints and start thinking outside the box.Stadslab

This innovative approach by Stadslab is threefold: thinking, doing and learning. “The ‘thinking’ is being embodied by the Design Sprint at the end of November 2018. This should result in a prototype, which we will present to local residents and entrepreneurs for feedback. We expect things to remain a bit abstract in this stage.

The experiments we will perform in the summer of 2019 constitute the ‘doing’. Ideas will become more tangible in this stage, although it is still uncertain what these experiment are going to look like. After all, knowing everything would render the Design Sprint obsolete. We secretly cherish hope that these experiments will take some physical shape, making it possible to test in the field whether they actually work. If they do, we can research how to turn them into something permanent. If they don’t, we’ve learned a valuable lesson.

And that covers the ‘learning’, which is what we’re really after. Both Europe and the Antwerp municipality are eager to learn from this process. It might provide insight in how to produce solutions for specific challenges. We might also learn how urban planners could look at things from a different perspective. Or perhaps we could learn how to better involve and gain support from schools, entrepreneurs and citizens… but all that is for later,” Lien concludes. “Now, we sprint and see what comes out of it.”