AGORA – Anticipating the future of the city by analysing its present
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Anticipating the future of the city by analysing its present

The future can't be guessed. However, by analysing challenges, statistics, trends, the future can be anticipated with less risk. Vincent Delwiche, Managing Director of AGORA, explains to us how the planning and development company anticipates in an urban project like the one in Belval.

Planning urban space: immediate action or long-term strategy?

"Before AGORA, I worked in a company where the long term was 18 months. Here, we are thinking 30 years,"

says Vincent Delwiche.

From there, we do not build for ourselves, but for several generations. In order to develop the city quarters of tomorrow, we must therefore work on a vision of society, thus strengthening a country's overall development policy. We are very fortunate," says AGORA's Managing Director. The two shareholders of the project get along very well and have a good grasp of this message". In fact, ArcelorMittal and the Luxembourg government have decided to join forces for the benefit of employment, quality of life, attractiveness and the environment. Within the urban project, two logics meet, each with its own timescale: as a developer, we have a 30-year horizon, while our clients respond within 2-3 years. Developers are thinking about the city of tomorrow, always looking a few decades into the future. "Here we are 21 employees of 6 different nationalities. We are all focused on the same objective: how best to develop a site like Belval for future generations? ”.

The city: simple infrastructure or a real social laboratory?

"With this type of project, you're taking a step towards the future: you're developing a street that your children and grandchildren will walk down," says the Managing Director. "Aesthetics, quality of life and the human being are therefore very important," he adds. For the Belval quarter, the AGORA team focused on current political, social, environmental and cultural issues.

Diversity, a cardinal value

"From the outset, we wanted to have a scrupulous balance between areas used for housing, offices and services," explains Vincent Delwiche. As far as housing is concerned, AGORA has struck a balance between studio flats and 1-bedroom, 2-bedroom and 3-bedroom apartments. Houses are also present. "If you only provide small apartments, you create a floating population, and people don't get involved in social life," he says. In Belval, thanks to the varied types of housing, the site welcomes students, young working people, families and pensioners. "We have managed to give the site a multi-generational character," says Vincent Delwiche.

Nature in the urban environment, creating social ties and well-being

The project is marked by a central park, as a green crossroads between all the quarters. “You can’t go by car directly from one neighbourhood to another through the park, but on foot or by bike you can! And all these trips by soft transport are made through a park that is nevertheless more than eight hectares in size," explains the Managing Director. This space for meeting and exchange welcomes traffic flows that are free of any carbon footprint. It plays a key role in the environmental quality of the site: it absorbs rainwater, increases biodiversity, provides healthier air and reduces heat islands.

Towards a post-industrial ecology

"From an ecological point of view, we're on a very watertight brownfield site," Vincent Delwiche explains. This is evidenced by the natural spring flowing beneath the site, the former Bel-Val spring, which was used for nearly 45 years, from 1891 to 1935.  Its composition has not changed from that of the pre-industrial era. "Since the pollution does not penetrate the soil, it is possible to store the majority of the earth directly on the site," he resumes. "AGORA has developed, together with the Environment Administration, international experts and the government, a system to enclose the plateau du Saint-Esprit and turn it into a green space. In this concept, land impacted by industrial use is trapped and neutralised. With this process we have the guarantee that the phenomenon of leaching is avoided", explains the managing director.

Belval: fixed heritage or resolutely flexible environment?

"The whole business of deciding in uncertainty is to create a structure that is flexible enough to adapt to changes,"

explains AGORA's Managing Director.

Surveys and consultation: the essential voice of the users

"We conduct surveys at least every two years," says Vincent Delwiche. They highlight the expectations and needs of the inhabitants and residents of the quarter. "Most of the time, we relay requests and try to set up businesses, such as a post office or a pharmacy," he stresses. "Users have needs and they must be met, otherwise it's simple, they don't come". The masterplan thus evolves in line with the surveys, but also with the economic situation and the emerging trends: "In the beginning, the Square Mile district planned 25% housing for 75% office space. With the housing crisis we have voluntarily changed the ratio to 50-50".

When buildings adapt to those who occupy them...

Most of the buildings are modular and can evolve over time. Such a building may provide for its conversion from a housing function to a commercial or office function and vice versa. "This implies a good ceiling height, which has the advantage of being comfortable as well as flexible," explains Vincent Delwiche. "For business, we insist on relatively flexible ground floors to accommodate both small structures, such as a cobbler, and large signs, because we don't know how businesses will develop. From the outset you have to have buildings open to these possibilities," he states.

Reconciling industrial heritage and the city of the future

“In Belval, we're lucky to have the blast furnaces. They immediately define the site," Vincent Delwiche acknowledges. These heritage elements integrated into the urban fabric culminate at a height of 90 metres. They can be visited and are the real "genius loci" of the site. They are gradually welcoming the components of the National Centre for Industrial Culture. These rehabilitated remains are the emblems and define the identity of the place. "On the rest of the site, we've kept some of the witnesses of the past, because it's part of the process of creating roots," he explains. While building a new urban district, AGORA is honouring the site's industrial past. Thus the new inhabitants know its history, while the old workers see it come to life again. “As part of Esch 2022 European Capital of Culture, a project will take shape around virtual reality: we will soon be able to travel around the site by bus and relive the industrial activity of the time," explains the Managing Director.

Anticipating, looking forward, imagining... No one can predict the future, but urban planners opt for flexibility in order to adapt to changes in society and the expectations of the inhabitants. "People are only happy in a quarter if they find roots there. The challenge is to build this sense of belonging," concludes Vincent Delwiche. Roots to anchor a project that is constantly evolving over time, with and for its inhabitants.

Interviews with Agora employees, partners and experts, with the " Défis urbains " series discover the values promoted and developed by AGORA.

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