Who is willing to give up his urge to build?

Tired of all the fuss about climate change? Today we’re bombarded on all sides by opinions and views on this topic. And if it’s up to the youth activists, this is not going to stop anytime soon. At Batibouw (Belgium’s biggest trade fair for construction, renovation and home improvement) as well, people seem to have understood that we need to find new ways of living. Although, with a slogan like Leven is bouwen (To live is to build) it cannot really break free from the rather conservative image of the construction sector. So far the largest construction trade fair in this country has been completely silent regarding the urgent matter of a tax shift in the area of spatial development. Yet our spatial chaos is directly and indirectly responsible for most of our carbon emissions.


It’s a well-established fact that, in terms of spatial planning, we have dramatically atomised Flanders horizontally. We live (too) scattered within our flat landscape, often therefore in an inconvenient location, immersed in a rural dream of land parcellation and ribbon development. Consequently, a lot of Flemish people are dependent on cars. At worst, this leads to transport poverty because one lives far away from everything else. At best, you’re stuck in miles-long traffic jams every day. The realisation that we all have to travel in a more collective manner is only slowly sinking in. And this is not without reason considering that the public transport in our region fails to offer a worthy alternative as of yet. It is plagued by frequent delays, infrequent service, overcrowded trains, excessively long travel times and poor connections between train, bus and tram networks. We lack a modern transport company that will set out a new course in organising our mobility systems.

Towards a balanced spatial balance sheet

Freezing our current spatial balance sheet is perhaps the single-most important measure on which there is consensus. However, putting this into practice comes up against a lot of resistance. Let’s not make it any worse than it already is and stop adding more and more cubic metres of building volume. We have constructed more than enough buildings in Flanders to accommodate our needs. With 17 million inhabitants laying their claim on space, we have stacked up far too many bricks in our landscape. If we want to add something, there is a surplus to be removed from elsewhere. Call it a ‘building compensation’. In the worst case, as is the case with deforestation compensation, you might have to pay a financial compensation if you want to build anyway. Perhaps such a measure will make us think twice before we build anything, and allow us to reflect on what we no longer need. For the time being, however, the ground reality is quite the opposite. The announced so-called betonstop, a spacial strategy plan limiting new building, has sent us into a state of panic and apparently our daily consumption of open space has suddenly started increasing again. Our zest for building is difficult to control. However, it does not diminish the pressing need to reform our building landscape.

It is also well-known that Flanders has a very outdated housing stock that needs to be made sustainable. Our construction industry urgently needs to reorient itself and focus more on renovation and – if absolutely necessary – rebuilding. This would lead to a rapid increase in construction waste flows, as a result of which we will be forced to consider the reuse of construction material. Is it possible to have a raw material-neutral building industry? Nobody knows for sure. The Flemish government also seems to have understood this and is considering new subsidies for retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient. This must definitely be encouraged because it would allow us to upgrade our outdated homes to contemporary standards of living comfort in one fell swoop. However, a certain degree of alertness is advised. We lack the courage to admit that the biggest challenge in our housing policy will possibly be the necessary collective relocation required from many of us. A relocation away from the rural landscape to village centres and cities, close to collective transport hubs. In the light of this fact, promoting the refurbishment and retrofitting of homes located far from these transport nodes would hardly be the smartest thing to do. In fact, it would be quite the reverse. Measures that cement our spatial atomisation are highly undesirable. Where all of us will live in the future plays a vital role in addressing our negative impact on climate change. We must figure out how to rid ourselves of poorly located housing without being left nursing a financial hangover, whether individually or collectively. How can we effectively assist those who are willing to move out of the poorly located parcel of land or ribbon development? Even a passive energy-neutral house will not allow for sustainable living in the future if it is poorly located.

So there’s no need to give up our characteristically Flemish urge to build our own homes, but we definitely have to rethink where we build them, asserts Flemish architect Leo Van Broeck. We will have to move from poor locations to centralised locations for better mobility and proximity to social facilities. If we are serious about the climate crisis, we will have to reverse the parcellation process throughout Flanders in our search for new open space. A climate policy without deconstructing Flanders is wishful thinking. Excessively built-up locations such as rural residential areas, which we have transformed into veritable concrete jungles at the wrong places within the regional zoning plan, will have to be ‘unbuilt’. This makes a redesign of the regional zoning plan inevitable. It is only a matter of time before we will have to do this.

What if

This turning point appears to have arrived with the upcoming Beleidsplan Ruimte Vlaanderen (Flanders Spatial Policy Plan). Tools that will help us regain our open spaces are being rapidly developed. This offers an opportunity to address the necessary spatial shift from a tax perspective and to influence the spatial development process via financial measures.

Similar to our documentation of valuable buildings and heritage, an inventory of redundant buildings might offer a new and interesting tool. Trying to objectively determine the buildings we will no longer need in the future is undoubtedly a difficult exercise, but also a very useful one. If we had such an overview, we could find very strong arguments against plans to continue investing in buildings with no sustainable future.

Another tool being discussed by the government which also explores new avenues is the Transferable Development Rights (TDR). A TDR system could allow for the transfer of development rights from poor locations to better locations where greater densification is desirable. It is still unclear whether Flanders is ready for such bartering, but the willingness to think about this testifies to our ambition of managing open spaces differently in the future.

In any case, we should encourage people to live in well-located towns and cities, and also make this significantly cheaper. This can be read as a plea for a much-needed adjustment of the cadastral income whose calculation is almost half a century old and therefore outdated. Ecologically sound parameters such as location, densification, living area and energy consumption must be taken into account in the property taxes paid by all of us. How can we as a society still justify the fact that the tax paid for living in a detached house in a rural area is no higher than that of a compact residence located close to social facilities and our public transport network? We will all have to do our bit if we want to live sustainably in the future and identify the right spatial formulas for an ambitious climate policy.

Opiniestuk in de krant De Standaard, 1/3/2019