Students breathe new life into Flanders’ almost ghost town

Summary

The village of Doel has faced demolition since the 1960s, but a group of architectural students from Leuven is looking for ways to bring it back to life

Before it’s too late

The little district Doel, part of Beveren, East Flanders, became famous in the 1960s when it was announced that it would have to make way for the expansion of the port of Antwerp. Since then the town has faced looming extinction, making headlines time and again as residents moved out or protesters moved in.

But now a group of architects from the University of Leuven (KU Leuven) is trying to breathe new life into the area – before it’s too late.

The plans to expand the port of Antwerp on to the left bank of the Scheldt river were controversial from the beginning. In the 1970s, they were modified to reflect the concerns of local residents, but in 2002, the government of Flanders announced plans to increase the port’s container capacity with the construction of the Saeftinghe dock in Doel’s place.

The new plans were met with widespread protest, and artists and activist groups, including Doel 2020, battled to stop the town’s demise. Their struggle finally paid off last year, when both the European Court of Justice and the Belgian Council of State declared the plans illegal.

The government, they ruled, did not follow the correct procedures when it came to compensating the loss of natural habitat. “A new procedure has been put in place by different stakeholders to find alternative solutions,” says Joris Van Reusel, lecturer at the KU Leuven campuses in Brussels and Ghent and one of the driving forces behind the new project Doelland.

It should be possible, he continues, “to reconcile the interests of the town with those of the port. The port should be able to more efficiently increase its capacity, on a smaller scale”.

A new future

Van Reusel hopes for a similar compromise to the one reached in March over the disputed Oosterweel connection in Antwerp. In that case, activists and the local government reached an agreement after more than 20 years of dispute. A report on the revised plans for Doel is expected in October.

“Still, it will take maybe another 10 years before any concrete works will be carried out on a more innovative port expansion,” says Van Reusel. “In the meantime, action has to be taken to revive Doel – not by repairing the past, but by creating a new future for the town.”

With its polder landscape, Doel could be an ideal home for a university campus focusing on biological agriculture and aquaculture

- Joris Van Reusel

Over the last two years, students and lecturers from KU Leuven’s architecture department have teamed up with outside experts to come up with ways to bring Doel back to life. Their ideas are now on display at the De Doolen cultural centre.

The Doelland Expo features architectural plans, scale models and visual materials. “With its unique polder landscape, Doel could be an ideal home for a small university campus focusing on innovative biological agriculture and aquaculture,” says Van Reusel. “The arrival of scientists and students could also stimulate the local economy with new labs, student accommodation and catering businesses.”

The campus, Van Reusel continues, could also attract innovative companies, and the area holds potential for nature tourism and education. “The existing infrastructure, including the old barns, could be used for various projects, and there is a lot of available space for new buildings and initiatives.”

Doel's Ark

In June, a number of students and lecturers from KU Leuven moved to Doel for about a week. They stayed in a wooden container house, dubbed the Doelland Ark, from where they observed the town’s daily life, carried out actions to inform people about their research and worked to restore parks and walking paths.

“There are only some 20 people left in Doel, but the town is still very much alive – it’s not a ghost town,” Van Reusel says. “It attracts tourists, photographers, hikers, churchgoers and families who come back as part of a tradition.”

There are only some 20 people left in Doel, but the town is still very much alive

- Joris Van Reusel

The town has also attracted vandalism; some people, Van Reusel says, consider Doel a place where they can do whatever they want. During their stay, the students witnessed two break-in attempts on vacant houses.

A report summarising their observations will be published in September. The architecture department at KU Leuven has also announced that it will continue conducting research on Doel over the next three years.

In the meantime, Van Reusel says the local government should allow renovations, new construction and the sale of houses in Doel. Maatschappij Linkerscheldeoever, the public agency managing the left bank of the Scheldt, owns most of the town’s buildings but has not put any of them up for sale.

The local council has also forbidden the construction of any new houses. According to Van Reusel, this is a real shame: “There are a lot of people who’d like to live here.”

Doelland Expo, Sundays until end of August, 14.00-18.00, OC De Doolen, Engelsesteenweg 8, Doel