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Ghent's circular approach is turning its Old Dockyards brownfield into waterfront housing

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City of Ghent

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City of Ghent - Agnieszka Zajac

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In Ghent, Belgium, the circular economy brings together companies, institutions, governments and citizens on the way to sustainability. The Old Dockyards is a waterfront housing project where closing loops at the district level is key. Approximately 1,500 housing units will be constructed through public-private partnerships (PPPs).

Ghent wants to develop a holistic approach for the area that encompasses the wider concept of circular economy. The project is supervised by the city of Ghent and the autonomous municipal Ghent development authority (sogent). Thanks to innovative technologies, some residential buildings in the Old Dockyards will use heating systems based on biogas from black water. Such systems reuse the warm air produced by industrial factories, as well as captured heat and nutrients from used water from dishwashers and laundry machines.

But the Old Dockyards is more than a simple housing project focusing on constructing new low-energy and passive houses. Thanks to the regeneration of the area, new business models such as car and bike sharing have developed, and the city has launched activities that challenge residents’ linear lifestyles. Indeed, throughout the Old Dockyards, people can already experience the circular economy through the presence of temporary buildings constructed with recycled materials, guided walks, a ‘circular dialogue café’ as well as short-term exhibitions that demonstrate the different possible uses of city infrastructure.

During the 10-year planning process of the Old Dockyards project, sogent has invested a lot of time and effort in coordinating the needs and expectations of all actors involved: project partners and surrounding companies, as well as current and future inhabitants. The project needed strong political commitment to ensure that it had the required financial support. Due to the integrated approach of the Old Dockyards regeneration project, it was not possible to get funds from a single financing institution or programme. Instead, sogent had to apply for different European and regional subsidies and break the project into several sectorial actions, funded by different European and Flemish programmes (e.g. European Fund for Regional Development, the Flemish Fund for City Renewal and the Federal Urban Policy).

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Between the planning phase and the effective realisation of the project, years have gone by. Those delays were transformed into opportunities, giving special attention to the possible temporary use of the grounds, allowing the city to renovate the quay walls and building a bridge for pedestrians and cyclists during that time. Even though the Old Dockyards site is still under construction, it has already become an integral part of the city.

During the long process of tendering, sogent has created temporary areas for city gardening and city farming. This has allowed Ghent’s citizens to rethink land that was once perceived as waste or unusable as a profitable resource. A very unusual project is the renovation of a series of disused gravel tanks. A team of young architects and an artist transformed this area into a unique multi-purpose public space that is currently used by Ghent’s citizens for several types of events. This also raised awareness of the project itself and the wider circular economy concept.

Sogent has been able to publish tenders that imposed highly sustainable and circular standards to all the actors willing to take part in the Old Dockyards renovation. The Old Dockyards project also shows the importance of using participative PPPs to scale-up your project as they allow the city to work together with different actors and achieve a sustainable business model.