The map of Potential Natural Vegetation below shows the clear demarcation of zones of plant communities . In reality, these zones are expressed as a continuous gradient, following the equally soft gradient of soil types. Similarly, forest plants distribute in a mosaic of communities corresponding to vegetation zones, soil conditions, and topography. The main rivers crossing the Brussels Metropolis — the Dyle, the Senne, and the Dender — run along the tertiary topography perpendicularly across the landscapes that naturally develop under the soil gradient. These river systems are considered fundamental in connecting different communities and habitats.
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The map of Potential Natural Vegetation below shows the clear demarcation of zones of plant communities . In reality, these zones are expressed as a continuous gradient, following the equally soft gradient of soil types. Similarly, forest plants distribute in a mosaic of communities corresponding to vegetation zones, soil conditions, and topography. The main rivers crossing the Brussels Metropolis — the Dyle, the Senne, and the Dender — run along the tertiary topography perpendicularly across the landscapes that naturally develop under the soil gradient.
These river systems are considered fundamental in connecting different communities and habitats. In the face of climate change and temperature rise, they will only gain importance as corridors for the migration of species that are in search for new habitats where they can survive, following their ideal climatic condition northwards .
Figure 1. The zonal Potential Natural Vegetation maps illustrate the distribution of plants species in and around Belgium, illustrating the geological sequence of east-west oriented ecological entities and the alluvial river valleys crossing.
Legend left: Coastal-polder system dune and alluvial forest ; 3 Tidal river landscape; 4 Poor Oak-Beech forest; 4bis Poor sand, heathland, and coniferous forest; 5 Rich Oak-Beech forest; 6 Beech forest; 7 Winter oak and birch forest; 8 summer and winter oak forest.
By marginalizing the main water course, the metropolis blocks migration of plants, fish, amphibians, birds, insects and other, in favor of urban movement .
Urban infrastructure has manipulated the landscape up to a critical point. In other words, the Brussels metropolis jeopardizes the possibility for nature to adapt to climate change . Figure 2. The Potential Natural Vegetation in and around Belgium more closely to an image of reality: a continuous forest with gradually changing forest plant communities. Brussels was founded between the forested plateau of loamy soils in the East and the wet, productive alluvial plain of the Senne to the West.
These slopes mark the transition between the upper and lower city. Today Brussels has overpowered its geological base. Anthropogenic interventions dominate development logic. This is most apparent in Anderlecht-Drogenbos, where the project discussed here is located . The area is highly fragmented by the large-scale city infrastructures that cross the southern Senne Valley: the canal, the railways, the Brussels ring way and their industrial offspring.
Each of these pieces of infrastructure changed the topography of the valley, leaving natural flows largely interrupted or crippled . Figure 4. Gradual fragmentation of the Senne valley south of Brussels over time. What if we can regain a momentum to establish an ecological corridor for migration by giving the site a main metropolitan vocation: here, the millions of liters of water entering and threatening the city could be halted and stored in an enormous floodplain, effectively ending Brussels flooding problems.
Figure 5. The main topography in the transition from middle-high to low Belgium: Brussels lies squarely on the Senne River. Site four of the research-by-design is strategically located upstream and shows a wide valley, opening possibilities for storing water.
The re-establishment of nature as driver does not attempt to romantically turn back time. If applied correctly, a new urban ecology can appear that builds on a superposition of layers of infrastructural intervention, such as the canal, railway, and highway, just as ecological communities build upon geological strata. The multiplication of dams will allow huge amounts of water to be stored temporarily, while simultaneously creating a continuous ecosystem of wetlands, flood plains and dry forested areas along the Senne River.
Figure 6. A system of dams creates a reoccurring system of wet to dry landscapes that form interconnected stepping-stones for a high level of biodiversity. Reconstructing Ecology: soil, water, and forest To understand the biodiversity of ecosystems, it is necessary to appreciate the central organizing role played by a dynamically varying physical environment . Landscape dynamics shape the urban environment. Urban development typically leads to the reduction of dynamic change and flexibility since these properties introduce uncertainty into an otherwise ordered and engineered system.
Many of these securities are only temporary solutions or limited in their effectiveness. They are mere illusions of safety. Soil, water, and vegetation are determining aspects of ecosystems . The manipulation of soil alone has the potential to reconfigure the Southern Senne Valley.
Through cut and fill operations, preferably with a zero soil balance, water can be redirected, halted or redistributed. The movement of soil and re-naturalization of water creates continuous dynamic gradients of wet to dry and clay to sandy soils.
On this rich base, vegetation communities, mostly composed of diverse forests, can reclaim their place. By piecemeal operations, the valley can be shaped into an ecological corridor. Figure 7. Gradually building habitats: cut and fill operations over time allow for water scraping, which in turn leads to the establishment of forest and the habitat.
Figure 8. The engineered landscape becomes dynamic and resilient. The river alluvial soils are composed of a range of unique geological formations resulting from different cycles of eolian, riverine, glacial and coastal deposits and by cultural adaptations.
The alluvial plains can be in some locations dense and continuous, in others locally extremely heterogeneous. Forests instead can accommodate the urban.
What if we accept that forests are a necessity for the functioning of migration corridors, and for a strong ecological community? We would be forced to imagine an urban realm that develops at the grace of the forest, much like Brussels initially developed at the grace of the Sonian Forest. Forests that develop in the wet, frequently inundated lands of the alluvial plain are dense and difficult to penetrate.
These closed forests only allow for urban settlement at their edges or in a clearing. Forests on sandy soil that are less fertile develop a more open forest structure. Instead of carving out clearings in the forest, urban development can nestle inside its open matrix. In between clearings and nestling inside a range of urban-forest conditions .
If the forest represents the architecture of ecology, then we should find an urbanity that fits this architecture. Figure 9. A range of urban figures appears that fit into the ecological conditions of the migration corridor. Figure Enlarged plan of intervention, the ecology of the Senne Valley pushes through the urban tissue, conquering space for an ecological continuum however possible: from large forested floodplains to a system of smaller linear corridors.
The urban system adapts to and benefits from these new landscape conditions. A pebble in the valley The project site in the industrial area of Catala, a former paper factory up for redevelopment, sits squarely on the Senne River. If the narrow passages of the Senne around the industrial platform are conditioned to allow only a certain amount of water to pass through, a vast floodplain emerges that can store up to one million cubic meters of water that otherwise would have to be flushed through the Brussels piping and canal system.
The industrial site is like a large pebble in the water. A dense, partially productive, partially residential program could be welcomed here. Surely this unique location as a pebble in the water, and a clearing in the dense alluvial forest would be the pretext for a different urban lifestyle.
One could understand the disruption the clearing means in the ecological system, and simultaneously understand that it is exactly this pebble that makes the ecological corridor function at the scale of the metropolis.
Most of them use water for industrial processes: the energy plant uses water for cooling, the chemical plant uses it in their production processes. Here the Senne is seen as part of an industrial network, which is easily considered damaging, problematic or incompatible with a sustainable water ecology. What if we embrace these operational aspects of the river and incorporate them within an ecological system, rather than considering them off-limits?
By closing the water cycle for each of these processes and making the different water functions of the industries work together, a new habitat can be created that finds its origins in the industrial processes. The privatized nature of industry would allow the ecological corridor to remain largely untouched. Here, the alluvial forests would not be publicly accessible since they are part of the operational frame of the industries and must to be protected.
Nature can thrive. Urban metabolism: different flows join through a Combined Heat and Power plant that uses waste as a resource. Urban functions support pioneer vegetation in the valley. An industrial urban forest The industrial islands in the alluvial plain in Anderlecht are synonymous with ecological disaster. Flooding is frequent, hence the safe islands and the relative temperature is higher than elsewhere in Brussels due to the extent of paving and the urban heat island effect.
Can the island be synonymous for the ecological transformation into a piece of the Senne Valley migration corridor? Here, the components of the island are exploited: the sandy plateau allows for an open forest to absorb the industrial buildings and to introduce infiltration and evapotranspiration to combat the temperature problems.
The island serves as a management system to rationalize the use of space. The internal mineral circulation is given up for afforestation, yet space for intensified industrial activities can be found. Finally, the island no longer represents a safe distance from the alluvial plain.
The island is an integral part of the ecological system, containing gradients from dry to wet, from sand to clay to loam. The Senne River will be allowed to meander through the islands and thus permeate the industrial tissue as a network of narrow ecological connections. If the connections are not generous in size, at least there are many. The island approach allows for growth and development over time. Island by island, zones can transform at their own pace.
At the speed of a growing tree, the urban forest emerges. Weaving the urban forest through the industrial islands by inverting space management from individual to collective. Forest intimacy and panoramic views The eastern slope of Brussels forms an iconic edge between the valley and the forested plateau. In the city center, the slope is accentuated by a system of iconic places. In the south, the slope should represent a different urban and ecological approach.
The extension of a tram line along the edge, to fill in the mobility gap between tram and train, is evident. The tram extends towards Beersel Castle, serving as the destination of a voyage through the forests of the eastern slope. Much like the Tervuren tram connection, the use of public transport is more than a functional habit. A democratization of this quality should exist, and densification of the tram line can be done punctually.
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