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Renovate rather than build: a necessity for the environment

An opinion from Hélène Ancion, regional planning expert at Inter-Environnement Wallonie

The land market is said to be on the rise today, according to the latest CBC Bank & Insurance survey. This is incompatible with ambitions of sustainability! It is time to put an end to the artificialization of soils. Over the past 40 years, Wallonia has been covered with infrastructure and housing. Houses with gardens, apartment blocks, mini and maxi-zonings, new roads to connect everything.

The dispersal of urbanization comes into direct competition with biodiversity and agriculture. It always leads to more sprawl and condemns to self-dependence. This way of life is dear to the community and to households. To the point of turning our campaigns into a real estate economy. With in return, a rurality which does not know any more what the word “rural” means, and cities in loss of speed.

On closer inspection, the consumption of land and the appetite for villas with four facades are only part of the information provided by the survey, which above all shows the desire for a private green space (58% of respondents) and also shows a strong motivation to renovate the property we occupy (39% of respondents).

Very positive side effects

If Wallonia wants to be more parsimonious with the territory in the future, and if people dream of having more green spaces, what should we do? The renovation of the existing building meets these two constraints and offers a much better solution for the environment. Maintenance, renovation and restoration avoid extending the artificialization. The carbon bill and embodied energy tip the balance sharply in favor of the reuse of what has already been built.

Other arguments have worked for decades, quietly but making many happy. To name a few: better resistance to temperature variations and robustness of ordinary architecture prior to WWII; long-term savings for families engaged in a renovation; preservation of the social amenities offered by buildings of different ages, by private gardens and by old public spaces; renewed attractiveness for neighborhoods, especially those developed around industrial complexes. As long as it does not have too heavy a hand, a renovation has very positive collateral effects on maintaining the biodiversity linked to existing buildings and gardens. The defense of nature and the defense of the built heritage must join forces in the fight for renovation and against demolition.

Does this mean that there would be no more room for architectural creativity? Quite the contrary, as evidenced by the achievements supported by urban renewal, as well as the many private and public projects. Reusing existing structures gives the construction trades technical challenges and their work cut out for them. According to the Confederation of Construction (CCW), more than ten thousand jobs are waiting in renovation sites.

A massive renovation campaign must be encouraged by the public authorities. It will necessarily involve a review of property taxation and exemplary public projects, including the production of housing accessible to people with modest incomes.

Minister Willy Borsus organized in 2020 a group of “artificialization” experts, responsible for submitting a report on the trajectory to be followed in terms of housing, in order to achieve the objective of slowing down the artificialization of soils, to namely, 0 km² in 2050. Renovation plays a key role in achieving this objective.

We took part in the working group with many stakeholders in land use planning and town planning: inter-municipal economic development, architects, researchers, regional administration, Urbanism Houses. The work ended in autumn 2020. The minister is now working on a concrete proposal for the whole region. We have high expectations for this process. Like many observers, we hope that political decisions will be up to the environmental and social emergency.

>>> Scattering of urbanization: https://www.iew.be/artificialisation-bilan-2020/

>>> Original title: “Renovate: not easy, but deeply useful”

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