Crafty placemaking with Brussels-based Urban Foxes

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This is second in our Placemaker Profile series. Read Part 1, an interview with Victoria Dickenson, here.

We first heard of Urban Foxes, a Brussels-based collective, when one of its founders reached out to us, sharing their “Saint-Cath-sur-Mer” project. We found this to be an unassuming yet impactful approach to bringing people together around a common space that was previously underused. After doing further investigations, we learned that we share a name with Urban Foxes’ placemaking labs, as well as common interests in playful and participatory approaches to animating urban spaces. Two elements struck us: 1) a method of placemaking that is rooted in understanding a community’s assets and needs, and 2) an attention to inclusion, especially in the face of re/development that often puts private interests first. Keen to learn more about their background, approach, and on-the-ground projects, we asked Urban Foxes member Bram DeWolfs to answer a few questions.

All photos are courtesy of Urban Foxes.

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  1. Can you describe Urban Foxes' approach to placemaking?

As a fairly young collective with no structural funding nor employees, we have chosen to focus on relatively smaller actions in our city, Brussels. Most of the time we target enhancing urban wellbeing by using creative and playful interventions. We don’t differentiate between age groups or cultures. Everybody can play or participate, and we always make sure that activities are free of charge. When it’s more than a [small] intervention, e.g. like Canal Park BXL where we crowdfunded a small part of an urban wasteland (thanks to that pressure, now a large park of four hectares is being “installed” by the government), we aim to involve all stakeholders. We also organize annual placemaking city labs called “Cities for People”, funded by the Erasmus+ program, where 30 participants from all over Europe are immersed for eight days in the world of placemaking. During this time, participants visit places showing good practices, analyze public spaces, communicate with locals, take part in theoretical and practical workshops and in the end come up with their own ways to improve urban wellbeing.

For our last project “Saint-Cath-sur-Mer” we involved locals, restaurant owners, the local youth theatre, the three youth centers and a retirement home from a few blocks away. We tried to facilitate the process of starting up a common project, of which every stakeholder would be a part and where ideas could be proposed.

  1. How is placemaking around water different than on land? What are the benefits and obstacles to transforming water-scapes rather than landscapes?

At times with nice weather, the basins of the old harbour attract people looking for tranquility and relaxation. We wanted to preserve this sensation but we believed we could get more out of the unused space, which is approximately 3000 square meters, on the water. The water brings a natural feeling of poetry and triggers feelings and memories linked to the sea and water. It gives us something to look at, like the glistering and the movement of the water, but also the people around it. The obstacle of the water is that you cannot bring the people on that exact spot, like you would do on an empty market place or old parking lot, but you need to gather them around the water. But we used this disadvantage to our advantage. In order to facilitate encounter around the water, we opted for sailing boats that are controlled by the wind instead of radio-controlled. The wind took the boats across the water, which encouraged people to walk around, interact, and play, asking each other to “send” the boat back. Remote-controlled boats might have kept the people in their own private world, as happens a lot in our smartphone age.

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  1. With your Saint-Cath-Sur-Mer project, you refer to "Transforming the Fish Market into a place of wonder, playfulness and encounter." How did you go from their vision to a concrete action plan?

After the terrorist attacks and with the increasing acts of urban neoliberalism by the municipality, the people of Brussels needed playfulness and poetry more than ever. We had a vision of people of different social classes and origins would come together around the water. We wanted to facilitate encounters regardless of age or background. By winning the local competition make.brussels, an open-call to improve the image of Brussels and the wellbeing of their inhabitants, we won the necessary funds to buy the miniature sailing boats, construct the bike trailer and compensate the “vulnerable” youngsters that helped us with logistics (e.g. distributing the boats, maintenance, transporting the trailer, etc). We created a financial plan, a communication strategy, and a participatory process involving residents, local schools, youth centers, local businesses, neighbourhood committees and a retirement home. We bundled the ideas and concerns and came up with an action plan with ideas and proposals. After this process we launched the opening event were we invited all the stakeholders, and where everybody could enjoy the boats, a drink, and a jazz concert. We wanted a mobile and minimal intervention respecting the surroundings and [neighbourhood] identity, and involve all the stakeholders.

  1. The photos of your public space animations clearly show the potential of play to activate and encourage gathering around a public space. What other forms of play would you like to see in public spaces?

It is our dream that there would be an abundance of playing/sporting possibilities for all ages in the Brussels. One important thing that is missing in our municipality is a (soft) running track, but we would also love to see more public benches, parks, playgrounds, pétanque lanes, permanent ping-pong tables (on the newly pedestrianized Anspach boulevard, reclaimed by disobedient interventions of Picnic The Street, from which Urban Foxes sprouted) and of course fewer cars so we are able to breathe clean air.

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  1. You mention the importance of free programming in public space (for example, providing residents with small sailboats, free of charge). What tensions do you perceive around financial access to public space (e.g. patios that are only available to paying patrons), and how do you see you work addressing these exclusions?

Currently we are dealing with local policy makers who focus on attracting tourists and increasing consumption by allowing restaurant holders to expand their patios, thereby sacrificing public space and benches. Several protests have been held, with some success, to reclaim the public space that was temporarily lost. We think it’s crucial that the City act as a smart and ethical buffer between the private sector and the city [as public space]. [We need to] keep in mind that the city should be for everyone, not only for those who consume. This is why that we will stay vigilant for matters dealing with public space and we will continue to strive for activities that are free of charge and thereby aiming at inclusiveness (like our mobile pétanque, mobile cinema/fablab). We believe that a city that is good for its people is good enough for tourists as well.