From Sociobiology to Urban Metabolism: landscape design, ecology and engineering in Belgium (1900-2016)

Promotors: Bruno Notteboom and Greet De Block

Today, new ‘urbanisms’ like ecological urbanism and landscape urbanism aim at fusing natural and social sciences to restore the equilibrium between social and natural systems, and the urban and natural environment. However, contemporary design proposals show that this socio-ecological approach is generally stripped down to a biological perspective. In a systemic rationale, everything becomes naturalized, and the socially just city is a logical outcome of ecologically sound planning. Metabolic schemes of city systems demonstrate the current course taken by the design field, by stressing that the city is a natural organism, constructed through biological flows rather than existing spaces and people.

In this PhD project, I invoke a historical reading of this biological approach towards the city by retracing the linkages between biologists, engineers, landscape architects and urban planners in Brussels. By using the cases of (1) Jean Massart and Louis Van der Swaelmen (1900-1929), (2) René Pechère and the Green Plan (1937-1960), and (3) Paul Duvigneaud and the Brussels Agglomeration (1970-1980), this historical analysis raises attention for (contested) socio-political motives and forces in ecological design, thus leading to a reconsideration of the way in which it is related to political and social contexts today and in the past. Moreover, this research highlights the importance of the intentional spatial motives of the (urban or landscape) designer, which is lacking in current (urban) political ecology research. Both a textual and visual analysis of the uncovered material will track the migration of ideas and metaphors between biologists, ecologists, engineers and designers, resulting in distinctive spatial layouts that reshapes, but also rethinks, the urban environment.