Charleroi, Porte Ouest: A Vision of 21st Century Wallonia
Paola ViganòProfessor of urban planning
Porte Ouest is an exceptional site which is emblematic of both Charleroi’s and Wallonia’s industrial heritage. This site encompasses several scales: the Carsid steel plant grounds, the greater area that includes the urban periphery, and the surrounding territory. Few sites in Wallonia, or even in Europe, can match this scale and industrial history.
The Porte Ouest project is part of the Wallonian region’s transformation. Once dominated by industry, the area is now striving to diversify and change its image. This evolution can draw on the infrastructure and heritage left by the industrial era, as well as on the landscape as a major unifying element not far from the city’s core.
I. Listening to spaces, listening to the city
The study’s first phase led to an understanding of the site and the dynamics at work, notably through numerous interviews and working groups with local actors. This led to an ambitious, shared vision.
The Porte Ouest is first and foremost perceived through its built landscape. Viewed from outside the site and from the surrounding towns (Marchienne-au-Pont, Charleroi city center, Dampremy, etc.), the site is characterized by large historical and modern industrial features (chimneys, blast furnaces, water towers, etc.), which serve as landmarks in the landscape. Conversely, views from the site outward are characterized by the surrounding green landscape (particularly the slag heaps) and, to a lesser extent, by landmarks such as church steeples and the Alliés Brewery. At the site, it’s not easy to grasp the subtleties of its microtopography: concrete plinths, depressions, paths along elevated railways… The masterplan is therefore a means of systematizing the different parts of the area, and of redeveloping and enhancing them.
Several scenarios were studied, developed, and debated during the second working phase in order to define a “realm of possibilities”. These scenarios examined the site’s potential, ideas, and agendas, placing them in a broad perspective that would allow us to envision its new role within Charleroi’s and Wallonia’s dynamics of ecological and social transition.
The last two phases solidified the master plan’s vision and direction/implementation. This vision establishes the Porte Ouest as a regional and economic park, a landmark in terms of culture, innovation and image. It is the foundation for the city’s attractiveness and development in the short, medium, and long terms.
II. Starting from the space
The approach that was developed begins from/is based on the space: the observed continuities and obstacles encountered, existing and potential practices, constraints and qualities that may be immediately perceptible or more subtle. It is based on getting to know places through experience, through intense and repeated fieldwork.
The pre-industrial landscape included the wooded Bayemont plateau (the Monceau Woods) with a slope running south and west down to the winding Piéton valley. Between the two waterways (the Piéton and the Sambre) and their valleys of pastureland was a relatively dry interfluve with fields. It is only to the east of Dampremy (starting point), just outside Charleroi’s center, that these valleys join together.
The industrial era brought about an enormous infilling and raising of the landscape. The plateau’s natural edge was shifted to the south and a new slope was formed by the chain of slag heaps. Additionally, the natural habitats associated with the wet-dry gradients around the Piéton and Sambre rivers were covered by dry layers. The banks (quays) of the Sambre River, the canal, and the Eau d’Heure River near its mouth have been artificialized. Today, there is a lack of natural wetlands in the Porte Ouest area. Besides the ecologically valuable chain of slag heaps in and around the site, Porte Ouest retains several ecologically valuable areas featuring pioneering vegetation: these are derelict areas where young forests are growing. Pioneer species such as mosses, grasses, elder, and birch can be found growing on the old (semi-) terraced land and stony soils.
The site, at the confluence of the Sambre, Piéton and Eau d’Heure Rivers, has historically been characterized by water. The floor of this wet valley was profoundly transformed during the industrial period. This included the creation of the Charleroi-Bruxelles canal in the Piéton valley, the raising of the ground level by several meters in response to flooding, the digging of a canal to connect the Sambre to the Charleroi-Bruxelles canal, and the progressive covering of several waterways, including the Piéton and Carabin.
Apart from the Sambre River and the canal, water is invisible. The Eau d’Heure River is barely visible in the landscape, the Piéton runs through the site in underground pipes, the canal connecting the Sambre to the Brussels-Charleroi Canal has been filled in, and the ponds present at the beginning of the 20th century have largely disappeared. The canal and the Sambre’s artificial banks are not particularly conducive to biodiversity. There is a major challenge to restore the visibility and place of water so as to redevelop ecological continuity.
Several factors (the presence of railways, roads, and industry) affect current perceptions of the site: metallic or engine noises, sirens, smoke, odors from combustion, etc. Added to these factors are physical elements of spatial discontinuity: viaducts, bridges, embankments, walls, fences, power lines and high-voltage transformers all combine and lead to an impression of low habitability, even hostility. Improved habitability therefore represents a major challenge in any hypothetical development of the site.
Its location at the confluence of two waterways, its proximity to the city, and the presence of numerous quays linked to the city’s history, also offer a number of advantages for urban logistics. However, there is a need to develop a balance between logistical and urban considerations, just as there is a need to find a balance between industry and the park. The Quai de Dampremy’s port facilities could evolve towards mixed use, with a public park and port activities contributing to the site’s atmosphere.
III. Histories and icons
The site developed in parallel with the steel industry and technological discoveries. An analysis of the site’s heritage enables us to understand how it historically functioned; several sub-entities coexisted and were connected to each other and to the surrounding area through various means (footbridges, railways, streets, waterways). Within this structure, the Route de Mons played a key role. Among the buildings on the site, the HF4 and the power station at Wez deserve special mention.
The HF4 blast furnace is the last remaining furnace on the site. From an architectural perspective, it is a large metal structure with imposing shafts, staircases and frameworks. With its isolated position and role as a landmark in Charleroi’s landscape, this structure evokes the image of an industrial cathedral.
Constructed in 1963 for Thy-Marcinelle, it came 100 years after the first one built in Marcinelle. From the start, it was designed to have a large capacity in order to compensate for three old blast furnaces. It was equipped from day one with the era’s modern technology, including command and control devices and automated loading. It was modernized several times (the last time in 2007), but finally shut down in 2008 due to the recession. Aside from its symbolic and historical value, the HF4 is a highly visible beacon in the Charleroi region’s landscape, one of the last witnesses to Wallonia’s industrial evolution, one of Europe’s most productive blast furnaces and, thanks to its surviving equipment, one of the last symbols of the hot-rolled steel industry.
The power station at Wez is one of the site’s oldest structures whose origins go back to 1850 when it was used to power the installations that were to become the “Hauts Fourneaux, Forges et Aciéries de Thy-le-Château” company. The complex comprises a pump room, a water tower, a building containing the boilers, the power station itself, and an electrical substation.
The power station was decommissioned in the 1980s, although the blower motors remained until the 1990s, and the electrical substations until 2012.
A true witness to the site’s history and architecture, as well as to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, the power plant has great historical value. Built in a neo-Gothic style with its pointed-arch windows, it reflects the aesthetics and care that went into 19th-century industrial construction.
IV. A core project and urban scenarios
The “core project” relies on analysis and reveals the importance of certain elements within the site and their relation to the outside world. It identifies structuring elements (heritage, spatial porosity, the cultural axis emerging along the Route de Mons) that form a basic framework on which the various scenarios are based. The aim was to establish an initial understanding that the site is not empty, that it has qualities, and that there is no need to start from tabula rasa. Its finalization provided an initial basis for discussion on what could and could not be achieved within the Porte Ouest.
Two visions are emerging for the area and its plans: that of the quality of the city on the one hand, and that of an innovative economy on the other.
The quality of the city: All development is directed towards a quality of place that precedes any project, a truly green environment resulting from the confrontation between a radically rehabilitated natural environment and a fully functioning heavy industry.
An innovative economy: The other analysis stems more from a classical approach to industrial development. Based on present trends, the Porte Ouest could position itself as a space which is open to the region’s emerging dynamics, supporting the post-carbon industrial transition.
Attractiveness, a fundamental challenge: The project’s goal nevertheless relies on improving the city’s attractiveness through three mutually supportive changes: improving the population’s education level, job opportunities, and quality of life. This is where changing the city’s image by radically transforming the Porte Ouest can play a key role.
Scenarios for Porte Ouest lie at the crossroads of four themes and are built in successive stages (1. business park + landscape intensity; 2. landscape intensity + part of the city; 3. business park + efficiency of the “industrial machine”; 4. part of the city + efficiency of the “machine”). Together, they work on the compatibility of large-scale industry with landscape ecology, mixed-use development, and new forms of economy. The park model enables the integration of industry and urban quality of life, a natural space that mitigates the impact of heavy industry at the edge of the city, and even magnifies large-scale industry and the park through their respective disproportionate scales.
All the urban plans include a specific consideration of how to integrate a “District of the Future”, in line with La Défense. It was while working on the plan that placed the “District of the Future” on what is known as the Train 600 site, at the western edge, that the potential of the HF4, the project’s centerpiece, became apparent, along with the possibility of a city park, the Phare Ouest, as a way to change Charleroi’s image and enhance the appeal of Porte Ouest.
The Haut Fourneau, which has been kept in a state of controlled deterioration, serves as a landmark for a highly original public space, providing support for international cultural events with its unique stature in the area’s scene and serving as a gateway to the Boucle Noire, the Chemins de l’Eau d’Heure, and along the Sambre. It gives the Porte Ouest a role while waiting for the other sites to be used. Once this happens, the quality of the companies likely to set up there will have improved. It will be possible to offer them an improved environment that they, in turn, will be able to further improve.
V. A dynamic master plan: a new narrative
The masterplan therefore presented a “rebuilding plan”: for the site, the city, its economy, its livability, and its attractiveness. However, there were still a number of unknowns, particularly soil and groundwater pollution, which is one of the project’s defining themes. Given this situation, the idea was to design a dynamic master plan that would be subject not only to updates, but also to genuine improvements and optimizations (upgrades) as new data became available, enabling the “rebuilding” grid to be integrated with pollution remediation strategies.
Faced with so many uncertainties, it was essential to clearly define the master plan’s objectives and the values on which it is based: the plan opens with a statement of values focusing on enhancing the region’s overall attractiveness and livability. The aim is to view properties as a limited resource to be managed, with a view to layering projects and mixed uses. The charter affirms that everything that exists is culturally relevant while also remaining open to changes in our heritage, so as to make its evolution possible. It affirms the right of every person and species to be able to move around and enjoy Porte Ouest comfortably. In terms of metabolism, the charter views the site as a renewable resource.
A new narrative
Looking ahead to 2028-2035-2050, Porte Ouest will be a developing regional and economic park: a productive and cultural park, a home to biodiversity, to public and urban spaces. This vision, whose objectives have been debated, emphasizes landscape intensity and a predominantly economic approach, whose diversity can be developed to form a true part of the city.
This vision revolves around seven strategic objectives and several timeframes.
1. Redevelop the attractiveness and livability of Charleroi and its economy
Porte Ouest is a dynamic location for a diverse mix of activities and functions. This is due, on the one hand, to new economic campuses that are connected to the region’s economic clusters and hubs, and, on the other hand, to the expansion of the ecological framework as well as the quality of open and built spaces. These are key factors in terms of attractiveness and a new image, not only for Porte Ouest, but for Charleroi as a whole.
2. Enhancing landscapes and ecosystems
Porte Ouest, a former wetland at the confluence of several rivers, is once again finding an ecological role in the region. It is gradually strengthening the continuity between the major surrounding landscapes and ecosystems through a mosaic of settings based on the site’s long environmental history, by rediscovering diverse moisture gradients inherent in its valley floor setting, and by giving value to abandoned ecosystems.
3. Valuing heritage as a system
Porte Ouest is one component of the greater Wallonia region’s park — which extends to the European level — having reclaimed its various spaces and rediscovered its attractiveness thanks to its historical legacy, its industrial heritage, and its ecosystems. Within the Charleroi region, the site provides a narrative backdrop to its long industrial history and acts as a gateway to an exceptionally rich cultural heritage system.
Heritage is a cultural system divided into three families: icons, heritage buildings with redevelopment potential, and linked heritage elements.
The microtopography of embankments, retaining walls, plinths, and low walls is another legacy of industrial activity. On a smaller scale, their presence can provide a qualitative basis for the creation of robust public spaces specific to Porte Ouest.
4. Embarking on the mobility transition
Porte Ouest is an area of continuity and part of the pilot city for the Charleroi region’s mobility transition, featuring two accessible train stations, improved metro and bus services, docks for waterway logistics, the RAVel network of paths, and multiple pedestrian routes. There are numerous bicycle paths along the riverbanks, calmer roads, and the Route de Mons which is suitable for all types of users. There are also a number of routes making it easier to cross the site, a shared-use marina, and new pedestrian and cyclist bridges crossing the railway line, the Sambre, and the canal.
5. Envisioning pollution remediation as an instrument for regional redevelopment
A landscape and drainage grid has been set up to organize the transition and remediation of each part of the site using a range of techniques, from the most basic to the most innovative, which are adapted partly to the levels of soil and groundwater contamination (which are currently unknown), and partly to the pace and location of new developments. This system creates a transitional landscape that will shape Porte Ouest in the short term. It also generates the development of specific expertise that can contribute to the emergence of a local economic sector.
6. Towards exemplary metabolic and energy performance
Porte Ouest is implementing the energy transition by aiming for carbon neutrality and the production of renewable energies within the framework of an energy community creating synergies between various activities and functions. It is part of a circular, “zero waste” approach, making the most of the multiple sources and flows of materials involved.
7. Leveraging existing dynamics in favor of transition
Within the site and its surroundings, the master plan extends and accompanies the many projects for public spaces, mobility, the economy, culture, energy, etc. that are consistent with the transition. However, certain projects that are not consistent with this new vision are not included in the master plan.
By 2028, the “District of the Future” will welcome its first occupants to Porte Ouest. A number of transformations are already underway on the site, with the aim of making it a center of continuity in terms of landscape, ecology, culture, mobility, usage, etc. This will create links both with nearby urban centers and with the surrounding landscapes and ecosystems.
Its livability will be bolstered by new public spaces that highlight its majestic geography and distinctive heritage, while at the same time taking into account the need for gradual soil and water pollution remediation. These spaces will gradually become attractive, benefiting from a prime location and optimal accessibility by public transport, bicycle, foot or waterway. The District of the Future is coming into its own and acting as a lever for development. Porte Ouest is progressively attracting a diverse group of businesses that are part of existing or emerging economic clusters, as well as a developing cultural dynamic… all with the constant aim of achieving exemplary energy and metabolic efficiency.
By 2035-2050, Porte Ouest will be an attractive, inhabited part of the city, with its productive campuses and emblematic power plant, and mixed-use urban marina. It will form part of the Wallonian region’s great park, where people can work, spend an afternoon at the Phare Ouest, or a weekend following the narrative itinerary of Porte Ouest’s and Charleroi’s industrial history.
The Phare Ouest, an urban park that parallels the “District of the Future”, is the centerpiece of the site, integrating productive activities on its southern edge, preserving and showcasing the two major industries (Industeel and Riva Thy-Marcinelle) as well as supporting public spaces and major events (concerts, sporting and cultural events) around the HF4, one of the city’s iconic structures. The park is open for the short term and will increase in size over time (based on subsequent clean-ups), incorporating the numerous concrete slabs reused for sports and cultural uses. Its exceptional natural and historical setting, as well as its potential for multiple uses, will contribute to Charleroi’s new image and appeal. Beginning tomorrow.
Paola Viganò, Charleroi, Porte Ouest: A Vision of 21st Century Wallonia, Jan 2024,
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