Title: Engineering the Territory. Technology, Space and Society in 19th and 20th Century Belgium (Infrastructuur als inzet voor de organisatie van het territorium. Technologie, ruimte en maatschappij in België sinds het begin van de 19de eeuw)
Other Titles: Engineering the Territory. Technology, Space and Society in 19th and 20th Century Belgium
Authors: De Block, Greet
Issue Date: 13-Dec-2011
Abstract: The research examines whether the rural-urban condition of Belgium is the planned spatial outcome of infrastructure policy and design. The moments of conception and implementation of national infrastructure systems are analyzed against the background of urbanism. More specifically, the planned spatial effects of the national railway, light railway, road, waterway and highway network on the Belgian territory and landscape are studied. In Belgium, the design of infrastructure and its embedded spatial visions are crucial to an understanding of urbanization, as infrastructure is one of the few spatial components that is systematically planned, constructed, owned, and managed by the state. As the design concepts of transport systems were mostly based on the pursuit of specific socio-economic and political motives on a national scale, territorial ambitions including both urban and rural environments were fundamentally embedded in the public-works policy and plans of state engineers. Thus, the research complements the traditional history of urbanization, which focuses on formal planning and the city, with an analysis transcending the prevailing disciplinary divides and conceptual rifts between urbanism and engineering, between city and countryside. Belgium has long been an outsider with regard to urban history and the history of planning. Unlike the long-standing tradition of theory and practice of urban projects in countries such as France, Germany, Britain and the Netherlands, in Belgium urban planning and urbanism has just recently been recognized as a discipline that offers formal planning instruments and coherent spatial solutions for socio-economic issues. Consequently, Belgian urban history seen through the lens of modern historiography appears as a set of ad hoc interventions. The analysis of diffuse territories against the background of oppositions such as city-countryside, culture-nature, centrality-chaos and new-old, inevitably results in the label ‘unplanned’, and therefore ‘unsuccessful’. Prominent urbanists and critics have thus portrayed Belgium as ‘ugly’, the result of laissez-faire development and failed governmental bureaucratic procedures and priorities. These negative assessments consistently refer to the absence of formal planning instruments, based on the presumption that the hybrid landscape could not possibly be the result of any planning effort. Rewriting, or at least complementing this literature on urbanization, the research investigates the planned nature of the rural-urban hybrid condition. Instead of considering political, economical and engineering rationales as external influences that either independently or unintentionally influenced the process of urbanization, the visions on spatial development that underlie these rationales are identified and studied. By relating the disciplines of engineering and urbanism, or technology, space and society, the research demonstrates that state engineers and policy-makers have shown a consistent societal commitment when shaping infrastructure networks, and considered the technological systems as a means to transform the territory in order to facilitate and steer modernization processes. The project thus broadens the currently dominant discourse on both urbanization and infrastructure planning to an integrated vision focussing on the dialectic between technological design and the geographies of power with related spatial visions and landscape ideologies. The introduction develops a problem definition, hypothesis and methodology, and thus offers a state of the art of the history of urbanization and the history of infrastructure planning, related to the disciplines of urbanism and geography and, on the other, to the history of technology and the broader domain of Science, Technology and Society (STS). The aim of the empirical part of the dissertation is to cover the timeframe from 1830 up to today, as well as to grasp both the history of ideas and the concrete materialization of concepts relating technology, space and society. More specifically, three case studies analyze the moments of conception in which regimes of infrastructure and urbanization were formulated for railways, light railways, and roads and waterways, and one essay explores the implementation of ideas regarding rails in a specific region. The first part of the concluding chapter supplements the empirical part of the dissertation with a short history of post-war infrastructure planning and thus completes the timeframe by including the second half of the twentieth century as well as complements the last chapter of the empirical part with a sequel on both the conception and implementation of the ideas about roads and waterways. At the same time, conclusive remarks are formulated by comparing post-war planning with previous concepts as well as by examining today’s relation between technology, space and society.
ISBN: 978-94-6018-460-4
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: TH
Appears in Collections:Research Group Urbanity & Architecture (OSA) (-)
Department of Architecture - miscellaneous

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