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Rail trail and greenway development in industrial cities of Belgium

Industrial cities in Belgium began converting railroads and canals into trails and greenways to replace lost industries and improve community quality of life. The "Line 119 Rail Trail" in Charleroi is an example of preserving history and open space while providing new tourism and health opportunities.

By G. Perrin

It is always a pleasure for me to speak about rail trails and greenways projects in our small country, Belgium, and especially in its French-speaking Region, Wallonia. Our Minister for Town and Country Planning, Michel Lebrun, invited four members of his administration and four journalists to attend the previous rail trails and greenways conference in San Diego.

"The Minister, the Mayor, the President of the Walloon Parliament and hundreds of citizens rode together on the 10 km trail and drank together the same incomparable Belgian beer."

Those who attended the previous conference have heard about our Walloon Project, called the RAVeL. RAVeL stands for "réseau autonome de voies lentes" or autonomous network of trails intended for slow traffic. The project aims to convert 1200 km (750 miles) of disused railroads and 600 km (375 miles) of towpaths into greenways. About 60 % of the towpaths and 20 % of the disused railroads are already available for nonmotorized users. There are two main axes, one stretching from east to west, mainly along towpaths, called RAVeL 1, and one from north to south, called RAVeL 2.

Our association, Chemins du Rail, plays a very important role in liaising between officials of the Walloon Government and the local communities and associations. At the outset, three years ago, the RAVeL project was oriented towards recreational use and tourism. So no plans were made for building trails in urban areas, at least during the first period. But very quickly, some objections arose. "Daily cyclists" objected that it is in urban areas that the bicycle is mainly useful. Others pointed out that former industrial cities probably need greenways more than some country areas where the quality of life is already much better.

It is perhaps important to say here that, until the nineteen-sixties, Wallonia was a very powerful industrial region. There were hundreds of coal mines, steel or glass factories, along a 100 km (60 mile) long corridor stretching from the French border in the west to the German one in the East. Then, as in many countries, the importance of the coal and steel industries diminished slowly but irreparably. There were no plans then for introducing new industries, so this led to a very high rate of unemployement and a general discouragement among the population.

Our old industrial cities have to face urban violence and vandalism, as it is the case in many places in Europe. The challenge now is how to improve 1) their economic situation and 2) their quality of life. There could be a lot to say about the first item. But let's focus on the second one and on the role greenways can play in this process.

Among the old industrial cities of our country, let me draw your attention to a very specific one: Charleroi, a name that might be familiar to people living in the Pittsburgh area. In fact, there is a place, called Charleroi PA, about 20 miles south from here. This community was founded during the last century by immigrants coming from Charleroi, Belgium. They played their role in developing the steel industry in their new homeland as they had before in Wallonia.

Several years before the RAVeL project was launched by Minister Michel Lebrun, the city of Charleroi, Belgium, published a very interesting booklet called "Balades à Charleroi" or "Walks in Charleroi." In this book, Martine Piret, an urban planning officer and also a member of our association, Chemins du Rail, suggested building and marking a network of paths and greenways, linking parks and "terrils" by means of disused railroad tracks and towpaths. She also described four elements of her city's industrial heritage that could be used with great advantage to develop a new quality of life there:

  • a matchless railroad network, 50 % of which was now out of use and, therefore, available for greenway projects;
  • tens of kilometers of towpaths along the river Sambre and the Charleroi to Brussels canal;
  • wonderful parks, which once belonged to rich industrial tycoons and are now in the hands of the City;
  • tens of old "terrils", or slag heaps, most of which had now been transformed into green hills.

As I told you at the beginning of this presentation, RAVeL leaders did not plan to spend money on greenways in urban areas. But there was one key element in favor of Charleroi: to achieve RAVeL 1, the east to west axis, the Walloon Region had to face a lot of problems along the towpaths of the river Sambre. Many factories use the towpath as loading and unloading areas. On some sections, there is no towpath at all, and so on.

But there was a wonderful railroad corridor, the former line # 119, which forms a belt around the eastern and northern districts of the city. Line 119 is a perfect link between the river Sambre and the canal to Brussels, and, therefore, a perfect alternative to the missing link between the two sections of RAVeL 1. Another advantage was the fact that the whole line was still owned by the SNCB, our National Railway Company. Martine Piret next persuaded the Mayor of Charleroi, Jacques van Gompel, to ask the Walloon Region to include line 119 in the priorities of the RAVeL project. Beginning January 1998, a budget of 50 million Belgian francs (1,24 million Euros, or 1,3 million US $) has been dedicated to develop line 119 as the first urban greenway in Wallonia.

A multidisciplinary team has been formed:

  • Martine Piret for the Urban Planning Dept of the City of Charleroi;
  • two representatives of the Highway Dept of the Walloon Region, in charge of the RAVeL;
  • one delegate of the Town and Country Planning Dept of the Walloon Region; and
  • one delegate of Chemins du Rail.

Our first task was to visit the site several times. The situation was not easy to handle. The railroad corridor was full of vegetation and also of rubbish. Many sections were used by neighbours without any form of permission and had been closed off with gates and fences.

Forty-two people had formal but precarious contracts with the SNCB, the National Railway, and were allowed to use sections of the corridor as gardens, access to their garages, etc. Most of these people were not at all well-off and many of them were deeply attached to their pieces of ground. The corridor was also rich in various species of plants and shrubs. A complete inventory was conducted before any decision was made about how to design the trail. We also conducted a full survey of every piece of railway heritage, such as kilometer-markers, signals, interesting bridges, station platforms, etc.

According to an agreement between the National Railway and the Walloon Region, the Railway was obligated to terminate these contracts. So legally, there was no obstacle to the Region's recovering the corridor. But we concluded that, if we just used the legal approach, we would raise a lot of opposition and create a very negative psychological climate for the rest of the process. So we decided to organize a series of meetings, in March and April 1999:

  • one meeting with the leaders of the "comités de quartier" or "district commitees" and the presidents of the local development offices (syndicats d'initiative);
  • three with the 42 people who rented sections of the line (one meeting per district);
  • one for the adjacent population in general.

We also visited about 20 of the sites where somebody had a contract with the Railway, in order to understand their specific problems linked with the construction of the trail. All this process took a lot of time: about 20 meetings, hours and hours spent "in the field." But the result was everything we had hoped for. Almost no one opposed the project. Among the 42 tenants who occupied a section of the former railroad, almost all were very satisfied with the solutions we found to their problems and many of them declared that the trail was going to be a great improvement in their own environment. Almost all of them!

There were two opponents: one was a rich physician who was also a real estate promoter. He was very disappointed because he wanted to buy the adjacent railroad corridor, to build a new building on it and so to make a little more money. The second one was a prosperous car merchant who needed the former railroad adjacent to his business as a car park. In both cases it was possible to find a compromise. But it is interesting to see that the less one owns, the more one appreciates any improvement in one's environment, even if one loses some personal benefit.

The ceremonial opening took place on November 29, 1998. The weather was typically Belgian but it was a real popular success. The President of the local "comité de quartier" or "district commitee" declared that the new trail was the best thing that happened in his area for the last 30 years. The Minister, the Mayor, the President of the Walloon Parliament and hundreds of ordinary citizens rode together on the 10 km trail and drank together the same incomparable Belgian beer. Today, pedestrians, cyclists, horse riders and people in wheelchairs discover a quite new aspect of their own city.

Two teams of "éco-cantonniers" or "trailminders" maintain and watch over the trail. They will repair and maintain every remaining piece of railway heritage we mentioned before. They also constitute the link between users, adjacent residents and the City administration. The "Line 119 Trail" has given Charleroi a new pride. For the first time, a very popular TV program dedicated to tourism has been entirely devoted to Charleroi and its area. For the first time in years, a French TV team has come to Charleroi to describe something else than strikes and violence. They interviewed several residents and users, who were proud to explain all the benefits they found in these new amenities.

I would not venture to say that the trail will be the miracle that will change life in Charleroi. A lot has still to be done in the field of economics and employment. A lot has already been done in the field of culture. Charleroi houses many important cultural events and several wonderful museums with, among them, an excellent industrial museum. The Charleroi Photography Museum is probably one of the best of its kind in Europe. All this can be found on an interesting web site called, very simply, www.charleroi.be.

The trail we are talking about is only a part of a program that includes a complete cycle route scheme. A map of this future network can be seen on the walls of this room. Martine Piret is already working on two further rail-trails that will form a 20 km (12 mile) long loop in the east side of the Charleroi area. Other programs include important improvement projects in several places adjacent to the existing trail.

The only remaining station building along the 119 trail is now occupied by an association called "Faim et Froid" (Hunger and Cold), dedicated to helping homeless people. Until now the building was in a very poor condition but nobody actually saw it, as it was more or less isolated along the disused railroad. The opening of the trail was an opportunity for new plans to be made: with financial help from the City and the Walloon Region, the building will be completely refurbished and its previous aspect of a railroad station will be restored. It will house a snackbar and a bicycle shop. The people helped by the association will themselves find jobs in the renovation scheme and in the future shops.

One can read in the Michelin Tourist Guide for New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, page 326: "When asked what should be done with Pittsburgh in the 1930's, architect Frank Lloyd Wright tersely suggested "Abandon it." Luckily, the city fathers ignored his advice, and an unprecedented cooperation between public and private entreprise began to alter the look of the city". On a much smaller scale, and several years later, Charleroi Belgium, whose history is so parallel to that of Pittsburgh and probably of Charleroi PA, faces the same challenge.

As I said before, no greenway alone will improve the economic or social situation of a former industrial city. But, together with a new mobility, with green spaces, with strong cultural support, with an intelligent development of our industrial heritage, greenways can be an important element of a new life for our old cities once devoted to coal and steel. The "Line 119 Trail" in Charleroi is heartening evidence of this assertion.

Presented at the 2nd International Greenways and Trails Conference, June 1999

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