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Belval: From Luxembourg’s largest steelworks to mixed-use community

Early this morning, before the sun even came up here in Toronto, I had a video conference call with a sharp and talented entrepreneur in Luxembourg. His name is Fräntz Miccoli and he’s working on an interesting startup called KonnectR.

The idea is to create a platform to connect with new people at any point in time and wherever you might happen to be. It may sound like a “hook-up” app, but that’s not the intent. He came about the idea while traveling and looking for other smart and engaging people to hang out with.

When we started the video conference call this morning, I showed him my window so that he could see the sun just starting to rise. He then showed me his coworking space, which made it seem like he is working out of an old industrial steel mill. Turns out, he is.

The area of Luxembourg he’s working out of is called Belval, which is a neighborhood in the west end of the country’s second largest city, Esch-sur-Alzette. The neighborhood used to consist of the largest steelworks in the country. But with the decline of steel production in Luxembourg, the area fell into decline. Today, it’s being reborn as a 21st century mixed-use community.

The developer behind the project is called Agora. And the site – equal to about 120 soccer fields – will house everything from residences and offices to shopping and cultural institutions. The University of Luxembourg has also centralized their campus in the new neighborhood. Having institutions “anchor” a community is becoming quite common for urban renewal programs. Here in Toronto, we did a similar thing with George Brown College along the waterfront.

To give you a better sense of the transformation taking place in Belval, here’s a streetview photo from 2009:

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Here’s another one from the same intersection in 2013 (notice the same tower in the background):

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And here’s an aerial view from 2010:

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I’m always fascinated by urban renewal projects of this scale because it so clearly speaks to the evolutionary nature of cities. Industries die. Businesses disappear. And new uses need to be found. In this case, the area has gone from steel production to tech startups. That’s not surprising.

But at the same time, I think it’s important that we don’t completely erase the past. Here, I think it’s great that they’re preserving some of the blast furnaces and other industrial structures. It gives the area character and a sense of place – which is oftentimes hard to manufacture and always better when it’s authentic.

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