Last Friday, the online conference “The territorial impacts of the health crisis linked to COVID-19″ within the framework of the urban-architectural and landscape consultation “Luxembourg in transition” was held. The high-level conference was organised by the National Information Unit for Urban Policy (CIPU) in cooperation with the Order of Architects and Consulting Engineers (OAI) and the Luxembourg Ministry of Energy and Spatial Planning.

During the afternoon, experts and stakeholders presented and debated territorial consequences of the pandemic on Luxembourg:

  • How will remote working develop?
  • What does the pandemic show in terms of resilience of Luxembourg and the Greater Region as a whole?
  • What does the pandemic signify for the many cross-border relations between Luxembourg and its surroundings?
  • What social consequences are to be expected and what’s the impact of the pandemic on the societal cohesion within the country?
  • ….

Many more questions were addressed from various different angles, be it the national ministry, from the point of view of Luxembourg municipalities, the advisory social council, from planners and architects and more. A recording of the conference with an English translation has been made available here:

The discussion quick came to the conclusion that increased occurrence of remote working is only one of the many consequences of the pandemic. The pandemic has impacted far more elements in Luxembourg: transport and mobility, public finance and social cohesion, just to name a few. Additionally, the border closures have also strongly impacted the perception of national borders of Luxembourg residents.

All these changes result in behavioral adaptations of persons living and working in the country. Not all of these changes will likely disappear after the pandemic: the booming of online shops and the consequences for inner city commerce, the increased shift towards remote working post-COVID and more will potentially stay. Legislative adjustments pave the way to more lasting changes, for example the adapted double-taxation agreements between Luxembourg and the neighbouring country, allowing for extended periods of home office from a foreign country.

Such long-term changes will also manifest in territorial consequences, be it in a changing mobility behaviour, decentralisation of workplaces or a stronger focus on family and relatives. And also future recovery measures will have, depending on their design, territorially different impacts across Luxembourg and the Greater Region.

Word cloud on the significance of topics for territorial development post-COVID

In conclusion, the key-note speakers and attendees of the conference highlighted that the pandemic will likely increases social and economic inequalities. This can be observed at different scales, both within the country and between Luxembourg and its neighbours. Depending on the design of recovery measures, these inequalities can either be reinforced or softened.

Post-COVID recovery measures can thus have great leverage: if conceived intelligently, policy measures can contribute to induce long-expected changes to the way we live and work. In this regard, the pandemic does not only present a challenge but also an opportunity.

For example for combatting the climate crisis, our established societal systems and the way we live and work needs to undergo structural changes. To reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the changing climate, we need to act more in line with sustainability objectives, which has long been advocated. The pandemic has shown that once the right incentives are in sight, societies can swiftly adjust, and they are also capable to recover from external shocks.

However, there’s no blueprint on how to master the transition. Knowing that measures have different impacts at local, national and cross-border level, policy-makers need to test policies and embrace for some decisions a ‘trial and error’ approach. One way to reduce uncertainty is to build policies more strongly on local knowledge through participation processes.

The upcoming years will allow to assess the success of Luxembourg and European measures to combat the impact of the pandemic. They will also show which of the changes have survived and also what lessons we have drawn from the current situation.

In order to provide an overview on the numerous territorial impacts, CIPU drafted an input paper during December 2020 as preparation for the conference (in French). The input paper can be downloaded here.

On the 22nd of September 2020, CIPU organised a visit to ‘Elmen’, the largest affordable housing project in Luxembourg. The district is developed adjacent to the municipality of Kehlen in the West of Luxembourg (see here and map at the bottom).

A 3D model of the houses being realised in ‘Elmen’. Source: S.N.H.B.M., 2020.

Elmen is developed by one of the public housing agencies of the country S.N.H.B.M. (Société Nationale des Habitations à Bon Marché, French for: National society for affordable housing). S.N.H.B.M. is a publicly owned institution which has been entrusted with the task of creating affordable housing throughout the country. It is one of the largest providers of affordable housing together with ‘Fonds du Logement’.

The projects realised by the two agencies differ in size and typology: some projects are comparably small and are constructed in the framework of renovating a building in a rural village centre. Some other projects are green- and brownfield developments and hence are larger in size (‘Fonds du Logement’ projects, S.N.H.B.M. projects). The affordable housing units created are either sold for a subsidised price or leased to tenants that are eligible to receive an affordable housing unit

All of the planned 750 – 800 units in Elmen will be sold as affordable housing units. Altogether, the planned apartment buildings and houses will be able to accommodate about 2,000 new residents. Households or persons that want to purchase a unit in Elmen need to fulfil a set of criteria. As an example, interested buyers have a higher chance of receiving a unit if they are a family with children already residing in the municipality of Kehlen with a household income below a certain threshold.

House alignment and street width in Elmen. Source: CIPU, 2020.

In order to use the 27 hectares greenfield as effectively as possible, Elmen was planned with a high population density. This contrasts the existing residential district in Kehlen. Once finalised, Elmen will feature a theoretical population density of 7,400 inhabitants per square kilometres which is rather high for a rural area of Luxembourg. To make the high density work and to create a nearly zero-energy and affordable housing district, architects and planners had to apply some non-standard but innovative approaches in the design of the district and buildings:

  1. Parking is organised centrally in car parks: this saves space and allows to limit street surfaces.
  2. Houses and residences are facing away from one another: this allows every homeowner to benefit from a small garden and some privacy.
  3. Wood is the primary construction material for houses: nine different typologies of individual houses are built, all from glued solid wood boards. During the planning, an emphasis was put on standardisation of building blocks, to allow for large-scale production and to limit costs.
  4. Houses will produce 50 % of the energy they consume: photovoltaic, heat-air pumps and a district heating and cooling network allow to reduce energy consumption of the district.
Entrance to one of the finalised single family houses. Source: CIPU, 2020.

The first set single-family houses have already been constructed. All single—family houses are spacious and well-equipped providing at least three bedrooms, an office, a living room, a kitchen and a small private garden.

To familiarise planners and architects with the project and the design choices, CIPU (National Information Unit for urban Policy) organised a guided tour through Elmen in autumn 2020. About 20 professionals from the sector participated in the tour and were given the chance to get to know the district as well as some of the already realised houses.

The density of the area is impressive; at first sight, houses are very close together, creating the impression of providing little private space. On second glance, this illusion crumbles: the houses are placed in a way that windows and exits do not face one another and gardens are seldom in view of the windows of a neighbouring house. This creates some private spaces for residents.

Private gardens in Elmen. Source: CIPU, 2020.

The centralised parking has enabled planners to reduce street width. Only access roads to the centralised car parks and the stations for public transport feature regular street width of more than four metres. All residential roads are much narrower so that a car can pass in one direction only. This renders the road network more pedestrian friendly. After all, roads in Elmen are not just intended for private transport but as places to meet for neighbours and residents.

Building alignment in the Elmen district. Source: CIPU, 2020.

And despite the high density, the area does not feel like an inner-city district. In Elmen, the urban environment conveys the impression to visitors to roam through a village-centre. For example, the building height of single-family units are limited to two stories, the apartment buildings don’t exceed three stories in height. Most windows and doors face the streets, allowing for social control. Additionally, all houses and small gardens are directly accessible from the street, leading to the fusion of private and public space.

So far about 10 houses were finalised and are used to promote sales of the upcoming housing units (about 740 to 790 units will be constructed). Elmen will be realised stepwise in three separate lots and will also provide a central supermarket as well as a primary school.

For more information about the concept of Elmen make sure to read our project sheet which can be accessed under the following link. Further information and a few more pictures are provided on the website of the project.

Location of the Elmen district within the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. The yellow borders show the limits of lot 01. Source: CIPU, 2020.

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As first contribution to the CIPU Blog, Claude Turmes, Luxembourg Minister for Energy and Spatial Planning has been interviewed on the role of spatial and urban planning on climate change adaptation in Luxembourg.

Interviewer: Minister Turmes, climate change is an important topic in Luxembourg. Two of the instruments to address climate change are spatial planning and urban policy, falling into your area of competence, providing different opportunities and approaches to address consequences. What role should spatial planning and urban development play in adapting to climate change?

Minister Turmes: Climate change is a crosscutting issue that concerns almost all sectors and has a strong territorial dimension. Spatial planning can deal with the territorial dimension of climate change by adopting an integrated approach that takes into account the demands of different sector policies, such as environmental protection, mobility and local economic development. As the adaptation to climate change requires compromises, spatial planning can function as a platform for the coordination of and mediation between different sector policies. The National Information Unit for Urban Policy (Cellule nationale d’Information pour la Politique Urbaine, CIPU) and the so-called “convention areas” (referring to conventions of territorial co-operation between the State and municipalities) can function as such a platform.

Cities are at the forefront of the climate crisis. Cities – through the density of the built environment, the high degree of sealed surfaces and the low degree of green areas – are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change (e.g. urban heat island effect, drought and flooding), but they are also major contributors to climate change by producing more than 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And while cities are part of the problem, they are also part of the solution. Around the world, cities are leading the action to tackle climate change and drive the innovation to deal with its impacts. This is also the case here in Luxembourg. In the context of the horticultural show LUGA (Luxembourg Urban Garden) in 2023, the City of Luxembourg will have the opportunity to present its innovative urban greening projects to a wider audience.

The development dynamic of cities in Luxembourg will further exacerbate the consequences of climate change, which means that our national approach to urban development itself will have to adapt. Climate change adaptation has to be integrated into the way in which our cities are planned as well as built. Climate-friendly construction, in line with the principles of “eco-urbanism”, will not only increase the resilience of cities, but also the quality of life of citizens.

Interviewer: Where do you see priorities or opportunities to use existing or new spatial planning and urban development instruments for climate change adaptation in Luxembourg?

Minister Turmes: The focus clearly lies on reducing global CO2 emissions. Actually, two thirds of urban emissions come from motorised transport. Above all short distances and energy-efficient construction methods in urban areas can counteract this situation. Generally speaking, it is important to carefully assess the situation in cities and regions in order to find meaningful and appropriate answers to the requirements of climate protection and the necessities of climate adaptation. In Luxembourg, climate change is already clearly seen as an interdisciplinary topic: Not only has the Ministry of Energy and Spatial Planning itself, but also a number of other departments, addressed spatially relevant topics relating to climate protection and adaptation. The Master Programme for Spatial Planning will incorporate climate adaptation guidelines regarding the three agglomeration areas of Luxembourg – the Southern Region, the Nordstad and the so-called “Centre” – with a development horizon of 2035. The goal is the sustainable development of urban regions. This aim also applies to other instruments, such as the Pacte Climat or the Interreg funding programmes. Furthermore, the Ministry of Energy and Spatial Planning is currently working with a planning office specialised in sustainable development on a reference guide concerning “eco-urbanism”, which will present strategies for incorporating climate change adaptation into urban planning.

The spatial planning instruments are particularly effective in the case of new building projects or land provision. However, many climate protection and adaptation measures also take place in existing districts. Regarding existing districts, the different funding programmes are particularly interesting. The CLEVER funding programmes of the Government subsidise up to 50% of the total costs of sustainable projects, such as the installation of solar cells.

If climate adaptation in cities is to become a success, we have to effectively steer sector policies in order to coordinate the implementation of measures. We have undoubtedly reached a point at which specific measures have to be implemented immediately, without falling into a silo mentality. Ultimately, spatial planning plays a central role in this regard, particularly in the framework of a monitoring system for reviewing the effectiveness of our measures and strategies.

Minister Turmes speaking at the CIPU Info Day in December 2019. Source: Patty Neu, 2019.

Interviewer: What role should innovative energy concepts play in climate-friendly urban development?

Minister Turmes: Innovative energy concepts should definitely play a paramount role in climate-friendly urban development. Climate-friendly energy concepts must become the norm, particularly in the case of new building projects where it is important to back these innovative concepts based on renewable energy from the beginning. We should also consider the possibility to integrate so-called “smart grids”. The advantage of this system is that it can store excess green electricity. This type of energy storage is particularly useful in a climate-friendly city of short distances. Nowadays conventional energy sources should only be regarded as an alternative. This is on what our awareness-raising activities should focus.

The reference guide concerning “eco-urbanism” will also highlight strategies for sustainable urban development with zero emissions. In this process, it is important that strategies for climate change adaptation take into account the spatial and socio-economic context. There are already some municipalities who back energy-efficient pilot projects, such as Remich with the Interreg Greater Region project EnergiewabenGR on so-called “energy combs”. I hope that in the near future more municipalities will dare to tackle pilot projects. The capacity of a region, city or municipality to implement an innovative energy concept does certainly depend on resources and expertise, but primarily on political willingness.

Interviewer: What role does the regional integration of Luxembourg into the supraregional planning context (e.g. the so-called ‘Greater Region’) play for you in terms of adaptation to climate change and climate protection (e.g. the process “Luxembourg in Transition“)?

Minister Turmes: Climate change does not recognise national borders and Luxembourg is not an island. Luxembourg is firmly anchored in the Greater Region as a cross-border polycentric metropolitan region. The functional linkages between Luxembourg and its neighbours in the areas of employment, mobility and housing are so strong that spatial planning in Luxembourg has to take the cross-border dimension of climate change adaptation into account. Both the Spatial Development Concept of the Greater Region (Schéma de développement territorial de la Grande Région) and the international consultation “Luxembourg in Transition” work with this reality and seek, together with partners from the neighbouring countries, solutions at the cross-border level.

We also have to look beyond the Greater Region and work with our partners in North-West Europe. For instance, the Interreg NWE project GROOF – with partners in Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – aims at reducing CO2 emissions in the construction and agriculture sectors by facilitating the emergence of rooftop greenhouses as a tool to recover the heat and CO2 of buildings. The Luxembourgish project partner “IFSB” (Institut de Formation Sectoriel du Bâtiment) is investing in a rooftop greenhouse pilot in Bettembourg. Knowledge transfer beyond the project has been initiated by coaching the housing cooperative “Adhoc habitat participative” in the City of Luxembourg.

Interviewer: What is the role of the CIPU for climate change adaptation in Luxembourg?

Minister Turmes: The National Information Unit for Urban Policy (Cellule nationale d’Information pour la Politique Urbaine, CIPU) stands for a collaborative partnership between the State and cities. The objective is for the State and cities to work together on common problems, such as the adaptation to climate change, and develop practical solutions in the area of urban development. The CIPU thereby functions as a public forum for the discussion of ideas and the exchange of experiences between the State, cities, nongovernmental organisations and professionals.

The CIPU can facilitate the establishment of a high-quality urbanism that respects the principles of zero emission and zero waste in Luxembourg.

The CIPU can also contribute to capacity building in cities by offering learning and training through webinars, providing tailor-made knowledge input for workshops and support its partners in the submission of project proposals in the framework of European programmes.

One of the objectives of the CIPU is to create a two-way connection between the European level on one side and the national as well as municipal level on the other side. This means that, on the one hand, the CIPU presents examples and projects from all over Europe to stimulate the transfer of good practices in Luxembourgish cities. On the other hand, the role of the CIPU is to upload good practice examples from Luxembourgish cities to the policy debate at the European level and promote them in European forums.

Interviewer: Thank you very much Minister Turmes for these answers.

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