Professor Aglaée Degros (c) TU Graz - Lunghammer
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In the Luxembourg in Transition project, 10 multidisciplinary teams have the rare opportunity to design a model for an entire state and its cross-border regions. Spatial planners, urban planners, architects and landscape architects are developing ideas for the transition to a future that is carbon-neutral. These ideas will provide the government with a medium and long-term orientation in spatial planning.

Luxembourg has an area of 2,590 square km and 638,000 inhabitants. This is about one-sixth the area of the Austrian province of Styria and half the population. This is the kind of comparison that Professor Aglaée Degros makes. As the head of the Institute of Urban Planning at the Graz University of Technology, Austria, she is conducting research within the framework of this project. Using such comparisons, she wants to give students an understanding of the special features of the small state of Luxembourg. This promotes understanding and reflection on how architecture and shared urban spaces can make society carbon neutral.

A unique structure

Luxembourg is made up of many small towns and 92 percent of its inhabitants live in cities. Another specific feature is that approximately half of all employees are cross-border workers and therefore non-residents. This is why the cross-border conurbations or the Grande Région are included in the planning. We at Innovation Origins ask Professor Degros: What this mean for the project?

Greater Region of Luxembourg (c) State Chancellery of Saarland, Germany (Wikicommons)

Aglaée Degros: These small towns are well-connected to the rail infrastructure, a good thing because it can help reduce private transport. But the high real estate prices in small towns are problematic. People who can’t afford high rents have to move outside Luxembourg, where rents are four to five times cheaper. This adds an incredible amount of mobility and jeopardizes the climate goal of being carbon neutral by 2050.

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That’s why in the project we’re not just looking at Luxembourg but at the Grande Région, which includes the bordering countries of Belgium, France and Germany. These are areas where there has never been much investment. In France, for example, there is a lot of obsolete industry, in Belgium there is agribusiness, and in Germany, there are no important economic drivers, either. This is also why – apart from automobility – there is no functioning transportation network. If you think about a cross-border mobility network, there is certainly potential for improvement here.

So the cross-border commuters from Belgium, Germany and France are Luxembourgers who have settled outside the country?

There are two directions: People from Luxembourg who live outside the country because it is cheaper there, and people who come to Luxembourg to work there because it is the largest employer in the region, the biggest influx coming from France.

Do you see improved mobility as the solution to the problem?

Yes. If we accept that living abroad is much cheaper, then we need to organize mobility more sustainably to become carbon neutral by 2050.

How can urban designers make a society carbon neutral?

We rely on the pooling of resources to share crucial functions. One example is car sharing, another would be more equitable distribution of road space. Active mobility and parking take up a lot of public space, and with car sharing you can reduce that and integrate green spaces instead.

Behind this is the concept of the 15-minute city, where you use proximity. This means that all the important points of contact for citizens can be reached within 15 minutes, resulting in much less movement.

Luxembourg wants to become carbon neutral, but also take the challenges of COVID-19 into account. What would this look like?

Each country in the greater area has reacted differently to the COVID-19 crisis and this has resulted in a lot of problems in cooperation. For example, commuters have to be tested on a daily basis. That’s why they built a co-working space near the border on the French side. In Thionville, for example, 70 workstations are available, so people can work in France and still meet with their colleagues. This has shown us that mobility can be reduced with this measure.

Another problem was brought to light by fuel and shopping tourism. Luxembourg has lower prices than neighboring countries and attracts this type of tourism. During the COVID-19 crisis, gas stations and shopping centers at the borders saw very little business. This showed that there is a mobility problem caused only by the tax system. If you want to be carbon neutral, you have to challenge those things, too.

An unfortunate coincidence was that Luxembourg made public transport accessible for free in March 2020 to reduce car use. That coincided with the first lockdown, so it was not the right moment to do that. Since many people avoided public transportation during the pandemic, this measure cannot be evaluated. Apart from that, studies have already proven that this doesn’t work. It is more likely that car traffic can be controlled with high parking fees, as is done in the Netherlands, for example.

Another goal is to bring local shopping back to the city. How would that work?

(Laughs). Yes, that’s a good question. In a new housing development on the outskirts of Wiltz, we’ve observed that residents clearly gravitate toward shopping malls when there is poor public transportation to the city. But because shopping malls are very much tied to automobility, changing that mobility could change people’s consumption routine. However, I am not so optimistic because I think shopping malls will no longer compete with downtown stores, but with online shopping. As a result, the mobility problem will shift more towards logistics. But you can’t build a distribution center in Luxembourg because of the high real estate prices. On the other hand, if it is built in one of the surrounding countries, that will once again generate a lot of truck traffic.

In addition to urban development, Luxembourg in Transition is also about restoring biodiversity in the natural landscape. In the past, rivers were straightened and covered with cement and surfaces were quickly sealed over. Apart from that, intensive forestry – in conjunction with climate change – led to massive pest infestations. In the future, rivers should be allowed to once again resume their natural course, real estate pressure should be reduced, and pure fir forests should be transformed into mixed forests. In this way, nature can become biodiverse again and the greater Luxembourg region carbon neutral.

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