NEST: a laboratory for the city of the future

Since May, the old city library building at Ghent Zuid has been opened up to temporary users. NEST, as the location is now called, is accessible to the public and is a great opportunity for experience and reflection, experimentation, collaboration and networking. In this way, the project acts as a laboratory for the city of the future. Its role will be intense but short-lived: renovation will begin halfway 2018 so that the building can house city services once more.


What can you do in this 7000m3 ‘city within the city’? The answer is meet, experience, share, make, or simply relax. There is a laid-back café for residents and visitors. A whole floor is set aside for events from jumble sales to business parties, and a large space is available for concerts and theatre performances on an intimate or larger scale. In addition, there are movement and training spaces for both professional and non-professional use, spaces for silence and reflection, a co-working space, flexible office and workshop spaces, and a restaurant that surprises diners every day with the cuisine of tomorrow. The ‘Salon’ offers an open meeting place to exchange ideas, while various experts offer tailored advice and coaching to the public on a permanent or rotating basis at the ‘Loket’. The ‘Studio’ is a place for experimenting with sound and music, the ‘Deelpunt’ provides information about sharing in Ghent, and in the ‘Werkhuis’ designers and makers can use the machines and workbenches, work together and attend workshops. Artists can make artistic contributions in the building or exhibit their work in various spaces.


Concept and growth

The concept and layout of NEST, referred to as a ‘New Established State of Temporality’, is anything but random. ‘NEST forms a network of services and spaces, grouped around thirteen “typologies”, by which we mean types of spatial use or activities linked to spaces,’ explains Evi Swinnen. Employed by Timelab, she is managing this temporary project for the Stadslabo consortium. ‘The intention is to make it very simple for users to link their own activities to what the network offers.’ The services and spaces available consist of over thirty initiatives that have found a spot in the old city library through NEST. ‘There are contact people for each of the thirteen typologies,’ adds Evi Swinnen. ‘They are volunteers who run the organisation with various partners and co-users.’

Evi Swinnen: When we were thinking about the typologies we put a strong emphasis on “shared space”, complementarity and interesting forms of collaboration within the space.


The spatial concept with the typologies emerged organically, but the process was coached intensively, with consultation meetings and brainstorming sessions being held in the weeks and months before the project proposal was submitted. Timelab headed the process: the non-profit organisation has been involved in cooperative models for years and has developed a successful method to support citizens’ initiatives. Timelab brought together a network of interested parties, which soon grew into Stadslabo cvba, a consortium with four other socio-cultural organisations. ‘Our starting point was not simply to share the available spaces between the various providers, but to look for ways to create added value for the community and society with everyone involved,’ says Evi Swinnen. ‘So when we were thinking about the typologies we put a strong emphasis on “shared space”, complementarity and interesting forms of collaboration within the space. In the Salon, for example, a large number of interested parties can come together to exchange ideas. From September we will welcome the CAW (general welfare centre) as a partner there. The facilities are used by both permanent users, who rent the spaces for the entire duration of the project, and casual users who will use them for one-off events. We have intentionally left a number of spaces empty so that they remain as flexible as possible. That way things can continue to grow from the bottom up.’

Added value for the city, neighbourhood and municipality

The City of Ghent intended this temporary project to create a community facility that could kick-start a new dynamic in the neighbourhood. Stadslabo’s NEST concept has exceeded expectations. ‘The project is at the intersection of different policy areas, and ultimately most of the city’s aldermen have been directly or indirectly involved in it,’ says Evi Swinnen. ‘That doesn’t make the decision-making process any easier, but the relationship with the local government departments is very good, and there is a great readiness to find solutions.’ The contract with the city did impose strict demands that had to be met, and the operating costs are considerable. ‘Use of the building was based on a public tender,’ she explains, ‘and the fee the city asked for was intended to prevent unfair competition with local businesses. But what we are now seeing is that the activity in NEST is bringing more customers to these businesses, as there are so many more people visiting the neighbourhood.’


In any case, the project is certainly not ruining anyone. ‘It is worth the effort for its social value alone,’ Swinnen says. ‘Stadslabo is making a strong statement with this. We have shown how we can as bring new life to a location and manage it as a business, as a cultural non-profit organisation working with citizens, entrepreneurs and “contributors”. This methodology can serve as an example of participation, co-creation and co-operative entrepreneurship for other towns and cities.’



This article is written by Pieter Plas and appeared in ‘Lokaal’, the magazine of the Association of Flemish Cities and Municipalities (VVSG).
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