Sustainable Architecture: Building the future Dunkirk

Energy transitions are not new. Earth has experienced a number of major energy transitions, each resulting in extensive systemic changes. The Industrial Revolution was largely also a petroleum revolution. The petroleum transition was not planned; it happened in a hodge-podge fashion. Entrepreneurs, inventors, large companies and governments have used industrially drilled oil to create new fuels, new materials, new spaces and new lifestyles.


Carola Hein

This article by  Carola Hein was published in The Beam #8 – Subscribe now for more.

Together they have created an extensive and layered landscape — a petroleumscape— to facilitate the production, transformation and consumption of oil. The petroleum transition has also inspired modern culture from novels to art. To keep climate change from getting even worse, and to survive climate change, we must actively seek out the next energy transition, and move from fossil fuels to more sustainable energy. A transition to green energy requires new lifestyles and new imaginaries. The voices of people of many different ages, races, ethnicities and genders are needed to transition beyond plastics and to green energy.

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution will transform the relationship between people and the landscape”

Designing the green energy transition

In recent decades we have come to understand that our energy sources are finite and our lifestyles are not promoting our health and welfare or that of the planet itself. Asking individuals to live more sustainably and to resist the oil-based systems that surround us requires a lot of strength and energy; focusing on individual action is set to fail because it does not address corporate or systemic actions. We need to design the transition, and make the spaces of post-oil just as heroic and fun as the spaces of oil. We can design a transition that promotes circularity and sustainability in a socially just way, aligning with UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Students from the Beyond Oil studio at TU Delft have started to visualise the physical transformation needed for and generated by the energy transition in the Northern French city of Dunkirk (which we also explored in The Beam #5). They have explored energy narratives, examined the political and economic drivers of the transition, developed alternative infrastructure and food systems, proposed new construction materials and systems, and studied ways to turn polluted industrial sites into educational tools and creative spaces for people and nature. Their projects raise a number of questions to illuminate everyone’s engagements with petroleum.

Question 1: What histories can we tell about the energy future for Dunkirk?

The oil industry and associated industrial manufacturers have played a key role in transforming Dunkirk from a fishing village to a global port. The city is a hub of energy production, transformation and transportation. Energy-related installations include Europe’s largest nuclear power plant and a liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal, a gas combined cycle plant, the landfall of the largest subsea gas pipeline, a wind farm, biofuel production facilities, France’s largest coal port and many gas, oil and petroleum terminals.

Rashid Ayoubi sees the future of Dunkirk as an energy hub where he imagines that four ‘companies’ — Oil Arch, GreenLeaf, Every Drop Matters, MADInc. — have acted as societal forces to create a giant mountain that covers the heart of the settlement. Hidden and protected, an abandoned refinery is exploited for the last drops of oil. On the outside, the people of Dunkirk take advantage of global container trade and additional green energies to indulge in superfluous consumption and play.

Zoe Panayi wonders if the energy transition will allow us to continue the global growth trajectory of more population, more cities, and more consumption goods in a time of climate change. Further growth would translate into giant architectures acknowledging the agency of nature and landscapes. Her project revives old legends about Reuze and the other giants of Dunkirk. Together with sea, land and air giants they will form a parliament to govern the future Dunkirk.

Question 2: What building materials can we use post-oil? Can we grow them locally? How would that look?

Currently we are relying on building materials made from petroleum — including a multitude of plastics. These materials are transported around the world by petroleum-fuelled ships, trucks and planes. To develop, produce and use local, renewable building materials we need to research and (re)-create circular material and economic processes. Such processes also promote local production, the emergence of small-scale creative practices and strengthens local communities.

Lea Scholze proposes a park for mycelium production and research on the renaturated site north of Fort-Mardyck, bordering ArcelorMittal. Mycelium, composed of the roots of mushrooms, is widespread. Fungi thrive on organic and inorganic materials, including oil, and can clean up the site. They can also serve as a future replacement for plastic. The new small-scale redevelopment connects to the bordering neighbourhood, offers publicly accessible buildings for research, training and work, and allows for private and cooperative use.

Gemma Galeno suggests using materials, with low amounts of embodied energy, that are fabricated without the use of oil and that don’t contain oil. Collaborations between municipality, private corporations (Total, ArcelorMittal) and universities can create a cleaner, sustainable, economically stable and vivid Dunkirk that consumes as little oil as possible. Construction by local artisans and contractors reduces the need for transportation. The project proposes a new joint system for bamboo, a bamboo plantation, and a bamboo research centre high-rise.

Question 3: Where will our food come from in the future?

The industrial food system is one of the biggest consumers of oil and one of the greatest producers of greenhouse gases. Transportation of food consumes petroleum and generates emissions. The system is powered by the supermarket (where 75% of food is bought in France) and driven by low prices. Supermarkets source large quantities from industrial farmers, who bring in products from around the globe. Industrial farming engenders poverty, environmental degradation, and a shrinking genetic base for food crops and animals and causes diseases. Local farming can reinvigorate abandoned sites. Local farms can produce nutrient rich produce and help maintain regional practices and knowledge.

Susie Cox proposes a healthy, circular and approachable food system for Dunkirk. This system contrasts with the linear, unsustainable and exploitative system operated by supermarkets. The Food Station creates space for interaction between suppliers, retailers, consumers and waste managers. It is located on the site of the former Food Cooperative of Coudekerque and overseen by the Food Authority of Dunkirk. In 2038, diverse food products are grown on a regional scale, freight travel is integrated into the urban infrastructure, consumption patterns are based on circularity and food waste is turned into biogas and compost.

Casper Kraai suggests a ‘Rolling Farm’ that uses Dunkirk’s extensive railroad network to produce and distribute vegetables and fish locally, providing employment and a more sustainable food source. Unused railway tracks from the eastern port to St. Pol-sur-Mer are currently idle. The Rolling Farm will use the railroad tracks of the Gare des Dunes railroad yard to grow crops on railroad carriages. As the crops grow, the carriages move further down the tracks. After harvest they circle around the city and return to their starting point, completing the production cycle.

Question 4: What happens to the industrial landscape when it retires?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will transform the relationship between people and the landscape. Traditional work and life patterns will change as machines replace humans. But, toxic landscapes remain and require long-term revitalisation strategies.

Aska Welford imagines the slow and gentle retirement of formerly hard-working landscapes of industrialisation such as Arcelor Mittal and Mardyck. People will live healthier lives dedicated to non-productive work. Humans facilitate landscape retirement. Their engagement with soil, water and air evolves. The transitioning spaces provide a unique opportunity for new forms of collective organising. Common ownership of land and shared regeneration strategies create a self-repairing landscape of gabion walls, multi-cultured dunes, heath and woodland planting, slowly transforming the former Arcelormittal site into a community hub.

Question 5: Could clean-up be fun? What if we had automated beasts to clean up polluted landscapes?

Over the last 150 years, the petroleum industry has polluted water, soil and air around its installations. Toxic material has seeped deeply into the ground. Clean-up is often left partly or totally to local public partners. New approaches, technologies,and practices can help make clean-up a process that generates money, promotes innovation and responds to collective needs.

Ege Cakir proposes large autonomous ‘animals’ that will roam the site of the TOTAL refinery to make remediation an event. These ‘animals’ will clean up the soil. Select oil structures — refinery elements and storage tanks — remain as sculptures in the landscape. The phytoremediation project is scheduled to occur in four phases of ten years. The citizens of Dunkirk can enjoy the changing landscape as a recreational park.

Question 6: How can we earn money by cleaning the polluted sites?

At a time when we are less dependent on oil, huge, heavily polluted areas will have to be cleaned up to increase land prices. The costs for such a clean-up are often prohibitive, particularly when land values are low.

Thomas Bianchi proposes a phased plan for an economically feasible way to clean up the land of the former BP Refinery in Dunkirk. Five phases create an interactive and changing landscape that communicates with the visitor. The production of biomass as a ‘transition fuel’ generates a revenue stream while also providing incentives for third parties to contribute to this development. By 2050 the site is free of oil and biomass-related processes. A dune landscape serves as coastal protection and hosts renewable energies and a research centre.

Question 7: Can we generate energy from water for the future of Dunkirk?

The principles of de-growth, voluntary simplicity and self-sustainability are the way forward if we want to preserve and enhance the communities in which we live today. Reduction and restraint in the use of our resources (water, food, energy, materials) as well as an equitable downscaling of production and consumption is paramount. Industry, research and leisure must become intertwined to create needed economic, social and cultural circularities.

Josephine Gebbie proposes replacing oil with water. She envisions harnessing the massive energy potential of the oceans. Clean energy generated by tidal and osmotic energy powers the city and renews Dunkirk’s relationship with the port and sea. A research-based community within the docks of the old harbour generates its own energy and food. Production processes are visible and accessible and incorporated into residential and leisure areas. Proximity to the water and rail networks facilitates connection to the rest of the country by modes of transport that no longer rely on oil.

Beyond oil

These projects developed in the MSc2 Studio Architecture and Urbanism Beyond Oil at TU Delft represent just a few possible future developments. They are early attempts at conceptualising the impact of transitions involving energy, technology and ways of life on our future built environment. Understanding the possible impact of new materials and new technologies as well as of new lifestyles and new utopian (and dystopian) narratives can help nurture a necessary conversation about a future beyond oil.

The projects presented here are displayed as part of the exhibition “Or Noir”, at the Learning Center Halle aux Sucres in Dunkirk from October 20th 2018 to June 16th 2019.


Carola Hein is Professor and Head, Chair History of Architecture and Urban Planning at Delft University of Technology. Her book publications include The Capital of Europe, Rebuilding Urban Japan after 1945 and Port Cities. Carola Hein currently works on the transmission of planning ideas among port cities and within landscapes of oil. Twitter: @hein_carola



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