17 January 2020

Genk's decades-long experience with just transition

For several decades now, ICLEI Member Genk (Belgium) has been transitioning away from its legacy as a major coal mining area. The city and the larger Limburg region (within which Genk is located) have found that transition is about much more than just energy. Rather, it has been a long and comprehensive process that remains ongoing. Today, transition in Genk makes use of its industrial heritage and related infrastructure as an asset for future development.

Due to its success and vast lessons learnt, Genk’s ongoing transition has been profiled by the European Commission’s Platform for Coal Regions in Transition, which assists EU coal regions as they transition to low-carbon economies.

Being a historic coal region has shaped Genk’s culture, heritage, and infrastructure in meaningful ways. This has been viewed as an asset, and the area’s industrial legacy has been preserved and linked to diversification of the regional economy.

This approach to transition was not immediately seized. Rather, Genk’s transition has had a number of phases, including some with more and less overarching success. For example, in the 1960s, a major automotive plant was established in Genk, which brought employment and encouraged related industrial companies to locate there. However, when the factory shut down in 2014, Genk was once more faced with a moment of economic transition. This was when they chose to pursue economic diversification, began purchasing abandoned coal mines, and considered how to integrate their coal mining heritage in economic growth. This became a guiding philosophy at the heart of the next (and ongoing) phase of transition.

As a result of this shift, mine sites have since been repurposed as: a technology, clean energy and innovation park known as "Thor Park"; a business park that hosts local entrepreneurs, SMEs, a public garden, art studio, and a biodiversity research park; and a creative and cultural centre focused on education, the creative economy, recreation and art. Each site had a designated theme from the get-go to prevent unproductive internal competition, and reduce complexity in early transition development.

By transitioning from an industrial to an “innovative manufacturing and knowledge” economy, Genk successfully took advantage of its location in a European economic and logistic hotspot, and close to many prestigious universities. This is on top of taking advantage of and repurposing pre-existing mining infrastructure, so as to not have to redevelop from scratch.

Paul Boutsen, a consultant on redevelopment of coal mines and mining regions who has been instrumental to Genk’s transition, explained, “One of the key success factors was that, finally, we managed to embrace our own heritage and culture as a driving force.”

For more information on Genk’s transition, including detailed outlining of challenges faced and funding sources, view the full case study here.

Learn more about the Platform for Coal Regions in Transition here.