Functional diversity at the heart of real estate projects

Do new projects based on functional diversity have a place in Wallonia seen the current urban planning regulations? In terms of territorial development, mixing the functions of housing, commerce, offices and culture, while taking into account environmental issues and of course profitability, is a step towards the future.

Last December, we were invited to speak about the subject during the conference “What vision is there for Wallonia in a real estate rebound?”, organised by the Cercle de Wallonie of Liège. This was an excellent opportunity for us to come back to the Free Time Park, a functional mixed-use project currently under development on the Val Saint Lambert site in Seraing.

What kind of functional diversity?

Functional diversity, abundantly cited in land-use planning documents, is intended to curb the dispersal of functions like housing, shops, offices, leisure, services, etc. in the same way as it is used in the public sector, by grouping them together in urban centres and in new neighbourhoods where everything remains to be created. In the Kyoto definition, four main guiding ideas could be retained:

  • The mix of activities
  • Their insertion in habitat cores
  • The accessibility of these areas on foot
  • Reducing distances done by motorised transport

In Seraing, on the outskirts of Liège, the Free Time Park is a very fine example of a multifunctional project like many others that are flourishing all over the world. Although still hazy in people’s minds, the functional diversity has a bright future ahead of it and requires a holistic approach to the territory and its development.

The Free Time Park, an ambassador for the future

Let’s stop talking about shopping centres as we know them! This model will soon be a thing of the past. The shopping centre is creating a new identity. The Mecca of the future, the one that our society will gladly go to, offers a more balanced mix of retail, housing, hotel, business, culture, leisure, events, etc.

The Free Time Park competed with Irish, Chinese and Spanish initiatives and won the “BEST FUTURA SHOPPING CENTRE” during the last MAPIC Award 2019 in Cannes. The town of Seraing reinvents itself and moves towards functional diversity, with a global project estimated at 110 million euros as a result. Welcome to the Free Time Park, a 30-year-old disused industrial site that will soon give way to hundreds of thousands of square meters dedicated to commerce, business, leisure and housing.

The Free Time Park will be accessible by train, car or bus and will do its utmost to encourage travel on foot or by bicycle. Within a short distance, consumers will have access to a shopping village, leisure parks, a hotel and serviced residences, a business centre, housing areas and the famous Cristallerie du Val. All these infrastructures will be supplied by a common power plant, a European first, in collaboration with John Cockerill.


Mixed territories to address Mobility and Environment issues

The challenges of the functional diversity are manifold: reducing urban sprawl, which has the effect of promoting a social mix and reducing motorised everyday trips. This means increasing soft, non-motorised modes of transport, thus reducing the energy bill, and at the same time the ecological footprint.

In short, the aim is to create more “ecolonomy-friendly” territories. Harmonious territories from an economic, social and environmental point of view. To achieve this, initiatives must be taken, not only from the point of view of spatial planning, but also crosswise, considering mobility, ecology, security, trade, etc.


When Wallonia supports mixed urban projects

Creating conditions favourable to the diversity of activities is what the draft Spatial Development Plan (SDT) advocates in a complete chapter dedicated to functional diversity. This conviction is also defended in the Code of spatial development (CoDT) and the latest Regional Policy Statement (DPR).

There is more and more talk of locating urban and rural centres, businesses, shops and services that are able to fit into the constructed area in Wallonia, to ensure a good mix of functions and reduce the movement of people, and thus the urban sprawl. The right tools and instruments to work in this direction should follow: the DPR mentions, in some cases, replacing sector plans, or at least updating them.


Developing diversity through a collective urban vision

For us, a mixed project will be able to see the light of day if it is correctly apprehended, through two axes in particular:

  • Development of compactness. In other words, the diversity of uses in proximity. Everyone, around their place of residence or work, must be able to access the different functions mentioned in this article. Let’s also emphasize the intensity of neighbourhoods. A densely populated area may very well be empty of any intensity, like the French suburbs and their high-rise buildings … The objective of diversity is to offer a superior quality of life, which is the intensity of the neighbourhood.
  • Working on urban amenities. And for that, we need to stop with the Top-Down approach! We need to make room for participatory approaches where all the actors and users of the territory like inhabitants, shopkeepers, workers, students and tourists can express their good ideas.


We can then speak of collective intelligence projects, inspired in particular by approaches such as Placemaking, which are based on the appropriation of public spaces by the community. It’s up to each person to act on his or her own space! We imagine things together. We co-create. We (re)weave links. And to do this, we need to create a study at the start of the project and involve the users. What do they need in order for all the dimensions of life to be integrated in their neighbourhood?

Finally, in order to create mixed projects that are ambitious and sustainable (economically, humanely and environmentally), it is necessary to analyse them extremely well and to develop participatory approaches.

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