Energy-efficient rehabilitation of the Wesserling-Husseren park
Chaire Paysage et énergie (ENSP), 2022
The energy project of Wesserling, a commune in the heart of the Vosges mountains in the Haut-Rhin department, aims at energy sobriety in the requalification of a former industrial site, the old textile printing factory, located in the two communes of Husseren-Wesserling and Fellering. The rehabilitation work began in 2003, when the factory was closed. The project leaders are the Association de Gestion et d’Animation du Parc Textile de Wesserling (AGAPTW) and the Communauté de Communes de la vallée de Saint-Amarin (Vosges du Sud)
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Enhancing the local historical landscape to build the future of Wesserling
1 - A site between two valleys, at the heart of multiple influences
Wesserling is located at the confluence of the Thur valley, which descends from the Bramont pass (950 m) and the valley which descends from the Bussang pass, the lowest in the Vosges (731 m). An important Roman road already passed through here, as it is the shortest link between Milan and Belgium. This strategic location is one of the factors that explain the importance of the Wesserling site in the valley. The commune is part of the Ballons des Vosges Regional Nature Park (PNRBV).
The town, located in the heart of the Thur valley, is surrounded by valleys with pronounced relief, covered mainly by beech-fir forests. The villages are grouped together on the banks of the river, joined by a succession of meadows located on adjacent flats. Road and rail infrastructures add to the linear dynamics of the valley and the river.
2 - The industrialisation of the Thur valley and its resources
The Wesserling Park is a factory town in a rural landscape with a castle, gardens, villas and farms on 42 ha, and factories from different periods on 60 ha. It is one of the rare European industrial sites to be able to show the different historical, social and technical strata of the textile industry, from the 18th to the 21st century.
There was only one hamlet in the 18th century before the first cotton cloth factory in Alsace was established in the old castle in 1762. It is located at a strategic point on the industrial and commercial axis. The presence of natural resources in the region such as copper mines, water power and wood favoured the establishment of industry in the valley.
During the first half of the 19th century, Wesserling underwent a real transformation, which enabled it to move from the stage of a small-scale factory to that of a modern industrial enterprise. To do this, the managers relied on English technological advances and concentrated the various stages of fabric production: spinning, weaving, bleaching, dyeing and printing were grouped together on the site. The acquisition of mechanical looms led the manufacturers to resort to a new source of energy, steam created from the burning of coal, and to construct new buildings better adapted to these new techniques. A social mutation modifies the structures of the landscape. The peasant workers whose farming had transformed the mountainous landscape and who lived in the surrounding farms became skilled workers who lived in workers’ housing estates around the factories. At the beginning of the 20th century, a ring of industrial buildings surrounded the old castle of Wesserling and occupied the whole of the low-lying area along the river Thur.
The first textile crisis appeared in Alsace in the 1960s and then accelerated in the 1980s, particularly with the collapse of the region’s main manufacturer. From more than 65,000 workers in 1955, the region had less than 9,000 jobs in 2002.
The Wesserling-Husseren Park project was initiated in the early 2000s with the aim of giving new meaning to an industrial and heritage site that was severely affected by the economic crisis in the textile sector at the end of the 20th century. The aim is to revive the site by seeking new economic activities and to give new meaning to a valley that has been heavily anthropised for centuries.
3 - The landscape consequences of industrial decline: valley bottoms in danger
The industry located at the bottom of the valley has given way to industrial wastelands in the extension of the urban structures of the villages. The buildings and infrastructures left to decay give a degraded image to the landscape.
At the same time, the agricultural activities that provide food have been in sharp decline since the 1950s. The last peasant workers are abandoning mountain agriculture, which is not valued by public policies. Plots of land and communal areas are left fallow or planted with conifers. The valley bottoms were particularly affected.
In the 1960s, new lifestyles led to the development of residential housing and the creation of housing estates and chalet areas, which were mainly located at the bottom of the valley, where the most favourable land for agriculture was located.
Joint actions to affirm a new landscape project in the valley
In 1982, a few activists from the valley got together in the face of the industrial decline of the Wesserling site. They made the workers’ unions aware of the richness of the site for the valley. The notion of industrial heritage emerged. It was integrated by the Haut-Rhin department, which developed a cultural policy based on the recognition of this heritage.
1 - Gardens and heritage, the first act of renewal
In 1985, a first initiative was taken by the ARCS association (active, retired, unemployed people in solidarity) to help reintegrate the long-term unemployed. This led to the creation of a decorative vegetable garden. The aim of this integration garden is to re-learn gardening techniques and to enhance an old 19th century workers’ garden. The clearing of these gardens has brought to light an old French-style park. This has been restored to reveal the quality of the site. This is the first act of rehabilitation of industrial heritage. Following the vegetable garden, other parks and gardens of Wesserling have also been restored and now host cultural events, major factors of economic success, notably an annual garden festival.
2 - The recognition of a possible future
In 1986, a commission for the future of the Park was created to deal with the industrial decline. Composed of elected officials and activists from the valley, it drew up a plan for the future, planning it for the long term. At the same time, the Boussac group, owner of the factory, went bankrupt. The activity was then reduced and the upper part of the site was bought by the Conseil Départemental du Haut-Rhin, in order to work on its conservation and development. In 1992, in the heart of the enriched site, the Departmental Council began the construction of a museum which opened in 1996.
3 - The landscape highlighted in public policies
In 1994, an inter-communal landscape plan was initiated thanks to the action of the former community of communes of the Saint-Amarin valley. Carried out with the support of the Ballons des Vosges Regional Nature Park, it enabled the first concrete actions to be taken to reopen the landscape and perpetuate mountain farming. The plan led to the creation in 1996 of the association A et P « Agriculture et paysage ». This association is working on the reopening of more than 100 ha in the valley and the re-grazing of meadows. It is also involved in the renovation of a farm in the Wesserling park, thus putting the park back into its agricultural and landscape context. In 2002, the consultation for the Rural and Peri-urban Space Management Plan began, enabling the first landscape plan to be reviewed. The GERplan is an approach promoted by the Haut-Rhin Department. This tool makes it possible to specify the recommendations given by the landscape plan concerning the land aspects, in particular urban planning. The landscape plan has helped to raise awareness of negative landscape developments, particularly woodland which was « choking » habitats. On the other hand, it has not been enough to control urbanisation, which has continued to develop in a piecemeal fashion at the bottom of the valley. The GERplan will make this possible.
The GERplan follows different lines: land management, control of urbanization and enhancement of the built heritage, preservation of natural resources, and enhancement of major landscape or natural structures. It is carried out by the association Agriculture et Paysages. A post of GERplan coordinator within the community of municipalities enables these actions to be implemented by the « landscape and land-use planning » committee.
In 2003, the intermunicipality developed an intermunicipal development and planning charter for the Saint-Amarin valley.
Today, the PLU reflects a strong awareness of heritage and landscape. Axis 5 « Protecting the landscape and heritage » continues the work of the last twenty years. Wesserling Park is perceived as one of the dominant cultural and heritage centres, but also as a centre of activity and a centre of habitat.
Affirming the characteristics of a landscape as the basis for sober urban planning
1 - A sober urban project respecting a pastoral and industrial history
The restoration of the industrial buildings on the lower part of the site was the subject of a project begun in 2004. The Community of Municipalities led this project with a team composed of lawyers and development agents, an architect and elected officials. This project is a reference in terms of sober development, based on the history of the site. The objective was to carry out a transition: a new economic model, a new way of living… without forgetting the heritage character. Thanks to the recognition of the richness of the site and the consultation between the inhabitants and the elected representatives of the valley, the restoration of the site enhances the sectors of culture, housing, tourism, industry and commerce while rehabilitating a remarkable site. In fact, the developments are simple and economical and are based on the existing landscape, urban and architectural structures. Here the past is not considered as a mistake, but rather as a lever to renew urbanism.
2- Reuse as a project principle
The identification of materials to be reused is often under-valued, as well as their restoration for reconstruction. Within the framework of the creation of subsidised jobs by the Community of Municipalities, about fifteen people worked throughout the construction period to save the materials. The material from the demolished structures was used to renovate the car parks and roads, limiting the environmental cost: the excavated material was used as local backfill.
3 - Local skills
After a first unsuccessful attempt to use local wood through a company, the community of municipalities committed itself to forestry management. The wood chosen from plots in neighbouring communes is cut by the community’s team of woodcutters and sawn locally. The traditional cladding is installed by municipal employees. This enhancement of both local know-how and local materials enhances the landscape by deploying all its qualities.
4 - The choice of workers
The community of communes has encouraged the creation of local jobs, from former industrial jobs. The architect and the workers of the community team are former factory workers. « We mobilised the oldest workers to take them into retirement and voluntarily worked with all those over 52/53 years old, those who could not find work. In the end, they were the best and most efficient: conscientious, working non-stop, knowing everything. Memento No. 7 - Network of territories www.mairieconseilspaysage.net - December 2009.
5 - The example of the Pavillon des Créateurs in Wesserling
The building that houses the crafts was a storage shed for unbleached fabric (rolls of fabric before processing). It is made up of a central courtyard and about fifteen workshop-boutiques. It is now the best insulated building, but has retained its original architectural structure. To avoid unnecessary extra costs, the floor of the collective space has been re-graded and retains the original slight slope.
A large grassed area enhances the site in the valley. It creates an opening and takes up the spatial vocabulary of the meadows that border the river between the villages. Company hotels have been created in the old industrial buildings along the river Thur. Wooden cladding covers the facades. A disused canal has been preserved as a reminder of the site’s link with the river, marking the threshold of the building from a car parking area.
Numerous routes allow visitors to tour the site. They are made of grids recovered from the gutters of the industrial buildings and testify to the desire to redevelop as much as possible with the materials of the site. The cobblestones buried in the ground have been cleared and reused, and all the paving has been made from existing materials. A historical path, already existing on the old plans, is adapted to the new frequentation of the Park: nearly 90,000 visitors per year use these paths.
The Heritage and Employment Association, created in 2006, has made a major contribution to revealing the physical traces of the past until 2018. This structure promotes heritage through three missions: work, training and socio-professional support. From the outset, it has specialised in clearing, dry stone walls, paving, interior refurbishment, airbrushing, and then in wooden constructions to meet the needs of the site.
Low earth walls frame the paths and roads of the park where the slope is too steep. These walls have been restored, the stone hidden behind a layer of cement has been made visible. The restoration is another testimony to the importance of the existing in the rehabilitation philosophy.
The buildings are also used as premises to avoid having to build elsewhere and to protect the newly cleared areas. A supermarket has been set up in old buildings and companies are encouraged to use the existing premises. In addition, one of the buildings is to become a housing estate. The car parks are shared between all these activities. The policy of using the site thus makes it possible to channel urbanisation into selected areas and to safeguard other parts of the territory for agriculture, for example.
A sober approach to the site allows planning for renewable energy and transition
1 - A place ready for renewable energy
Thanks to the landscape approach to local development, based on a good knowledge of the history and geography of the area and of local natural and human resources, it was possible to design a high-quality project, particularly from the point of view of energy:
Economy through the reuse of existing materials. The project required few purchases of materials that are costly in terms of fossil energy. Relevant architectural choices have been made to limit the import of materials.
Energy savings due to the use of local wood (on an ad hoc basis) and the thermal insulation of the buildings (not all of them have been renovated yet).
Mobility savings by providing local work for the inhabitants. In addition, the site is linked to Mulhouse by the tram-train.
Network economy. Rather than spreading out the valley town, housing, shops, etc., the choice was made to group the urbanisation on a single site. This makes it possible to minimise the artificialisation of the land, but also the energy distribution networks. And it guarantees the quality of the open spaces of the meadows.
On the basis of such an energy-saving system, it becomes possible to produce renewable energies adapted to the characteristics of the site. Indeed, a solar project is being discussed on the roofs of the park. Other energies are considered by the PLU: geothermal energy and energy linked to biomass from organic matter, mainly plant matter. It is here that the sobriety of the project allows for the best possible use of renewable energy.
2 - A place of lifestyle transition
The inhabitants were involved from the outset in the restoration of the gardens, which began with the vegetable gardens thanks to the integration association « Les jardins de Wesserling ». Most of the volunteers in this association are local people who grew up or live in Wesserling.
The site participates in the life of the territory, with the presence of services to the person: shops, crèche, media library, associations, music school, artists’ collective, rooms available for shows, etc. There is also an important economic fabric: businesses in the old buildings, shops for creative craftsmen, etc.
Wesserling is today an active cultural and tourist site, with numerous permanent installations and events throughout the year: the textile museum, the gardens, the former thermal power station (Grande Chaufferie) with a discovery trail, a heritage trail with guided walks with a map and signs allowing you to explore the whole site and discover its buildings, the industrial heritage festival at the beginning of July, the barefoot trail festival in the gardens in mid-July, the vegetable garden festival at the end of August, the night of the museums and the European Heritage Days, etc.
Experience extracted from the guide « Energy transition: towards desirable landscapes » produced in 2021 - 2022 by the Landscape and Energy Chair of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure du Paysage de Versailles: www.ecole-paysage.fr/fr/node/402