A social design experiment for the shopping area of Aalst

Client: City of Aalst 
Design Agency:  Yellow Window and Namahn
Project PartnerDesign Flanders
Location: Belgium

A social design experiment for the multicultural shopping area of Aalst

What was the problem?

The shopping area around the Molendries, at the right bank of the Dender river in Aalst, is an area in transition. Traditionally, many shops were found here on the larger roads winding up to the city centre. Now many of the commercial premises are empty, to great displeasure of the residents.

New shops by immigrants of various nationalities pop up. These however, run different types of shops than in the past, and also have a totally different way of doing business, shop decoration or window dressing. This creates a lot of tension between original and new merchants. Due to unhappy merchants and residents, and adding to this the many empty shops, the neighbourhood radiates a negative atmosphere.

This bad image of the area also makes clients to stay away. In the short turn, this project aims to connect shopkeepers, stimulate their respect and collaboration, and to make the neighbourhood more attractive for clients and shopkeepers.

At the long turn, BAM! wants to turn around the image of the right bank into a preferred, vibrant and diverse shopping area of Aalst.

What did they do?

BAM! is a social design project that searches with design methods and together with the local residents for ways to resolve social and structural obstacles.

The project contained three phases:

  • Exploring – establishing the capacities of the area of the city and collecting ideas.
  • Designing – realising various interventions and thus checking and adjusting the capacities and the cooperation formats.
  • Processing – the evaluation and mapping out of the insight.

The original aim of the project was to carry out eight small interventions in the area. Those interventions combine ideas from the merchants and local residents as well as their capacities in executing them.

Due to a slow start of the project, owing to confusion about the project and a low turn-up of merchants and inhabitants, design agency Namahn opened a mini pop-up design agency in the centre of the area for extra visibility. By doing so, the designers could be more present, and they had the opportunity of visiting each shop to start to know it better. The targets were re-set on carrying out three interventions.

What was the result?

The result of the close collaboration with shopkeepers and local residents in workshops, networking drinks and surveys was for example the development of a promotion poster with all the shops of the neighbourhood. On it every shop was represented, both by a photograph of their merchandise, as well as their place on the map.

These posters were hung all across the district, to make the inhabitants more accustomed to the diversity and location of shops present in the area. Also, a closer connection to the more popular left bank shopping area was made, by painting footsteps on the pavement of Aalst and across all bridges of the Dender river for customers to follow towards the area under promotion.

These were accompanied by promotion signs saying: “Varkensmarkt, the most versatile shopping district of Aalst. Only 5 minutes walking away!”. Also, with a Christmas market, the merchants aimed at showing the versatility and conviviality of the area, and the diversity of goods on sale. Finally, in collaboration with the local art network “Netwerk”, a video walking route was developed. Participating merchants could show video art in their shop windows, and later on even showed illuminated Christmas cards in the same installations.

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