One crucial word is sadly missing from the policy statement of the new Brussels regional government: Senne or Zenne. The river along which the city was founded, will not be uncovered any time soon. A missed opportunity for several reasons.
Like most cities in the world, Brussels was founded by a waterway, the small river called the Zenne (Dutch) or Senne (French). In the second half of the 19th century, the river was put underground in what actually was a massive urban renewal project. At the time the Senne was very polluted, causing several epidemics.
The underground Senne became an important part of the sewage system. But today 99 percent of waste water is treated, making it possible to give Brussels back its river.
The river Senne before it goes underground (photo taken in Anderlecht, courtesy Alexandre Chemetoff)
In a lot of places it would require massive funds and major engineering works to bring back the water to the surface, but there is one area where it would be fairly easy: along the Maximiliaanpark.
The idea to do this recently resurfaced in the masterplan for the Canal area worked out by French urbanist Alexandre Chemetoff. He suggests to bring back the Senne over a lenght of 1,5 km, from IJzerplein well into the harbour.
Plan of the uncovered Senne (the small blue strip between the coloured buildings on the right) view from IJzer - courtesy Alexandre Chemetoff
Uncovering the Senne between IJzer and Redersplein would already be a good start in my eyes. The river would connect the theatre district and dining area around Saint-Catherine with both social housing projects and a recent upscale development including the country’s highest residential tower, connecting very different strata of the city’s population.
The uncovering of the Senne would give the new government a very symbolic project, something that people will remember them for. It could aslo help shake the city’s grey and bureaucratic image, giving both inhabitants and visitors a catchy story about the city.
Because the Maximiliaanpark is next to the planned new museum for modern and contemporary art, the revived Senne surely would make it a tourist hotspot. Bringing back the river would also be a great opportunity to create a new, green public space, reminiscant of the nearby Groendreef, once a popular promenade but now just a grey road, unworthy of its name.
Uncovering the Senne exactly on this location could also partly make a mends with one of the greatest planning mistakes in the city’s history. In the 1960´s around 15.000 people living in the neighbourhood were displaced because their houses had to make way for a massive tower project known as the Manhattan plan. Today the tower area can still feel unheimlich, especially after the many office workers rush out at 5 pm.
Recently I campaigned for the uncovering of the Senne in a video for Guardian Cities.