1. brussels won’t get its river back (yet)

    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. 

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    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.

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    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.

  2. The urbanist's guide to Brussels: 'a city not yet living up to its potential' →

    The Guardian asked me to write an urbanist’s guide to Brussels, as I am the blogger of the week in their Cities section.

  3. to picnic or not to picnic

    Sometimes it seems that all it takes to turn a busy road into a true square, is a bunch of people armed with nothing but blankets, foldable chairs, drinks and food. In Brussels, a series of picnics have pressured city hall into announcing that it will cut traffic on a congested avenue and make a true pedestrian square in front of the landmark stock exchange building (Beurs), right in the heart of the city. Still, the struggle for more pedestrian space goes on.

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    Brussels is still very much determined by the aggressive car-centered planning of the 50’s and 60’s. Many measures to reduce vehicle traffic have been promised, but time and again ruling politicians have failed to deliver. The busy north-south avenue bisecting the city center, once compared to Moscow in the ’70s, is one of the symbols of this inertia.

    Two years ago, citizens took matters into their own hands after a call for action from philosopher Philippe Van Parijs. He inspired people to occupy the busy avenue with a picnic to demand a square instead of a thoroughfare.

    "It will suffice to explain politely to motorists that for once it is not for them to impose their rule," the Oxford professor wrote in his opinion piece. "To shake off an irresponsible lethargy, a bit of gentle civil disobedience is more than legitimate."

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    Inspiration came from a similar action that managed to make the historic Grote Markt car-free in the 70’s. Van Parijs’ call to action was published in several local news outlets. It was picked up immediately by social media and the first picnic in june 2012 attracted more than 2.000 people. Several other gatherings followed that same summer.

    More than a year after the first picnic, victory seemed within reach when the city presented its plan to double the central pedestrian area. Focal point of the plan is a proper car-free square at Beurs, effectively cutting the north-south avenue in two.

    Once the initial euphoria died out, however, the picnic movement woke up to a troubling reality. The city remains very much concerned with car access, planning extra parking facilities and a sort of ring road around the pedestrian area. This mini ring could turn relatively quiet residential streets into busy roads with two lanes of traffic in one direction. Bus lanes are likely to be axed. “It will be a pedestrian area for car drivers”, a local environmental organisation noted.

    The picnic movement, called Picnic The Streets, has always been loosely organised and the city announcement succeeded in dispersing the dynamic even more. Some people considered the goals achieved at Beurs and started focusing on other areas. Van Parijs himself recently called for a picnic at the Schuman roundabout in the European quarter. But most activists prefer to continue the picnics at Beurs in order to maintain the pressure on the city council and possible influence the implementation of the plan.

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    Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur reacted that there won’t be a car-free square without improved car access to the center. “For some it’s never enough, they are waging war against the car, but that is not my battle”, he said.

    The picnic movement might have won a battle, the war for better public space is not over yet and probably never really will be.

    This blog entry was submitted to the CITIES’ We Own the City global urban bloggers competition. It’s part of a global movement, including a forthcoming book, that’s promoting people-driven progress in cities worldwide.

  4. brussels should tear down this viaduct

    Instead of spending a handful of millions to repair the crumbling Reyers viaduct, the Brussels authorities should simply tear it down. That would probably cost more, but at least it would be a future-proof investment.

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    Last month inspections revealed that the Reyers viaduct, on the middle ring road in Brussels, is more or less falling apart. Traffic was immediately limited and the urban highway will be closed all summer to enable extensive repairs that will cost several millions of euros.

    The question is why we should spend so much tax payer’s money to fix infrastructure from the car-centered past. Reinforcing the brigde will lengthen its lifespan for several decades, while more and more research shows that we have a chance to stop the reign of King Car. Younger generations find car driving less and less appealing and get their license later and later. Authorities should follow and reinforce this trend.

    Examples from abroad show that cities can really benefit from the destruction of urban highways. Large parts of downtown San Francisco wouldn’t have those scenic bay views if the Embarcadero Freeway were still there. After a 1989 earthquake it was not repaired but demolished. In Seoul a large highway removal project literaly made large chuncks of the Korean capital breathe again. An awful road was turned into green space with a creek. It brought back wildlife and made the city actually cool down a couple of degrees.

    The impact of removing the relatively short Reyers viaduct obviously won’t be that important, but it could be a first symbolic step for one of Europe’s most congested cities. In the near future all parts of the small and middle ring roads should evolve from grey urban highways to more enjoyable urban streets with green spaces and cycle paths. At the same time authorities should invest in more and better park & ride-facilities.

    For many years politicians have been saying they want to limit car use in the city. The official mobility plan of the Brussels Capital Region even aims at a reduction of 20 percent car traffic by 2018. On the ground hovewever, only superficial improvements have been made, like the introduction of (succesful) bike and car-sharing services.

    A lot more ambitious measures will be needed to meet the target. Demolishing the Reyers viaduct would show that authorities are serious about the matter. Too often local boroughs object big project from the regional government, but this time the borough of Schaarbeek is actually asking to consider removing the viaduct. The Brussels region should seize this opportunity.

    End of may the people of Brussels will elect a new regional government. Probably it will talk the talk when it comes to decouraging car use, but will it walk the walk?

  5. battersea development: soul for sale

    An industrial monument like Battersea Power Station deserves much better than to be hidden behind walls of generic bling-bling architecture. 

    This week Norman Foster and Frank Gehry unveiled their plans for a new development behind Battersea Power Station. Their designs complete an earlier masterplan for the abandoned industrial site by Rafael Vinoly.

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    After several proposals that went nowhere, i’m glad there finally is a new future looming for the building that used to be something like the gate to London back when I came to visit as a student. In those days the Eurostar still arrived at Waterloo and Battersea Power Station was the first and last London monument I used to see.

    But did we really need a bunch of starchitects to rehabilitate the derelict icon of Pink Floyd fame? Their shiny objects might as well have been proposed in Dubai or Hong Kong, as Richard Godwin noted. They don’t dialogue with the brick cathedral in any way. 

    And while future inhabitants might enjoy views of the iconic chimneys, it looks like the landmark will be completely invisible from the land side (and from the tracks to Waterloo Station).

    I’m sad to see this much disrespect for such an important ruin. Battersea Power Station is not only an important reference in pop and film culture, but also a gigantic monument to industrial London (below a great image from 1937, before the station was doubled in size).

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    The abandoned power temple is a reminder of the days when London was exposed to coal dust and pea soup fog. When the city was still home to factory workers and dockers.

    Today even the cool young creative types are priced out of London, writes Alex Proud. The city is losing its cool and becomes the exclusive playground of bankers and oligarchs. Their big money can buy anything, and for the sake of profit they will sell even the soul of the city. Doesn’t matter if they slowly destroy what makes the place cool and attractive in the first place.

  6. the cost of a presidential visit

    Barack Obama’s first visit to Brussels is said to cost 10 million euro to city and state. Nonsense assures the mayor, it’s only about 500.000 euro. Still, some argue there are better ways to spend this money. Those who do fail to see the bigger picture. Without major international institutions, Brussels would be nothing but a backwater.

    Most of this week, Brussels was a besieged city. Trash cans and sewers were sealed off, major roads and highways were blocked every time the president and his convoy were passing through, and a handful of suspicious packages had to be detonated by a special army team.

    Apart from the resulting traffic problems (which were not very unusual for one of Europe’s most congested cities), quite some people were complaining about the supposedly outrageous price tag of the event. The Guardian reported Obama’s visit to cost 10 million euro in safety and other measurements, citing Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur.

    The mayor later denied this and explained he was misunderstood. Every political summit costs about 500.000 euro and Obama’s visit is no exception, Mayeur said. The 10 million is the total bill of all events takings place in Brussels during two exceptional busy weeks. Among other meetings and protests, the city is also hosting a NATO summit and the Euro-African business forum. On top of that UN-secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon and Chinese president Xi Jinping are visiting the European institutions.

    Most news outlets, however, transmitted the cost of 10 million euro without the whole explanation. The number was probably too spectacular to check.

    The exaggeration was feeding arguments that the Obama circus was just a giant waste of money for a city struggling with huge unemployment and a growing gap between rich and poor.

    Fighting inequality should obviously be a priority, but those who whine about costly summits are missing the point. The presence of world leaders and their staff generates more money than it costs, also for locals who work in security, or hotels and restaurants.

    But the most important benefit of Brussels’ vocation as an important stage for international politics is the long-term dynamic it brought to the city. If it weren’t for the European and other international institutions, Brussels probably would have continued its decline of the 1970’s and 1980’s, being simply the capital of a disintegrating state.

    Let’s face it: mass industrial activity is gone for good and without the institutions most media, lobbies and international corporations would not have been here. The flight to the suburbs would have continued instead of being reversed and maybe even Flanders would have picked another city as its capital. What would remain? A crumbling city, with low rents and less traffic jams yes, but also without the economic clout to support blooming cultural, dining and other scenes. Brussels wouldn’t be the small but vibrant metropolis that it is today.

  7. if mayors ruled the european union

    In most countries major cities struggle to obtain the political weight that matches their economic importance. In Europe this mayoral claim to power is not only directed at the national level but also at the European Union (EU), where policies have traditionally regarded member states and regions rather than cities. Political theorist Benjamin Barber supports the urban agenda and argues that cities can help bridge the gap between the public and the institutions.

    imageBenjamin Barber at the Cities of Tomorrow conference - © Gino De Laurenzo

    In his latest book If mayors ruled the world Barber describes why cities should have a bigger say in national and world affairs. Talking at the Cities of Tomorrow conference in Brussels last week, the author made clear that this also applies to the EU.

    “Just like the nation state, the super state that is the EU is not able to deal with the challenges of today’s interdependent world”, he told mayors and policy makers of the EU. “Problems like climate change or terrorism don’t respect borders.”

    According to Barber cities are much more successful than states when dealing with, say, environmental issues. While countries have failed to agree on the reduction of CO2-emissions, cities book results improving transportation and housing.

    In Barber’s vision mayors are pragmatists dealing with people’s actual problems, while states are regularly paralyzed by ideologies and party politics. “The state can shutdown, but a city cannot. Potholes and sewers need to be fixed immediately.”

    The EU should therefore take cities more seriously instead of simply funding redevelopment projects.  “The EU has a paternalistic approach that goes against the potential and the strength of cities”, Barber said. “Cities are not victims that need help, they should be empowered by giving them more jurisdiction. Urban areas contribute more to the economy than urban zones. Cities should keep more of the wealth they generate.”

    Because mayors are pragmatists and therefore generally enjoy wider support than state politicians, giving cities more political influence on higher levels will have another big advantage according to Barber. Mayors can re-conciliate the general public with the institutions. 

    “Let’s not ask what Europe can do for cities, but what cities can do for Europe. This bottom-up approach that can help to deal with Europe’s democratic deficit.” At least if mayors don’t lose their pragmatism when they gain influence.

  8. review of brussels new transit map by transitmaps:

    Official Map: Brussels Integrated Transit Map

    One of the most requested maps so far — thanks to thecitygeek, bjorkborg, Mladen Stilinovic and a couple of anonymous readers for sending this my way!

    According to my correspondents, Brussels has recently switched from a geographical transit map to this new diagrammatic map. As you can see by comparing the two images of the centre of the city above, a lot of streamlining and simplification has taken place. The first thing that strikes me is the way that many bus routes have either been removed or have been condensed or “collapsed” into a single route line with a common label, simplifying the map immensely. The place where this is really obvious is at Gare du Nord/Noordstation, which now only has six route numbers listed next to it, compared to thirty-six on the previous map!

    Major interchanges are now denoted by an enclosing ring, suggesting that all stops at that interchange — be they bus, tram or Metro — are in close proximity to each other. The Paris Metro map uses a very similar device at interchanges between modes.

    However, while the map is a huge improvement over the crowded mess of the previous geographical map, it’s certainly not perfect.

    The labelling — which admittedly has to overcome the requirement of being bilingual — is a bit haphazard in its application, with some labels for one station overlapping that of another in parts. Major station labels waste a lot of space when there’s only one or two route numbers listed under the station’s name.

    Each and every route line is outlined in black, regardless of its colour, which gives a very heavy, cumbersome feel to the map. Normally, only very light coloured routes (yellow or light blues, for example) need this treatment, so I’m not sure why it was deemed necessary here. Also, while the difference in line thickness between trams and buses seems obvious in the legend, it’s almost impossible to tell them apart on the actual map when multiple routes are butting up to each other (Hint: stops on bus routes are ever so slightly wider than the route line — way too subtle for easy mode differentiation!)

    The icons for points of interest are all so very generic and bland.

    Finally, the colours used on the map seem very simplistic and cartoon-like, stopping the map from having a harmonious, unified feel. Both the green used for parkland and the blue used for water are way too strong and vivid: they compete with the route lines for attention, becoming a distraction.

    Our rating: Better than what came before, but still not great. Despite all the reworking, it’s still very cluttered and confusing. The new Ile-de-France Regional Rail map sets the standard for this type of map, and this falls well short. Two-and-a-half stars.

    2.5 Stars

    (Source: Official STIB website)

  9. digging away a tunnel trauma

    In Brussels many projects are plagued by delays, so people tend to think this also applies to the renovation/expansion of Schuman station. But in this case there actually is a good reason it takes some time: the project is linked to the building of a new railway tunnel under the city. By no means a light matter in this town.

    Twentieth century Brussels was largely defined by one massive construction project and its consequences: building a railway through the heart of the city to connect the old North and South terminal stations and create the Central Station, a stone’s throw from the Medieval Grand’ Place.

    imageNorth-South connection entering the city center, courtesy Esteban Miraflores jonction.be

    Planning and construction of the 3,8 kilometre long link took up most of the first half of the century. The connection, locally known as la Jonction, was finally inaugurated in 1952. The joy of the opening didn’t last long though as the trauma of its painful construction came back to haunt the city’s psyche for decades.

    To make way for the (mostly underground) six-track railway and the new stations, complete housing blocks were razed and thousands of city dwellers were forced to move to more peripheral neighbourhoods. Even today the connection is like a giant scar on the face of the city, visible on satellite images.

    imageConstruction of the connection near Rue du Marais

    With such a history, it is not surprising that many citizens are very cautious about big construction project. The only way to get cured of a trauma though, is to face it, and that’s what Brussels has been doing in the past years.

    Since 2008 a new 1,25 kilometre railway tunnel is under construction between Schuman and Meiser stations. The missing link between two existing railway lines is expected to multiply the options for passengers to and from the city’s European district and slash travel time between Schuman and Brussels Airport from about thirty to just fifteen minutes.

    imageConstruction work in the new railway tunnel - courtesy Infrabel

    The tunnel represents the biggest construction site so far in Twenty-first century Brussels. Luckily though, the days of cut-and-cover construction are long gone and nothing reminds us of the infamous Jonction.

    Today’s tunnel project is more or less on time and on schedule and the digging went by largely unnoticed. Well, except for the fact that Schuman station has looked like a bomb shelter for over five years now.

    imageSchuman station: left the existing train platforms, right entrance to the new tunnel

    That construction takes so long has to do with precautions inspired by the old tunnel trauma. Because the new tunnel runs merely fifteen metres under a densely built-up area, no risks were taken and most of the digging was actually done using manual labour.

    A hundred Olympic pools could be filled with the extracted earth, which was given a new purpose as a base for a future neighbourhood. The spread-out earth is clearly visible on Google Maps.

    image           Former Josaphat train yard, filled with earth from the tunnel - Google

    Major construction work on the tunnel was recently finished and this week the national railway infrastructure company started to put rails in there. Train service is supposed to start in December 2015.

    By that time the makeover and expansion of Schuman station should be finished as well. With a couple of extra tracks it is supposed to become an important hub, offering direct trains to Brussels Airport, and cities to the north and east like Antwerp and Liège.

  10. how to pimp a red-light district

    In a couple of years, Lisbon managed to convert its seediest street into the most happening nightlife spot of the city. Ideas to pimp a red-light district exist also in Brussels, but local authorities are reluctant to intervene.

    Aarschotstraat study by L'Escaut

    Brussels North is more than a train station; it’s also a border crossing between two different worlds. On one side of the tracks is a sterile quarter of shiny office boxes, on the other a poor but vibrant neighbourhood, home to both a busy oriental shopping street, and a major red-light district.

    The prostitution area centered around Aarschotstraat is the subject of a recent multidisciplinary study by architecture firm L’Escaut. They propose to pedestrianize the strip and spruce things up with colourful paint and works of art.

    Aarschotstraat study by L'Escaut

    The idea is to make the surroundings more welcoming to inhabitants, visitors and passers-by, not to chase prostitutes away. It seems like a nice plan, but the district of Schaarbeek, that ordered the study, is reluctant to act. The local authority says it doesn’t have the money to invest any time soon. But most of all officials seem afraid to do anything that can be seen as facilitating the oldest trade in the world. So they prefer to just let things be.

    In a different context, Lisbon did dare to intervene in a radical way. The back alleys of Cais do Sodré have traditionally attracted sailors, prostitutes and drug dealers. Today Rua Nova do Carvalho is car-free and painted pink. And while most of the rowdy clubs, named after port cities around the world, still exist, they changed their programming to lure in the hip urban crowd that is now hitting the area.

    Rua nova do Carvalho - Câmara Municipal de Lisboa

    In a few years time Cais do Sodré dethroned Bairro Alto as the ultimate bohemian nightlife spot in the city. You can still see a pole dance there but most of the prostitutes took their business elsewhere. I don’t think this extreme makeover is an example for Aarschotstraat because it doesn’t make sense to move the prostitution elsewhere in town. But it shows that intervention is possible and that authorities can change neighbourhoods in whatever way they want. All they need is a vision and the will to act accordingly.