21st Oct 2016


Brussels 2030

  • The last interesting building to be erected in Brussels was the Atomium in 1958. (Photo: O Palsson)

The past year has been an “annus horribilis” for Brussels. First, terrorists from the city were linked with the Paris terrorist attacks in November, causing authorities to lock down the Belgian capital for three days resulting in over €350 million losses for local businesses.

Then in March, suicide bombers killed 32 people in twin attacks on Brussels airport and a metro station in the EU district.

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  • Brussels needs a transport policy that puts people, not cars, first. (Photo: EUobserver)

A city that was best known for chocolate, waffles, and a statue of a peeing boy was suddenly splashed all over the world’s media as a hotbed of jihadism.

City authorities and PR people reacted by launching a raft of increasingly surreal campaigns to lure back visitors. But publicity stunts will not work unless policies are changed and Brussels becomes a city that people feel more comfortable and safe to visit and to live in.

At present, the blunt truth is it is failing on both counts. In terms of overnight visitors, Brussels doesn’t feature in the top 10 European cities or top 20 worldwide. When it comes to liveability rankings, Brussels languishes in the bottom half of most expat league tables.

So what can be done to make Brussels better serve the needs of its people and to make it a worthy capital of the EU?

Missing vision

Firstly, Brussels needs an ambitious vision for the future that has the backing of politicians at all levels and people from all communities.

Just as Barcelona was transformed, largely for the better, ahead of the 1992 Olympics, Brussels should aim to become Europe’s greenest, most connected and dynamic medium-sized city by 2030 - when it hopes to become the European Capital of Culture.

Plenty more fine ideas for turning this chaotic, car-choked city of 1.2 million into a more liveable capital can be found in Connecting Brussels, a thought-provoking book by Pascal Smet, the minister for mobility and public works.

Put people first

Secondly, Brussels needs a transport policy that puts people, not cars, first.

At present, Brussels is asphyxiating. The capital has seized up over the past year as tunnel collapses, heightened security, and increasing traffic volumes have brought large sections of the city to a standstill.

To reduce road traffic, the Brussels region should introduce a tax on all cars owned by non-residents entering the centre of the city.

This would help halt suburban sprawl in Wallonia and Flanders, encourage the 250,000 people who drive into the city every day to live in it instead of just profiting from its infrastructure, and push commuters to use the regional train network.

The federal government also needs to scrap its generous subsidies for company cars, which account for half of all new cars bought. The saved money should be used to build a new metro line to the south of the city and create more dedicated cycle paths and car-free lines for all trams.

Montpellier, a quarter of the size of Brussels, has laid down 64km of tramlines since 2000, so there is no reason why Brussels cannot.

To dissuade car drivers from entering the city centre, almost all roads inside the inner ring road should be pedestrianised.

City authorities have already made a bold step towards this goal by creating a car-free zone in the historic centre, which officials claim will be the second biggest in Europe after Venice.

However, the plan needs to be extended to take in squares like Place Sablon - currently one of Europe’s prettiest car-parks - and the packed, narrow lanes around Place St Gery.

Architectural jewels

Brussels has some of the world’s most astonishing architectural jewels. However, many are inaccessible.

If cities like Prague, Florence and Paris can provide monuments that double as breathtaking viewing platforms, why is it not possible to go to the top of the gold-encrusted Palais de Justice dome - which has been covered in scaffolding since the early 1990s - or the spire of the magnificent Hotel de Ville on the Grand Place?

And why should visitors only be allowed into the royal palace - where the king no longer lives - for six weeks a year, and to the royal greenhouses at Laeken only two weeks a year?

Atomium is old news

Thirdly, as well as opening up old buildings, Brussels needs to build some new ones that trumpet the city’s ambitions, inspire tourists to visit and put the city on the world map.

In the last 25 years, Spain alone has given the world the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao and another Frank Gehry masterpiece - the City of Wine complex in the Rioja region.

In Brussels, the last interesting building to be erected was the Atomium. That was in 1958.

Free wifi

Fourth and last, city authorities could help make Brussels more dynamic and competitive, cutting its shameful, 20-percent unemployment rate in the process.

They could provide free, city-wide wifi in all public spaces - as in San Francisco - allow Sunday shopping on all Sundays, not just once a month, and lower tax rates for small businesses setting up shop in the centre.

These are just some of the simple measures that should be taken to revitalise a city full of creative talent that is being held back by antiquated rules, disjointed government, and overbearing bureaucracy.

EU officials to pay Belgian taxes

However, it is too simple to blame Brussels’ woes on the authorities - whether Belgian dysfunctionality or the fact that the capital is divided into 19 administrative fiefdoms.

If the capital is to thrive it also needs the active participation of locals, over half of whom were born abroad or to foreign parents.

If these mainly non-Belgian citizens pay their taxes in the city they should also be allowed to vote in elections for the Brussels regional government.

Likewise, it is only fair that the tens of thousands of EU officials who benefit from the city’s services pay their taxes into the Belgian state coffers rather than the European Union’s.

With its lousy weather, lax attitude to law enforcement and disregard for urban planning - look ‘Brusselisation’ up in the dictionary - Brussels is easy to criticise.

Brussels is a world-class city

But despite its faults, Brussels is a world-class city.

Its centre is compact, beautiful, and packed with curiosities, arresting street art, and some of the finest squares in Europe.

Its neighbourhoods are stuffed with art nouveau gems, beech forests, and effortlessly hip hangouts like the Parvis St Gilles.

It is an Epicurean’s dream, with some of the tastiest beer, chocolate, and cooking on the planet. It has a vibrant art, dance, theatre and film scene that dwarfs most cities its size.

It also remains one of the most affordable capital cities in Europe with excellent schools, hospitals, and transport connections.

It is within two hours of Paris, London and Amsterdam - three of the world’s most visited cities - and gives easy access to the historic cities of Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp, and Leuven as well as the rolling hills of the Ardennes.

To be fair to Brussels, it is also a city that is getting better, not worse.

The historic centre has been spruced up. The areas around Place Flagey and Tour et Taxis have been revitalised after landmark buildings were rescued from bulldozers, and new post-industrial museums and galleries are sprouting up near the once derelict canal area.

Even the EU district - an urban desert that is an embarrassment to Brussels, Belgium, and Europe - is slowly improving with new bars, hotels and public spaces.

This is not to say that Brussels can rest on its laurels.

If cities like Strasbourg, Montpellier and Bordeaux can transform themselves by building new tramlines, banning cars from large chunks of the centre, and creating spectacular new public spaces in the process, Brussels can too.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2016 Regions and Cities Magazine. You can download a free PDF version of the magazine here.

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