The unbearable slowness of the Brussels urban politics

Gideon Boie

09/06/2022, De Standaard

Image: Stijn Beeckmans

The pedestrian zone on Boulevard Anspach is a historic victory for civic activism. After 10 years, the Brussels citizens' movements are taking their picnic blanket out of the closet again. With good reason, writes Gideon Boie, given the unbearable slowness of the Brussels urban politics.

The pedestrian zone in Brussels shows how bottum-up citizen action can trigger a transformation of a city center, Philippe Van Parijs recently stated with due pride in The Brussels Times. It was he who in 2012 called for a picnic on Boulevard Anspach. A group of experienced city activists turned the talk into action. The colère and the street occupation fitted in with the zeitgeist of the Indignados. Mayor Freddy Thielemans grumbled a bit, but the rest is history.

Today, a mass of people stroll up and down between Brouckère and Fontainas every day, but still not everyone is equally enthusiastic. Pronounce the word pedestrian zone and you get a jeremiad: conflicts with cyclists and joyriders on scooters, one-sided range of stores, insecurity at night, rising rental prices, gentrification of the city center, inadequate circulation plans, lack of dialogue, all urban dilemmas are passed in review.

Nevertheless, you cannot measure the success of the pedestrian zone by the pedestrian zone alone. In the first place, the strolling crowd symbolizes a city in which his Majesty the Car has been pushed back into its proper place. The pedestrian zone thus marks the end of an era in which thoroughfare traffic was simply directed through the heart of the city. The pedestrian zone may be imperfect, but it shows what can be achieved with the redistribution of public space.

The pedestrian zone is also a symbol of the struggle against what Van Parijs called at that time the ‘unacceptable governmental lethargy’. The mystery of the urban policy in Brussels is not that there is no alternative. Everyone knows of the alternative, but for one reason or another its implementation is not happening. For years, the plans for a car-free city center had been gathering dust in the drawers of civil servants and politicians in charge. The series of picnics led to an acceleration of the decision-making procedures.

Finally, the pedestrian zone inspired a decade of civil disobedience in Brussels. The picnic is a textbook example of what Judith Butler wrote about global street protests in the 2010s: ‘For politics to take place, the body must appear.’ The joyful scene of a picnicking crowd was a political moment. Successful picnics followed swiftly at Ninoofsepoort and Fernand Cocq Square. At the same time, the picnics indirectly gave rise to numerous other citizens’ movements, such as Filter Café Filtré, Heroes for Zero and even Pool is Cool.

Central to this was a break in style regarding activism: in the place of traditional opposition came a kind of hyper-idealism. The picnics might have been a form of civil disobedience, but only if you pay attention to the traffic rules. Actually, the picnicking masses were extremely docile to the slumbering vision of a low-traffic city center. This left responsible politicians with a “response dilemma”: they could ignore or embrace the action, but in either case the picnickers’ battle was won in advance.

No wonder citizen movements are today again calling for a picnic at the Vlaamse Poort, on the border of Brussels and Molenbeek, where the small ring road cuts right through densely populated neighborhoods. The Vlaamse Poort is known as a black spot in terms of traffic safety. The citizen science project Curieuzenair recently highlighted the extreme air pollution around the Vlaamse Poort. On top of this comes the social problems with a total lack of green, public space for a young, diverse population.

The Vlaamse Poort brings us back to the unbearable slowness of the urban politics in Brussels. Everyone knows the alternatives, but the list of black spots is being handed on from minister to minister. Despite ambitious visions for the Canal Zone, the plans for the Vlaamse Poort are anxiously kept in the drawer. Nobody dares to touch the inner ring road, despite all the new circulation plans. The citizens’ movements are quite right to pull the picnic blanket already out of the closet. Indeed one would be indignant for a little less.

Draft translation of an article published by De Standaard, 9 June 2022

Tags: Activism, Brussels, English, Verkeer

Categories: Urban planning

Type: Article