Logistics and goods transport are essential for a city, ensuring the supply of goods for shops, the population, worksites and industries, as well as the evacuation of rubble and waste and the marketing of economic production.
In Brussels, the canal area plays a key role in this matter. In the 16th century, it connected Brussels to Antwerp and then to Charleroi, and structured the urbanisation of this part of the Region. A port was built there and still exists today. Commercial, artisanal and then industrial activities took place in the neighbourhoods along the canal, thus leaving a legacy of working-class buildings in these neighbourhoods. The majority of the industries have left these neighbourhoods and have moved to outlying locations which are better adapted to the current economic context, thus creating wasteland. Nevertheless, port and industrial activities continue and are concentrated in the outer harbour, to the north of the Region, where waterway access is better due to the larger size of the canal, and where industrial spaces meet current standards in terms of size and road access.
Socially, the neighbourhoods along the canal are still working-class areas and have the highest population density in the Brussels-Capital Region. Having suffered from the deindustrialisation and tertiarisation of the Brussels and Belgian economy, the majority of the populations who live there have low incomes. There is a high unemployment rate and a high level of socioeconomic insecurity.
However, there has been renewed interest in this space. Investors see it as an opportunity due to the low cost of land and its availability, the urban waterfront craze and the attractiveness of Brussels for certain wealthy sectors of the population. As regards the public authorities in charge of territorial development, the area around the canal has been the object of many initiatives amid a change in urban policy for the benefit of a more entrepreneurial vision: the reconversion of the public space, the construction of housing and the development of urbanistic projects are changing the image of these neighbourhoods and, more broadly, of the Region. For their part, the port authorities aim to maintain activities related to the waterway.
In the 109th issue of Brussels Studies, Mathieu Strale, geographer at Université libre de Bruxelles, illustrates how the many projects and interests modify the socioeconomic balance of the canal area, transforming the urbanistic profile and increasing the land pressure in this territory. The specificity of his point of view is to examine this evolution in terms of port and logistics activities. His analysis is divided into two parts. He begins by examining the role of the canal area in terms of Brussels logistics and the changes in these distribution chains. He then explores the interactions between stakeholders in the canal area, its evolution and its consequences in terms of port and industrial activities.
His observations defend the hypothesis that the property market and the balance of power in the canal area tend to reinforce the decline in logistics activities in Brussels, despite the major role played by some of them in the supply of goods and the urban economy. In addition, according to the author, these changes illustrate the transformations under way in the canal area, at urbanistic, political and social level, and more broadly, the evolution of the urban development policy in Brussels.
More than elsewhere, in the canal area it is necessary to arbitrate between these different interests. While the transformation of the area around the canal is at the heart of regional policy, the potential negative consequences on the preservation of port and logistics activities, the economy, mobility and the Brussels environment must be considered in detail. A reversal would probably involve having to identify the port, logistics and goods transport activities which are beneficial to the Region in terms of jobs and mobility, and to protect them by preventing land speculation and with policies which are favourable to their functioning.
In order to support public action which would regulate the competition between activities in the canal area better, new alliances could (or should) emerge, for example between industrialists, wholesalers and logistics service providers (who risk having to leave their current sites) and the residents (who are experiencing socioeconomic transformations in the area indirectly). This new coalition could even support the authorities in charge of transport, aware of the logistical importance of the canal area. It is nevertheless a complex and precarious interaction between stakeholders, with shared interests only in certain cases and diverging interests in others. Above all, this hypothetical coalition will have a hard time competing with developers and the more entrepreneurial approaches of other public stakeholders.