Planned since the end of the 1990s, announced in 2012 and effective since 29 June 2015, the pedestrianisation of the central boulevards from Place De Brouckère to Place Fontainas is unquestionably the most significant urban project of the last decade for the centre of Brussels. In a context which was marked by the Paris attacks (and the resulting lockdown in Brussels) and the Brussels attacks, as well as by the closing of the tunnels around the Pentagon, the project and its temporary implementation were criticised for their impact on mobility, the quality of life in the surrounding neighbourhoods, the turnover of some shopkeepers, or for their lack of public consultation.
As more than just the development of public space, the “pedestrian area” concerns many dimensions and levels in the evolution of the city. It provides major opportunities for the city centre as well as for the Brussels-Capital Region and its metropolitan area. As an appealing project for the future, it is worthwhile for the debate to evolve quickly from controversy to constructive reflection and to go beyond the strict perimeter of the “pedestrian area”. It was with this in mind that the researchers from the Brussels Studies Institute took action in the framework of the Brussels Centre Observatory (BSI-BCO), a multidisciplinary and interuniversity observatory which studies the evolution of the city centre and aims to accompany it. The observatory’s coordination team (Eric Corijn, Michel Hubert, Julie Neuwels, Margaux Hardy, Sofie Vermeulen and Joost Vaesen) has provided a first summary of its work in the 115th issue of the academic journal Brussels Studies, based on the contributions of close to twenty researchers, available in full on the BSI-BCO website.
The analysis of experiences in Belgium and abroad illustrates that pedestrianisation may transform the urban space fundamentally and positively by having an impact on its social, environmental, economic and cultural dimensions. However, researchers underline the fact that the success of such projects is not a given. It may be threatened in particular by institutional fragmentation, power relations, failures in the governance tools used or a lack of clarity in the objectives pursued.
Based on a certain number of observations in the academic literature and specific knowledge regarding Brussels, their summary explains what they feel are the four main challenges faced by the project to renovate the centre of Brussels. This involves (1) adding to the spatial planning by taking action on the intangible aspects, and through better planning of the different atmospheres and social, commercial and artistic activities in the city centre, in particular in the pedestrian area; (2) including the project in a multi-scale vision of territorial development and associating it better with different (local, regional and metropolitan) mobility, environmental, business and housing plans, among others; (3) increasing the support for the project by improving information and communication from a qualitative point of view, as well as participation and coproduction; (4) and confirming the anticipated paradigm shift by clarifying and discussing the underlying city project, while proceeding with its implementation without further delay.
Given the extent and the range of challenges, stakeholders, instruments and levels of action, the observatory coordinators feel that there is an urgent need to improve the governance of this major urban project. In particular, they recommend the implementation of a cross-cutting operational structure within the city, coordinated by a steward whose legitimacy and authority are recognised by all, the organisation of structured meetings with stakeholders in the field, and the creation of a “chamber of quality” composed of recognised experts and representatives of the different levels of authority involved (City, Region, Beliris, etc.), which would ensure that the defined objectives are met and ensure the quality of project implementation.
This solution has been successful for more than ten years in many European cities, such as Amsterdam, Antwerp and Zurich. So why not in Brussels? The recent political changes in the city are perhaps an occasion – with everyone’s help – to add new momentum to this essential project to renovate the centre of Brussels.
Authors: Michel Hubert, Eric Corijn, Julie Neuwels, Margaux Hardy, Sofie Vermeulen et Joost Vaesen, “From pedestrian area to urban project: assets and challenges for the centre of Brussels”, Brussels Studies [Online], Syntheses, No 115, 11 September 2017.
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