New projects in the city: continuity or real change?

A project to redevelop a major boulevard in the center of Brussels offers the opportunity to fundamentally rethink the public space. Source of many questions, the proposals of citizen recuperation of the public space generate most often the mistrust of the local authorities and the cries of ordeal of the population where its active participation would be necessary. However, the testimonies of those who have experienced these changes prove that the results are, under certain conditions, in the direction of a more decent city.

THE ANSPACH PROJECT: FROM BOULEVARD TO PARK 

The Anspach boulevard, a real car pump in the center of Brussels where 27,000 cars pass through every day, is a good example of what the city is and the inconveniences that this daily reality causes. The cars that pass by, most of them without origin or destination in the neighborhood, are, if you think about it, an urban aberration that alters the quality of life and are an obstacle to soft mobility from east to west. 

CHRONICLE OF A REDEVELOPMENT ALWAYS POSTPONED 

For years, residents and associations such as the Bral (Brusselse Raad Voor het Leefmilieu or Conseil Bruxellois Pour l’Environnement) have been campaigning for the redevelopment of central boulevards, notably under the name of  » street sharing « . With time, the multiple actions seemed to bear fruit: promises from the Brussels politicians; call for tender won by Groep Planning (now SUM) whose project is firmly focused on traffic-calmed boulevards and proposes to cut through traffic; presence of a budget under the Beliris collaboration agreement… 

And yet, in early 2013, we’re still waiting. It will be following a carte blanche by Professor Philippe Van Parijs (Le Soir, May 24, 2012) that the file will be relaunched: following this, more than 2000 people gather on June 10, 2012 for a picnic on the Place de la Bourse to protest against the Brussels mobility policy. After an attempt to get the mayor to agree to a « picnic » on Sunday, and a clear response from the participants who said they wanted to reclaim the public space and not just have a picnic, the event brought the issue back to the forefront of discussions, and put some pressure on the college of aldermen to move the issue forward. 

OTHER POSSIBILITIES FOR PUBLIC SPACE 

Revived by this citizen’s impulse, we can start thinking about other things for the city. Faced with land speculation and the few empty plots, some, including Bral, propose to recover public spaces and « green » them. An outsized boulevard like Anspach offers a huge public space in the center and its redevelopment is an ideal opportunity to think of other possibilities. Not with the objective of removing cars, this removal being only a means, but with the objective of offering something totally different: an attractive, recreational and ecologically interesting green space; a green axis favoring soft mobility and the migration of species and plants, the social link to the benefit of the quality of life and the sustainability of a region. 

During the summer of 2012, the Bral launches with the support of partners(Natagora Brussels, Coordination Senne, Fietsersbond and Gracq, Clara - Research Center of the Faculty of Architecture of La Cambre Horta, Brussels Nature asbl, Convivence asbl) a call for ideas to open the debate. The aim of this project is to make a constructive contribution to the development of the idea of greening public space. Open to all, it had to develop a global vision of the boulevards and deliver a detailed plan for a selected part of it. The jury judged the projects according to their coherence and technical limitations, while paying attention to their innovative character and their impact on the neighborhood (mobility, biodiversity, commerce, inhabitants…)(1).

RISK OF RECOVERY POLICY

But in the face of public authorities who are not afraid to propose projects that are inconsistent with the idea of a decent city(2)Their relative infatuation could conceal vile interests. Can we really expect from the current policies, in the middle of a crisis, an orientation that will dethrone the car in the city and propose for it something other than the ostentatious pomp aimed at enticing the tourist, making the city an asocial and sanitized commercial showcase? Is it possible that they will play a political role as public organizers rather than decision makers, leaving room for citizen initiatives? 

In front of the fundamental rethinking of our ways of life that will have to take place, two major challenges are posed according to us in a first time which are nothing in comparison with what will come after. 

Faced with the need to « redesign the city », to make it greener and more liveable, the question of its social management cannot be dismissed. The « greening » of neighborhoods, their « modernization » can be a political pretext for their « social cleansing », the perfect opportunity to make them a chic showcase « worthy » of the « capital of Europe ». Only a citizen appropriation can give meaning to the ecological dimension of a new project. In this context, the Anspach Linear Park raises a multitude of questions and involves democratic processes that could lead to quite unprecedented results. Provided, in particular, that this political recovery is avoided. 

The reduction of the individual car, which must necessarily be done, comes up against the resistance of mentalities. Everything is good to postpone its questioning. Unanimity will not be achieved. It will certainly be necessary to change the space in order to change the mentality. 

A.P.

THE ANSPACH BOULEVARD PROJECT: AN OPPORTUNITY TO RETHINK THE CITY? 

Meeting with Piet Van Meerbeek, project manager at the Bral (Brusselse Raad Voor het Leefmilieu or Conseil Bruxellois Pour l’Environnement), a non-profit organization that has been proposing for years the redevelopment of the Anspach boulevard and that launched in July 2012 a call for projects to redevelop the boulevard into a « green and car-free public space ». 

Kairos: Last year, you launched a call for projects to transform Anspach Boulevard into a park. Where did this project come from? 

Piet Van Meerbeek: We have been trying to advocate for the redevelopment of Anspach Boulevard for over 10 years. There have been various interventions since then to defend this point of view but it is essentially « Pic-Nic The Streets » that has given new vigor to this project. 

K. K.: In this linear park project, is the city (MR-PS coalition since the last legislative elections, with Freddy Thielemans as mayor) trying to include citizen participation in the decisions and future management?

Piet Van Meerbeek: no, at the moment there is no real participatory process, so it could get a little heated; there are however committees with local residents and shopkeepers. The idea is now to present it as an ecological but also social project. More and more people are asking why we should do a Beliris-type chic layout? Why not something « bottom up » where we create small places in the middle of the street reappropriated by the inhabitants where they invest themselves, urban vegetable gardens… 

K.: This is a real citizen participation project, it does not go through the ballot box, it is a real democratic participation

Piet Van Meerbeek: yes, it’s a real democracy, but the result may not be as they want it to be; it may be less chic. 

K.: they want something chic, to attract the visitor, place « signs »?

Piet Van Meerbeek: yes, they may have realized that the boulevard is not part of a « modern city ». In this hypothesis, they say to themselves that something must really be done: an ambitious development would allow them to position themselves on the international scene, that would be convincing for them. So, they don’t say no when we talk to them about citizen reappropriation but I guess it won’t be easy to convince them. 

We are now trying to propose something in a constructive and pro-active way, that’s how we can reconcile « the cries of the heart » for quality of life with a social policy; an ecological and urban renewal policy can not be opposed to the social dimension but can be partly a way to give back capacities to the citizens, to allow them to meet, to react and maybe even to initiate sources of life, like vegetable gardens, to get involved. 

K.: It might also be difficult to present this project to some residents, although there are residents’ associations

Piet Van Meerbeek: there are different associations of residents: the St. Géry neighborhood committee which is now involved, the groups around the Buurtwinkel/Boutique du Quartier and Convivence which are two associations in contact with residents. The latter two are in contact with a really fragile public and they clearly weigh in the debate the risk of speculation and gentrification which would be harmful to them. But they are very nuanced, they do not say that nothing should be changed. No one is in favor of ugliness and keeping the city ugly as it is. No one is saying that. The challenge now is to find a way to do this, to escape the ugliness without driving out the inhabitants. The second issue is to convince the city. 

K.: Do you have an idea of when you might be able to do it?

Piet Van Meerbeek: Among the 16 projects of the call we launched for the first phase, there are quite a few that focus on the reappropriation of space by the inhabitants; quite a few talk about urban vegetable gardens, but the subject is delicate. Reappropriation is scary. 

What is also important to say is that the vulnerable population has an even greater need for green spaces, has even more to gain from them than the well-to-do population, which often has a small garden or a terrace, and gets out of its house much more. Often the parents don’t have a job so they are much more at home. There are some studies that show very clearly the positive effects of a green space near housing on health, and highlight even more favorable effects for disadvantaged populations. 

Piet Van Meerbeek, project manager at Bral 

Interview by A.P.

WHAT IS EXPERIENCED AS IMPOSSIBLE TURNS OUT TO BE POSSIBLE 

The subject who is mentally and physically attached to his or her car often asks for an alternative to its use before limiting its use. However, it is a fact that « it is also the reduction of the place of the car that allows the alternative(3) « . And that the many fears are mostly unjustified, especially those of small businesses(4).

PEDESTRIAN CITY : A REAL-LIFE EXPERIENCE(5)

To avoid the inconvenience of owning a car, I had chosen the « all-on-foot » option by settling in the early 80’s in the historical and commercial center of Chartres, a medium-sized city of 70,000 inhabitants located 92 kilometers from Paris. The neighborhood was quiet, but over the years, the number of cars having almost doubled in 20 years (in Chartres as everywhere in France), the noise and air pollution generated by the increasingly frequent traffic jams became a real nuisance in the long run. In addition to this, there was the « visual pollution » since the city center looked like a huge open-air parking lot where there were more parked cars or traffic than pedestrians! 

Moreover, the exhaust fumes were deteriorating the Cathedral, and its cleaning was becoming expensive, according to the competent authorities. This progression did not seem to be about to be reversed, on the contrary, in the early 2000s the municipality took the first necessary measures to decongest the center. In spite of the consultation with the shopkeepers and the numerous information meetings organized by the Town Hall, it was a real revolution, because everybody was against it: the motorists, the shopkeepers, the political parties opposed to the municipality… etc. First of all, retractable electric « bollards » were installed to filter the entrances to the city center, which were henceforth authorized only to residents, as well as parking lots for which a « badge » was required. One can imagine the reactions of motorists and shopkeepers who complained (rightly) of losing their customers! Then, all the streets, one by one, were transformed into pedestrian streets: a work that was also very badly accepted. 

At the same time, a huge underground parking lot with 1300 spaces was dug in the middle of the city (in addition to the two existing underground parking lots(6)), which brought the furor to a head because this huge construction site blocked the traffic for months. Some local merchants even saw their business decline to the point where some had to close their stores… (It was unfair, but one imagines that they could be compensated?) At first, the revolted motorists decided to boycott the new paying underground parking lots by shopping in the big stores located at the periphery of the city. But the municipality, in response, decided to offer new cultural activities: a large media library and a multiplex cinema were built in the center. A success and a huge success. A new and very efficient public transport system was also put in place: free electric shuttles serving all the entrances and exits of the parking lots. Free minibuses circulating permanently around the city in both directions. Extension and modernization of the former urban transport network (now free for children under 18). Everything was done to make it unnecessary to come to the city by private car. Moreover, the city center and its surroundings, entirely dedicated to pedestrians, became « 30 » zones and even « 20 » zones for certain districts, an unstoppable deterrent force… 

Today, we can see that everything has finally returned to order: the sacrificed businesses have been replaced by others, restaurants and cafes, taking advantage of the freed space have spread everywhere in large terraces. Many new restaurants and shops have appeared. The paid parking lots are full. But it is aesthetically and visually that the transformation has been most spectacular, for where hundreds of parked vehicles once crowded, the landscape is once again completely uncluttered, with all the cars having become invisible, now hidden in the underground parking lots. So I find it hard to understand, when I go to other places, how we can still accept, in 2013, these heaps of parked cars that really make the center of the cities look ugly, when it would be perfectly possible to build underground parking lots, as experience has proven here. 

Now, in Chartres, everyone has forgotten those 5 years of work and is only thinking about enjoying the new advantages. The city, which has become more beautiful, attracts more and more visitors, which makes the merchants happy. Car drivers have converted to cycling and walking, and the residents as a whole (including myself) have gained a quality of life that is the envy of all and that would be difficult to find elsewhere. 

S.V.

Notes et références
  1. Les résultats sont visibles sur www.parcanspach.be
  2. Voir le dossier «L’invasion des méga-centres commerciaux», Kairos septembre/octobre 2012, et l’évolution de la situation aux pages 2–3 de ce numéro.
  3. «L’affaire des voitures qui disparaissent», Bruxelles en mouvements, janvier/février 2013.
  4. «Piétons et cyclistes, meilleurs atouts pour les commerces de proximité », voir http://economie.blog.lemonde.fr/2013/03/29
  5. Expérience recueillie d’un habitant de la ville de Chartres, par un appel à témoignages lancé sur le site carfree.fr.
  6. NDLR. La question se pose évidemment: devra-t-on passer par ces aménagements coûteux que sont les parkings souterrains, qui ne remettent pas en cause l’utilisation de la voiture entre
les villes et leur campagne ? Est-ce une transition obligée ?
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