Brussels many-face God: On contemporary discourses of urban planning and the lessons learned from Jesus


Prelude – Old Testament

“God exists, but he is a bit of a jerk. His ten-year-old daughter Ea, the modern coming of Jesus Christ rebels against his tyranny and comes to Earth, gathers disciples and proposes The Brand New Testament for how humanity should live. They both live in Brussels”. (1)

Brussels sits uncomfortably in the midst of the political and community pressure of the Belgian nation-state. It carries the weight of a complex social configuration consisting of: immigrants, EU institution employees and Belgians which are separated in Flemish and Waloons with their interstitial cultural clashes (2). Brussels’ socio-economic and ethnic fragmentation is reflected by strong spatial segregation, but what has caused this social and morphological segregation?

Since the middle of the 20th century, the Belgian nation-state has experienced a process of national deconstruction through an ethnicization of its territorial administration. As a consequence this has produced institutional and ethnical fragmentations. The city in a previous era produced lots of money, but also a lot of misery. This and the welfare state apparatus created the present socio-spatial mismatch between living and working in the Brussels metropolitan area (3).

Brussels being such polarized city, raises the important question of whether other modes of social integration and policy formation can emerge in all it’s spaces, which some of them are desperately crying for help in the need of transition. The European Capital faces structural socio-economic challenges: a chronic shortage of social housing and a spatial-economic segregation between the affluent suburbs in the East and the poorer city center and Western periphery. Whilst Brussels needs structural solutions and ambitious visions, possible solutions are even more complicated by its multi-layered governance structure and complex reality. However confronting the problem of fragmentation, it could also be seen as an opportunity to cook a huge boiling pot of democratic inter-racial civil society.


That’s how God plans a city according to the movie “The Brand New Testament”


It seems that Brussels is dancing in ongoing masquerade laughing and showing off it’s institutional jumble clothes while wearing a multi-ethnic mask. Brussels being born from different villages, which collided to form a metropolitan region, has maintained the identity of a many-face god. Just stands there and smiles to all 170 nationalities, which are mostly separated by atmospherically radical different neighborhoods. As the movie The Brand New Testament suggests, God was born in Brussels, well to be actually precise, God who just lived in Brussels, gave a life to it. He also had a daughter Jesus… And he/her rebelled and started changing things according to new inclusive rules for everybody. The movie in a way is a metaphor of something outdated being replaced by something progressive and contextual. Luckily enough Brussels is actually moving towards to new Jesus-guidelines quite fast.


The Brand New Testament

So how did Brussels end up with socio-spatial mismatch? Definitely it’s architecture and planned environment played a big role. Architecture and urbanism in the matter of fact helped to create this mismatch by focusing only on form and physical space. Today the definition of built environment is changing, it’s increasingly being understood as ‘the space of flows’. Current postmodern system-thinking suggests to design social processes where physical form will follow and adapt itself. Societies can organize themselves around the flows of people, services, knowledge, technology, money and all kind of resources. Together they constitute a rather new understanding of space, which is formed by human behavior patterns.

Natural human behavior patterns form and give shape to the soft infrastructure of the city, if you like, the bloodstream of a city. When the blood runs through the veins and is not being sucked by some thirsty developer, the city starts evolving and growing itself like a living organism. This kind of blood streams can be rediscovered in abandoned warehouses, disused industrial areas or any other unexpected elements within the city, where new alternatives are still possible.

Then if it grows itself around the flows, why do we need architects, designers and urbanists? As most of them are of creative nature, they can breathe life and inspiration into the process of creating such spaces. Urban planning is necessary to give a starting boost for collaborative design process. Designers and urban planners should upgrade the planning methods with orientation to soft-skill tools to facilitate this kind of framework. That is exactly why the Jesus-girl has realized that it is time to go down to the streets and start talking with people.

The creation of a city is no longer considered as a set of intervened physical infrastructure. Our goal is to create socially inclusive spaces. Urbanists, architects, all city-makers have to use different cultural means (events, memories, city history, etc.) and to look at them as constantly changing natural urban processes. It seems complicated, but it actually isn’t, the matter here is to combine and mix small scale public-participation methods together with the top-down ones. Small-scale initiatives are valuable and inspiring, but if we really want to tackle modern problems of cities, we must either (a) be able to replicate, imitate, improve, and upscale the examples, or (b) acknowledge that we cannot do without the knowledge, and resources of large organizations, companies, and governments (4).

The change in architectural level means to have guts to reject global trends of pompastic and iconic landmark architecture, which costs a lot and is built for a few. To reject usage of copy-paste methods in the already very fragmented reality of Brussels. Instead, the architectural products can focus on a crucial role – to open up the urban space for alternative uses, making it accessible to marginalized groups in society. Future planner’s toolkit and variety of methods must be broader and stronger while understanding of working context an obligation.

In recent years more and more modest architectural realizations are spread across the Brussels region like “floating islands”. Such occur for example in the framework of Neighborhoods contracts (NCs), created in the mid-1990s to aid urban renewal and facilitate bottom-up movements. The urban activism changed the urban politics of neglect, where the future lies at the mercy of ‘godlike’ private developers (5).


Jesus-girl walks the water to escape her tyrant father


The Play

Design has just started to move away from shaping individual products and buildings to a more strategic agenda. Design thinkers approach the world as a giant laboratory. They are not intimidated by complexity but start with patient observation of the ‘system-as-is’. Immersion leads to ideas, drawings, sketches, models, and back to observation and ideas. Visualization and prototyping is a powerful means of catalyzing new ideas and testing emergent solutions. Skillful design thinkers are reflective practitioners, engaged in a process of action learning. Understanding the needs of users: design work does not start with abstractions but with a careful observation of lived reality. Urban designer Paola Vigano’ refers to this process as ‘having a conversation with a situation’ (6).

There is a variety of conversations with situations. One of the more playful ones is role-based city design games. They run on interactive platforms and can facilitate multi-actor processes. City design games are potent tools for spatial planning for three reasons. First, they are rule-based. Any complex urban system relies on common dynamic rules. Second, they enable the inclusion of numerous actors. Any complex urban system relies on agents with differing powers and interests. Third, they allow negotiation between engaged players resulting in interactive learning. Complex urban system relies on smart agents interacting to learn (7).


World Peace Game


A world that works for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, and without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.” that’s how Buckminster Fuller described his over ambitious “World Peace Game”, which was created as an educational simulation in 1961 to help create solutions to overpopulation and the uneven distribution of global resources. Many times the game was played, the players were able to achieve significant results for future processes (8).

Brussels also had played a game, however this one was dedicated to strengthen the existing community in Port de Ninove. The game Ninove en Jeu was conceived as the final step of a six month process of temporary revitalization of the Place de Ninove, carried out by a group of architects and urban researchers in close collaboration with the local neighbors and the support of a Neighborhood Contract. In the project surrounding residents were invited to ‘co-develop’ revitalization of public square. Beyond the installation of urban furniture, the thread of reflection was to integrate the new dynamics created in the process into the broader view of the bigger scale challenges and transformation that the neighborhood will face in the coming years, due to the redevelopment of the post industrial surroundings. Ninove en Jeu was therefore a tool to facilitate the understanding of the complexity of the decision-making in urban development and the potential role of citizen participation in the processes. (9).


“Ninove en Jeu” (by The Urban Ecology Center)


Today more than ever this kind of peace is needed to connect different cultural and socially marginalized groups in Brussels. As an inherently participatory and immersive experience, gaming has the potential to activate residents’ sense of ownership as well as their agency in impacting the spaces around them. These kind of games could be seen as a match-making exercises and as a meaningful alternative for the conventional urban planning practices.

City gaming gained it’s momentum at the first international conference on city games in Rotterdam. The dynamic and playful event succeeded to create a platform to exchange knowledge on games that have the potential to facilitate more effective and inclusive urban planning. The conference was concluded simply – the biggest importance of such gaming is just to get together, bond, take collective decisions and understand each other. It was organized by ‘Games for Cities’, an initiative started by ‘Play the City’ and partners (10).


Games for Cities conference, Rotterdam 2017


Meaningful inefficiencies

Games can and should create meaningful inefficiencies. As more technological solutions get proposed, funded, and implemented to solve urban problems, we need to safeguard against them becoming technocratic solutions. Social connections, deliberation, place-based story telling, and play, create nuance in how people understand local community and consequently influence how people construct meaning in an urban context (11).

We can try to be a little bit inefficient like Antanas Mockus, the former mayor of Bogota who literally played the role of a “hero” during his mandate. Mockus’s in his first term as mayor was dressing as a “supercitizen” in spandex to urge people to take care of their urban environment. Incorporating the concept of “play” into his actions and policies, he initiated many successful social experiments and strategies for changing the mindset – and, eventually, the behavior – of the city’s unruly inhabitants.


“Super Citizen” (Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogota)

(Text by Donatas Baltrusaitis)