Picnicking in the street

It is maybe hard to image that few decades ago the Grand Place – probably the most outstanding public spaces in Belgium – was a parking lot, the most beautiful parking lot in the world. But it is even more absurd to realize that today many other spaces, with remarkable cultural and architectonic relevance, are still currently taken over by cars and congestion rather than devoted to facilitate public interaction.

The “Boulevards Centrales” are historically the most important renovation projects inside the pentagon and Brussel’s functional spines. The vast infrastructural operation of vaulting the river Senne provided the ground to radically change the image of the center. By wiping out poor neighborhoods, slums and historical public spaces, Brussels could accomplish its “beautification” desires through the construction of new monumental axes; among them, the prominent Boulevard Anspach.

Today, Place de la Bourse and Place De Brouckere, the two main spaces along the boulevard, are asphalt covered traffic intersections, overlapped with crowds of pedestrians waiting in lousy crossings for the light to torn green. Monuments and fast food logos compete for attention, under a monumental perspective towards an iconic Coca-Cola billboard anchored in a neo classic pedestal and dominating the urban landscape.

In the best seller NO LOGO, Naomi Klein devotes an entire chapter to the reaction of citizens towards the progressive private domination of streets by ads and cars. “Reclaim the Streets” (RTS) are multitudinous streets parties and spontaneous gatherings that since the mid-nineties has been hijacking busy streets, major intersections and even stretches of highways, declaring “Temporary Autonomous Zones” and bringing back public space to people. “In an instant, a crowd of seemingly impromptu partyers transform a traffic artery into a surrealist playpen”. What started in Britain –in a cultural context of raves parties turned illegal- as spontaneous civic reaction by deejays, anti-corporate activists, artists and radical ecologists, became a vibrant and fast growth citizen movement, which rapidly spread to other cities in Europe, Australia and North America.

In Brussels we might not have raves, but we have Picnics. Few months ago, on a beautiful sunny-Sunday afternoon, we celebrated the beginning of summer with a crowded picnic in the heart of Brussels. During the 2014 edition of “Pic Nic The Streets” we were able to experience the enormous potential of the Place de la Bourse to become one of the best public spaces in Brussels: the asphalt was almost entirely covered by blankets and joyful citizens with picnic baskets, BBQ grills and water guns, kids and pets running freely and safe on a place normally overtaken by cars and rushing drivers.

“Pic Nic The Streets emerged in 2012 following a public call for civil disobedience by the philosopher Phillipe Van Parijs fed up of cars taken over public spaces. Since then, “Pic Nic The Streets has become an influential civic movement, who claims that “the public space should be the living room of the city not its garage. A friendly place where people not only pass by, but also have the pleasure to meet, where children can play freely and local trade flourishes”.

These collective strategies have proven to be very persuasive, as evidenced with the official announcement this year of the peatonalization of the Boulevard Anspach by the municipal authorities. However, the problem is not yet solved, the proposed traffic solution is still questionable, widely criticized and subject of further civic reactions. This case can develop into a breakthrough civic achievement, where organized citizens are not only the initiators of urban renewal but also persistent supervisors of the development of the consequent planning projects. In the context of Brussels being the most congested city in Europe, any attempt to decongest a boulevard becomes relevant.

More initiatives keep popping up every year, from highly marketed urban cultural events and institutionalized manifestations to smaller public happenings. The Car Free Sunday, for instance, keeps on showing successful results as crowds of citizens and bikers floods the capitals’ heavy traffic infrastructure while regional authorities observe how air and sound pollution levels decrease. The excitement of the people being able to freely enjoy urban outdoor spaces is a simple indicator of the need of people for common, clean and safe spaces in contemporary cities.

“The mainstream media almost invariably describe RTS events as “anti-car protest”. Most RTSers, however, insist that this is a profound oversimplification of their goals. The Car is a symbol, they say – the most tangible manifestation of the loss of communal space, walkable streets and sites of free expression. Rather than simply opposing the use of the automobiles “RTS has always tried to take the single issue of transportation and the car into a wider critique of society… to dream of reclaiming for collective use, as commons” (Naomi Klein interviews RTSer John Jordan in NO LOGO, Forth state, 2000 – 2010)

(Text: Diego Luna Quintanilla / Sedaile Mejias // photos: Diego Luna Quintanilla )


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