The Brussels Piétonnier: stuck in motion

The dream of a large house and garden with a double car garage is but a fading memory we’re reminded of when watching the opening credits to The Simpsons. Yes, we are heading back to the city. The reasons are vast: we want accessibility, we want choice of what to buy or where to eat, we want to be entertained or to entertain, we want chance encounters, we want…we want better quality of life.

Brussels, like many cities, has began rolling out measures to make the city centre more hospitable and more relaxing – however it is meeting a barrage of resistance from both businesses and residents. This essay looks at the dynamics that suddenly lured Brussels into creating one of the largest car-free zones in Europe while exploring the revolt that is threatening to bring the cars back and the friction emerging between those in favour and those against the new pedestrian focused city centre.

The Brussels Piétonnier: stuck in motion

A car-free dream

The reasons for pushing vehicles out of cities are vast: a holistic evaluation will prove that cars and urban centres are utterly incompatible. Consider the noise, the air pollution, the accidents, the stress, the consumption of space, the loss of time, the health problems, the cost of parking, the fuel, the maintenance… None of these problems add up to the benefit of having a car in an urban area. No wonder car-licences are becoming increasingly rare amongst the smart-phone generation urbanites (1) while car use has plateaued or is falling (2) and in many countries car-makers are experiencing serious challenges in making themselves relevant. These dynamics are the norm in Europe but increasingly in many other larger cities across the world.

The result is being played out through urban design. Poster cities across the world are boasting the recovery of space for children and families, for trees and birds, for trams, for bikes and pedestrians. A new wave of urban focused residents have never owned a car, depend on their bikes, use collective transport, car-share and spend a significant amount of time in public (or semi-public) spaces. Cafe culture is growing, small local bars are coming back to life, industries that were almost extinct (such as craft brewers (3) and bakers (4)) have been revived as hip.

Few people can deny the benefits of reducing cars, however the transition process is rubbing people up the wrong way. In places where residents or visitors know no other mode of transport other than the car, then using a bike or even walking is considered a scandal. For an inner-city lower-class resident that can afford an attractive car, not being able to show it off is a serious loss of pride. In cities where businesses have invested heavily in a car-dependent clientele, there is serious resistance to change. For shop-owners who that are surviving from day to day, any change is bad news. The critical question is – how do we transition to low/no car city centres?

Brussels mobility plan, an idea motion

Brussels is possibly the most cosmopolitan European city, per capita, where a vast number of communities live in incredible tolerance. The city centre has long been in serious competition with the urban fringes and as early as the 1850’s Mayor Anspach enacted a radical Haussmann style incision through the medieval city, building a Parisian boulevard to retain the middle class tax base. The city centre never quite achieved its potential and is still struggling to more diverse community.

The push for a car-free city centre has been a grass-roots struggle in Brussels. It may have begun in the early 1970’s, with The Bulletin magazine’s campaign to push parking out of the Grand Place – calling it the ‘the world’s most beautiful carpark’ and launching a peaceful picnic protest, successfully removing the parked cars (5). Numerous other grass roots events brought media attention, including a citizen group that painted bicycle lanes on busy roads while another pushed for ‘Street sharing’ to create a more balanced mobility system (6). Furthermore, Brussels had been taken to the European court for excessive pollution levels and ranks almost at the top of the list of most congested cities in Europe. In 2016 four large shopping centre proposals on the city fringes emerged, threatening the exclusive position of Brussels’ Rue Neuve with both small and large shop owners pushing for an improvement in the public space.

In 2013 the Grand Place protest was revived with ‘Pic Nic the Streets’, this time calling for a removal of cars around one of the city centre’s most iconic buildings, La Bourse. The picnic protest captured the city council election cycle in 2014 whom took this as a call to remove cars from a section of public space.

In 2015, soon after the elections, a mobility plan was carved up between a motley political coalition. The plan involved shifting vehicles from a number of major thoroughfares in the city centre while adjusting circulation, painting cycle lanes and proposing parking stations under a number of significant public squares to account for the loss. Many felt the plan was poorly structured and a compromise between a social-democrat mayor’s desire to put his name on a major public project while accommodating the pro-car / pro-development conservative party’s push to appease the car-owners.

Although the plan covered a raft of interdependent problems it was ultimately seen to accommodate individual political interests with a noted absence of public consultation or co-creation. It was treated by many as yet another weakly structured top-down ‘Brusselization’ project that did not deal with the complexity of the problems at hand and was merely sweeping the problems under the carpet (see BNR’s interview with Gerben Van den Abbeele). Protests and discord emerged particularly as independent mobility, urban planning and sociology experts easily discredited the mobility plan for lack of expertise. For example, the argument for needing new parking spaces was quickly dismissed by independent experts that found that 40% of existing parking in the city was un-used (7).

Suddenly during the last week of June 2015, on a warm summer weekend, remarkable changes occurred. Barriers were placed at either end of Boulevard Anspach, between Place De Brouckère and Place Fontanas, ping-pong tables and temporary street furniture were set-up, an information centre was installed, the pavements were painted, there was music (both organised and spontaneous) and the streets filled with people at almost all hours of the day.

What was seen as a dull and noisy thoroughfare, that summer, became a place where people of all walks of life could share a bench or ping pong table. For a few months, the energy and enthusiasm attracted curiosity of residents across Brussels as well as global attention – doing something few cities have dared and claiming to have Europe’s second largest pedestrian zone (8).

Smooth operators

Brussels is not the only city that aimed big. In Curitiba (BR) in the 1970’s, anecdotally in the name of a sewage system upgrade, Mayor Jaime Lerner lifted kilometres of city centre roads and relayed it with cobbled car-free pedestrian spaces which provided the context for an attractive commercial precinct – the transformation was done so quickly it was easy to see the improvement. In other Latin-American cities such as Caracas (since the 1980’s), Bogota (since the 2000’s), and São Paulo, certain major roads are closed to cars on weekends and feature a critical mass of residents that take over the space and treat the city as a public parkway. This has proven demand and given the government confidence to close off certain areas permanently. A space such as Times Square (NY) was closed ‘temporarily’ by the city’s transport commissioner to test circulation and public response to the new space and since the same approach has been rolled out throughout the city (9).

In Belgium, the annual car-free day is one of the most empowering moments of the year as children and families take over the streets, traffic noise is vanished and air quality is practically perfect. Cities such as Leuven have taken on a car-free strategy (Autoluwe Binnenstad Leuven) while Gent hosts the annual ‘green-streets’ by closing an entire street over summer to raise awareness. This is just a sample of a buffet of strategies that have been used and can be easily replicated across the world.

Stuck in action

Surely experiences seen elsewhere would help shape the Brussels transition – at least to identify steps of how to bring the inhabitants along in the process and how to ensure either a radical change is well received or gradual changes are planned. However this was hardly the case. By the end of autumn 2015 the real test began: the temperature dropped, the investment eased, the painted streets faded, the ping-pong tables were packed up, the music died down, cleaning operations became lax and sentiment turned. The truth is, very few people understood what the pedestrian zone stood for: there was a mobility plan but no clear vision.

“…ce piétonnier géant na pas été conçu pour améliorer la cohabitation piéton/vélo/voiture/bus, mais au contraire pour lutter contre la voiture…” (

To make matters worse, businesses suffered a radical downturn with the lock-down in November, terrorist alarms and eventually the attacks in March 2016. Soon after, some 250 business members stormed the council meeting to demand radical change or revert the circulation plan. Even though 85% of the retailers originally supported the original plans, 93% claim the process has been bad (10). While certainly a radical change will result in winners and losers, the changes have given a platform for negative voices without offering a great value alternative for new business to invest in. Quite rightly, the local businesses are failing while alternative venues are slow to appear.

The Brussels Piétonnier: stuck in motion

This resulted in interest groups taking extreme positions for (11) or against (12), and eventually with little serious financial commitment from the municipality, we’re stuck in a deadlock. Promises for radical street works remain seductive artistic impressions possibly for 2018, yet many are losing hope. Cars have begun to park on previously pedestrian space and little seems to have been adapted. What remains for the original plans is unclear and could be as impressive as the idea itself or yet another political blunder that will leave its mark for years to come.

What can Brussels teach us?

To conclude, lets look at a few take-home messages that hopefully can prepare the transition of the next city with a pedestrian focused centre:

  • Have a transition strategy. An attractive architect rendered image of the future of a public space was useful, but not nearly as useful as an adaptive and flexible strategy for achieving a vision. Stakeholders should not be sold on an ‘artist’s impression’, but a vision – a goal that will be tested and grow over time. An option would be to close the city centre during the summer months, when the traffic is calm, over a series of years to build support and in the meantime prepare businesses for the big changes to come without delivering.
  • Be honest, talk to the people. Politicians who make assumptions, even if they are suitable, will rarely find an accepting audience. The case of Brussels proves that it is far easier for stakeholders to say NO than to accept something they do not understand. An open and transparent discussion may have saved a lot of political distrust and found working solutions that could have cost little to resolve.
  • Have a clear but simple vision. Brussels proves that a plan with an unclear vision made up of political compromises will be quickly picked apart by a community of specialists outside of the project. Brussels is a global city, competing with the likes of Copenhagen, Lyon, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Milan, Melbourne and Barcelona – a poorly framed vision for public space will easily deflect both visitors and businesses.
  • Bring along the business. All cities are founded on complex networks of local businesses. Measures should be taken to help support their interests and help them in the transition process. They are both the most significant ally and the sharpest weapon.
  • Starting in summer, means you must be prepared for winter. Brussels had strategically selected the summer months to enact its plans, at the end of the school year and just before summer holidays. While this offered a high for residents it also made the city centre look TOO good. A less radical opening in a month leading up to summer may have helped sustain the euphoria rather than lead to a short and intense ecstasy, followed by winter depression.
  • Slow transition or fast action. Brussels wanted a quick change, but wasn’t prepared to invest enough. Certainly Curitiba and Bogota show that sudden and dramatic change (Curitiba) or large but temporary events (Bogota) are effective in switching opinion without resulting in political suicide. Brussels’ unresolved public space works forced people to jump to too many conclusions without having a chance to see what it would look like in the end.
  • A half good house is better than a full bad one. Brussels wanted to make a big step, but didn’t have the money or credibility to deliver the final outcome within a short space of time. A more effective strategy may have been to build a small section quickly.
  • Sustain the change. Brussels showed that the summer program was soon forgotten as autumn arrived. Looking at Bogota and São Paulo, regular public events to bring the community together and stimulate participation through fun and recreation have created a significant amount of political value.
  • Not everyone likes a paradigm shift. It should be accepted that not everyone will be able or willing to adjust to big changes. However if there is a net positive outcome, involving extensive stakeholder co-creation, then we must accept the consequences that some people just do not like change. A paradigm shift involves changing the system and in this case it is about creating more attractive space for people in the city while removing the negative impact of cars. Building car parking, as proposed by the mobility plan, will not change the system, it just adapts the existing one.

Regardless of the highs and lows of the car-free dreams, there is much to learn from the process, both good and bad, and the Brussels experience must be added to the reference list of cities evolving into slower, people focused places.

(Text and photos by Adrian Vickery Hill)