The public space is not a garage: an interview with Gerben Van den Abbeele

Few weeks ago, the Brussels Newsroom underlined the influence that ‘Picnic the Streets’ had in the decision about the pedestrianization of a big segment of the Central Boulevards of Brussels. On the other hand, the Mobility Plan proposed by the office of the Echevine de la Mobilité, des Travaux publics et du Parc automobile seems not to be consistent and does not really fulfill the expectations of Brussels inhabitants. On the contrary, the Plan includes the construction of 4 underground parking’s under some emblematic public spaces located in the city centre and a mini-ring. This has generated a notorious discontent among the citizens and several new civic movements in opposition to the Plan that have been taking a strong position in the public discussion.

Gerben Van den AbbeeleWithin this context, we interviewed Gerben Van den Abbeele, designer, mobility expert, social worker and activist who has been engaged for over 20 years in the defense and reshaping of the public space of Brussels. During the early 2000’s he was involved in the “Streetsharing” protest. In 2012, together with at least another 30 people, Gerben helped to consolidate into one coherent movement, all the protest that spontaneously arose on social media as a response to the open letter calling for public disobedience by Philippe Van Parijs.

That’s how ‘Picnic the Streets’ was born. Today, ‘Picnic the Streets’ together with other citizen movements are openly reacting against the mobility plan generating a public debate that certainly will be a headline in the political agenda of Brussels during 2015.

Brussels Newsroom : What is the role that ‘Picnic the Streets’ has within the increasing opposition to the plan the Mobility Plan proposed by the Echevine?

Gerben Van den Abbeele: At first we were in a very difficult position because it is considered that ‘Picnic the Streets’ created the problem since “it promoted a car free Place La Bourse and now this underground parking is going to be in Place-du-Jeu-de-Balle”. It was not easy to explain that for us blocking the Place La Bourse was a symbol of ‘we don’t want this pollution anymore; we do want public space where people can meet’. To explain this better, I always use the metaphor: “the public space should be the living room of the city and no the garage”. So, the plan announced by the Echevine is not what we wanted and the plan the authorities come up with will extend the problem existing in the Place la Bourse 100 meters further, and that is not what we asked for.

But now after a couple of weeks-months all these different groups, together with ‘Picnic the Streets’, are seating together and trying to find a common ground. There was a big meeting organized by ‘Picnic the Streets’, although we decided not to use this name anymore …

Do you have a new name?

We don’t need a new name. There are many inhabitants, groups and organizations that defend the environment, NGOs and so on. As suggested by ‘Picnic the Streets’they formed a new coalition called “Platform Pentagone”. Now we are working on that and trying just to be part of that group. If we decide to block the street or any other actions, it will be in support of that group. I think this is a good evolution, since the group is even bigger now. If we can find a common ground during the next couple of weeks, this is going to be a very powerful instrument, because the authorities are not stopping, they have this plan and they just continue, which is frightening.

It seems that there was not a proper consultation process about the new plan; the authorities have made meetings only to inform about decisions that have been already made…

I think this is a problem with democracy in general, they used the word “participation” and in fact what they do is just tell the people what they are going to do, so it’s more like “pacification”. It is also part of the bigger discussion about democracy: Is democracy when every couple of years we go to vote and then just let the politicians decide? Or is it more about organizing participation and step by step creating a better place to live? I think politicians are more on the idea of the first example: “you voted for me, leave me alone, I know what is best for you” I think this big tension is part of the whole problem, I guess what a lot of people in Brussels want is not at all what the authorities propose, not at all, and they don’t see that, they just see that whatever they decide should be law, that is a very strange idea.

Is this somehow related with the idea of technocracy? When you have experts you underestimate the citizen’s role in the process of decision making?

I’m pretty sure those who created this plan are not even experts, and you see it when you look at the places where they are going to put the parking’s. It looks like after having a quick look at the map they said: “there’s a big part of the city centre that has no parking at all, so let’s put some over there”. It’s obviously not about expertise, it’s about politics; it’s about acting and deciding things for your own and for where you think your voters are. If we are conservative, we are pro-car and if we’re going to make the city car-free we have to compensate it in one way or another, so we have to build all these parking lots, otherwise “we are not going to be reelected”. These kinds of mechanisms are far from democracy, far from helping the city in general. On the other hand, there are architects, urbanists, sociologists and many other experts inside these groups of organized citizens, the expertise is all there! In June, after the last picnic, we asked experts to write an article on what they think about this matter. We got answers from many French and Dutch speaking people, linked to Universities: we found everything! We just immediately found them, which proves that there are a lot of engaged experts actively involved.

It is already proven that the most car infrastructure you build the most cars you will have. When the will is to take the cars out of the city center, it seems contradictory as a strategy to invest more in car infrastructure (above all in parking, which are destination points meaning that you will attract even more cars to the city center) instead of investing in soft mobility (pedestrians, bikes and public transport). Do you consider really necessary to construct more parking spaces in the city center?

And not only that you will attract traffic but also that you will be stuck with it for the next 30-40 years because when you build this infrastructure that’s the time you need to get the money back! The amazing part is that there are almost no city centers in the world with more parking spaces than Brussels. We have 61.000 parking spots in the city center: about 19.000 in public parking and about 42.000-43.000 in office buildings, while only 60% of the total is used. On the other hand, we should not forget about ‘Brusselization’. I’m pretty convinced that the fact of that many parking spaces in the city center was one of the reasons why so many people left it in the 1960’s, which is exceptional. Now, are they going to ‘kill’ the city center by putting more parking spaces on it? I’m pretty sure that the people will start leaving again as they did in the 60s and the 70s, especially people who can afford to live outside Brussels, where is much more expensive to live. Then we will have a tax problem: when only the poorest people stay in the city center and you can’t lift the money up again, which is dangerous.

In the past, Brussels has experimented episodes in which the City authorities favored the construction of car infrastructure at the expense of some emblematic public spaces. The construction of the ‘Parking 58’ is a good example of this. On the other hand, the whole modern history of Brussels has been a quite traumatic experience, the construction of the Junction and the effects of the ‘Brusselization’ made of Brussels a construction site for very long periods of time. The people are now very sensitive about the “under construction” phase of urban renewal. Why do you think the authorities keep on repeating the same old strategy? Haven’t they learned anything in the last two centuries?

I have never thought about this actually… Why this? … I think once you make a mistake you constantly try to repair it and then you end up making the same mistake. There is always this fight in Brussels between the conservatives and the social-democrats. In Brussels you have the balance between these two: Brussels is not a bourgeois city and at the same time it is not a traditionally labor city, like Antwerp for instance. I guess that is part of the problem, the direction is always compromised. I think what is happening now is again a compromise between a social-democrat Mayor who wants to invest in saying “I was the Mayor who made these pedestrian zones in the city center” and the conservatives saying “ok, but if you do that, we are going to make this car infrastructure”. You never have this one ‘big party’ that can decide “ok this is what we are going to do now”. So, it is always a compromise. I guess that’s the whole thing, Belgium is the country of compromises and it is very dangerous because we don’t move on. People is a bit afraid of that, especially in Brussels where these two parts of the country come together, is a very complex political structure.

It is complex but also fascinating don’t you think?

When I came to this city 20 years ago I thought that this complexity created a lot of possibilities and it does, but on a bigger scale or macro scale it is a disaster. Now after 20 years I’m pretty sure of that, everybody is always blocking everybody and you don’t move on. 30-40 years ago Brussels was the richest part of Belgium but now is the poorest and it is because everything is blocked. Before, the bourgeois were still living here and the money created in the city stayed in the city and suddenly everybody left and went to live in Flanders and in Wallonia, so the money created here just went away. In Belgium you pay taxes where you live not where you work, that is one of the problems.

Few weeks ago, there was an information meeting in Marolles, with Els Ampe, Echevine de la Mobilité, des Travaux publics et du Parc automobile. She was confronted with strong reactions from the neighbours and she didn’t succeed to give enough arguments to justify the need of an underground parking in Place-du-Jeu-de-Balle…

…there are not enough arguments…

… On the other hand, as you said before, there are already enough parking’s available in the city center, so it seems that there is no need for a parking there, but anyway the authorities insist. That makes people suspicious. During the meeting we heard some strong reactions from several neighbors suggesting that the reason to build the parking doesn’t respond to a mobility issue but to favor private investment to foster gentrification. What do you think about this?

That is the only idea I can come up with. Another thing is that they want to change the neighborhood to attract richer visitors and tourists. Sablon was always the richest part looking over the Marolles -the poorest part- and slowly trying to get in, this could be one of the next levels in this process… but I don’t think the Echevine is that smart, it’s my appreciation of course. Are they going to succeed to find the private partner to actually build the thing? I don’t think so, not in the Marolles specially.

Who could be a potential partner?

Interparking could be a potential partner. One can feel that the atmosphere and links between Interparking and the city hall are very close. Interparking is now owned by what used to be the Societé Generale which is the group in Belgium that became rich by exploiting the Congo. They are very powerful and after the crises they came out even richer than they were before. Big portion of the historical money coming from the Societé Generale is now concentrated in AG Real Estate. They proposed the new plans for ‘Parking 58’ and also for the building between Place de la Monnaie and the Central Boulevards. There have big plans so if there is money they will build! Construction is still a big business… but then again: who knows? All those things are decided outside the democratic spheres…

Marolles is well-known for being an organized community with a consolidated identity which has been strengthened by traumatic experiences of big urban transformations. For this reason, we consider very difficult the building of the parking in Place-du-Jeu-de-Balle. However this could work in an opportunistic way for politicians to say: “ok we are not going to do it in Marolles… but we do it in the other places”… What about the other three places? Are these other communities organized enough to change these political decisions?

I don’t know. I think it is amazing how much reaction there is also around these other places and since we are trying now to bring the different groups together, they can always reinforce each other. But of course Marolles is a different thing, it has always been a different thing and I’m pretty sure the Mayor knew that was going to happen. I can’t believe that they actually took serious to put a parking in Marolles because it is simply to difficult to get there by car! But in Place Rouppe I don’t know, the time will tell us if the resistance is big enough and especially how the Mayor is going to react, if he doesn’t care about what people say, until 2018 he does what he wants. With the government if at certain point it doesn’t work anymore we have reelections, but with Mayors that doesn’t happen.

What will be the next steps to be taken by the authorities?

They asked private companies to make a proposition and then they will decide in May which parking’s are going to be built. They always said they won’t invest public money in these parking’s but I’m pretty sure that if there are some companies interested, they are going to ask public interventions so there will be some public-private investment, then the anger of the inhabitants will be bigger, it won’t be only “not in our back yard” but also “not with our money!” This could have some counter effects but we can’t really predict what it’s going to happen.

I would say the city council should be reflecting now in how to close down half of the existing parking’s, that should be the way to think about the city now, just close them down and create public parking spaces outside the city center, outside the region, but that is not even considered, all is just city center focused and nobody sees what is going on beyond. It is problematic, you can’t solve this mobility question by focusing on the city center, it is impossible. Furthermore, most of the cars don’t come from here and 60% of the inhabitants in Brussels city center don’t even own a car.

But the Echevine said that the people without a car should be more solidary with the people who have…

I think that the people without a car are extremely solidary already…

What should be the next steps to be taken by the citizens then? Are there legal ways to do it? Or it is just about real activism, in the streets?

I guess there are some legal ways. Inside the “Platform Pentagone” there are working groups and one of them is really focusing on these juridical questions. I think, and this is very personal, it is very dangerous, because in one way or another is citizens against big firms having a lot of money, you can’t win that battle! They have the money to pay the best lawyers and in a way you give expensive legal battles a certain legitimation by going to court. The other way will be (street) protests. Politicians are very scared of this repetition, when there is a big demonstration in the city center, that’s not a problem for them, but if year after year, people keep coming back they become pretty scared about it.

What will be the next steps to be taken by your organization?

First creating the big coalition, that is the most important, and the good thing is that more and more shop owners are opposed to the parking; that is a new thing that could make a big change. We are also trying to make counter plans; there is a group of architects and urbanists, a juridical group, an action group, and two others; we are trying to build it from the bottom. We will see what comes out of it.

Inside the ‘Picnic the Streets’ group there was always the question “are we going to make a counter plan?” but we never came to that because we thought other people was better positioned to do it. Now within this new coalition I think that is the next level and I think is going to happen. But it is not that there is nothing existing, in 2000 we made the counter plan with Streetsharing and NoMo, in 2010 the former City Council made another plan which was much better than the one they propose today. So there are a lot of plans that have been made, and I guess that is why it will be very easy to come up with a counter plan. I think the Green Party made also this counter proposition a couple of weeks ago which is basically based on the plan of 2010. Of course, if I could make propositions they will be much more drastic; I would go immediately for a car-free pentagon and see how to organize the traffic on an interregional level and to find partners in Flanders.

Sometimes the authorities put themselves in a wrong position. By proposing bad plans, they generate strong opposing reactions, encouraging citizens to organize themselves and to raise their ambitions, ambitions that nobody had before. The outcome of the reaction against the plan could be far greater than the first motivations in the original plan…

In the plan that the city has now, there is this mini ring, that can be easily reversed, but these parking’s, that is more difficult to change. You see it with the existing ones; it is very difficult to get rid of them. Maybe that is the outcome; now a lot of people are motivated to count the number of empty places in the existing parking’s, so –as you said- the reaction on the plan can make a completely different scenario… That would be nice!

(An interview with Gerben Van den Abbeele by Sedaile Mejias and Diego Luna Quintanilla // photos: Diego Luna Quintanilla )


Photo gallery

Tire au coeur elle est vivante Neie en de estalles Non au parking Place Rouppe Frappee en plein coeur Posters No Parking