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Brussels has seen waves of radical urban planning policies since the nation’s independence, and the remnants of the grandiose yet often unfinished projects puncture and redefine the city’s urban landscape. Though idealist in vision, these projects are fraught with critique. This essay seeks to compare the urbanisation strategies in earlier epochs, for the Northern and European Quarter, with the current Canal Plan and to analyse how policymakers have learnt from mistakes of the past, and whether urban development strategies have adapted to today’s socio-economic climate.

Brussels’ complex and fragmented social, spatial and political configuration has created a city with an obscure and multi-faceted identity. Wandering through its streets, visitors often find a lack of coherence; gay bars around the corner from a scattered chinatown, high-end fashion shops a few streets away from deteriorating social housing blocks, and prostitution windows in quaint European streets with views of skyscraper towers. As Sterken remarks, “Brussels may not exist as one city, but as several, parallel and simultaneous cities. The French and English names surely suggest this: “Bruxelles” and “Brussels”, plural of the Dutch ‘Brussel’.” Often referred to as ugly, confused, messy, incoherent, dysfunctional, gritty…, the various waves of urban planning policies imposed onto the city since becoming a nation-state has resulted in an idiosyncratic built environment where with post-modern architecture clash against an art nouveau heritage and its modernist housing blocks.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to deny that this captivating cityscape is “thrillingly authentic... [that its identity crisis] prevents the city from becoming a superficial caricature of its own image.” However, beneath a veil of endearing charm, is a city festering with social inequalities and division, a city of diversity where different communities live together, separately. Accommodating a Flemish and Walloon community, waves of immigration, the emergence of EU institutions, and divided amidst the 19 municipalities, the city’s troubled physical identity is a mirror of its social and political complexity.

Yet this undefined and therefore more malleable national identity becomes an opportunity for allowing and celebrating a true diversity rather than assimilation to an existing culture; the “openness” of the city creates a unique opportunity for its appropriation. Or it might just as well be the city’s Achilles’ heel, by allowing groups to withdraw from realities and retreat back to their enclaves.

This essay aims to explore how urban planning and architecture have contributed to this peculiar phenomenon by firstly outlining urbanisation strategies in earlier epochs, discussing how current strategies can learn from mistakes of the past, and then critically analysing the way in which current strategies are adapting to today’s socio-economic climate.


Brussels, the capital of a nation
Prior to the secession from the Netherlands in 1830, Brussels as a city had grown in an organic manner, though with the formation of a new nation-state, there was a need to demonstrate the country’s sovereignty by transforming Brussels into the symbolic capital of Belgium; urban planning was used as a tool to give the city this new and prestigious identity. At that time, Brussels was fraught with poor-quality housing and living conditions, and those more affluent chose to live towards the city outskirts to escape the open sewer which was the Zenne river. During the four-decade-long rein of King Leopold I, the City Government was tasked to clean up the city and to improve the hygienic conditions. This resulted in a Haussmann-inspired urban strategy where dated and inferior housing stock was destroyed to make way for central boulevards and new neo-classical buildings which extended from the north to the south, cutting through the city centre. This period saw the construction of the Palace of Justice, the stock market (Bourse) and other many other government buildings.

The sanitation of the city was a largely bourgeois prerogative that was designed to reinforce the existing social order; the city’s urban developments were privately funded by companies, rich industrialists, and by the King himself, through colonial ventures. As with Haussmann’s plan for Paris, “the new boulevard s were were construed as public spaces to facilitate the state’s protection of bourgeois private property” and was designed to discourage those challenging the status quo. Though never explicit, the plan sought to expropriate the working-class residents living in order to build monuments of splendour, and to make the city the capital of a nation. Nevertheless, the top-down imposition of this vision was never fully successful, where even today, either Flanders nor Wallonia consider Brussels as its real capital.

Brussels, the capital of Europe
Coinciding with the World Expo in 1958, the vision for Brussels was to become an administrative centre and the capital of Europe. The city had become the headquarters of NATO, and there was a desire to attract more European Union functions here. To achieve this, the city took to develop a new zone which assembled almost 3-million square meters of office space on 75ha of land in what is known as the European Quarter (also referred to as the Leopold Quarter). The rationale behind this development venture was to build the physical infrastructure first, in order to lure more administrative and governmental bodies to the area. Due to the growing demand for office and commercial spaces during this period, the Manhattan Plan, located in near the North station, was another uncompromising urban plan to create a network of office towers on plinths which would serve as elevated walkways.

Due to the nature of these two projects, and their economic objectives, the tabla rasa design strategy completely disregarded the existing urban fabric. The idea of the time was to create a prestigious, exclusive and controlled space solely for the purposes of office work and tertiary services. Though not without protest, even the Maison du Peuple, designed by Victor Horta, was demolished to make way for office buildings. The small neighbourhood streets were destroyed and its residents expelled, evicting tens of thousands of people living in the former working-class neighbourhood around the North station. What was built in its place clearly lacked diversity, depriving these areas of its urban capacity. The project was later highly criticised for its immense scale and mono-functional nature, though the damage had already been done. Furthermore, these modernist projects were never realised in its entirety due to the economic crisis in the 70s. They became a symbol for failed urban planning with serious spatial and social consequences.

An already complicated political system, with the dispersed urban development roles and a lack of cooperation between the government and the 19 municipalities (at this time, the city itself was not yet a federal region as it is today), there was a lack of consultative instruments for citizens to demonstrate their to the right of the city. Although certain participative community groups were formed to give voice to residents, many participative processes were sidestepped. Also, policies were evidently biased towards the relocation of lower-income families away from the centre, without necessarily creating more housing supply elsewhere. The implementation of these developments also depended largely on public-private partnerships where, according to the former Mayor De Donnea, the alliances between government officials and real estate developers were often corrupt and parties represented primarily their own interests.

Such characteristics in the city's urban renewal projects throughout history brought about the term “Brusselization”, and can be defined as “the capitalistic destruction of a city with a compromising collaboration of the public sector.” It is a phenomenon that requires the following key elements: a quickly growing demand for office space, urban policies based on a weak law, laws which served authorities and the business world, destruction of the existing urban fabric and the expropriation of existing inhabitants, and an influx of white-collar workers to the centre.

The stark social consequences of Brusselization are still visible in the city today. For example, the Justice Palace, Boulevard Anspach, and the Northern and European Quarters are physical indicators of social separations. Using Bordieu’s theoretical framework, these are physical spaces where ideas of affluence and prestige are reinforced in social space and which perpetuate a social hierarchy and a spatial divide between classes, ethnicities and cultures. The organic development of the former urban fabric had been disrupted by the urban renewal projects, making way for prioritised social groups; these social and spatial divides remain in the collective memory of the city.

One may glean though, that such social divides do not exist so starkly in Brussels. However, it is more so the case that such social spaces are physically located at proximity, with blurred borders, and different social spaces and social separations occupy a shared physical space, creating an illusion of diversity, without necessarily having true intermingling, which is indeed the case in Brussels today.


The Brussels Capital Region today presents an image of a young, growing global city. Representing an estimated 170 nationalities, just over half of the population was born outside of Brussels; a third was born abroad and the remaining 20% are Belgians from Wallonia or Flanders. Though the city experienced considerable levels of economic growth in the past two decades, the deteriorating social indicators reflect underlying structural disparities in the equitable distribution of growth, the two major issues challenging the city being demographic growth (an projected 32% increase by 2060), and the fight against poverty.

In addition to natural growth (particularly due to higher birth rates of those with a lower socio-economic status), the expected rise in population is largely due to immigration. External immigration to the capital generally falls under two categories: there are the highly-skilled workers attracted by the expansion of the EU, who contribute in the capital to the regional and world economy, whereas waves of migrant workers, mostly in the 60s and 70s largely had taken on on low-skilled jobs. Therefore, while a transnational elite account for 10 to 15% of the population, one in four Brusseleirs live below the poverty line. This is somewhat unsurprising when the unemployment rate has averaged 20% in the past two decades. The high levels of migration, both internally and internationally, coupled with a population with an average age of 37.8, indicate that the net inflow consists largely of young single people, while the net outflow is of slightly older households with children.

Such disparities are clearly spatially manifested — wealthier communities reside in peripheral, more suburban neighbourhoods while poorer working-class residents remain in zones along the canal, an area which is referred to as the “poor crescent” of Brussels. Though only partially as a result of net migration, another cause for a growing population is a high birth rate, particularly in lower-income areas, indicating that more and more children grow up in poverty, and families along the ‘poor crescent’, remain in the city. It is worthwhile to note that this poor crescent is along the canal because it was the former industrial zone, and is all situated away from the above-mentioned urban renewal developments.

To further exacerbate this situation, since a portion of the taxation on personal income is given to the municipality in which a resident resides, more affluent municipalities have greater financial capacities; for example, the more affluent municipality of Woluwe-Saint-Pierre’s income trebled while taxable income of the smallest yet most densely populated municipality of Saint-Josse-ten-Noode remained the same. As such, because of the political structure and distribution of functions, the 19 municipalities have an incentive to compete against each other to attract wealthier residents, and “gentrification in one’s own territory [becomes] a desirable evolution, whilst the addition of new social housing is avoided like the plague”. Nevertheless, the statistics give a clear indication that there is a shortage of both job opportunities and suitable housing for those of lower socio-economic backgrounds.


The peculiar charm of Brussels lies in its spatial complexity where although there are rather distinct and identifiable communities, the physical divisions of such groups often have blurred borders. According to sociologist Saskia Sassen, the complexity and incompleteness of a city is what gives it the capacity to survive upheavals and outlive far more powerful but formal and closed systems, be it governments, kings or financial firms. At first glance, Brussels may be viewed as a exemplary city for celebrating diversity. However, regardless how dense and urban a city may appear, there exists a range of “acute processes that de-urbanise cities,” including “extreme forms of inequality and privatisation, new types of urban violence asymmetric war, and massive surveillance systems.” These processes threaten the city as a space for “the material practices of freedom, including its anarchies and contradictions, and a space where the powerless can make speech, presence, a politics.”

In the case of Brussels, upon closer examination, one can see the structural inequalities embedded deep in the functioning of the city; its spatial segregations, with the poor crescent along the canal area, and the affluent neighbourhoods further towards the southern and eastern outskirts, are a direct result of its previous [unsuccessful] urbanistic visions, and its consequences which are perpetuated and reinforced by the separations of the levels of government, as well as by its linguistic divisions. These particular characteristics become an additional challenge to overcome; likewise with the aforementioned urban renewal projects, the city’s political complexity becomes opportunity for those with both power and a clear political agenda to take advantage of the system, and in this sense, threaten the urban capacity of the city.

Sassen sees diversity as more than mere coexistence, where different groups in the vicinity of one another. Rather, it is capacity for mutual interdependence of daily life, where “groups with a variety of grievances can coalesce no matter how diverse their politics.” She gives the example that “if water, electricity, or transport fails in a city, it affects all regardless of their social or political differences”.

This more sophisticated notion of diversity is perhaps what is lacking in Brussels, where the spatial inequalities and segregations, or, the city’s peculiar charm, is so physically visible that it has become a normalised calling card of the city. Interestingly though, while diverse groups may coalesce through adversity, it also creates a condition where civic duty and social responsibility can easily be deferred to another group within the society; “a civicness that does not depend on tolerant citizens and enlightened leaders but is an outcome of interdependencies and interactions in the physical and economic life of the city”

Herein lies the question of the city’s identity, or lack thereof. But this idea is in need of clarification: a lack of identity could possibly mean either the absence of an identity, or a pluralistic identity. Differentiating these two definitions is crucial as the former allows for the relinquishing of civic duty due to a lack of belonging to place, whereas the latter allows for the definition of the term to be appropriated accordingly by different groups. And by having a clear, albeit complex and pluralistic identity, then a notion of trust and belonging, which are key elements for creating a lively neighbourhood, and by extension, a vibrant city. What becomes crucial today that the notion of a civic duty and social responsibility of citizens is nurtured, that citizens from different cultural, social, ethnic groups, people of all walks of life have a sense of pride and belonging to the city, and to promote a pluralistic identity that is open to appropriation.


Recognising a need to address the demographic and urban challenges facing the city and to transform not only the image of the city but also its liveability, the Government of the Brussels-Capital Region designated a French urban planning office in 2012 to draft a new masterplan for the city. In the Canal Plan, the zone along the canal was identified as a social and urban fracture line, the most fragile point of the city. They remarked that this zone was an area which not only had the greatest need also the most potential to be transformed.

The ambitious goals of the Canal Plan set out by the Government Architect team, created especially to steer the masterplan, include: retaining economic activity within the capital; minimising the distance between home and the workplace; ensuring suitable and affordable housing availability for the growing population; creating pleasant, unifying public spaces; activating zones along the Canal; creating conditions for a city that allows for diversity (to be “open” to different functions, populations etc.). Expressly indicated is an intention to use public spaces to promote diversity and to shape the city, and at the same time rationalising and optimising land-use. This award winning masterplan is also acclaimed for being “an ambitious and innovative multi-disciplinary planning tool, developed to achieve the urban (re)development of the central districts while tackling the main socio-economic and environmental challenges”.

What is unique about this masterplan is that although clear goals are set out, its precise methodology is not. Rather, it employs a project-based urban planning technique by relying on a set of evolving guidelines and principles which are used discretionarily to navigate through each project. Though a significant portion of land along the canal zone is publicly owned, public stakeholders, including the Region and respective municipalities, and other public authorities aim to work closely with private developers as well as land owners in developing public and private projects that adhere to the overarching goals.

According to the Government Architect team, the idea of this masterplan is to give enough flexibility for change according to the contingencies of each project, and to allow for negotiation, questioning, ameliorating and therefore enriching of the overall vision of the Canal Plan; as they state, “the vision itself is constantly evolving, although it relates to the same general ambitions at all times”.


The main elements of today’s urban agenda is to retain economic activities (including both the services and industrial sectors) within the city, meaning encouraging not only businesses but also workers to remain in the city, and to minimise a “brain drain” towards the peripheries and to nearby towns and villages. Potentially inconsistent with this goal is a desire to allow for lower and upper socio-economic groups and people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds to coexist in the city. And then, to achieve this by maximising the use of existing and limited space available in Brussels.

The Canal Plan also has vision to better integrate certain industrial sectors in the city as an attempt to boost economic activity and to create more employment activities. At the same time, there are numerous residential development projects with a certain social-housing quota. However, it is unclear as to whether this quota will be sufficient for current and future demands. Furthermore, many of the housing developments currently on the drawing board are primarily developer-led, and often lack the characteristics of a lively neighbourhood as outlined by Jacobs.

It is promising that the Canal Plan takes a clear stance against the former top-down strategies of past epochs, and that current urban targets explicitly express a desire to promote diversity. However, even though the implementation strategy of this plan is designed to be flexible, this is also an indication that the certain contingencies may not swing towards the favour of the general public, or towards the powerless, and as Harvey states, “no amount of “new urbanism" understood as urban design, can promote a greater sense of civic responsibility and participation if the intensity of private property arrangements and the organisation of commodity as spectacle remains untouched.”


Brussels has survived through many waves of urban developments that have shaped, for better or for worse, the city as it is today. Policymakers now have lived through the consequences of failed visions of the past, and have adapted urban strategies to today’s socio-economic climate, navigating through the city’s complex social, spatial and political configuration.

The most significant challenge facing urban planners and politicians alike is a need to preserve the urban capacity of the city, through nurturing a sense of belonging, that is, a civic duty and social responsibility among its citizens, and by doing so, allowing for the creation of pluralistic public identity. The notion that Brussels is comprised of different communities living together, separately, should be taken as a key strength of the city, as anything less becomes a naive vision of harmony. Acknowledging and respecting differences, and an acceptance for coexistence becomes a much more realistic and feasible way for the Brussels to exist. However, mere acceptance of such differences cannot be an excuse for having a laissez-faire attitude towards city development, as there is a fine line between a system that preserves the city’s urban capacities and a system that causes expulsions, and this balance must be consciously considered.

Because of the way the Canal Plan is designed, stakeholders (policymakers, urban designers, citizens, developers, …) are equipped with the tools for shaping their city, and there is a good potential that the economic and social aims can be achieved. Then, in terms of the city’s urban capacity, what becomes the key element is the nurturing of a sense of belonging, and the promotion of a pluralistic identity that is open to appropriation.

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Photo by Ingel Vaikla and Mark Minkjan
Photo by Ingel Vaikla and Mark Minkjan
Demographics of Brussels
Industries along the Canal (AWB)