Making Brussels’ central lanes car-free was not only a matter of sustainable mobility, but also of enjoyable immobility
Philosopher Philippe Van Parijs reflects on current events and debates in Brussels, Belgium and Europe
“Furious. I can’t avoid getting furious when I realise how so many cities manage to transfigure their public squares and upgrade their centres. By contrast, despite some progress – too timid, too slow – Brussels, in this regard, remains pathetic.” This is how I opened an opinion piece published on 24 May 2012 in French and Dutch under the title “Picnic the streets”. And I closed it with the following exhortation:
"With the arrival of spring, what would you think of organising a picnic every Sunday at noon across the width of Boulevard Anspach? To shake off an irresponsible lethargy, a modicum of gentle civil disobedience is more than legitimate. And to organize it, there is far better than an old philosopher: a handful of Twitter virtuosos, Facebook junkies or flash mob pioneers. In any case, I will be there. I have been in jail only once in my life. I look forward to going back, if necessary, for a cause like this. Who is prepared to join me?”
The Facebook generation did its job. Thousands of people announced their presence, and on 10 June 2012 a giant picnic took place on the Place de la Bourse and shook Brussels’ political parties out of their lethargy. In the weeks leading up to the municipal elections of October 2012, most of them came up with proposals to make Boulevard Anspach, until then a four-lane urban motorway, more or less car-free.
The municipal coalition agreement signed in December 2012 included a sentence that promised it. And after several reminder actions by the “Picnic the Streets” movement, the City came up with an ambitious plan in January 2014.
That plan faced resistance by car drivers forced out of some of their habits, by shopkeepers fearing lasting disruption and by residents fearing the rerouting of traffic to smaller streets. But after a test phase and some court cases, the work started in September 2016 and was completed in July 2021.
Can a bottom-up civil society action trigger an irreversible transformation of a city centre? Yes, it can. At least sometimes, thanks to a lot of persistence and a bit of good luck. And with the right sort of collaboration with elected politicians. Picnic the Streets proved it.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Picnic the Streets, an encounter will take place in Cinéma-Palace (Boulevard Anspach 85) on Sunday 12 June 2022, 10-12 am, followed by a picnic on Place de la Bourse. Further information: here. Registration: here.