How Covid changed Brussels

How Covid changed Brussels
Credit: Jules Johnston, The Brussels Times

Remember those sunny days in spring when the roar of cars, the rev of motorbikes and the rumble of planes suddenly stopped; when we opened our windows at eight o’clock to clap, bang pots and scream support for health workers; when corner stores became our supermarkets and empty highways our impromptu cycle paths; and when we may not have learned to bake sourdough bread or write that long-planned novel, but we did learn to stockpile pasta and toilet paper?

For some in Brussels, the lockdown that started in March and started easing in May was a period of urban bliss. “I feel guilty saying this because it was such a terrible time for so many people, but I loved confinement,” says Alison Abrahams, who has lived in the city for over a decade. “Things slowed down, it was quiet and there was a real sense of community. It was like a lesson in how we could live.”

Of course, as Abrahams is quick to point out, Covid has been a disaster for Brussels and Belgium. There have been 85,000 infections in the country so far, and almost 10,000 people have died – one of the highest per capita rates in the world. Many people, especially women, have suffered abuse and psychological trauma. More than one in four workers have been put on temporary unemployment. GDP is expected to shrink by 8% this year. And many companies have shut up shop. “I feel very sad because a lot of great institutions – like the Metropole Hotel – are closed or bankrupt,” says Brussels native Isabelle Léonard, adding: “businesses are terrified.”

But the dark cloud of the pandemic has some silver linings. “Covid has changed everything – the way we act, the way we move, the way we talk to each other,” says Elke Van den Brandt, the minister for mobility, public works and road safety for the Brussels Region. “It will have a deep impact for many years.” From more bike lanes to greater space for pedestrians, many of these changes have been positive, and some may even become permanent. Let’s look at a few.

More space to cyclists, pedestrians and shoppers

When confinement was imposed on 19 March, the immediate priority of Brussels authorities was to encourage social distancing by giving more space to cyclists, pedestrians and shoppers. So the region, along with many of the 19 local municipalities in the capital, started the frantic construction of dedicated bike lanes in the capital – infrastructure that has been increasing in recent years but still lags behind cities in Flanders, the Netherlands, Denmark and elsewhere.

“We had to act urgently and even if the measures were temporary, we know what we did during Covid are things we need on a permanent basis,” says Van den Brandt, arguing that the mobility measures taken are all in keeping with Brussels’ new regional transport plan, known as Good Move.

Almost overnight, bike lanes sprouted up like mushrooms after the rain, with an extra 30 kilometres of dedicated cycle paths marked out since lockdown and another 10 kilometres set to be finished by the end of September.

Even Rue de la Loi, one of Brussels’ most congested streets that snakes past the Belgian parliament and the European Commission headquarters, got the bike lane treatment in May – much to the exasperation of right-wing separatist politician Theo Franken, who fumed that the measure would lead to the break-up of Belgium. “It’s normal when you change things that you have a reaction – especially when you change things fast, as we did,” shrugs Van den Brandt.

Dedicated bike lanes and fewer cars on the road has led to an explosion in bike use – up 44% on the previous year in early September. “Fewer cars on the road makes cycling much more pleasant – especially for older people and families with kids,” says Alison Abrahams. “With the infrastructure there, you feel safer cycling around.”

The lockdown saw many kilometres of new bike lanes laid out in the capital. In addition, new so-called “slow-streets” were created, with car speed limits at 20 km/h, and where pedestrians can use the entire road and not only the pavement.

The dramatic reduction in car use – down 95% in the first three weeks of lockdown – also led to a dramatic improvement in air quality. According to a study by Brussels Environment, concentrations of deadly exhaust pollutants NO and NO2 fell by 75% and 50% on busy roads during the lockdown period, and by 30-40% on less busy streets.

“Space used by cars is space not used by people,” says Van den Brandt. “And when Covid started, we could see how cars were taking almost all the space.” To provide more room for people to walk and gather in the neighbourhoods they were stuck in, the Brussels regional government helped create 100km of slow streets – where pedestrians have the right right to use the entire road not just the pavement, and where car speeds are limited to 20Km/h.

The ‘Battle for the Bois’

One of the most contentious decisions taken by authorities was to shut the roads slaloming through the Bois de la Cambre – the park and woods that serve as the green lungs of Brussels. Usually only partially shut on weekends, the closing of the Bois to cars during lockdown delighted local residents like Shada Islam. “We were all looking for peace in uncertain times and knowing the air was clean there gave me a sense of safety and certainty. To feel the quietness and stillness was magical.”

However, the measure has infuriated some commuters, who say banning cars from the Bois increases journey times, creates congestion and diverts traffic through quiet streets. The council of Uccle, one of the city’s wealthiest municipalities, is so incensed by the plan that it is looking at legal action to stop it.

A compromise, introduced since the end of lockdown, is to keep the southern part around the lake car-free, but to reopen the northern chunk to traffic. But campaigners and local residents like Islam still hope the Bois de la Cambre will revert to its lockdown state when a permanent decision is taken later in the autumn. “It would be amazing for quality of life and peace of mind if it remained closed to traffic,” she says.

The ‘Battle for the Bois’ pits urban versus suburbanites, car-drivers versus cyclists and those who believe Brussels city-dwellers have an inviolable right to safe streets and clean air against those who believe everyone has an inviolable right to plough into the capital every day in their cars. Van den Brandt’s spokesperson, Marie Thibaut de Maisières, is clear which side she’s on. “The 80s model of development where everyone jumps in their cars is terrible for health, terrible for air quality, terrible for traffic jams and terrible for local life in cities.”

Noting that public transport has been one of the ‘big losers” from the lockdown as people sought to social distance, Professor Imre Keserü from the MOBI Research Centre at VUB University in Brussels says: “The big danger is that people will return to their cars and those who used to take public transport will start driving instead.” With 300,000 people and 200,000 cars entering Brussels every day from surrounding regions, teleworking could significantly reduce congestion and improve air quality in the capital, he argues.

The second change Covid brought to Brussels is it forced us to get to know our own neighbourhoods.

I have lived in what one friend jokingly described as “the shabby part of Uccle” for over 15 years. I thought I knew my neck of the woods. How wrong I was.

As I started walking around my neighbourhood I discovered an area of barley fields, cow pastures and abandoned mills within Brussels’ city limits – it’s between the Verrewinkel woods and Hoboken train station if you’re interested. I discovered two parks within a 10-minute walk from my house – Kauwberg and Engelberg – that have only recently been saved from developers and are now delightful places for families to picnic, teenagers to smoke weed, and middle-aged men in lycra to bomb around on their mountain bikes. And further afield, but still within walking distance, I found the forest of Schaveyshoeve – which is visited by fewer people than can pronounce it properly.

Bonding with the city

Before lockdown, I’m ashamed to admit I spent longer getting to know islands off the coast of Cambodia or national parks in the west coast of America than I did getting to know the streets bordering my house. And it was partly because of this restless zipping around that I felt alienated from the city I’ve called home for 27 years. Since lockdown, I’ve felt a stronger bond with Brussels – a city whose hidden secrets never cease to amaze, even after all this time.

“You don’t need your car to drive 10 minutes to a bakery on the other side of the city when there’s a good local one within 10 minutes-walk from you,” says Thibaut de Maisières. She’s right. If we free ourselves from the tyranny of the weekly supermarket run – easier with more flexible working times – we can find most of what we need in our neighbourhoods. And we can support local shops that desperately need our business in tough times, while living a healthier lifestyle that is less reliant on polluting cars.

The third change Covid has brought is the way we view our neighbours and interact with our fellow ‘Brusselaars’.

“The biggest thing that changed for me is that my street became a community, whereas before it was just houses next to each other,” says Alison Abrahams. “Everyone’s got to know each other, and now I can’t walk down the street without spending 10 minutes talking to neighbours.” Shada Islam adds: “There’s been a sense of solidarity in my neighbourhood. People look out for each other.”

However, Ixelles resident Isabelle Leonard disagrees, arguing that Covid has left a hole in the heart of a city known for its casual conviviality. “I really miss the social side of the city and because of Covid and the masks, the social barriers are stronger. It feels less warm and people are more lonely and individualistic. There’s a void.”

The effect of the pandemic has also been felt unequally in Brussels, where infection rates have been two or three times higher in poorer, cramped neighbourhoods than in richer, greener ones. “Lockdown here was hell,” Molenbeek mayor Catherine Moureaux told Politico Europe. “A lot of big families live in very small houses. They rely on public spaces to go outdoors, which wasn’t possible anymore.”

From the start of the lockdown, local authorities in Brussels were particularly worried that Covid would widen this divide. Says Minister Van den Brandt: “We had to make sure everyone could get out and go out in a safe way. This is not just about mobility but about creating a city that is social and warm.”

As a result, the regional government-funded 56 projects – ranging from a beach in Porte de Hal to installing street furniture in Molenbeek. When cafes and restaurants opened up again in late May and June, authorities also allowed owners to create makeshift terraces spilling out onto parking spaces. The city has since become flooded with furniture made from old wooden pallets.

As schools reopen and people start jumping in their cars and trickling back to their offices, the big question is whether the changes made in Brussels since March will prove temporary or permanent?

Describing the initiatives taken in Brussels as “forward-looking,” VUB’s Imre Keserü says he’s optimistic for the future. “Political support will help the measures stay in place. Of course, there’ll be people who oppose them, but I don’t think we’ll see all the improvements go back to the previous state.”

Longtime Brussels resident Shada Islam is more pessimistic. “It would be nice to hold on to the habits developed during lockdown, but I’m not sure they’re going to last,” she says, adding: “I fear we’re going to snap back to the old way of doing things.”

This is already starting to happen. Car traffic, air and noise pollution and out-of-town shopping are on the rise again. The eight o’clock clapping has long withered out. And the kids’ posters thanking essential workers for their heroism have been taken down from apartment windows.

But Brussels is unlikely to be the same city again. The Atomium and Eiffel Tower show that temporary constructs can become permanent fixtures – so expect those hastily-painted bike lanes to stay. Connections with local neighbourhoods – and neighbours – may loosen, but they can’t be undone. And while Belgium’s powerful car lobby may rail against the changes happening in the nation’s capital – from pedestrianising the city centre to closing the Bois de la Cambre – it doesn't appear to be winning many battles in a city that increasingly cycles clean and votes green.

By Gareth Harding

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