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Pandemic, Politics and People in the City

Saturday, 22 May 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

The pandemic has allowed many of us, those privileged not to have suffered health or economic hardship, to reflect more deeply on our world, and what will happen to it when we have finally truly emerged from the current, apparently natural catastrophe. Some changes during the pandemic – teleworking is an example – may persist, with real consequences for future life in the city.

Brussels residents who were concerned, pre-pandemic, with urban planning proposals, the “PADs” (Plans d’Amenagement Directeurs) currently undergoing approval processes, hoped that Brussels Region would think again. For example, tele-working options have already induced some residents to leave the city, seeking a more peaceful, healthier and less expensive lifestyle beyond even the suburbs.

Some of us remaining in the city continue to question the justification for some of the PAD proposals, while Rudi Vervoort, Minister-President of the Brussels Capital Region, continues to push for further government approval of the PADs, even though several times he has had to postpone “second reading” proposals concerning the Mediapark PAD, for example, since he consistently fails to get real support from various quarters.

I have written before about my dismay in particular with proposals to construct multiple 15+ story tower blocks in various PADs put forward for various parts of the city. My personal concern has been the Mediapark PAD. At present this project includes 10 tower blocks, of which are proposed: one with 21 stories, to be a hotel; one of 18 stories; four of 15 stories; and one of 10 stories.

The justification offered for a number of these towers is to provide housing to accommodate population growth. Already before the pandemic began, the demographic statistics used to justify those projections were questioned. Since the pandemic, the population of Brussels has indeed diminished (partly the consequence of teleworking?), by 3,000 in 2020, as reported in the Belgian press just last week.

During the pandemic, my attention has shifted, however, to what is probably an even more critical issue of the Mediapark PAD, the serious reduction in the size of the existing “urban forest,” a wooded area of 8 hectares hidden behind the current RTBF and VRT installations on Boulevard Reyers, and currently inaccessible to the general public.

While the Mediapark would make some of this area accessible, its reduction in size will have a significant impact, both on air quality in this part of the city – already suffering the consequences of heavy traffic – and on various plant and animal species, including birds and mammals. These changes are in contradiction with the objectives of a plan “Nature – Horizon 2020” already adopted by the Region.

The issue is biodiversity. The urban forest does not need to be reduced. It needs to be more accessible for the urban population; saving our planet, which many of us are coming to see as a critical challenge for the future, requires recognition of and response to these needs everywhere.

To return to the question of constructing more tall tower blocks, however, when I first became concerned with current Brussels projects, my attention was drawn to the phenomenon of the “Grands Ensembles” constructed in France between the 1950s and the 1970s. With the objective of providing modern social housing on a grand scale, these French projects included a mix of tower blocks and low-rise buildings similar to the plans currently proposed for Brussels, although these projects were located outside major cities.

Within a few decades the “Grands Ensembles” were found to be seriously lacking as a solution to urban housing problems (resulting, among other things, in considerable violence among those living in them); and from the mid-60s dramatic demolition, notably of the tower blocks, followed.

I was reminded of this phenomenon only last week, when the RTBF evening news on 18 May reported on a construction project underway in Charleroi. Apparently, a social housing project constructed there in the 1960s, including one major tower block, the “Tour Apollo”, had been demolished in 2015; and Charleroi is in the process of reconstructing groups of housing blocks of no more than 4 stories. While in its time the Tour Apollo had become something of an iconic landmark, images of interiors of the building shown on the news were shocking.

How is it possible that Charleroi is able to reflect more modern and more humane thinking in its urban planning while Brussels apparently is not? Certainly plans to improve Brussels are always desirable, even necessary … but it seems that the current political leaders have hidden objectives that fail to correspond to real, urgent needs for the here and now of people living in the city.