Wikimedia Commons

A new mayor in Brussels wants to turn a central axis into a pedestrian-only zone.

If the city’s new mayor gets his way, Central Brussels will soon be essentially car-free. Socialist Party mayor Yvan Mayeur, sworn in last month as mayor of the Brussels City district, wants to turn the Belgian capital's central axis into a pedestrian zone.

The move would transform a handsome but car-snarled four-lane boulevard and a string of squares into a long, café-filled promenade.  This new zone will join up with an existing pedestrian zone in the narrow streets around the city's Grand Place and Rue Neuve, turning Brussels’ core into a spacious, rambling open-air living room.

The change is long overdue. No European capital has been quite so ruined by motor vehicles as Brussels, which even last year was scorned by the French as a "sewer for cars." And the new plan is going over well with locals, meaning Brussels might finally gain its deserved place as a likeable European city.

If it does so, it will be in the face of decades of poor planning from which the city is still recovering. Though they were following international fashion, it's rare that a city's elite messes up redevelopment so badly that it succeeds in coining its own anti-planning slur.  Brussels managed this in the 1960s, however, when the city’s dual process of building ugly, over-sized buildings in the place of beloved historic ones and of prioritizing cars over everything else came to be called brusselization.

From the 1958 World's Fair up until the early 1970s, Brussels authorities earned themselves international notoriety by leveling entire quarters of the city for office developments as bland as unsalted potato. Some of the city's best buildings were demolished while Brussels' inner belt of boulevards was turned into a mini highway that still alternately clogs and roars. 

Place de Brouckere in Brussels. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Xavier Estruch.

While public protest ultimately slowed the demolitions, the city got away with these upheavals for a long time because it already had a long history of bulldozing and displacement. In the preceding century, Brussels had already flattened a neighborhood to build its grandiose Law Courts, while the boulevard strip due to be pedestrianized today was itself created by covering over Brussels' Senne River and demolishing the ancient buildings on its banks.

Thankfully, Brussels still has plenty that’s worth saving, with distinctively busy, elaborate architecture that totally belies Belgium’s reputation as the European homeland of bland. The pedestrian plan would do more than cut down on decades of grime on such buildings, though. It will also help to reunite the city's touristy but magical medieval core with the hipper area around Place Sainte-Catherine, west of the central axis, creating a seamless area from one which motor traffic previously truncated.

Businesses along the axis are chary about losing customers, but a recent survey of 3,500 people by Belgian newspaper Le Soir found 61 percent favor the changes. It's too early to assume that the redesign will really make Brussels come out of its shell, but one of Europe’s great, underrated cities should soon be getting the center it deserves.

Top image courtesy of Aktron/Wikimedia Commons.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Design

    The Problem With 'Fast-Casual Architecture'

    Washington, D.C., has a huge new waterfront development that’s fun, popular, and easy on the eyes. Is anything wrong with that?

  2. Design

    Experimental City: The Sci-Fi Utopia That Never Was

    With solar energy, recycling, computers, and personal mass transit, the 1960s-era Minnesota Experimental City was a prescient and hopeful vision of the urban future. A new documentary tells its story.

  3. Transportation

    How Seattle Bucked a National Trend and Got More People to Ride the Bus

    Three experts in three very different positions weigh in on their city’s ridership success.

  4. A man walks his bicycle beside a train in Paris.
    Maps

    Breaking Down the Many Ways Europe's City-Dwellers Get to Work

    One chart shows which cities do best when it comes to biking, walking, or taking public transit to work.

  5. Transportation

    How a Satirical Call for Bikelash Became a Real, Invective-Laden Protest

    People carried signs reading “Nazi Lanes” at the Minneapolis anti-bike lane demonstration, which several political candidates attended.