A “Central Park” for Brussels? Busy in her office in the city’s Place Royale, Marie-Laure Roggemans stops for a bit when someone says these magic words. “I always think about it,” she says while smiling behind her large glasses. Known as “Madame Europe,” Roggemans ensures contact between the Brussels-Capital Region and European authorities. Of course, she is not hoping to grow a rectangle of 300 hectares dedicated to leisure in the heart of the capital. Her dream is for Brussels to take inspiration from the role that the Manhattan park plays. “Essentially, it is a site that combines walking paths, ponds, and large cultural facilities… When you go to Central Park, you know that there will always be expositions, always something to do. That is the principle.”
The idea of a “Central Park” for Brussels would involve opening up the European Quarter and its cultural amenities – the Leopold and Cinquantenaire parks – by linking them to downtown by means of a lively corridor. It would be a sphere of “well-being” that would combine leisure, relaxation, and culture over an area of two km.
It is a ways away, and a good deal of imagination is necessary to imagine the Small Ring and Belliard Street as calm pedestrian routes. However, the Agency for Territorial Development (ADT) is entering into an infrastructure project that is paving the way for Marie-Laure Roggemans’ dream: a “pedestrian cultural route” that is set to guide passers-by from the Zone Neutre to the European Quarter.
The Route of Immortals
For tourists, the Place des Palais marks the frontier of Brussels’ downtown – once passing by the Royal Park, they turn back around. “We want to encourage them to walk towards the European Quarter: it is only fifteen minutes on foot from the Mont des Arts to the Léopold Park,” explains Jan Ackenhausen of the ADT.
The first step therefore consists of opening up the area towards the Léopold neighborhood: the venerable Royal Academy will be shaken up in order to allow passers-by to cross the garden – open the gates, redraw the paths, and to evacuate cars away from the “immortals,” the name for members of the prestigious Royal Academy of Science, Letters, and Fine Arts.
It is also necessary to make crossing the Small Ring easier through extending the coverage of the Trône tunnel, and making adjustments to road surfaces and traffic lights. The Meeûs and Orban Squares ought to be restored to their original splendor, and signs should direct pedestrians towards the European Parliament and its garden, the Léopold Park. In the end, a stretch of Belliard Street would need to be developed to direct pedestrians towards the Cinquantenaire. “It is the only project that really involves “hard” development, yet there is a parallel desire on part of the Region to deal with the entirety of Belliard Street in the most long-term manner. The project therefore remains unresolved for the instant,” says Jan Ackenhausen. We know today that a strip of the street could be removed without it having any effect on traffic.
This pedestrian path, which should be finished at the end of 2015 (in time for the opening of the House of European History) will remain anecdotal if it is not accompanied by a cultural dynamic liable to invigorate the neighborhood. The Network of Arts in Brussels (RAB) is due to gather all of those who may potentially be involved in this matter in November. As for the Parliament, it is staying passive for the moment. “We are in the process of working on a more long-term vision, we should be able to define a clear vision in autumn,” says Typhaine Morillon.
In addition to livening up the Léopold neighborhood, the other main street of the European District, Loi Street, should be revitalized. The Loi Urban Project (PUL) is laying down a new urban planning framework for the apartment blocks that line the important street. The goal is to “create street-level life” for this bleak area.
Higher buildings will be accepted, such as a tower of 165 meters, if the European Commission so desires – but the developers should create open spaces within the blocks to compensate, in order to create a new dynamic on the street. Homes should mix with offices, and businesses should bring life to the street.There is nothing revolutionary about it. Already, in 1986, the “Europe Brussels Space” project directed by the minister of the Brussels Region intended to make the European Quarter “an urban environment equipped with housing, workplaces, businesses and services, cultural events, urban and international transportation, and a place for meeting and relaxation.” Two decades later, the Region adopted a development plan aiming to make the zone a “European eco-neighborhood.”
But this project has yet to appear. The crux of the matter, mobility, is progressing little. “Originally, the PUL was supposed to reduce automobile traffic on the surface, yet it no longer entails a mobility plan,” says Hannes Frank, from the Committee of the GAQ neighborhood.
Along with the small developments of the Pedestrian Cultural Route and of the Loi Urban Project, whose effects will not be seen for another 20 years or so, local politics are not reassuring. The consensus of Brussels’ majority is that the district and its ten development sites are not main priorities. The European Quarter is of secondary importance. “The truth is that it is too complicated: the government does not want to get involved in an area where it risks not having visible results to present as accomplishments,” explains an observer close to the majority. And these are words that run the risk of shattering the dreams of Madame Europe.
What do other successful urban spaces and parks share with Central Park? Do you know of successful cultural walks?
Original article, originally published in French, here.
Credits: Images and data linked to sources.