Implementation Failures of Brussels’ Pedestrian Zone

Residents of Brussels on a daily basis experience a well-known fact that Brussels is one of the most congested European cities. When you step outside you see a line of cars blocking the main boulevards and side streets; the air is polluted; pedestrians are scared to cross a street even on a crosswalk. Other big metropolitan areas, like London, Paris and Milan have already dealt with the issues of congestion implementing various restrictions on road traffic in their city centers, supporting walkability and adjusting their infrastructure to a more bike friendly one. London, for example, charges the congestion charge for driving within the inner zone between 7am and 6pm from Monday through Friday.

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In 2015 Brussels intended to follow this trend. The city made a big statement by closing off major inner-city roads, while redirecting traffic to other areas of the city. This was a controversial move, as business owners, drivers and even a lot of pedestrians found the above decision to be rather hastily and badly implemented. Six months following the opening of the pedestrian zone, owners of businesses located in the city center still complain because of the losses that their businesses have suffered due to pedestrian zone.[1] On the other hand, pedestrians are unable to see a lot of difference either. The new pedestrian zone is not groomed enough; ‘it is simply unappealing ‘as is.’

So, have the streets of Brussels become playground for its residents and visitors as hoped? I would argue that they have not.

  • Curbs between sidewalks and roads are still visible and a lot of pedestrians probably forget that the entire area has been closed off for traffic. During the summer months pavement was covered with colorful shapes that  have now faded; these used to add some sense of a common space. However, in wintertime when on a car-free zone one notes crammed sidewalks and rather empty central areas of a pedestrian zone.
  • City should have implemented pedestrianization of its streets by slowly banning motor traffic rather than abruptly stopping the traffic in the entire zone from one day to another. This way the city would have had more time to touch-up the pedestrian zone with some of the pedestrian-zone-must-haves, such as greenery, pavements and liveliness. Some would argue that this would have cost a fortune. Well, not really — it could have been as simple as nice floor decking of asphalted boulevards, and big pots with plants and trees throughout the central thread of wide boulevards. For even better results, pop-up cafes, bars, seating and playgrounds would have worked wonders in breathing an instant life into the area, while making it an excellent choice for urban lingering and after-work socializing. After all, public spaces should aim to be social.
  • Some of the buildings on Boulevard Ansbach should undergo a simple but modern facelift. Square of De Brouckere and its two most notable buildings – Muntcentrum and Brouckère (Philips) Tower – need urgent and particular attention. As Benjamin Barrier puts it: “two modernist towers […] simultaneously dominate the square and open it up, destroying any feeling of comfortable enclosure.” Different sources report that both towers will be renovated to some degree. Lower floors of Muntcentrum are undergoing reconstruction as I write. New owners of Brouckère Tower, which has been sold in 2015 also announced renovations.

One is certain, Brussels had an excellent idea when it opted for pedestrianization of a large part of its historic city center. Now is the time for upgrading its looks and promoting it into a place.

[1] Terrorists attacks in Paris and Brussels are probably more to blame for this trend.