How Brussels became a byword for haphazard urban planning

Not the most cohesive of skylines. Image: Michel wal via Wikimedia Commons.

Only a few cities worldwide can claim an eponymous entry in the urban planning lexicon. Everyone knows what a New-York style grid system is, and that Haussmannisation is named after the man who designed modern Paris.

Belgium's capital, however, gave us "Brusselisation”: a byword for a careless approach to urban planning, or, to use a technical term, making everything look like a right old mess. In the post-war era, the various Brussels authorities embarked on an ambitious program of demolishing pretty old buildings, putting up uglier new ones, and sticking roads everywhere to make it easy to commute in from the suburbs.

Beautiful boulevard lined with art nouveau architecture and leafy trees? Turn it into a dual carriageway. Impressive 19th-century neighbourhood full of pretty villas? Why not flatten it and put in some glass-and-steel monoliths to house the EU. Victor Horta's masterpiece, the Maison du Peuple? Demolished in what the University of Kent's Pier-Luigi del Renzio called "an act of barabarism in the squalid interests of speculative development".

Let's get the disclaimer in first: the worst excesses of Brusselisation took place in the 1960s and 70s, with a special push for the 1958 World Fair. If you want an Ealing Comedy-esque explanation of the genesis of the Atomium and park at Heysel (and a plot twist involving a building) then read the novel Expo '58 by Jonathan Coe.  (He got a Flemish government grant to help with it. Literature is no exception to Belgium's competitive regionalisation.)

New developments are much more sympathetic. With fancy scaffolding to hold up exteriors while building shiny modern structures inside, new shopping centres, offices and hotels are popping up behind the grand facades built a century ago. Meanwhile, a scheme to help fund the restoration of art nouveau sgraffiti and other decorations on homes has helped the areas which are already nice to walk round and enjoy the city's hidden gems.

But the people of Brussels live in the city as it is now. And that includes really quite a lot of concrete, orange signage and roadworks. A sort of micro-Brusselisation, if you will.

The chaotic nature of the city creates strong reactions. Especially with such a cosmopolitan population, there's no shortage of places with which the immigrants/expats can compare it. And when people feel moved to write about their experience of living here, there's two options: laugh or cry.

Some typical Brussels metro signs. Images: @davidcrunelle (L), @asaintdenis (R) via Twitter. 

Crying's been done: Liberation's Jean Quatremer kicked off a storm of outrage two years ago with a cathartic download of everything that's wrong with Brussels. Having lived there for decades to cover the EU's corridors of power, he'd seen enough piles of rubbish, collapsed roads and eternal roadworks to let it all out. (You can read his critique of the city in full, and en Francais, here.) 

Quatremer talks the reader through the ridiculously complicated governance system: Brussel-capital is one of Belgium's three federal regions, Brussels-city is (most of) the city, and the 19 communes (effectively, boroughs) which comprise the region all have various types of power, too. He also has a pop at the swathes of motorway which carved through everything; the tunnels which combine both fume-filled traffic queues and fast-moving merging lanes which cause crashes daily; and the baroque Belgian taxation system which means that those who commute in for work pay their taxes to Flanders or Wallonia, not Brussels itself.

There are those, however, who look on the quirky chaos of Brussels and embrace it like Jacques Brel. There's plenty of blogs, Facebook pages, and witty Twitter types who realise that going to the town hall is an exercise in absurdist theatre – and it's better to just embrace that. Brusselisation also gave us a cool elevator in the middle of town.

Take Belgian Solutions. Now a book as well, this is the place to go for staircases to nowhere, trees placed under leaking airport roofs (it's a carbon sink in a bucket; genius) and Heath Robinson-style drainpipe arrangements. "The whole city is kind of taped together," David Helbich, the man behind the project, told Public Radio International. "I think Brussels has like, these layers. On the ground, it's like a puzzle. On the human level, it's taped together. And then from the sky, there are hanging cables." 

Then there's "Things People in Brussels don't say" which is a more expat-centric slant on the little things which make you go "why?" here, including the never-ending reconstruction of Schuman and Arts-Loi/Kunst-Wet metro station. STIB/MIVB, the Brussels public transport system, has generously got all the Eurocrats ready for ski season with an intensive thigh workout up and down all those concrete stairs every day.

Finally, without wishing to go all Jean-Jacques Beineix about it, there's also a certain beauty in Brusselisation. One expert narrator of it is the film critic Anne Billson. Her photos of decaying buildings reflected in glass and neon – often with an artfully-posed Belgian beer – are well worth a look.

Likewise, her guide to the city is full of useful tips, from the badly-maintained pavements (surprise! many cobbles flip up and splash one with rainwater and pigeon wee) to the Place du Sablon, which sums up Brusselisation perfectly: "This would be a very pretty square if it wasn’t used as a carpark, so it’s best visited on Saturday and Sunday mornings, when there’s an antiques market instead of parked cars."


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.