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."


Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.

The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.