Call for contributions: Tale of two cities and other spaces

The Brussels Newsroom is a collective project and Brussels is our main source of inspiration.

We welcome contributions from critical minds of diverse backgrounds and in different formats, in which Brussels is a major reference.

In order to motivate, encourage and provoke, the Brussels Newsroom launches a “call for contributions” to share a specific line of interest and to give a common context to the contributions coming from different authors and formats. Contributions could include case studies, articles, interpretative mapping, photographic essays, videos, interviews, or by any other means that best expresses your view on Brussels, with a narrative related (but not limited) to the theme framed in the “call for contributions”. The call includes a short editorial note and a suggested series of cases that we find very relevant to deepen and explore.

If you would like to submit a piece or discuss a possible contribution, please send us a 500 word abstract with a short explanation of your idea and proposed format to: bruxelles[a]shht.eu before the 26th of September 2016

 

Tale of two cities and other spaces (editorial note)

Brussels is a modest city with a geopolitical relevance. The images that we can build around Brussels being the seat of power and the headquarters of international conflicts may differ with the perception we get from the candid atmosphere of its streets. The global scale of power contrasts with the very local scale of most of Brussels neighborhoods, with humble public spaces and with the modesty of its inhabitants.

For the average Brussels resident it is hard to find common ground between these two extremes and to grasp the magnitude of decisions being taken here, because often these decisions manifest elsewhere. That layer of human interaction, the exercise of power, happens in extremely secure places, neither visible nor expressed on the typical Brussels urban fabric. In Brussels, power is not clearly represented on the urban tissue. The actual physical places in which power is exerted are spatially (for instance, the NATO headquarters) and functionally (The European Quarter) detached from the urban and social fabric. Despite some intentional failed attempts of urban representation of power (such as La Cite Administrative or even the Palace of Justice) any form of urban expression of this power is almost merely the consequence of security measures or the real estate market. At least, this was our impression until not so long ago…

Since the beginning of 2015, a series of unexpected events have been challenging our initial perception. The impact of these events has been changing dramatically the daily urban landscape and power is starting to unpredictably manifest itself on the local urban spaces. Brussels is no longer the bureaucratic backstage where decisions are taken, it is becoming the main stage of conflict. The attacks that wounded our city few months ago are the most recent manifestation of a new spatial order.

Under this scope, the following cases become an interesting evidence of the emergence of “other spaces”, new places with a new geopolitical dimension superimposed over existing local ones. 

 

The Maximilien Camp (case 1)

Case 1 Camp

In opposition to the open borders for goods and money, borders are restricting more and more the free movement of people. Nevertheless, they are proven to be porous. Last summer we all witnessed that armed conflicts are not far away tragedies anymore. On a short period of time, the Maximilien Park was transformed into a floating village occupied by asylum seekers from Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Eritrea and Afghanistan.

“Just two miles (three kilometres) away are the gleaming glass and steel headquarters of the European Union, where suit-wearing bureaucrats have spent months failing to come up with a solution to the worst refugee crisissince World War II” (1)

In reaction to the slow response from the Belgian authorities, the civil society took responsibility and set up a network of volunteers to provide basic infrastructure and relief to the newcomers. After a few months, the camp was somehow absorbed by the city, spatially and institutionally. The network of volunteers still exists in the virtual space of the web, but the camp has physically disappeared.

How can we understand and situate this phenomenon into known terms of urban dynamics? Did the park become an urban common? An informal settlement? A space reclaimed? A refugee camp?A sanctuary? None of these fully apply, yet it is a bit of all of them. Local citizens taking action and responsibility, assuming the consequences of geopolitical phenomenon, is evidence of an overlap of two extreme scales, both being expressed in the public space.

 

Brussels lock-down, voluntary acceptance of the state of exception (case 2)

Case 2 Lockdown

In a society already obsessed with security, the rise to level 5, after the Paris attacks in November 2015, the suspension of every single layer of urban life (from services, public transport, spectacles) with the excuse of the risk of an imminent attack, the lock-down of the entire city was the highest level of a state of exception in Brussels since the beginning of the war on terror. Not even the following days after the attack in Zaventem and Maelbeek, the city was so immersed in fear and paranoia.

The state of emergency resulted in the partial suspension of basic laws in order to maintain political order and avoid chaos. The lock-down was an interruption, an unexpected parenthesis, the temporary suspension in Brussels traditional daily life. Since then, the presence of tanks and heavily armed became part of the urban landscape.

The almost unanimous acceptance of this state of emergency went further and made Brussels citizens take part in police operations. By accepting to restrain our freedom of speech and information in order not to inform about the police movements, to potential terrorist but also to our fellow citizens. This episode gained global attention when the situation became a bigger satirical hit that political reality, by flooding the social networks with pictures of cats, it showed that through irony we accepted the state of emergency anyway, and thus took on a submissive position.

“the war on terror would become a planetary state of exception. The state of emergency is a partial suspension of basic laws, such as constitutional protections of the private sphere or freedom of speech, in order to defend the political order against internal or external emergencies, or in case of terrorism” (2)

After the real attack, we are getting more used to militarization and accept the illusion of security as part daily lives. Which will be the consequences of this new state when the conflict unfolds and become more complex?

 

Brussels, the battlefield (case 3)

Case 3 Battlefield

“This is an act of war” was Francois Hollande’s first statements of after the Paris attacks in November 2015. During his firsts public declaration, he announced what everybody was expecting to hear, the military operations of France and its allies in Syria will be intensified, a state of emergency was declared, the French borders were closed and changes in the French constitutions would follow.

Yes, off course that we are at war. When a country launches military campaigns on another country (regardless of who’s the target), that country is at war.  This reality tends to be detached from daily life of our cities and ignored by its citizens. Weather to approve or to condemn, citizens are implicated. States of emergency push away citizens from the reality by even suspending certain civic rights.

By now, the enemy is responding to attacks in its land and by attacking the attacker’s own land. The armed conflict is already in our territory. By contrast to the attacks of Europe in the middle east, where civilian kills are “collateral damage”, in the attacks on European soil, civilians are the target itself. The worse is that the attack is perpetrated by fellow citizens. The war in the middle east had an echo in Brussels and Paris (and now elsewhere in Europe) in the form of indiscriminate acts of civil war. Opposed to the top down excess of sovereignty that imply the state of exception, of form of state of nature in manifesting itself.

The attack on civilians occurs where the civilians gather: the public space. An urban space, by being public, becomes vulnerable, how the vulnerability of the urban fabric will change the urban spatial order?  The consequences of Brussels becoming a battlefield goes far beyond the militarization of the city. Europe, with its strong tradition of public space, might be facing a crisis that could represent a major shift on the way European cities are traditionally conceived. This shift will be hard and frightening.

 

Molenbeek, world famous (case 4)

Case 4 Molenbeek

The image of capital of Europe is no longer only associated to the bureaucratic landscape of European institutions, today Brussels is equally portrayed through the streets of a traditional local neighborhood; this represent a major change in the way Brussels is perceived and imagined. Traditionally an old, humble and vibrant multicultural neighborhood, Molenbeek gained global media status, known as the European incubator of Islamic Extremism.  In a global culture of entertainment and mass media, to get global attention is a big deal!

Bad publicity is good publicity. What will that imply in terms of urban regeneration? From a political to an socio-economic perspective, to be on the spotlight could represent a leverage for change … after more than a year of fame, can we already see the consequences?

 

Le Piétonnier, what do people want? (case 5)

Case 5 Peatonier

After many editions of “Pic Nic The Streets”, among other manifestations to reclaim pedestrians, a firm announcement by the city authorities declared that from a given date in June 2015, an important segment of the Boulevard Anspach was going to be car free.

Despite the great enthusiasm expressed by some, others reacted strongly against. Such decisions are more complex that it seem and the consequences unexpected. The very same crowd that shifts acts of protest into urban expressions of fun, are now dressed in black mourning the very project that they fought for.  The circulation plans offered by the city authorities has been widely and openly criticized. Notably the plan to build four large parking facilities under notorious public spaces, is just one of the arguments to support the thesis that the pedestrianisation is just an instrument to respond to a neoliberal agenda and the progressive economization of public space. Intentions to transform the city center in a open air shopping mall and a thematic park for tourists, ignores the needs of local residents and are reinforced by complaints from restaurants and local shop owners about the lack of clients and visitors from other communes, stating that Brussels is dying.

While the plan to transform the iconic building of the stock market into a beer museum is still extremely suspicious, the central segment of the Blvd Anspach is still car free, and that is great!

There are indeed many contradictions and different opinions about it. What can we learn from this experience? How can such an important political decision can be perceived as positive for everybody? What went wrong?

 

Place de la Bourse under pressure (case 6)

Case 6 Bourse

“If public spaces are too popular, if different claims on these spaces are conflicting, their public character is constructed through the way in which this conflict is settled. Public spaces are, in other words, contested spaces” (3)

Since the sudden and very polemic pedestrianisation of Place de La Bourse, the newly reclaimed surface has clearly become the most exciting public space in Brussels and the reference point for any kind of impulsive urban initiative.  The last months became a place to rent, to do proselytism, a hooligan battlefield, a place for (multi) national pride, for frenetic pedestrian life, for urban sports, for public nudity, for civic misbehavior, for weirdly branding Brussels identity (yes the beer museum idea) and just recently a place of peace, of tension, of expression, a sanctuary.

The economic pressure, the need to improve the image, the need of common spaces… in order to allow spontaneous forms of civic expression, to what extent the neutrality of a public space is being threat by an excess of programming? Is this place strong enough to handle this and more?

Notes

(1) EurActiv.com with AFP (Sep 11, 2015) “In Europe’s capital, a makeshift camp for refugees creates embarrassment”, retrieved from www.euractiv.com.

(2) Lieven De Cauter, “From Ground Zero to Tahrir Square: The oost-9/11 era explained to children”, in L. De Cauter, Entropic Empire, On the city of man in the age of disaster, nai010 publishers. 2012.

(3) Lieven De Cauter and Michiel Dehaene, “The Space of Play: towards a general theory of Heterotopia””, in L. De Cauter, Entropic Empire, On the city of man in the age of disaster, nai010 publishers. 2012.