The rudderless city
The influence of some books is derived from their title. You need not to have read them to understand their contents, in fact, they need not be written in the first place. If Mayors Ruled the World is one such book. For years author Benjamin Barber has been touring the globe to promote it: he gives interviews, seminars and lectures and his book is mentioned and discussed everywhere in the world. The day it will be published is a promising prospect indeed.
The publication of the book has been postponed several times but publisher Yale University Press has now picked a date in November 2013. In any case, it gave Barber the opportunity to change its subtitle. He reduced Why Cities Can and Should Govern Globally and How They Already Do to the more succinct Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities.
The idea of Barber, who, at an earlier stage, became popular through his study Jihad vs. McWorld – not a bad title either –, is just as simple as it is attractive: cities are more capable of coping with political and society’s problems than nation states. Mayors should take on a leading role because they’ve got both feet firmly on the ground, or, for that matter, stand up to their ankles in mud: independent of their political colour, they’re pragmatists whose focus is on the problems their citizens are put up with.
New York’s comeback under the guidance of Michael Bloomberg and the successes in London obtained under Boris Johnson are examples Barber frequently likes to flaunt with. With some good will you could add the Amsterdam of Eberhard van der Laan to Barber’s list, but where is Brussels, at the same time capital of Flanders, Belgium and Europe, in all this?
That some work needs to be done in Brussels becomes clear from the recent rant by the French correspondent of Libération under the heading ‘Bruxelles, pas belle’. According to Jean Quatremer the city is so ‘ugly and dirty’ that it can only be compared to Athens: ‘The same urban chaos, the same scars from feverish real estate speculation, the same broken pavements, the same grime, the same madness on the roads, etc. The Greek capital has at least been able to fend off the highways that rip Brussels apart as if it had the size of New York or Los Angeles, while the number of inhabitants barely surpasses one million.’
A subjective judgment perhaps, but when you look at the official city lists Brussels isn’t doing much better there either. Take the The Wealth Report for example, a worldwide ranking of the forty most important cities. It’s in third position when it comes to political power, but the quality of life, the economy and the basic level of education badly lag behind, which makes for an overall twelfth position. Still not bad, but in case the European Union were to choose another location to reside, Brussels would tumble down another fourteen places.
This raises the question who the mayor of Brussels actually is and why he’s not doing anything against the problems. Or isn’t that at all necessary? If you establish a hierarchy then there will inevitably be cities at the bottom of the ladder, and aren’t they much more exciting than the exemplary international flagships?
Thielemans is the name of Brussels’s burgomaster, Freddy Thielemans. This socialist, art lover, beer drinker and freemason already used to be the mayor during a brief spell in 1994 when Michel Demaret, better known as ‘Monsieur dix pourcent’ for getting paid over building applications, had to resign. In 2001 Thielemans returned and ever since he has governed his city with careless panache, often, however, encountering troublesome historical borders.
Up until 1800 Brussels coincided pretty well with itself: the town grew slowly but steadily, but it nicely stayed within the walls that were built in the fourteenth century in the shape of a regular pentagon, which, looking from above, resembles a shield. Only in the nineteenth century the town bulged outward into small villages such as Sint-Joost-ten-Node and Koekelberg. Initially this occurred at slow pace but in the second half of the nineteenth century – by which time Belgium had long separated from the Netherlands – the city spread like an oil slick and engulfed villages, reed beds, swamps, little towns, bleach fields and factories. Etterbeek and Sint-Gillis were overrun, Anderlecht and Schaarbeek swallowed up, Elsene and Sint-Jans-Molenbeek taken over.
A while after the physical annexation of the countryside, what usually follows is the administrative annexation: the city borders shift outward for the urbanisation and jurisdiction to more or less concur again. Not so in Brussels where the surrounding municipalities successfully dig in their heels. There are a few exceptions – the king increased the territory to give his capital some breathing space and there were some ad hoc annexations – but it hasn’t lead to a logical shape that has something to do with the streets, squares and buildings that together form the city.
Brussels’s surrealistic shape could have been concocted by Magritte, the painter who’s honoured with a museum dedicated to him and situated at the most important square of the city: Ceci n’est pas une ville. The layout might be a nightmare for the mayor that has to govern the city, but it’s perfectly well suited for a Rorschach test. You can easily look at it as an angular heart (the old town) on one leg (the Kamerenbos / Bois de la Cambre) with a pointy belly (the European quarter) and an enormous smurf hat (the area of the royal family, plus the harbour and the marshalling yards). A large bird of pray on top of a magic lantern with a mouse dangling underneath it, is not a bad supposition either. Or perhaps the silhouette made by a graffiti artist with a template: crest hair, two eyes and a goatee.
The almost perfect pentagon constitutes the heart of the city, and it is still clearly visible both on the map as well as in situ. Of course the city walls are gone, but a clear and strong line has come to replace them, as if this line stems directly from one of the comic strip books by another famous Brusselaar, Hergé: a road with two times three carriageways, a complete Périphérique, like the one you find in big brother Paris, but then it’s only a mere 8 kilometres, not 35.
It’s affectionately called ‘the small ring’, but don’t be mistaken, it’s an entire highway that only partially goes underground and cuts off the centre from the rest of the city. Some 50,000 people live within the pentagon; adding the inhabitants of all the oddly shaped parts surrounding the centre, Freddy Thielemans still can’t look down on any more than 166,000 subjects, about the population you will find in Nijmegen, Osnabruck, Bournemouth or Cagliari. A number Bloomberg and Johnson will probably smirk over.
Thielemans’s barony – the name of a municipality in Brussels – is enclosed from all sides by other baronies that have got their own mayors and councils, their own interests and policies, their own plots. Eighteen is the exact number. Cross the street and you end up in Schaarbeek, Anderlecht or Molenbeek.
Not just large municipalities border the City (spelled with a capital), also smaller ones like Sint-Joost-ten-Node with a population of only 27,000. A big village in terms of the number of inhabitants, but they’re actually squeezed together on little over one square kilometre which makes it the most densely populated municipality in the Benelux and perhaps even in Europe. Still though, the car is the favoured means of transport: the newly elected mayor of Turkish descent, Emir Kir immediately got rid of a hard-won pedestrian zone: ‘It should be over with the intellectual terrorism spread by certain types of people that are specialists in urban planning and mobility.’ He’d rather listen to his own citizens, or at least the shop owners who complain they can longer be reached by motorists.
The problems that are faced by a metropolis are legion, but cut one up in 19 arbitrary pieces that behave like autonomous islands and a sheer insolvable puzzle is what you end up with. A notorious example that is also cited by the Libération correspondent is the Louizalaan (Avenue Louise), the flimsy leg that pops up on the underside of the map. By order of king Leopold II this lane was added to the territory of the city of Brussels at the end of the nineteenth century as to allow the nobility to not have to leave the city when they went to court in the Kamerenbos.
So the actual street belongs to Brussels, but the pavements don’t, they appertain to the neighbouring municipalities of Elsene and Sint-Gillis. Because it’s not clear who should collect the fines, the issue of illegal parking in the most expensive shopping street around is left untouched by the police. It took pressure exerted by the national Minister of Transport to get the three municipalities to place flower containers in order to reject the cars. All’s well that ends well, isn’t it? That is to be seen, since in true Brussels style, it’s only an experiment.
The article in Libération was illustrated with a photo collage of the inner city traffic jams, broken pavements, barricades of concrete blocks and incomprehensible traffic diversions. Very displeasing, certainly, but at the end of the day not insurmountable either. Moreover, you can counterpoise this with observations that give reasons to rejoice: the waste collection services for instance don’t clean up the mattresses and bedding of the homeless, not even in the richest baronies; you don’t take away the last thing those people own, do you? And in this digital age it’s perhaps not very practical to keep citizens up to date of building projects with the use of placard newspapers. It is charming though.
Brussels is fascinating, especially for foreigners. The city is like an aunt who suffers from the slow onset of dementia and loses her decorum. She doesn’t wash as often as is socially desirable, but the funny songs she sometimes sings and the absurdity of her jokes make up for that. But once the visiting hour is over and the distant cousin has returned home, she’s left behind in her neglected house. Alone, deprived of help.
Underneath the colourful and maladaptive surface, Brussels has a bizarre administrative structure that has left behind deep scars throughout the city: the rich and the poor live in separate worlds and the gap between them grows ever wider. Administrative borders work like social borders and that’s why the 19 baronies have more in common with an archipelago than with an open metropolis.
During daytime it seems as if Freddy Thielemans reigns over a prosperous city. It is not so much the droves of tourists that are keeping up appearances, rather the many commuters that give the city a rich semblance, with expensive shops and chic restaurants. Every day a quarter of a million car drivers go from the province to the office towers in the centre. But once the commuters head homewards in the evening, the pentagon slowly becomes the domain again of the poor and immigrant inhabitants.
Whereas city centres almost everywhere in the western world got back on their feet again after the abandonment and deprivation of the eighties, in Brussels this is not the case; in fact, poverty is relentlessly on the rise. The Marollen (Les Marolles), the working class neighbourhood that forms the southern point of the pentagon, even has the lowest gross salary of the entire Brussels-Capital Region. Compare that to the Jordaan in Amsterdam that used to be a working class neighbourhood too: until long after the Second World War there used to be grinding poverty like in the Marollen, by now, however, the income has risen to five times the city average.
The inner city of Amsterdam is smoothened out: the ramshackle houses have been refurbished to become little palaces, the streets are in good condition and have been equipped with designer lampposts, shops have been turned into boutiques. If there is any ruggedness to be seen, then it was a deliberate choice to introduce an urban touch. At least Brussels doesn’t need to make an effort in that respect, you get the degradation for free here.
When his novel Slagschaduw (Cast shadow), that takes place in Brussels, was first published, the celebrated Belgian author David Van Reybrouck said: ‘Few cities have such an interesting patina. There’s a ‘‘swarming’’ past here, time is really putting in an effort.’ But this eulogy for the city was accompanied by self-criticism as he called the glorification of poverty ‘a classical phenomenon of aestheticisation by the middle class’, a search for authenticity ‘as if everything that’s poor and worn-out possesses a truth that we middle class no longer find in our lives.’
A raw city is exotic for the visitor, the life is different there, shapes and reliefs can still be perceived. Take the Zuidpaleis (Palais du Midi) for example, a monumental indoor market dating from the end of the nineteenth century. The beautiful building is situated inside the pentagon. If you walk from the TGV station to the Grote Markt (Grand Place) you go past it. In every metropolis this would by now have become a luxurious warehouse, or an expensive apartment block. Not so in Brussels: on the street side you see a series of shabby restaurants, miserable tea houses and little offices for bus trips to the Maghreb. Inside the building is where the sports clubs have found their accommodation and it’s the place to play subsidised badminton, boxing, billiards and wheelchair basketball.
So in Brussels the poverty-stricken still have a palace at their disposal. The fact that the Zuidpaleis is in the Stalingradlaan (Avenue de Stalingrad) adds to the symbolism: this is where the capitalist machinery has, at least for now, been stopped. This may sound as if it is in the interest of the people, but it primarily brings Brussels’s lack of urban dynamism to light, and with that a lack of freedom and chances for the inhabitants.
The upgrading of impoverished areas usually occurs according to a pattern: artists and squatters settle into a neighbourhood, students follow suit and soon yuppies, tourists and estate agents discover the area. The process of gentrification leads to heated discussions between advocates and opponents. In Berlin it has become a swear word, except in its city hall: the social democrat mayor Klaus Wowereit thinks the resistance against Gentrifizierung is irrational. As it happens, he is happy with the influx of ‘people who can pay their own rent’.
This is different in Brussels City where mayor Freddy Thielemans carefully keeps a low profile in reference to questions about gentrification, a term he prefers to evade altogether. The fear of poor inhabitants being banished is deeply rooted in the governing Parti Socialiste and even though the strongest knee-jerk reactions against the arrival of the well-to-do have disappeared, Thielemans is still well aware of who his voters are. Much like the liberal mayor Armand De Decker of the rich barony of Ukkel, who realises perfectly well who he’s owing his term of office to. It’s only logical then that Ukkel still only has a third of the public housing to which it has committed itself.
When it comes to defeating the social and urban inflexibility, the Brussels metropolis should not expect much from its mayors. Can the prime minister not offer solace? The head of the Brussels-Capital Region, in which 19 baronies are united since 1989, is not a mayor but a prime minister. Sounds good. Moreover, a new one, Rudi Vervoort, has just been installed and usually newcomers are the most ambitious.
Vervoort is a decent man, so much so that he’s actually boring. Before he was put forward as the prime minister by the Parti Socialiste earlier this year, he used to be mayor of Evere, a barony that adjoins Brussels City and which he governed in Flemish style. Which is a compliment in Brussels and means: pragmatic, depoliticising and focused on collaboration. This fits in perfectly with the theory of Benjamin Barber, who would undoubtedly love a city headed by a true prime minister. Until he would realise how limited the power held by him really is.
This becomes obvious through little things. For instance, Thielemans blocked the construction of a temporary cycling lane that was commissioned by Vervoort this summer. Officially Thielemans has got to do what Vervoort tells him to, because the lane concerned falls under the purview of the Capital Region, but in Brussels one can always find a back door. In this case: simply not giving the police the order to take care of the signage for the road works.
The impotence equally plays a role with regard to big projects such as the European quarter, which, like a cuckoo in the nest, has by now occupied the entire area east of the pentagon and spreads over the territory of four municipalities. Over the past decade all debates and studies about the dispersal of the institutions over the Capital Region, something which would give more scope to both Brussels as well as the European Union, ended in vain. The cuckoo is stubbornly staying put in the existing nest, which amounts to 90 hectares of office buildings.
The lack of ability to act in the Capital Region is not surprising: originally it was never intended as an urban collaboration, rather as a political construction to support the instable Belgium state. Over thirty years ago, during the second state reform, it was decided Wallonia and Flanders would become Regions, with their own governments and parliaments. But then a solution had to be found for Brussels, which is in the middle of Flanders. There was no other way but to turn Brussels into a Region too.
As if Vervoort isn’t having a hard enough time already trying to keep the mayors on his territory in check, in doing his every day job his hands are tied. He has nothing to say about education, culture and other ‘person-related’ themes. In Brussels these responsibilities don’t lie with the Regions, but with the Communities. Each language – Dutch, French and German – has its own Community, and each one of them has its own government and parliament. In Flanders this isn’t a problem: the Region and the Community perfectly coincide, but both levels of authority often find themselves clashing in Brussels. ‘Everyone empowered, no one responsible.’
Brussels doesn’t just have 19 mayors, 685 councillors and 200 aldermen but also 89 regional representatives, four ministers, three state-secretaries and a prime minister. This doesn’t actually mean that, in total, there are literally a thousand and one officials because dual functions are a common phenomenon in Belgium and Brussels is no exception in this regard. Almost every minister is mayor at the same time and tries to remain popular within the municipality. Officially to stay close to the man in the street and to the source of problems, but clearly also to be assured of support when things get tough politically. So parallel to his effort to govern the Capital Region, poor Vervoort needs to make sure hell doesn’t break loose in Evere. On top of that, he also has to find a way to cooperate with the municipalities of what the Dutch speakers call the ‘Vlaamse rand’, which by the French speakers is referred to as the ‘périphérie bruxelloise’.
Rudi Vervoort is trapped in an institutional web that wasn’t thought up to govern a metropolis but to serve as a buffer between French and Dutch speakers instead. The francophone mayors of the 19 baronies want to prevent at all costs that power shifts to the Region, where the Dutch speakers occupy half of the ministerial posts. The Dutch speaking mayors of the, also 19, peripheral municipalities oppose against cooperation with the Brussels-Capital Region because they fear the French-speaking influence. Peripheral municipality Machelen for example is engaged in acrimonious competition with the Region over the establishment of shopping centres. Within a distance of less than ten kilometres, three shopping centres of huge proportions are being developed. The problems are well known – overcapacity, traffic jams on the ring road, disruption in the city centre – but the emergency brake cannot be found.
The bizarre structure of Brussels is full of loopholes and cracks, rules are not adhered to and every border is a fault line. Such chaos is often to the detriment of logic and the consequences of this are grave: segregation, filthiness, poverty, corruption – the problems go far beyond of what the Libération correspondent touched upon.
The fact that a tragic prettiness resides within Brussels’s intractability, a collateral beauty if you will, doesn’t diminish these problems, nor does it make the administrative inadequacy and its messed up structure acceptable. On the contrary, out of love for this slightly absurd city you’d wish it gets a mayor that would truly stand at the helm of all the governing bodies and would give Brussels the opportunity to become the kind of rising city that Barber is preaching for. The Brusselaars will stand surety for the anarchy themselves.