Hidden Brussels

an uncommon viewpoint 

on a unique city

Street art by Din Din at Gare de la Chapelle

The in between city  

half way to heaven

or half way to hell

Why Brussels is not an easy city to love

I walk around the city a lot. I'm a writer. It's my job to notice things. And what I notice is often depressing. You see rubbish bags dumped in the streets and cars parked on pavements so that mothers with buggies have to step out into a busy road.

Yet there is another side to Brussels that is enormously appealing. This is a city of interesting small shops, hidden urban parks, sublime museums and endless architectural diversity.

It is a city where I am never sure if we are half way to heaven or half way to hell.

At times, it can be quite imaginative and innovative. Up to a point. And then it stops for no obvious reason. Like the cycle lane on Boulevard Général Jacques which suddenly, inexplicably, comes to an end, forcing cyclists out into a lane of fast-moving cars.

The cycle lanes are so badly planned that you begin to think that the city has decided the only way to deal with its horrendous traffic congestion is to cull anyone on a bike.

Welcome to Brussels?

When I arrive in Brussels by Eurostar, I honestly think we are half way to hell. The station is a nightmare for Eurostar travellers, especially when compared to the sleekly renovated St Pancras terminal in London.

The arrival hall is a nasty, overcrowded space where passengers have to crowd into a small lift or struggle with heavy suitcases down a narrow concrete staircase. It is hard to imagine a more dismal way to enter Brussels.

But maybe it is not the worst way to arrive in Brussels. Because you could arrive by car from the north, which leads you into the grim Leopold III tunnel.

Some cities raise your spirits the moment you arrive, like Edinburgh and Venice and even London. But Brussels seems to want to make you depressed.

I have talked to a lot of people about their impressions of Brussels. The same comments crop up again and again. People tell me the streets are dirty. They ask me why the city is so unfriendly. I wish I knew the answer.

Why are we here?

It wouldn't matter if Brussels was nothing more than the capital of Belgium. But it has laid down a claim to be the capital of Europe.

People come to Brussels from all over the world. Sometimes for a day or a month. Sometimes for years. One quarter of the population comes from other European countries, or 250,000 people.

Most Europeans who come here to work arrive with high qualifications and high expectations. This is after all the capital of a union of 500 million people. It is a place where exciting things are happening.

But people soon become disenchanted with Brussels. Expectations begin to fall the moment they step into the town hall to register as a foreigner. They cannot believe how old-fashioned the administration can be in a city that claims to be capital of Europe.

Brussels Region is aware that people are not always happy in Brussels, so they carried out a survey of the international community to find out the reality. The Survey showed that about 50 percent of people were happy to live in Brussels, which the region saw as a positive result, although it does mean that 50 percent of people would rather be living somewhere else altogether.

The in between city

I think that these problems are the result of a fundamental uncertainty and confusion in the minds of Brussels people. They have never really been asked whether they want the city where they live to be capital of Europe.

No one has ever voted on whether Brussels should be capital of Europe, or a more modest capital of Belgium. It has just happened, like one more foreign army marching into the city.

I think there are two ways of thinking about Brussels. One is progressive and cosmopolitan. The other is traditional and nationalist. One is expressed by the Atomium. The other is expressed by the Manneken Pis.

I think the people of Brussels need to decide what they want to be before they can have any coherent policies.

I would like to go back to that half cycle lane on Boulevard Général Jacques. Because I think it symbolises this city very well. I would like to ask if the cycle lane to nowhere is a sign of an incompetent city. Or is it a sign of a city that has adopted incompetence as a survival strategy.

I think that cycle lane is unfinished for a very good reason. It is unfinished because it offends no one. The cyclists are happy because they have got their cycle lane. The car drivers are happy because they see that the city is not really going to become cycle friendly.

This means that Brussels, whatever they tell you, is never going to become Copenhagen. It will muddle on because muddle is its strategy. A firm policy one way or the other would be suicide.

In this way I see Brussels as similar to London, which has a mayor who has cast himself as chaotic. This is strategy. This gets you votes.

But I think that Brussels needs to think carefully about its strategy because it does not look good when compared to other European capitals. It has placed itself in a situation where it creates confusion. For it projects itself as the capital of Europe, the city where the norms are established to ensure that Europe runs smoothly. Yet it has also adopted a strategy in which norms are not respected.

Cycle lanes are left unfinished. Traffic laws are ignored.The city of EU laws does not respect laws.

The wrong capital

It can sometimes seem as if Brussels is absolutely the last city that should be allowed to call itself the capital of Europe.

It is not only chaotic and mismanaged. It is also the capital of a country that is slowly tearing itself apart.

Some people argue that it only became capital because it was a soft option. You might argue, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, that Brussels is the worst city to be capital of Europe, except for all the others.

It couldn't be Berlin. It couldn't be Paris. It certainly couldn't be London. So that leaves Brussels.

But I think the true story might be a little bit more complicated. I believe, if you look more closely that the history of Brussels, that some people have desperately wanted this city to be capital of Europe.   

You see it most clearly when you look at the period when Leopold II ruled Belgium. He was absolutely determined to make Brussels a more beautiful city than Paris. He used income from his private African colony to transform Brussels into a city of grand boulevards and impressive muséums.

Brussels is the worst city to be capital  of Europe,

except for all the others

By the end of the 19th century, Belgian intellectuals were drawing up plans to build a world capital in Tervuren, just outside Brussels.

Another set of plans was drawn up after the First World War. This time Brussels wanted to be the seat of the League of Nations. But Switzerland beat them to the prize.

They had to sit through another world war before they got another chance. This time they got what they wanted. Brussels became the temporary seat of the European Commission. Then it became the official capital.

It didn't stop there. Brussels managed to persuade the European Parliament to move much of its business to Brussels.

Then it persuaded the European Council to hold all its summits in Brussels.

This city might look chaotic, but it has a plan.

A vision for Brussels

But is this city heaven or hell.

Every August, the lifestyle magazine Monocle publishes a survey of the 25 most livable cities in the world. And every August, I rush to the newsagent to see if Brussels has made the list.

Well, it never does. And of course you could argue that Monocle’s criteria are quite specific to a particular urban elite. Not everyone wants a coffee bar where the barista inevitably has a beard and the beans come from a particular plantation on the southern slopes of the Andes. It is a bit precious.

But still I would like to see Brussels make the list, or at least have the ambition to make the list.

I think there are good arguments for the city to decide that its future depends on being a more positive capital of Europe – not deliberately messy, not wilfully obstructive, but friendly, cosmopolitan and open.

Your town hall could one day have a sign

welcoming you in all languages of Europe

I think that this approach could help to boost the economy of the city; because there are something like 250,000 cosmopolitan citizens living in this city and the suburbs who could be persuaded to spend more in this city if it did more to attract them.

But it stubbornly refused to do so.

And that can make it a frustrating place for a cosmopolitan citizen to be living and working.

Can anything be done to make it better?

A manifesto for the capital of Europe

With 25 percent of the population of Brussels now made up of EU citizens, is it not time for Europeans in Brussels to have a greater say in the way the city is run, so that the city can truly represent the aspirations of the world’s greatest political union?

Here are a few suggestions for making Brussels a better city -

A creative city

The city could do more to deal with the lack of a creative spirit in the city, to tackle the deadening hand of Belgian bureaucracy that kills off so many projects launched by foreigners.

It could create a space that would represent the new open spirit of Brussels, not a city museum, but a place where citizens could go to find out about new urban plans and connect with the complex network of politicians who run the city.

Without such a place, people quickly become disillusioned in this city. And that is bad for the city. It means they spend their weekends elsewhere – they shop in London, visit museums in Amsterdam, eat in restaurants in Paris.

The economy suffers if you don’t build up a creative city.

A friendly city

Some cities are friendly. Some are not. My list of friendly cities include Amsterdam, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Chicago. It doesn't unfortunately include Brussels.

Brussels doesn’t welcome people. It is a rather brutal place to come to late at night. You are very much on your own.

I hear stories all the time of people who come to Brussels and are met by unfriendliness, like the person who here for an international aid conference who was driven to the venue by a taxi driver who spent the entire journey complaining about foreigners.

Why not turn around that identity and convince the people of Brussels, beginning with taxi drivers, that a welcoming city is a healthy city for everyone.

You might even go into your town hall one day and find a sign welcoming you in the 24 languages of Europe.

A walkable city

The human pathways of Brussels have been brutally disrupted by the massive road engineering projects of the 1950s and 1960s, which made this a city for cars. So there are intimidating motorways that run straight through the city, desolate downtown areas where people seem to be discouraged.

The city could become a walkable environment again by creating urban pathways that link different neighbourhoods. This needn’t be a costly exercise. It might simply need a change of mind.

The pathways could link the different squares, so that there were points of warmth and conviviality along the way.

A European city

The European Union is one of the boldest ideas in human history. It was from the very beginning a utopian idea.

You will see that if you read Robert Schuman’s first declaration, not the one he read out in the gilded hall in Paris in May 1950, but the draft he wrote earlier, in which he referred to Utopia.

Brussels is the capital of that bold project. So it should itself be bold.

It is not a city with a strong sense of European identity. Where, for example, do you take someone who wants to see the spirit of Europe reflected in Brussels?

One place you do not take them is Rond Point Schuman, which is a desolate roundabout at the heart of the capital of Europe.

I was thrilled about a year ago to read that the city had finally developed a plan to create a public square, a piazza del populo, in the square. But then, as you probably know, the plan was abandoned. It was too costly, too complicated, the city said.

Brussels is the capital of a bold project,

so it should be a bold city

One thing this city could do would be to create a monument to European identity to stand in the centre of the square. You could organise a project that would bring together all the people of Brussels and all the people of Europe to finally do something with that sad and miserable circle at the heart of our capital city.

At the very least, it would divert the crowds from that sad statue of a peeing boy that has for some reason become the favoured image of the city.

And if this plan worked, you might open Monocle magazine one year not too far in the future and find that Brussels, your very own city, was ranked as one of the 25 most livable cities in the world.