MAP-it European Quarter #1 (Brussels)
The European district in Brussels has seen over 20 years of major upheavals and restructuring projects. At the same time it has witnessed a new generation of people and buildings: estate speculators, European trainees, satellite offices, shops trying to adapt to the new situation.
When the institutional planning redraws the city with the bulldozer, what happens with the inhabitants of the neighbourhood? How do they find again their home, and (re)inspire their imagination?
The artist and researcher Thomas Laureyssens and the committees of neighbourhoods GAQ and AQL, supported by Bral and IEB, propose a collaborative mapping exercise of a public space in the district: South Point of European Parliament’s plaza.
This was the first mapping done on an urban space: Brussels's European neighbourhood. Our research question was: What can small and grass-roots initiatives do to tackle urban issues in the European Quarter?
The participants were either residents of Brussels or people that initiated urban projects in their own cities and were invited to the Urban Platform event. At the same time, the residents of the neighbourhood had very different profiles, as some were born in Brussels, others moved here in the 70s, some were students that just moved in... Therefore we had a richness of experiences and perspectives which added to the outcome of the workshop. Before the mapping, a walk was organised in the district so that all the participants could see the neighbourhood and reflect on the space.
The first step was splitting the 20 participants into 3 groups. The rules of MAP-it were presented and a few guidelines: Try to keep your ideas as concrete and practical and possible, and find inspiration in urban and artistic interventions from your own city. In this way, we can share the knowledge and practices of other urban projects.
Firstly, each participant received a small map of Brussels. They had to add green/orange/red traffic lights to their map. The lights determined what they liked [green], threats or opportunities in the city [orange] or things they didn't like [red]. After 10 minutes, the participants discussed which issues should be transferred to the large common map [15 minutes]. Issues came up such as parking lots, placement of parks, lack of comfortable benches, good fish shop and a bakery open for 24 hours! The map placed on the table helped to situate the discussion in a concrete shape. On the table a map of Brussels was placed which helped to situate the discussion in a concrete space.
For the next 30 minutes, goals were set in regard to the problems previously identified. So, for example, if a problem was the traffic, one could set the goal of creating more parking places. At the same time, actions that were already successful in other cities could be added to the map. Somebody proposed flower-bombs as a way to make the city greener. The participants wrote their ideas on icons and placed them on the map next to the traffic-light problem.
The next step was to focus the discussion on only one goal [5 minutes]. In the following 15 minutes key people, organisations or tools to accomplish these goals were identified. NGOs, neighbourhood committees or local artists were brought up. In order to make the goal even more tangible the groups also had to identify action steps to reach their objectives [20 minutes]. The first part of the mapping finished with locking the most important elements on the map, according to the group, and choosing a presenter [10 minutes].
In the second part of the workshop, the presenter changed tables and explained the map to another group. In turn, they bombed or liked elements from the map, as well as indicate possible threats. [30 min]
Lastly, the presenter returned to her/his group and they all presented their map to the audience. Here is a summary of the presentations:
The blue group started by identifying areas with a number of problems but decided to focus on the ones where something can easily be done. They chose the multicultural area in the south of the neighbourhood. That part is unique in Brussels thanks to its blend of cultures and identities. Unfortunately, this unique character is not visible to the passer-by. Therefore, the goal of this group is to show the multicultural character, make it visible it to the world. As many buildings in this area have ground-floors with show windows, elements from different cultures can be placed in the windows to indicate that this is a multicultural area. Photographs or traditional crafts can be placed so that a stroll down the street will resemble walking in an open-air museum.
The church in the district can also be used as a performance space for different types of traditional music. Because churches have very good acoustics, they are used in other countries as a concert space.
An important issue identified by this group was the coldness and formality imposed by the European Parliament. The multicultural area is slowly pushed away by the luxury housings next to the Parliament. In order to bring character to the area and make it more "alive", grassroot actions are needed. One participant had the idea of creating "dog areas". Starting a conversation about your dog is the easiest way to meet the other residents in the neighbourhood. Also in order to open up the area, free wifi should be provided so that people can get out of their houses and work in the public space.
In the end, the blue group hoped that the positive effect that this multicultural area will have will extend towards other neighbourhoods, such as the business district. The main goal is to make Brussels a more relaxed and informal city.
The next group also indicated the European Parliament as a sensitive subject, as in their view the buildings prevent people from getting around from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, so that they are "trapped" in their own district. Their solution to this problem lies in the Royal Park. This can become a meeting place and can lead to social cohesion - therefore there should be more entrances and better indicated so that from whatever point you are, you can easily access it. The green group also designed new pubs and play areas in the park, as well as a pond and a community shop. The idea is to bring people together there and create a community.
The red group agreed that very little can be done in the European Parliament, so they concentrated their ideas to the area below. They had 3 goals in mind: access to the city for all different kinds of people living here, activities organized for these different groups which will lead to connecting all the neighbourhoods together. Their solution is building a park in the south-west side. This will make the area less formal, and shift the perspective to community-activities. This can be achieved by transforming "formal" green areas to community gardens, creating a barbecue zone and instituting a speakers' corner, as the one in Hyde Park.
Concluding, all the three groups had similar perspectives on the European district of Brussels: the Parliament imposes a certain coldness and formality on the city. Grassroot projects can counter this through their informal, relaxed manner. As well, multicultural communities make Brussels an unique city and should be more visible for the passer-by.
In the end, the participants suggested that politicians should take part into future mappings, as they can determine changes in the current policies and structures.