Neighbourhood watch: The design improvements Region of Brussels’ residents would bring to their Communes (Part 2)

Can the use of fundamental design principles improve a neighbourhood’s social cohesion? In what way can visual identities, communication strategies and urban planning policies shape a commune for the better? What are the changes residents would like to see be made to their communes, be it at administrative or street level? We put these questions to 19 Brussels Region residents – one per municipality, from West-Brussels with Evere and Woluwe-Saint-Pierre / Sint-Pieters-Woluwe to the more densely populated Molenbeek-Saint-Jean / Sint-Jans-Molenbeek and Ixelles / Elsene – to find out how a better understanding and application of the power of design can lay the blueprint for the neighbourhood of the future. And in case you missed the first half, make sure to check out Part 1.

Mathieu Gabiot and Martin Lévêque (Evere) on bringing residents together to build

The good thing about Brussels is that there is less stress here than that found in bigger cities like Berlin, London or Paris; whilst still maintaining enough opportunities. Access to artist spaces in Brussels, and more specifically in Evere is great: we found a big, affordable space in which we could set up and work. The Commune is a classic Belgian one – the real Belgium – which basically means that it’s the same as it probably was forty years ago. There’s not much diversity or activity here, but people remain friendly. There’s not much to do – no restaurants, just one café – so it would be good for the Commune to take some initiative in that direction. There’s not much being done to bring the neighbourhood together either: on Friday afternoons, a local market is held for which they close off the roads, but since it’s in the middle of a weekday it can be difficult to participate. In our workshops, we do open source design in which we not only sell a piece of furniture, but also, for a cheaper price, the process of making it yourself. The idea is to expose the art of design to everyone, and make it seem less exclusive. It would be nice to do the same thing with the inhabitants of Evere, to invite them to the workshop and have them make something all-together. Building things in the same place can lead to good conversations, and also solid foundations for future relationships. The Commune is also lacking when it comes to its communication with its residents, so it’d be good to tackle that issue too. We also want to make the Commune more bicycle-friendly: there are too many cars in Evere, making cycling difficult. The Commune should do things to improve the streamlining of life, and also communicate with its residents to encourage them to take initiatives.

Mathieu and Martin are the designers at Nonpareil, an open source furniture design studio. They have worked in Evere for over two years.

Matthieu Léonard (Woluwe-Saint-Pierre / Sint-Pieters-Woluwe) on the need for more community gardens

Local authorities are the prevailing forces when it comes to urban design, although it’s the inhabitants who give a vibe, a flavour to the rest of it. So if a Commune creates spaces which people can readily use, a lot will already change in its overall atmosphere. In Woluwe-Saint-Pierre / Sint-Pieters-Woluwe, a lot has been done in terms of cultural interest and interactions between citizens. We have a yearly artist promenade that shines a light on local artists, and we’ve also seen certain areas transform into collective urban gardens, with the installation of communal fridges instilling a sense of responsibility amongst residents. All this creates a sense of opportunity and, in a city like Brussels where many ideas float around, it’s good for them to come to the fore. Radical change comes about slowly, and a city must be unveiled and revealed for people to see it. Initiatives such as the re-design of major arteries – think Boulevard de la Woluwedal – or the launch of a free taxi service for the elderly allows for everyone to partake in it. Restaurants are huge shifts in community life too, and with the opening of Jules & Charles, we feel there’s been a complete revival. It’s situated in a small press shop, and has a sense of history and place that gives people an idea about where they are dining. Our concept for Jules & Charles is based on a local, participative project: more than half of our customers are locals from the neighbourhood, and our aim is to give them a place in which they can communicate. We also happily receive gifts from neighbours, such as fresh vegetables and herbs from their backyard, which we then use in our culinary preparations, reinforcing the communal and collaborative dynamic. It makes us feel very good about what we have achieved! I think that urban design changes mainly through the accessibility of land and property given to residents, therefore I would encourage people to use the available spaces to do things of their own. What I would also like to do create local urban gardens and shared planting spaces; enticing neighbours to live together, giving them a common project and building green spaces. I really think it’ll help create a vibrancy within the Commune.

Matthieu is the founder of Jules & Charles, a dining experience in an old press shop. He has worked in Woluwe-Saint-Pierre / Sint-Pieters-Woluwe for two years.            

Pieter Van Damme (Molenbeek-Saint-Jean / Sint-Jans-Molenbeek) on the importance of urban lighting

A very interesting way to think about urban design is through urban lighting – we don’t realise it’s role in shaping a city, but for me it’s crucial. In Brussels, urban lighting could be used to, quite literally, shine a light on the city and help bridge borders between its different municipalities. For example, the Canal divides the city into two parts – but it’s unclear to know from one side what lies on the other. Lighting could be used to encourage people to cross the Canal at night. Brussels’ light infrastructures are so scattered that people don’t feel very safe outside, or able to navigate to distant locations. Urban lighting also plays a role in the preservation of the bio-diversity of animals, as it helps nocturnal beings come out – it adds a lot to the city as a whole! Also, because of the divisiveness of Brussels, the different authorities install their own system of lights throughout their respective communes. It’s not uncommon though to see a disparity in the lights used in the border municipalities, as well as parks and tram stops, so there’s no harmony, which really is a lost opportunity. Functionality, safety, and the history of a city – a lot can be considered and transmitted through urban lighting. Here in Molenbeek, not much thought has been given to the issue either – although there has recently been a move to coordinate and streamline the lighting in the neighbourhood. There are a lot of hidden historical buildings and spots in Molenbeek, but they sadly remain ignored. A couple of years ago, there was also an initiative to improve our Place Communale / Gemeenteplaats – but there was no proper implementation of any of these efforts, and even now, it’s often just used as a parking space. There’s a lot going on here – it’s big and diverse – but there needs to be more communication of ideas between the Commune and its inhabitants. If it was up to me, I would focus on enlightening people about where they live, in a subtle way, whilst also taking initiatives to clean up the neighbourhood. Once again, it’s only a matter of dispensing orders the right way – I would make sure that that’s done right.

Pieter is a historian and the director of CIVA Brussels, who has lived in Molenbeek for eight years.

Cameron Francis Taylor (Woluwe-Saint-Lambert / Sint-Lambrechts-Woluwe) on nurturing independent, local businesses

I grew up in the suburbs of Woluwe-Saint-Lambert / Sint-Lambrechts-Woluwe, and the presence of communal areas were scarce. It’s not a very dynamic commune, but there is class disparity amongst its residents – a mix between upper-middle class and working class – which makes it a bit of a challenge to structure. What’s nice about Woluwe-Saint-Lambert is that you get to witness suburbia morphing into the city. When I was growing up, my friends and I would get drunk in a local pub, and walk to Alma in the vicinity of UCLouvain’s Woluwe campus, chatting with kids who come from all over Belgium to come see what Brussels is all about. That really humbled me. It’s a melting pot of every culture in an unimportant way. They’ve built a skate-park down the road from where I live, which is positive – I think kids who aren’t from the area come to skate here too. Skate-parks are great in my opinion: they forge an identity around an area and let culture disseminate. More recently, there have also been a variety of mini day-festivals, but these are unfortunately catered quite exclusively to Woluwe’s middle class residents. There’s also an Irish Catholic church a stone’s throw away from me called St Anthony’s, which caters to the Anglophone Catholic community in Brussels, and they put on a fair every year. But these events aren’t really effective anymore – communities need more. By creating a visual language to give meaning to each commune, we can begin to understand a little bit more about the identity of Brussels as a whole. The identity of the City is a bit faceless for now –  but that’s actual to our benefit, since this means we have a grey area with which a lot can be made and done. If it was up to me, I would create a fund for independent businesses seeking to bring new ventures to the Commune. Encouraging people with the right ideas is key and yet, at least for now, we don’t even know who they are. Another suggestion would be to set up an artists’ fund for independent artists looking to take up residency in some of the unused spaces in construction sites, subway underpasses and within the city. In order to get anything started, you have to first create a framework, a financial base, and find the people willing to work on it. Woluwe-Saint-Lambert / Sint-Lambrechts-Woluwe is really residential and kind of boring at times – there’s not a lot going on – which is why it would be fun to try and do something completely radical with its public spaces.

Cameron is an independent graphic designer, who was born, raised and currently lives in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert / Sint-Lambrechts-Woluwe.

Design is the bone structure of any city; the skeleton containing the huge heartbeat of urban life.

Victor Patyn (Ixelles / Elsene) on paying more attention to your Commune’s heritage

Design is the bone structure of any city; the skeleton containing the huge heartbeat of urban life. Buildings, roads, stairs, elevators – each of these infrastructural elements define what a city is. And instead of its population and social class; I think it’s what we see, the buildings which show up on our paths, and what the walls and windows are saying, which all constitutes urban design. So design should focus on making mobility and interaction with strangers easier for the inhabitants. If urban design allows for movement, then it’s doing something right. I grew up in Paris, but Brussels is where I feel most at home. It is a big city, but it’s not impersonal, and I think the idea that every commune can feel different and dynamic in its own right is a great notion. My favourite thing about Ixelles / Elsene is how you can land in a different world at every street corner. Think of the fancy Avenue Louise / Louizalaan, the quiet Tenbosch area, the noisy and crowded Chaussée d’Ixelles / Elsense Steenweg, the messy Matongé, the vibrant Flagey square. If Ixelles / Elsene had a logo, it would have to be Flagey – even though it may be cliché, it is without a doubt where most of the activity takes place. But it also has plenty of hidden secrets. A couple of weeks ago I was walking around the neighbourhood and found out that Audrey Hepburn was born on a little street hidden behind Avenue Louise / Louizalaan. It’s a trivial anecdote, but that is our history too! Communes should own these things, and reflect them. A good city is a city where you don’t feel oppressed by buildings and artefacts – and Ixelles has the perfect balance between the two. That being said, the Solvay building – the defining and imposing former headquarters of the iconic Belgian company – was demolished, leaving a gaping hole behind it. In a way, I found the new space really beautiful; it brings some peace to the neighbourhood. On the other hand, during spring, cherry trees by the building would bloom, matching the grays and greens of the high-rise with its shades of soft pink. It was idyllic – also because it would pop up suddenly amid a busy street. I think the Commune should pay more attention to its heritage without only looking towards one-off development opportunities. More recently, there’s been the plan to turn Chaussée d’Ixelles / Elsense Steenweg into a pedestrian zone. Brand new sidewalks, brand new buses, no more traffic jams – but one can’t be sure, yet, of how it will benefit residents. If I was given the choice, I would renovate and clean the facades of old houses in Ixelles / Elsene. They are all grey from dirt, and if they were cleaned up, the Commune would shine. I would also install benches and make green spaces more available here – people need places to meet and rest. I’d also add plants and trees, a lot of them! Design needs to be more sensitive and ecological.

Victor is an independent photographer and has lived in Ixelles / Elsene for two years. 

Rozina Spinnoy (Koekelberg) on instilling pride in Communes

One day, I interviewed tourists in Koekelberg about what they had come to see, and apart from the Basilique, no one seemed to know what else was around. What I am doing in Koekelberg is trying to create participation and a taskforce so residents can take (back) control of their neighbourhoods. At my organisation Belgium Design Council, we try to create an identity for the citizens of the Commune, and give them agency to participate in it. There’s a lot of history and beauty to be found in Koekelberg – the Art Deco buildings, a ton of great restaurants, and more tourist-centric things such as the Belgian chocolate village. But civic action and encouragement is needed for local businesses to participate in their Communes, and that’s precisely what we’re working on. Everyone’s always complaining about how city life can become lonely, how people get isolated from one another – yet it is so simple to challenge these very things, and it’s up to both authorities and inhabitants to take things into their own hands. While I think doing things outside is important, technology is important too: it’s a way of reaching people quickly, and honestly, the most effective channel today. Recently, some citizens crowd-funded the Bar Eliza, a bar in the middle of Elisabeth Park, which is a real pleasure to be in. It’s for everyone – young or old, child or parent – and really adds familiarity to the neighbourhood whilst encouraging people from other communes to come to Koekelberg. It is up to the Commune to provide the framework for initiatives such as this to blossom. There should be funding for people to take up projects, since that’s how cities grow. If people know that they have a voice, they’ll go ahead and do things. If it was up to me, I would create more grounds for communication between local businesses: it’s a solid way of instilling pride in neighbourhoods. Also, something for children, like workshops, encouraging them to claim spaces for themselves – that kind of thing. In fact, I have begun a workshop for kids with autism quite recently, which the kids love, and it would be great to take initiatives like this to the next level. Design should not be top down, but rather all inclusive – people need to know they are being heard; and I think the Koekelberg Commune, by supporting initiatives like mine, has a lot of potential to do that.

Rozina is the managing director of Belgian Design Council, an organisation that encourages design as a constant force of innovation in the city. She has lived in Koekelberg for 15 years.

Gatien du Bois (Jette) on causing a stir in the neighbourhood

Jette is often looked at as a kind of obscure place by the rest of Brussels. It is far in the minds of people and, to be completely honest, before I began working here, I must have come to the neighbourhood only a handful of times. But it is an old Commune; it has history and stories and those shouldn’t be let to go to waste. The idea behind our centre Atelier 340, which started more than thirty years ago, is to bring art to a local level. Art should be made accessible to everyone. After all, it’s such a driving force in forming and driving communities – and the idea here is to open its doors to a community. It’s a Commune with a mix of social classes, constant waves of mobility and ever-changing immigrant demographics. It’s very interesting and inspiring to have the centre located here. We organise exhibitions of artists both local and international, but more importantly, we put up banners of the art outside for everyone to see. Our exhibitions are sometimes controversial as they tend to touch upon radical subjects and themes, often revolving around the body, which sometimes causes a stir in the neighbourhood. But this too can only be positive, as it means there’s inertia; there’s conversation. People need to be moved to think. It is not the most glamorous of neighbourhoods, but it does have a wide range of things on offer, and we are glad to be part of that. All neighbourhoods need activity – otherwise, they risk becoming static. We see people come out here and sit in the chairs outside the café, and it is good grounds for communication. In Jette, there is not much vibrancy, not too many restaurants or squares, and we could definitely do with some. Participation is important – for instance, we organise workshops for kids with the artist-in-residence so that they can create art in an open space. These kinds of things change the atmosphere of the Commune, and there should be efforts for more. We are supported by the Commune, but there aren’t too many cultural activities organised otherwise. If it was up to me, I would take art completely to the streets, encourage local artists to come out and build things in the neighbourhood. It is important – it’s like education, except much more intimate and tied with the place in which you live.

Gatien is the art historian at Atelier 340, an independent contemporary art centre, and has worked in Jette for a year.

If it was up to me, I would take art completely to the streets, encourage local artists to come out and build things in the neighbourhood.

Stéphanie Weisser (Ganshoren) on unearthing your Commune’s potential

When I think about urban design, what comes to mind is not that culture is to be given to people, but rather that people are culture themselves. So to build a space which allows them to express themselves – that, to me, is design at work. A lot of initiatives in the city are focused on the south of Brussels, while the north often goes ignored. Ganshoren is some sort of Bermuda triangle on the map of Brussels – people tend to think of it as a far-away and obscure place, which is a shame. Maybe this is because, until a few decades ago, Ganshoren was actually a farming community; a completely stand-alone village. Most of it was built after the war, so there is no deep history intertwined in its architecture. Until the ‘90s, it was also the municipality with the oldest population – but the demographics have begun to change now, as young families and youths have begun to move in. It’s a diverse Commune – quiet and easy-going, a sort of breath of fresh air amidst the chaos of the rest of the city – and we try to work with it in all the ways we can. An imminent problem in Ganshoren is trying to bridge the divide between its long-standing population and incoming immigrants. In our centre, for instance, we try to create a sort of mentorship platform or a welcome box in which old residents can connect with more recent arrivals. We do other stuff too, like music classes and workshops for kids. A while ago, we got together with residents to design a thematic map of the north of Brussels – but there really is so much more we could do! We need a new model of a city, in which people are provided with the bases to engage with their surroundings, and each other. In Ganshoren, the Commune officials support our centre, which is great help for us – but there needs to be more effort made when it comes to setting up cafés or youth centres. Last year, we organised a participatory project in Marais de Jette-Ganshoren / Moeras van Jette-Ganshoren in which artists, schools, and children came together to create art. It was great, and gave a sense of local pride. The Commune too organised an “environmental feast” in which there was a meal of local products. Other than that, they’re also improving infrastructure by putting bicycle lanes in the streets. If it was up to me, I would build a performance area, a sort of building with a stage where we could have concerts or plays, or encourage people of the Commune to emerge with their talents. All Communes have potential.

Stéphanie is the director of La Villa, the cultural centre of Ganshoren. She has worked in the commune for three years.

Nina Vanderweghe (Etterbeek) on creating stories around the communes

I grew up in the countryside outside Brussels, and Etterbeek is of course nothing like where I come from. For me, the Commune’s most unique element is that it has a sort of raw energy to it – not too primitive, but definitely not too gentrified either. I live close to a nursing home for the elderly, as well as next to a centre for retired policemen, giving our immediate vicinity a very awkward yet humourous mix. It’s not your typical middle class city life, and definitely opens lots of doors in terms of creative inspiration. Etterbeek is also very diverse, and is not your typical European neighbourhood – even though it is home to a lot of wealth. Because of its large size, there is a lot of class disparity within it, and of course a lot of foreigners coming in. There’s great food in the area, Flagey is not far – all in all it’s a rather vibrant place. However, I’d say that it is sometimes a bit hostile. Women’s safety doesn’t seem to be a concern in the city. Street lights are not well thought out, there is a lot of petty crime lurking in the corner; and I do think it’s up to the authorities to tackle issues like this. Neighbourhoods shouldn’t be characterised by notoriety, and it would help to walk around feeling completely safe, however utopic the idea may seem! On the cultural side, the Commune does make efforts to set up markets and cultural events, but if only they reached out to the sea of artists that lived in Etterbeek, I’m certain their efforts would amount to something better. I’m currently undertaking a project based in my building, which entails interviewing each resident and sketching a comic version of them, which is all assembled into a book. It’s interesting because the people that come to live here are not your usual civilian – so the variety of quirks in this place is huge! If the Commune brought artists together to introduce their experiences of living in Etterbeek, I think it would be worthwhile. If it was up to me, I would take people to the streets and organise something really novel and fun – like a poster-printing project, in which they can make things to take home. Also, it would be great if we had a flea market in Etterbeek! Flea markets are great for stories, and stories make a place worth living in.

Nina Vandeweghe is a comic book artist who has lived in Etterbeek for three years.