Neighbourhood watch: The design improvements Region of Brussels’ residents would bring to their Communes (Part 1)

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 the leafy suburbs of Boitsfort / Bosvoorde and Auderghem / Oudergem to the more densely-populated communes of Saint-Josse / Sint-Joost and Anderlecht – to find out how a better understanding and application of the power of design can lay the blueprint for the neighbourhood of the future.

I would start with a logo – something that everyone could relate to. Once there’s a logo, there’s possibilities for action.

Delphine Dupont (Forest) on making the city a more colourful experience

Whenever I get lost in Brussels, I often find it hard to get my bearings, so I think it’d be good for the different municipalities to have different identities — make the city experience more colourful. But it should be rooted in good design: reflective but also aesthetically pleasing. And of course, it should be clear, so people can easily associate themselves with where they’re from. A few months ago, there was a free carnival for children – Super Vlieg Super Mouche – in the park in Forest which was quite nice. The design was good too, as it appealed both to children and adults and managed to engage both. Design can really shift the way people communicate inside a commune, but it has to be good! If I was put in charge of creating a design for Forest, I would start with a logo – something that everyone could relate to. Once there’s a logo, there’s possibilities for action. Few people understand that, often, to move forward, we need precision. Visual identities are important and – unlike more complicated historical identities – are rooted in the present, and accessible to everyone.

Delphine is a co-founder and graphic designer at FACETOFACEDESIGN and has lived in Forest for ten years.

There isn’t enough communication between communes and its residents, so any development or common aesthetic remains very scattered.

Benoît Deneufbourg (City of Brussels) on communal picnic tables

Overall, there isn’t enough communication between communes and its residents, so any development or common aesthetic remains very scattered. Some time ago, a student of mine told me about a movement in Tokyo where outside street tables were built for people to eat on. Downtown Brussels is where a lot of activity happens in the city, constantly crowded and busy, and I think initiatives such as the one in Tokyo could be good here. If given the chance, I’d build something similar, for people to eat on the street, like communal picnic tables. Another initiative I noticed a few months ago is the Bike Box – a box for parking your bike, which you can sign up for and share with others. It’s a people-friendly initiative and makes life easier in a very subtle way. I recently saw a bunch of people build benches in the city-centre out of two planks of wood, and thought to myself that they really should involve designers, and even artists, in these kinds of initiatives – in this way, there’s bound to be more progress.

Benoît is the head of his own design studio, Benoît Deneufbourg design studio, where he is a furniture and product designer. He has lived in the City of Brussels for more than ten years.

Cultivating an identity that embraces the Commune’s chaos whilst expressing its diversity is what we should aim for.

Céline Poncelet (Anderlecht) on creating an ecosystem around the Canal

Anderlecht is one of the largest and greenest municipalities in the Region. It also seems to be in a continual state of change. In the last few years, a lot has happened here, not least the opening of COOP – a place for the community to come together around specific activities. Anderlecht nurtures and embraces change, and this is visible everywhere in the Commune. However, it doesn’t have a specific visual identity or design philosophy. A lot could be done on the streets with signage and on-street information, for instance. But there are so many different languages, so many cultures, and a sort of chaos which makes controlling the aesthetic outcome of anything difficult, although cultivating an identity that embraces the Commune’s chaos whilst expressing its diversity is what we should aim for. Given the opportunity, I’d build an eco-system around the canal in Anderlecht, which is surprisingly very rarely used. I would like to build something around it, for people to come and sit by the water, because having a space near the water and leaving it to waste is a tragedy! It’s precisely the function of the outdoor to include and engage its inhabitants – urban planning should be inclusive, welcoming and make life not only smoother but more of a symbiotic affair.

Céline is an architect and designer who heads Atelier Blink and works extensively with neighbourhood projects in Brussels. She has lived in Anderlecht for over eight years.

When thinking of urban design, it’s important to remember that there are many actors concerned. It’s a complex scheme, and involves a lot of power politics.

Sébastien Lacomblez (Schaerbeek / Schaarbeek) on advocating for public spaces

Recently, the Commune of Schaerbeek / Schaarbeek had a slogan that went “Schaerbeek – the place to be.” It was generic and didn’t reflect on any of the neighbourhood’s simple pleasures. When thinking of urban design, it’s important to remember that there are many actors concerned. It’s a complex scheme, and involves a lot of power politics, which often dilutes everything to hasty end results. For example, Schaerbeek / Schaarbeek has beautiful public spaces but you never see them advocated. There is little effort to see the good in each commune, and instead a sort of blatant competition between each one –  which is unnecessary. To me, urban design needs to be about mirroring a certain mood, not packaging a commune or a city as if it was a product for sale. I work with Charleroi in the implementation of a logo, and we came to the realisation that a logo can bring people together – but it can also be problematic because reflecting the ethos of a city accurately requires deep research and diverse design. If I was tasked with creating some sort of design work for my Commune, I’d focus on its public spaces and try to inject some humour along the way because when something is witty, people talk about it, laugh and communicate. For example, they’re currently renovating the church on Avenue Louis Bertrandlaan, but to cover it up, they just put a picture of the church on a white background. Such an opportunity could have been great grounds for communication.

Sébastien is a graphic designer and artist who works in the office of the Charleroi bouwmeester and has lived in Schaerbeek / Schaarbeek for more than six years.

Urban design needs to promote some sort of engagement in this way – nothing too complicated, just thoughtful and active.

Pauline Cabrit (Saint-Josse-ten-Noode / Sint-Joost-ten-Node) on thoughtful and active community engagement

Saint-Josse / Sint-Joost is a special commune in Brussels, because it is both the smallest and poorest one. It doesn’t have much of an identity and remains neglected by the centre and the Region of Brussels. Few people know, for instance, how densely populated it is – apparently as much as Mumbai in India! It’s also spread out across various geographic parts – a section of the Madou district, Brussels-North Station and even part of the European Quarter. Despite its small scale, it’s not a simple place. There’s a square located on one of the city’s largest streets, which serves as a huge transit point between Brussels and its outer peripheries. If given the chance, I would put some effort into implementing the appropriate initiatives on that square. With the amount of traffic that passes through it, and the cultural diversity present in Saint-Josse / Sint-Joost, there is a lot of untapped potential here – but no one sees these things as grounds for opportunity. Some months ago, there was an initiative called Walking Through Madou where some people had just painted a wall yellow. It was simple, it made people alert to where they were; but also made them look around and take notice. Urban design needs to promote some sort of engagement in this way – nothing too complicated, just thoughtful and active.

Pauline is a landscape architect who works in the office of the Brussels bouwmeester. She has lived in Saint-Josse-ten-Noode / Sint-Joost-ten-Node for four years.

Design is not a one-way street but, rather, a large road with many intersections.

Charly Wittock (Auderghem / Oudergem) on streamlining communication

I think about design as a verb – it’s a process. Auderghem is a commune that stands with this definition: it’s all about mobility and constant change. The freeway that came up in 1996 brought with it a lot of evolution, and along with it, a mixture of buildings. Large houses, small apartment buildings, and high-rises – there’s a mix of everything here. It’s the opposite of a place with strict, aesthetically-controlled urban planning, and you can really see the layers of evolution because of its very human-sized scale. There are small disruptions to the normative. For example, there’s a great new restaurant in the neighbourhood on an unlikely corner – around it, you can envision the potential for some sort of dynamic change. It’s exciting to watch things mutate and evolve at their own pace and whims. For one, there’s going to be a hospital nearby soon and when that happens, things will change even more. If I was put in charge of the Commune, I would change the way that its creators – architects, politicians and urban designers – communicate their ideas to the people. Often, the layers of complexity in creating something in urban spaces are not broken down to its residents – and this really is evident in the end results and ensuing dissatisfaction. I would try to focus on a philosophy of development that is based on empathy; that would imbibe learning, looking, asking and then trying. There needs to be more streamlining in communication. Design is not a one-way street but, rather, a large road with many intersections and, just like with any other art form, its accidents are what creates the most interesting results. Let’s just see how things in Auderghem / Oudergem pan out.

Charly is a co-founder and architect at AWAA. He has been living and working in Auderghem / Oudergem for more than six years.

I believe that if public spaces are used effectively, differences can be bridged.

Lorenzo Serra (Watermael-Boitsfort / Watermaal-Bosvoorde) on public spaces that bring residents, young and old, together

I think urban spaces, like music, constantly evolve – which is why I’m interested in combining both. Boitsfort / Bosvoorde has all the characteristics you’d associate with an outer commune – it’s green, it’s small, it’s a kind of village in the city. It’s not so densely populated, but is still definitely an intimate place to live. Historically, class has always been very evident here. In the midst of the residential areas of the wealthy, houses were built to accommodate workers, so half of the municipality became social housing whilst the other half was private homes. Recently, the Commune has initiated certain new hubs – a theatre, a swimming pool – that have served to bring residents closer together, and contribute to its overall social cohesion. I believe that if public spaces are used effectively, differences can be bridged – that is the magic of a city. And in the summer, this must be done more – use the summer to create relationships for the winter! If it was up to me, I would try to involve some of the older generations who live in my Commune with urban life. They live in their cocoons, but there are also no events for them to partake in. I would try and create a space for concerts and films for both the young and the old, uniting them by using iconic places as symbols of living in a city. People always have something in common – it’s just about bringing them together.

Lorenzo is the co-founder and curator of Listen! A Brussels Future Music Festival and has lived in Watermael-Boitsfort / Watermaal-Bosvoorde for 30 years.

There is a lack of ambition in Berchem, no local economy or celebration of anything experimental.

Ruben Lambrechts (Berchem-Sainte-Agathe / Sint-Agatha-Berchem) on developing the Cité Moderne

The most defining characteristic about Berchem is its old and traditional vibe. It’s remained, over the years, rather unchanged in its architecture but also in its approach to things — there are both French and Flemish communities living inside it, but everything is still done separately. It’s a curious place with lots of historical secrets, but change hasn’t really hit Berchem like it has in other Brussels municipalities. Some months ago, they built the square at Place Dr. Schweitzerplein, which is quite confusing. It was meant to be a place where people could sit back and enjoy a drink – yet there are only a couple of cafés, and it’s always a bit haphazard because of the intersection of the tram lines. There is a lack of ambition in Berchem, no local economy or celebration of anything experimental – life has pretty much been the same for a long time! There are no cafés in which everyone can come together, and it’s all a bit expensive, so it’s not suited for the young. If it was up to me, I would work on a solution for this problem. Berchem is also home to one of Brussels’ best kept secrets: the Cité Moderne, one of Brussels’ garden cities and designed by Belgium’s greatest modernist architect, Victor Bourgeois. No one knows about it anymore, and they now use it as a social housing scheme so it’s developed somewhat of a bad reputation. It’s one of the country’s best long-standing pieces of art, so if I was given a budget, I would try to develop the area around the Cité Moderne. Like building a café where young people could come and work, holding screenings, organising things in the area – make people realise that we are letting a historical treasure go to waste.

Ruben is a video journalist for Bruzz and an independent documentary film-maker. He has lived in Berchem-Sainte-Agathe / Sint-Agatha-Berchem for 23 years.

There is a lot of history hidden away in Uccle / Ukkel, and it shouldn’t be allowed to go to waste.

Stéphanie Lippens (Uccle / Ukkel) on building natural playgrounds for kids

Design is a way towards collaboration. It doesn’t mean much when it’s not inclusive; when it doesn’t open doors up for something else. I think this is the biggest flaw in the Region of Brussels and the Communes’ approach to design. Simple, approachable methods are the best way to streamline urban design; and after initial thought, more elaborate things can follow. We cycle a lot in the family – but there are no cycling paths in Uccle / Ukkel. There are roadworks everywhere, and even though the views here are pleasant, cycling becomes a hazardous experience. It’s a shame, because I want my kids to be mobile, to be able to venture out on their own, but it’s not safe to let them bike in the neighbourhood. And talking about kids, there’s not much for them to do here. Good playgrounds are missing, and some years ago my husband and I tried to start a project that would make both a playing space for kids as well as a café for the parents to kick back. If given the chance again, I’d want to build a natural playground for kids – not the generic, awkward ones you see everywhere, but rather using the earth to mould it into things to climb on, to play with. And for adults, I would ask artists to come and participate in building some things in the neighbourhood. There is a lot of history hidden away in Uccle / Ukkel, and it shouldn’t be allowed to go to waste. I love old things – they make me feel warm – and I feel that if a city highlights its history a bit more it’d help people be happier. One nice thing we do have here is the market at Parvis Saint-Pierre / Sint-Pietersplein: it has created a sense of community, when and where everyone comes together over food. There are small efforts here and there – but a large vision, especially when it comes to infrastructure, remains elusive.

Stéphanie is the co-founder of Yapstock, a platform that collects, rents and sells vintage furniture. She has lived in Uccle / Ukkel for more than 20 years.

To know a place, you need to know its underground culture.

Dimitri Jeurissen (Saint-Gilles / Sint-Gillis) on creating a language

At Base Design, we like mixed energies. We also like to keep it real, making Saint-Gilles / Sint-Gillis a good place to work in. It has a bit of everything, and is one of the more inclusive communes in Brussels – one which embraces its differences. There are large Portuguese fish shops, Spanish bars, Lebanese restaurants, and great Belgian architecture all-round – it’s a vibrant place to be in. Our office is in an old art factory, so it’s nice to be near history but also have the possibility to renovate it, giving it a contemporary feel. To know a place, you need to know its underground culture, and here in Saint-Gilles / Sint-Gillis, it’s quite accessible. The main problem with urban development in Brussels is that whenever you’re trying something out, you’ll stumble upon a border, a different authority, a distinct vision. And this makes everything a bit tiresome and scattered. But in cities like Brussels, in Europe, place-making is important. It is the art of building up a place, keeping in mind its already-established community which will also allow them to move forward. Design mustn’t be something that is imposed, but rather that which gives a community the agency to do things themselves, for themselves. It’s about putting things in place which will allow citizens to bloom. In the last ten years, green spaces have opened up, markets have popped up. Urban design should create a language – not over-brand a place and take away any mystery from it. If it was up to me, I would try and develop the south of Brussels. To create a steering community in which everyone can share ideas; a community where there is inclusion but not messiness. Design is all about giving people tools – if it’s done right, results will follow.

Dimitri is the founding partner and CEO of Base Design, a branding agency with offices in New York and Geneva. He has lived in Saint-Gilles / Sint-Gillis for ten years.