Why “The Belly of Brussels” Still Matters
The following is a report on the Transatlantic Cities Network, who met in Brussels October 20-22, 2014 for the network’s annual meeting.
The Transatlantic Cities Network was in Brussels last October to explore the city’s demographic change. As part of that, the group also visited several key urban development projects that aim to put more housing options and cultural amenities throughout the city, partly in reaction to a growing housing shortage and growing inequality between different parts of the city. One of these notable visits included the Brussels abattoir, or simply, the Brussels slaughterhouse. The abattoir is located in the Canal Zone, an area west of Brussels’ city center that, as the project plans describes, is “a strategic development for axis for Brussels,” and a “former industrial zone offering plenty of space and numerous opportunities for investment, innovation, and ambitious projects in all fields.”
For me, the most interesting aspect of Abbatoir is that rather than turn inward, planners are taking the opportunity of the larger redevelopment projects in the Canal Zone to transform the Abbatoir into a neighborhood and city center and to open it up to surrounding neighborhoods. They are not only reinventing the market, they are also staking a claim for the relevancy of food in the overall quality of life for the residents of Brussels. While this ambition comes with its own host of challenges, the end result is much more likely to benefit the area and Brussels as a whole.
The market was built in the 19th century, and today, the market’s beautiful iron and glass hall is symbolic of the heights of industrial architecture. The market still serves as the focal point for large and vibrant weekend markets that attract tens of thousands of visitors, so much so that it retains its identity as the “belly of Brussels.” Though once encompassing a much larger and complex system for cattle slaughter and distribution, it is also one of the few markets left in any European city with a functioning slaughterhouse.
One important aspect of the market’s recent history is that the surrounding multiethnic neighborhoods have often been unfairly stigmatized by the rest of the city as unsafe. This has often meant that the space sat underutilized for most of the week in-between market days and generally suffered from a lack of investment, even as the space needed a redefined mission given the gradual decrease in the operations of the slaughterhouse. It also meant that many local residents never visited the market. This is where the market’s organizers stepped in, recently announcing a redevelopment plan for the market called “Abatan 2020.” As the plan outlines, this redevelopment will complement the broader investments made in the Canal Zone with €25 million of new investment into the Abbaotir.
As the Transatlantic Cities Network learned, there are many different dimensions to this overhaul, partly reflecting their ambition to make the market into a hub both for the neighborhood and the city. One of these aspects has to do with engagement. For example, a nonprofit called Cultureghem has been established to engage youth from surrounding neighborhoods in culinary activities that are as simple as workshops on using and cooking food. Weekly DJ parties now integrate gastronomy and alcohol to bring young workers to the space after work. The philosophy behind this engagement is that the market space is empty for most of the week (markets only take place on weekends), giving them the opportunity to fill the space with social and cultural activities for the rest of the time that change the image of the market and the area.
This makeover is also intended to be a physical one. The master plan for the market’s redevelopment, called “Abatan 2020,” is dramatic. The market will become a large compound that will include a new market hall that will provide space for forty food stalls, new public squares, as well as new retail and affordable housing residential development. Many of these new buildings will also incorporate large urban farming projects that will directly provide ingredients for a new onsite restaurant. Because of the scale of the public space improvements, once these developments are completed Abatoirr will become a part of a continuous urban square that will parallel the spine of the Canal Zone itself.
The differentiating characteristic of this redevelopment is that they have been planned with the surrounding neighborhoods in mind, i.e. how this market will relate and benefit the surrounding neighborhoods. Hence the focus on public space and other aspects that will integrate the market with the surrounding area, such as street-level retail and housing and new engagement activities, and on introducing a new food hall that will be a permanent space for vendors throughout the week. Though there’s still a lot of work to do for the planners to ensure that their overall engagement with the surrounding neighborhood continues once the new physical improvements are in place, the project is a telling and important example of how an old landmark can be remade as an impactful institution, even in fast-changing Brussels.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.