5 Ideas for a More Resilient, Inclusive Brussels

Cities like Brussels that face complex challenges are not “hellholes” as Donald Trump recently disparaged.  By that definition, his beloved New York would fit the bill.

Cities like Brussels that face complex challenges are not “hellholes” as Donald Trump recently disparaged.  By that definition, his beloved New York would fit the bill. Negative narratives about cities and urban neighborhoods should encourage us to move toward solutions, but they are also crippling. Like New York, Paris, New Orleans and other cities after natural and man-made tragedies, Brussels will bounce back. Cities, and the citizens that love them, are resilient, but many don’t have the tool box immediately at their disposal to respond to shock. Moreover, the path to recovery needs to be formed from both small steps to gain momentum and big moves to address long standing challenges.

This past Sunday, Yves Goldstein the Head of Cabinet of the Minister President of the Brussels Capital Region, spoke at GMF’s Brussels Forum on a panel examining strategies for combating violent extremism. Mr. Goldstein acknowledged that certain neighborhoods in Brussels, like Molenbeek, have been isolated and disconnected from the opportunity and diversity found in other parts of the city. He stated, “the phenomenon of the ‘ghetto’ is the thing in our urban development that we have to tackle.” He went on to note that a major opportunity for Brussels is to “give young people the keys to think different, to think outside of the little box of the neighborhood that they live in.”

The past four years working on urban and reginal policy at GMF, have included many days in the Brussels National Capital Region, frequent trips to its unique neighborhoods, discussions with colleagues and local officials. In processing the tragedies I immediately started to think how other cities have responded to shocks and what lessons might be relevant for Brussels.  Here are a few ideas to help Brussels move toward a more resilient and inclusive future:

  1. Commit to Dialogue: the complex governmental structure in Brussels can be a barrier to fostering effective dialogue about how to tackle the tough challenges facing the city. Thoughtful dialogue can happen in large-scale forums, community dialogues, and one-on-one conversations; however, it should embody basic principles for successful dialogue that have been recommended by organizations such as the International Association for Public Participation and the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation. Where can Brussels start? A great idea from the City of Charlotte, North Carolina is the Take 10 initiative; the city challenged 150 of its municipal employees to take 10 minutes each week to engage one person in the community in conversation about how to make the city better. Another example from Europe is the ongoing grass roots dialogue led by NextHamburg to envision the city’s future. City government officials must commit to listening and working alongside of residents to find the right urban solutions that Mr. Goldstein signaled. Syncing grass roots efforts with government-led strategies will be an important strategy for linking talk with action.
  2. Activate Millennials For Brussels: With 25% of the Brussels population under the age of 24, the city must engage and connect with its young people as key actors in shaping the future of the city. The international institutions in Brussels are major sources of employment for young people from across Europe, yet many of the young professionals have little attachment to the city; high turn-over rates in these jobs and the impression that an EU job is a bridge to a job back home creates many challenges. In September 2014 in Brussels, GMF held a joint event with its Transatlantic Cities Network and its Brussels Young Professionals Network to discuss the experience of young professionals in Brussels; a major theme of the discussions was a desire to feel more engaged in the city and become more involved. As many have commented in the wake of the attacks, it is also critically important to engage Muslim youth and youth from migration backgrounds in Brussels. But these efforts must be connected to create space for innovation. A recent survey of European millennials found that they believe they could make a difference in the world by addressing critical social issues. With civic technology, open source social change platforms, and social entrepreneurship on the rise, can Brussels millennials build bridges and collaborate with each other?  There are great examples from city government, including Boston’s Youth Participatory Budgeting program and philanthropy, such as the Knight Foundation’s Emerging City Champions program.
  3. Leverage Creative Assets for Change: Brussels has a rich landscape of creative assets, from official institutions like the Bozar to modern art galleries; Travel & Leisure magazine recently heralded the city as “Europe’s Unexpected Art-World Hot Spot.” In fact, the new development area called the Canal Zone on the edge of Molenbeek has a rich industrial and artistic history, which put it under consideration as a potential site for a new modern art museum. The city is also rich in public spaces and opportunities for creative placemaking. Artists can mobilize quickly and leverage the power of creativity to heal and act as levers for social change. Following Hurricane Katrina, artists in New Orleans used public art as a strategy for recovery, for rebuilding, and for a creative approach to emergency management. Arts and culture can also act as a bridge between communities; while this is not new, it can take on new meaning and urgency in Brussels after the attacks. There are great transatlantic examples from storytelling initiatives, like Story Corps to collectives like Berlin’s Public Art Lab and The League of Creative Interventionists.
  4. Lean-In to Molenbeek, Not Away: Mr. Goldstein’s observation about the failure of urban policy in Molenbeek opens the door for new thinking; however, this will take time, thoughtful planning, and dedicated resources. In the United States, neighborhood revitalization is often code for gentrification; with the lack of diversity in Molenbeek cited as one of its primary challenges, this narrative of revitalization could spark similar concerns about gentrification and displacement. “Edgy” neighborhoods like Molenbeek and Shaerbeek have been on the cusp of change for quite a while and some have had mixed success in attracting new residents. Where to start? Physical solutions - new development, transportation enhancements, and new retail – typically come first, but often lead to the least successful outcomes in terms of inclusion and integration. The United States has had recent success with revitalization efforts linked to education, for example, with the Obama Administration’s Promise Zone initiative. Dialogue with residents, active engagement of other stakeholders, and sound urban policy options will be an important framework for success in neighborhood-based revitalization. It also points to a great opportunity for transatlantic exchange.
  5. Create Spaces that Embrace Diversity: Over 50% of Brussels’ population is of non-Belgian origin. Included in these figures are not only the communities from countries such as Morocco and Turkey, but also the European nationals that come to work in the city’s large EU institutions. This diversity is an incredible asset, but it’s easy for these groups to remain isolated from each other without the urban gathering spaces that could unite them. Efforts to integrate the sprawling European quarter with the rest of the city, and more bottom-up actions such as the renovation of a massive former meat market to be a neighborhood focal point, are good starting points that should be prioritized. But Brussels would benefit from exchange with other diverse European metropolises such as London, Amsterdam, and Paris that have launched aggressive economic and physical regeneration efforts in their traditionally underinvested peripheral neighborhoods. For example, after riots in London in 2011, Mayor Boris Johnson set aside over £100 million for the improvement of high streets throughout the city targeted toward the commercial corridors that were struggling the most. Though these efforts tend to overly focus on design, initiators understand that a healthy public realm can boost community confidence and create new, important webs of connections between different ethnic and age groups.