Urban Legends: Schaerbeek residents fight Brusselisation with communal garden and kitchen

After decades of careless city planning, a collective in Schaerbeek is leading the charge towards more citizen-centred developments

Aurelien Dumont has spent most of his life in Schaerbeek. The former mailroom clerk remembers when the Josaphat site was a marshalling yard for the national railway company. Now retired, Dumont comes here in the mornings, wading through the tall grass to track the birds and insects that have since reclaimed the area. He’s heard of the plans to redevelop the site, but he hasn’t taken part in any of the public discussions – politics isn’t his thing, he explains.

“If you ask me, I’d rather have this area remain as it is. People call it a wasteland, but I only see nature that is finally recovering and reclaiming everything. You’d be hard pressed to find as much untamed space anywhere else in Brussels,” the 68-year-old says. “I’ve been told that this project is supposed to preserve a lot of the green while giving the neighbourhood a much-needed boost, so who knows, maybe it won’t be so bad after all.”

The Josaphat site is a 25-hectare plot of land stretching through Schaerbeek and Evere, just across the street from the more famous park of the same name. It’s split in half by a train line, with one side home to an industrial park and a sporting complex, and the other a vast grassland, where several NGOs run a communal garden, a crowdfunded kitchen and a meeting space for locals.

In 2014, the Urban Development Corporation (SAU-MSI), a company owned by the Brussels regional government, announced plans to turn the entire site into a new neighbourhood, with thousands of apartments, a hotel, at least one school, day care centres and several locally owned shops. Footbridges over the railway tracks would link the living area to the renovated industrial zone, sporting complex and Evere railway station.

With almost four hectares set aside for public parks, the project, expected to break ground in 2018, aims to retain much of the natural greenery of the site, while addressing the city’s growing need for affordable public and private housing. The new Josaphat will be a sustainable neighbourhood where people can live, work and socialise in the same area, says Ward Claerbout, SAU-MSI project coordinator.

“Our goal is to give the Josaphat site its own identity and make it a functional part of the surrounding community. It’s something we have to do in urbanism today,” he says. “We don’t want to create islands in the city. A neighbourhood has to respond to the needs of its residents. If you have to drop your kids off at a school that’s halfway across the city, it causes huge mobility issues for everyone. The same with employment – it’s important that we create opportunities that aren’t too far from people’s homes. We used to think that industrial parks had to be outside the cities, but why not make use of one that’s already there?”

In addition to Josaphat, SAU-MSI owns six other sites across Brussels, including the vacant area around Gare de l’Ouest metro station, which it plans to turn into a neighbourhood similar to Josaphat, and the Citroën-Yser garage, next to the Brussels canal, which will be converted into a museum of modern and contemporary art. The company was founded by the regional government in 2015 to oversee the development of these projects, considered crucial to the future of Brussels.

“This is what makes our approach different from the old way of developing in Brussels,” says Claerbout. “Through SAU-MSI, the government wanted to retain full control of the development of these strategic areas and ensure that they work in the interest of our citizens. We won’t just let developers buy these plots of lands and do with them as they please. Instead, we bought them ourselves and we’ll select private partners to construct things on them. There will be conditions that they’ll have to follow to ensure that our vision is realised. The public control will be much stronger than ever before.”

According to Hanne Van Reusel, an architectural researcher at KU Leuven, the Josaphat project is a step in the right direction. “The thing about Brussels is that a lot of the development has always been in the hands of private developers,” she says. Historically, Brussels was known for lax zoning regulations and lack of oversight on new construction. Private developers were allowed to follow up on their plans largely unrestrained, replacing historical buildings with modernist high-rises that provided much bigger returns on their investment.

This was especially prevalent between the 1950s and 70s, when the region experienced a surge in redevelopment, first in preparation for the World Expo in 1958 and later to house the growing number of eurocrats who began arriving in Brussels following the establishment of the European institutions. In the process that became known as Brusselisation, historically valuable neighbourhoods were levelled to make room for hotels and office buildings, prompting the authorities to finally introduce zoning laws in the 1990s that put a halt to unrestricted, private development.

Today, thanks to increased oversight and public knowledge, the traumatic history is over, says Van Reusel. “Brusselisation still goes on, but we won’t lose entire neighbourhoods because of it – that’s not possible anymore. Our civil society is much stronger now; there is more awareness. SAU-MSI is not perfect, but I’m happy to see that there is an organisation within the regional government that has control over the private partners.”

At Josaphat, Van Reusel help to run the crowdfunded Recup Kitchen as part of an initiative called Josaphat Commons. The umbrella group brings together non-profits, social activists and researchers, with the aim of convincing the regional government to turn Josaphat into a neighbourhood that involves its citizens in decision-making, through ideas like collective housing, common gardening space and co-operative energy production.

“We’ve been working on a proposal to the government, in which we’ve gone into detail on issues of affordable housing, mobility, public space, local economy and governance. We want to show how Josaphat could be even more ambitious,” says Van Reusel. “If you have a public park, why not plant fruit trees there and have people harvest them together? Or let the residents take care of the school after hours, by opening up the sports infrastructure and the courtyard as a meeting place, for example.”

She believes this shared aspect creates a sense of ownership and pride, prompting residents to take care of their neighbourhood in a more sustainable way. The problem, she adds, is that the regional government has shown little interest in Josaphat Commons’ proposal.

“In urban development today, there is still this idea that citizens don’t know what’s good for them, that they can’t think beyond their own backyard. But when you look at the people that our initiative has brought together – to cook meals or take care of the garden – it’s clear that we can do so for the rest of the city,” she says. “This isn’t some hippy get-together. People who live in Brussels already have the knowledge on how to fix mobility issues and create sustainable living spaces – the government only needs to listen to them.”

Leave a comment