Europe's Unofficial Capital Builds for the Future
City is remaking itself to accommodate new European responsibilities, while trying to preserve its neighborhoods. BRUSSELS
BRUSSELS — ON a historic but faded street in central Brussels, cranes hoist and builders hammer and measure. They are working on one of the many projects that from some vantage points make the unofficial capital of Europe resemble one giant construction site. The Laeken Street project is creating one more insurance company headquarters in a city center that has more than its share of faceless and incongruous high-rises. They are situated among struggling grocery stores, florists' shops, bakeries, and corner cafes in once full-of-life neighborhoods.
But on Laeken Street, there is a difference. "Six young European architects reconstruct Laeken Street," reads black lettering on the wall enclosing the project (written in French, Flemish, and English). The difference, revolutionary for this city, is that while floors of offices will rise, there will be housing and shops on the street front to help keep the neighborhood alive.
"It's a statement that says people want to save their neighborhoods," says Rene Schoonbrodt, an urban sociologist who studies European cities and is a resident of the neighborhood.
"But it is also a symbolic compromise," he adds. "That is what years of conflict have taught the Belgians and Bruxellois, and it is what the [European] Community is searching for in the construction of Europe."
Like Europe around it, Brussels is remaking itself - from the way it is governed and the models for how it should be built to the image it projects to the world.
In many ways, the city's challenge resembles the crux of what the European Community (EC) is experiencing as the EC seeks to preserve its diversity and high standards of living while taking on more responsibility in the world.
"Brussels must be a city ... where quality of life for its citizens and an opening up to the world coexist," Charles Picque, president of the Brussels region, wrote recently on the city's future.
Mr. Picque is an ardent supporter of his city as Europe's capital. But like others here, he recognizes that becoming the capital of Europe presents both opportunity and risk.
Much of this recent evolution is a consequence of Brussels' European status, as more and more EC business and decisionmaking takes place here. The change is augmented by the multiplying international businesses and organizations that want to be near the EC activities - and the growing numbers of foreign residents, now a quarter of the population, that these activities bring.
"It's not really a beautiful city, but it's a pleasant and easy place to live with a family," says Alix de Vogue, a French economics journalist who lived in Brussels with her young family for about a year before recently returning to Paris. "Life is less difficult, so the people you run into in shops and elsewhere are nicer, and because the EC's here, there's a diversity of people and culture."
Although many residents, especially those from other world capitals, consider this to be a livable city, Brussels continues to lose population as housing costs climb. Whole neighborhoods have been bought by foreign investors hoping to cash in on the Euro-boom.
Brussels has more green space per resident than any city after Washington, D.C. But it is also a city where neighborhoods, some known for examples of the city's famous art nouveau, have been turned over to offices, and where tree-lined avenues and grand boulevards have become freeways for suburbanites heading to and from work.
"Brussels is prepared for its growing responsibilities, but we will only succeed if we keep our identity even as we become the capital of Europe," says Carlo Luyckx, charged with following European issues for the Brussels administration.
Others, like de Vogue, say the growing importance of European affairs in Brussels should force the city to make decisions about its future it has failed to make before.
"You have the impression that Brussels is always reflecting on what it wants to be, but not really acting," she says. "The advantage of the EC's presence is that it can force the city to rise to the high level" of its calling as Europe's capital.
Herve Cnudde agrees with this assessment. Mr. Cnudde, the director of a 22-year-old urban education and development committee called ARAU, says becoming the European capital is an "extraordinary opportunity" to move Brussels away from the inertia and divisions of its past. "By elevating the importance of its international image," he says, "it can push people to new levels of concern" for everything from the city's cleanliness to urban planning.
Brussels has long been a friction point between Belgium's warring French and Flemish communities. A resented center of wealth and economic might, the fortunes of the traditionally French-dominated Brussels took a turn for the worse after World War II, when the Flemish gained control of national politics.
With Brussels a collection of 19 independent communes, power for deciding its direction was held by national ministers with little concern for the central city, observers say. With American urbanism the model, freeways replaced historic boulevards, and neighborhoods were razed for high-rises. During this period, a French urban historian coined the word "Bruxellization" to describe the haphazard redevelopment of European urban centers.
FOR 30 years after Brussels was chosen as the location for the EC's central administration in 1958, the Community's presence had a largely negative impact on the city, Cnudde says.
"The decision was made to place the EC in the middle of one Brussels' most significant 19th-century neighborhoods," he says. "Offices began spreading indiscriminately."
Another problem, according to local activists like Michel Godard, arose from the fact that Brussels has never been made the permanent seat of the EC Commission. (See related story.) The "temporary nature" of Brussels' designation discouraged long-term planning and interest from the EC in what is in fact its home, says Mr. Godard, who is also an architect with the city.
Critics say one result is the haphazard accommodation of a growing array of EC offices in rented space, which has encouraged speculation by developers hoping to cash in on the rental bonanza.
But a turning point came in 1989, when in a national reorganization the 19 communes composing Brussels were grouped to become one of Belgium's three federated regions.
"For the first time, Brussels had an administration on a level with the challenge of governing a city of a million people," Godard says.
Other people, however, say the new city-region's inexperience in confronting urban issues is bound to cause problems.
Brussels wants to slow office development - projects already announced call for one-third more office space by 2005. At the same time, the city would like to see office-occupied townhouses converted back to housing. But some observers doubt Brussels' ability to stand up to developers.
"The pamphlets and high-profile hearings the city is organizing look good, but how effective will they be against the speculators?" asks Jacques Aron, a professor of urban architecture at La Cambre, a French-speaking architecture school in Brussels.
If Brussels is to be a city of diverse economic levels and activities, as regional President Picque wants, it will have to work fast.
"There is a stronger deindustrialization here than in other European cities, with an overwhelming dominance of the services sector accentuated by the growing European role," says Christian Vandermotten, a geographic economist at the French-speaking Brussels Free University.
Studies from the 1980s show services making up three-fourths of the city's economy, but Mr. Vandermotten guesses that has increased to about 90 percent.
As that has happened, and as the EC's well-paid employees have poured in, housing costs have surged - though they remain well below prices in London or Paris - and the city's population has continued to shrink, to about 970,000.
Although some critics complain that the EC only cares about Brussels to the extent that it can be made more convenient and "operational" for its 18,000 "Eurocrats," city representatives say that is no longer true.
"Before there was no coherent means of exchange," Mr. Luyckx says.
But this month an advisory forum on Brussels-EC relations will be formalized. A task force involving national and regional ministers was created last year to develop Brussels' potential as European capital, he adds.
Luyckx says the Brussels-EC relationship will become more mutually beneficial as both parties grow to realize how interdependent they are. (Already polls show three-fourths of Brussels residents favoring a larger European role.)
Like many here, Luyckx points to the part the EC's presence has played in giving Brussels a cultural richness. In addition, Brussels has a number of political advantages to offer Europe, Luyckx says. Having only recently become a region with broadened elected representation, Brussels is learning to "become a community of citizens" at a time when the EC is in many ways trying to accomplish the same thing.
The EC is tinkering with constitutional reforms to reduce its long-recognized "democratic deficit" - a deficit caused by decisionmaking in Brussels at the hand of nonelected EC Commission officials. Having nearly completed creation of its internal market, the EC is trying to develop a social dimension even as Brussels works to preserve a population of diverse economic levels and activities.
"Since we're trying to move in the same direction," says Luyckx, "I think our experiences should be instructive and beneficial to both of us."