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Rethinking the ties between Brussels and its port: a development issue for the canal area

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This is the press release related to the article from Kristel Mazy, published on April 24, 2017. Read the article.

The relations between cities and their ports are complex. Brussels is no exception. Along the water, different landscapes appear: industrial and even post industrial, densely populated, semi-natural, or in the process of being deserted or transformed. The canal area is characterised by significant functional and morphological fragmentation.

The waterfront of Brussels is much sought after and transformed by a multitude of stakeholders, in particular to promote a return to the city. These actions take different forms: urban renovation, purely private property speculation, public-private partnerships and sometimes multifunctional. Industrial wasteland provides opportunities to create new sections of the city. In an urban environment, ports and their surroundings are not only subject to a high degree of land pressure from other urban activities, but they also encounter the renewed interest of transport and logistics stakeholders as regards the transferring of river freight. In Brussels, the waterfront is fragmented in its functions and evolution, and it is therefore subject to pressure from different interests.

The fragmentation of this space and the differing character of its evolution are reinforced by a late and cautious consideration of the port areas as an integral part of the city. The absence or at least the very slow emergence of a comprehensive plan for this specific space has resulted in a relative absence of regulation or arbitrations on the scale of the port area. Most of the changes take place in a fragmented manner, one project at a time.

The project approach is the result of an urban action approach which has emerged in recent decades and makes use of economics and management tools in the area of urbanism, centred on the concepts of flexibility and versatility. In a context of growing uncertainty, the project approach multiplies the horizontal relationships between groups of stakeholders and institutions. In this framework, the project proposes a cross-cutting and global approach, calling into question sectoral logic, in the sense of the fragmentation of urban tasks and functions, and the sometimes institutionalised and even hierarchical relations between stakeholders. In parallel, the logic of regulation and arbitration marked by the plans based on technical and sectoral expertise and the interlocking of levels (Region, municipality, neighbourhood) grows weaker.

The effects of the urbanistic project approach in the canal area are called into question in the 110th issue of Brussels Studies written by Kristel Mazy, who has a doctorate in Art de Bâtir et Urbanisme, and is currently a lecturer in the Faculté d’Architecture et d’Urbanisme at Université de Mons. Here, she illustrates her analysis through two spaces which are representative of a contemporary urbanistic evolution: Tour & Taxis and Biestebroeck.

The results obtained show that through its materialisation, the project approach contributes to reproducing the functional divisions of the industrial era. It must, however, be underlined that through this type of process, new frameworks for a dialogue between city and port emerge. But the spatial and time-based analysis of the changes in city-port interfaces via concrete cases in Brussels shows that in practice, the introduction of the project approach does little to promote a reconnection between city and port. If the project approach is applied in an overly fragmented manner, it even tends to accelerate the process of disconnection. In the cases studied, the functional divisions seem to recur. The materialisation of projects leads rarely to the creation of true spatial versatility, which could be a way to a better coexistence of the city and the port.

There may therefore be a significant gap between the declared intentions, the dynamics and the concrete results. The canal area evolves in a context of property pressure, with the contact of two types of economy, namely productive and residential. The break between these two types of economy goes with the differing representations and rivalries regarding the future of this space. This contributes to prolonging the dichotomy between city and port which the project approach attempts to transcend, albeit with great difficulty.

Kristel Mazy, “Rethinking the ties between Brussels and its port: a development issue for the canal area”, Brussels Studies [Online], General collection, No 110, 24 April 2017. URL:
Benjamin Wayens, Senior Editor: bwayens[at]

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