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The working classes are also leaving Brussels. An analysis of the suburbanisation of low-income populations

Notes de la rédaction

This is the press release related to the article from Sarah De Laet, published on March 12, 2018

As the latest demographic poll by the Institut Bruxellois de Statistique et d’Analyse (IBSA) shows, Brussels continues to add to the population growth of its outlying suburban area. While there were 24 381 residents of Flanders and Wallonia who moved to Brussels in 2016, at the same time there were 39 124 inhabitants who left Brussels for one of the other two regions in Belgium. The growth of the population of Brussels over several years is therefore due essentially to international migrations and births in a population which is on average younger than in the rest of the country. This growth is, in a sense, redistributed outside the city.

This negative migratory balance for Brussels with respect to the other regions is not a recent phenomenon. The Brussels authorities have been concerned about suburbanisation for some time now, in particular because it affects the middle classes, which represent important potential personal income tax contributors, collected according to place of residence. But just as international immigration is becoming more diverse in Brussels, the migrations towards the rest of Belgium tend to take various forms. The exclusive representation of an “urban exodus of the middle classes” – the priority target of policies for a “return to the city” created by the public authorities – must now take into account the processes of “modest suburbanisation”. Sarah De Laet, a geographer at Université libre de Bruxelles, has focused on the migrations of working-class households in the 121st issue of Brussels Studies.

According to the geographer's estimates, 30 % of people who leave the Brussels-Capital Region today to live elsewhere in Belgium are from the working classes. These urban working classes are subject to dual pressure, on the one hand, at social level, with the destructuring of the salary model, the shortage of jobs and economic insecurity, and on the other hand, at spatial level, in particular due to the increase in housing costs in the city. Faced with this pressure, certain working-class households therefore decide to leave the Brussels-Capital Region.

Where do these families go? In terms of volume, the working-class households move above all to the suburban areas of Brussels, in particular the outskirts north of the city. But in relative terms, if we look at where these disadvantaged suburban residents represent a larger share of newcomers, we see that they choose to live in the former industrial areas of the immediate outskirts, followed by the Dender valley and even more significantly, that of the Haine and the Sambre. Charleroi and the working-class municipalities on the outskirts of Antwerp are also included.

This geography of the suburbanisation of working-class households from Brussels may seem surprising due to its diversity. The immediate outskirts of Brussels are inhabited by many well-off and even very well-off households, but are also home to many less well-off households, living in houses which do not correspond to the classic and allegorical “detached house with garden”.

The researcher also asks questions about the neighbourhoods of Brussels. The departure of stable (i.e. close to the job market) working-class households to the outskirts acts as a sort of social and spatial selection. The implications of such a selection may be significant, in particular in terms of social mix. In Brussels as well as at national level, the central neighbourhoods continue to act as places of reception for (mainly disadvantaged) immigrant populations. These populations eventually add to the flow of “stabilised” working-class households leaving Brussels several years later. In this respect, it is undoubtedly simplistic to consider the central working-class neighbourhoods only from the perspective of poverty and economic difficulties. They are also places of reception, where social, cultural and economic capital is generated.

Evidently, in terms of residential migrations and housing policy, other challenges are overlooked when the political rhetoric is focused too exclusively on the “exodus of the Brussels middle class”.

Sarah De Laet, “The working classes are also leaving Brussels. An analysis of the suburbanisation of low-income populations”, Brussels Studies [Online], General collection, no 121, 12 March 2018. URL :
Benjamin Wayens, Senior Editor: bwayens[at]

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