Behind ordinary streets, shielded by brick facades, lurking so quietly that most visitors will not even suspect their existence, lie the secret ‘islands’ of Brussels.
Gaze upon the city from above, using Google maps, and all you will see are grey shapes between white roads: triangles, rectangles, pentagons. Many might imagine that in the blocks and squares formed by adjoining streets, there are garages perhaps. Or courtyards. Perhaps another apartment building squeezed in.
But, switch to ‘satellite view’ and zoom in a little. The city becomes a maze of red and green – red tiled roofs and green garden islands or ilôts. Not to be confused with the Ilôt Sacré, (the historic centre of Brussels), these other beloved ilôts exist in every neighbourhood. And there is disquiet over developments such as this one in Ixelles.
These spaces are the lungs of the city and are strictly protected by building regulations to fend off urban density. They provide drainage and oxygen and their cooling effect in a baking urban environment is not to be under-estimated. Brussels’s environment department has produced a heatmap of the city, showing temperature differences between built-up and less built-up areas.
Some ilôts contain old bâtiments arrières, back buildings such as warehouses or brewery buildings; theory has it the temperature and atmosphere were more stable in the sheltered spaces off the main streets. In among these former industrial premises, jigsaws of gardens – some high-walled, some long and narrow, some shared – provide residents with an oasis of birdsong and planting – and the occasional yowling or prowling cat.
Although the ilôts are a hidden and private a feature of the city, lucky visitors may find their trip coincides with a walk guided by a neighbourhood expert. Keep your eye on https://visit.brussels/en (also available in other languages) for information. On Heritage Days, Journées de Patrimoine, usually in mid-September, some of the ilôts open up for tours.