Since its inception, Brussels’ pedestrian zone has been a big deal, and it could be a while before any resolution regarding its future is reached.
If you’ve only been in Brussels this last year and a half, you may be forgiven for thinking that walking down the middle of Anspach Boulevard makes absolute sense. But for the more seasoned Brusselaars among us the car-free zone, stretching along this broad former thoroughfare, stands in stark contrast to what it was before all the chess sets and ping pong tables. The piétonnier, as you currently know it, was originally set up on the 29th of June, 2015. Before that, Anspach was abuzz with cars, motorbikes and scooters. You could barely cross it let alone play petanque in the middle of it.
The piétonnier has always been controversial. Some of us still have faint memories of when the Grand Place itself was effectively a parking lot nearly 27 years ago. Despite the fact that a car-free zone on Anspach had been discussed for years, it wasn’t until VUB philosopher Philippe Van Parijs launched the impromptu PIcnic the Street movement in June of 2014, that it began to truly seem feasible. On that day police did not stop any of the 2000 demonstrators from enjoying a pleasant picnic in the middle of the street in front of the Bourse. Yvan Mayeur, the appropriately named mayor of Brussels said at the time that it was “… the type of city I dream about.”
Nowadays, many tourists and residents enjoy the new scenery without all the traffic or noise, but when it was officially launched shopkeepers on Anspach lobbied hard against the plan, arguing that it would hurt sales. Some of them are still convinced it was a bad idea. Most notably, the historic Hôtel Métropole, Brussels’ only 5 star establishment, has lost street access, leading to the comical sight of smartly dressed hotel patrons walking awkwardly across the piétonnier with their Louis Vuitton luggage in a futile attempt to gracefully hail a cab.
On the back of Yvan Mayeur’s commitment to continue to improve the car-free zone, an application for urban permission was submitted a couple of days ago, to build on the current area. The works at De Brouckere should take two years, and will be followed by further improvements at the Bourse and Fontainas, with an estimated completion date of 2019, although appeals from shopkeepers could postpone any development.
“The popular opposition from shopkeepers has mostly turned into a popular adhesion (…). But there are still diehard ones with whom every talk turns into hostility”, Yvan Mayeur said yesterday. To foster the process, Mayeur points out that most of the city’s residents support the piétonnier.
The consultation committee – which gathers representatives from the city and the Region – will begin working on it as of April 26th. In true Belgian fashion, the hotly contested future of the piéttonier at Anspach promises to be a long, diplomatic, opaque, but ultimately fruitful journey, so make sure to get comfy and keep your popcorn handy.