EXPANDING THE PUBLIC REALM - JP. De Visscher, Michel Hubert


The Steenweg is the main historical axis of Brussels metropolitan centre, connecting Molenbeek centre, Sainte-Catherine, Bourse, Grand-Place, Mont des Arts, place Royale, porte de Namur and chaussée d’Ixelles. Several recent political decisions put its redevelopment on the agenda. The project of Regional Mobility Plan (Goodmove) highlights the Steenweg as one of the main pedestrian axis to be developed. The city of Brussels declared its will to develop a pedestrian friendly city where inhabitants have access to facilities “within a 10 minutes walk”. Besides, the new Regional Plan of Sustainable development (PRDD) acknowledged the necessity to expand the definition of the metropolitan centre beyond the pentagon.

In 2019, perspective.brussels commissioned the Brussels Studies Institute for a scientific support in the redevelopment of the Steenweg. The general conclusion of its first research report is that the Steenweg can become much more than a pedestrian axis. The Steenweg is an important environmental axis connecting the top of the hills with the bottom of the valley. It is also a social axis connecting the western poorer neighbourhoods with the eastern richer ones. In addition, it is an economical axis connecting the areas were the industrial, retailing, cultural and office activities are located. At last, it is a cultural axis connecting the major heritage sites and museums of the city centre.

However, turning the Steenweg into such a backbone and fostering new social mobilities raises several difficulties:

  • Public spaces are refurbished by zones (place de Molenbeek, Piétonnier, Ilôt sacré, chaussée d’Ixelles) and strong physical barriers remains (petite ceinture, boulevard de l’Empereur)
  • Most connections with underground public transport are poorly designed
  • Public facilities are not activating the new public spaces projects (Piétonnier, Mont des Arts, Place Royale)
  • Retailing along the Steenweg is made of highly specialized segments. Underground retailing is disconnected from other commercial frontages.
  • Overtourism and rental increase threatens the foundational economy
  • Heritage is planned as a series of remarkable historical fragments, not as an open and evolutive cultural landscape

In order to overcome those problems, public spaces planning should be expanded in order to include the in-between spaces where physical and cultural barriers can be reduced, and where weak practices can be protected. Therefore, two types of data are missing:

  • spatial survey of the expanded public realm, including undergounds, galleries, courts, patios, thresholds and leftover spaces
  • A social survey of the practices within those spaces, with a special attention to minorities and socio-spatial factors shaping inclusion/exclusion.

In turn, those surveys would provide a useful support to drive discussions with the owners and managers of those spaces.