The suffocation of a park in Brussels: a metaphor for our time

Botanique 1a

There’s a battle on in Liverpool to save the Meadowlands, a wedge of green space that lies within the original 19th century boundary of Sefton Park.  It’s another example of how we lose the right of access to public open space through the privatisation of land for commercial development.  Like Joni Mitchell once sang: ‘Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got / Till it’s gone’.

In Brussels recently, I encountered a particularly rapacious instance of encroachment upon a green urban sanctuary carved out of the expanding 19th century city for the pleasure of its citizens.  Our hotel was situated on the edge of the Northern Quarter financial district, in an urban landscape of startling juxtapositions and fantastical change.  An old working class district hard by the Gare du Nord is being torn down; what remains are isolated streets of tawdry buildings and seedy sex shops.  I was reminded a bit of the devastated landscape in which stood the dilapidated apartment building of the 1991 film Delicatessen.  Except that here, as buildings are being torn down, instead of leaving an empty wasteland, the steel and glass towers of international finance have risen from the rubble.

Nearby, though, I discovered a green haven amidst the towers.  The Botanical Garden (Le Botanique) that gives its name to the nearest metro stop was originally founded in 1826 and bought by the Belgian state in 1870 which commissioned various fountains and sculptures to beautify the park. Nowadays, office workers hurry through in the mornings as park employees drag hoses across the gravel to water the borders of lavender. There is a sort of tranquillity here: though the roar of city traffic never ceases, beneath the trees and by the winding lake patrolled by ducks there is sanctuary.

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But, though the the Botanique has survived in the heart of the city, it has been invaded, encroached upon, sliced in two and trampled. Interpretation boards in the park tell the sorry story: how in recent decades the garden ‘has been subject to continual harm at the hands of the many infrastructural works that have been conducted in the district’ – the development of a ring road that amputated several hectares from the garden, and the creation of a feeder road that now slices the garden in two.

Botanique road works

This was the road we walked back along from the centre of town in the evening, passing through a grim, neon-lit and graffiti-daubed underpass.

Underpass

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But for me what makes the predicament of Le Botanique a visual metaphor for the brutalisation of our cities by corporate power is the way in which the park has been suffocated by the steel and glass towers that have risen around it.

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Brussels has become an international business community composed of diplomats, lobbyists, and euro-politicians connected with NATO and the European Union. Global corporations arrived in the past three decades, resulting in blocks lined with steel-and-glass office buildings. These brutal edifices now rise only a few steps from the cobbled streets, cafes, and graceful architecture of the city’s past.  The European Union’s buildings are no better: the same monolithic, excluding walls of steel and glass.

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In the case of the IBM tower, it couldn’t be any closer: any office worker who wished could open their window, reach out and touch the park’s greenery.

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Other corporate behemoths tower over the park.

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Someday, my baby, when I am a man,
And others have taught me the best that they can,
Sell me a suit, cut off my hair,
And send me to work in tall buildings.

So its goodbye to the sunshine, goodbye to the dew,
Goodbye to the flowers, and goodbye to you.
I’m off to the subway. I must not be late.
I’m going to work in tall buildings.

– John Hartford

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It’s not just Brussels, of course.  Here in Liverpool the Liverpool Waters scheme, with its 55-storey tower, has just been given the green light by the government, despite warnings that it puts in jeopardy the city’s prized Unesco world heritage site status. While Simon Jenkins writing in The Guardian recently about a Qatari consortium’s plan to build a visual wall of towers ‘on a truly Stalinist scale behind the Royal Festival Hall next to Waterloo’ argued that towers reveal a civic leadership weak in the face of commercial pressure. They are, he claimed, not ‘vital’ to the urban economy, but are simply ‘plonked down wherever the money talked’.  Jenkins’ argument – which is true of Liverpool, Brussels or most other European cities – is that ‘the charm of London still depends on relatively low-rise streets and open spaces. This, he insists, is not an “accident of history”, to be overridden by property speculation at will’.

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It’s a curious fact that in capitalism’s first great 19th century heyday, in Brussels as in Liverpool, city fathers – wealthy industrialists and merchants – bequeathed acres of valuable land for parks and gardens for the physical and spiritual benefit of their citizens.  Name me one example of today’s corporate giants doing the same.  In fact, the opposite is invariably the case – green space devoured and public access to urban commons denied.

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3 thoughts on “The suffocation of a park in Brussels: a metaphor for our time

  1. What a great post, and full of truth. The fathers of capitalism would have been dismayed at the inward selfish nature of today’s wealth producers. Green spaces should be treasured, because once lost they will never be recovered.

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