Brussels, Urban change in the Canal district

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Charles Quint, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire during the XVIth century, was inspired by Philippe Le Bon’s idea to build a canal connecting Brussels with Rupel, an Escaut’s affluent, making Anvers, thriving city at that time, reachable. Postponed many times, construction works started in 1550. Finally, the canal was delivered in 1561.

270 years later, the canal Brussels-Charleroi saw the day of light, supplementing the river network of northern Europe.

Slowly, that fluvial route became central in the regional economy, mostly dedicated to the coal, steel and glass indutries. Many companies and factories were located along the Canal, attracting a massive working class. In order to be as close as possible of their working place, workers settled down nearby the canal, shaping a new urban centrality in the city of Brussels.

Consequence of the expansion of the service sector during the XXth century, the urban setting of the metropolis deeply changed. The headquarters of European institutions as the European Commission and the Council of the European Union, international companies, NATO and lobbying offices set up in the Leopold district.

The Canal zone, in the west part of the city, was one of the most damaged by this change. The loss of many industrial jobs caused a large pauperization of the local population, scar of an area become a big brownfield.

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With the birth of the region Brussels-capital in 1989, the canal district became central again and was set as a priority zone in city-planning programs.

Supported by private and public dynamics, the area started its urban change. Apart from public investments essential to the revitalization of the district, an young and creative generation decided to settle down, generating thus a local enconomy. We often notice industrial wastelands’ taking by young generation of creators, artists and entrepreneurs making that area their playground. Looking for affordable square meters to rent, nearby an urban centrality providing all services required, they are helpful with restoring district’s life and soul.

Many projects have already seen the day of light. The reassignment of the Ajja, former tabacco factories, has ended with a deep transformation. Now, the factories run as a solidarity house with a social restaurant, a local public company and places dedicated to the city initiatives. The former warehouse STIB’s renovation has given birth to an youth center (culture, sport, help, talking).

Plenty of planning projects are in progress or under study.

However, the planning area is large. It covers 7413 acres, including both the Canal Brussels-Escaut (renamed canal Brussels-Rupel since 1997) and the canal of Brussels-Charleroi on an axis of 8,7 miles (14 kms) long.

In november 2012, the architect-urban planner-landscaper Alexandre Chemetoff was named to establish the new masterplan of the canal area in order to coordinate local initiatives and make them consistent.

“A structured urban strategy must be established to enhance the regional and social cohesion of that area through the development of a long term urban will, a shared taking up of a position between all operators and a tool to federate private and public initiatives in the short, medium and long terms.” (source ADT-ATO)

Without cancelling all the planning works already in progress, the point is to articulate and implement cleverly the coming projects.

Consequently, mobility is set up central in the planning program of the canal district with the revitalization of the west « petite ceinture » (urban belt). Public space will deeply change. Walkway and bicycle path will improve soft mobilities whereas new tram stations and roundabouts will help in public transportation’s use.

The Tour and Taxis site, basically dedicated to main cultural exhibitions since its renovation, will be included in the sustainable district, ambitious program ending with the birth of a new district in Brussels-city. Mixed space, it will host firms active in the economy of sustainable development, housing, shop, public amenities and green spaces. Mobility will be mostly soft and shared.

Upper class project, Up-site is the masterpiece of the canal district. The highest tower of the country will be built there. The zone will combine housing, shop and services.

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Main point in the urban thought for the renewal of the zone, the canal remains a vital logistic way in the supply of raw material and goods for Brussels-city. That’s why, a mulitmodal platform will be built upstream, on the former site of the Carcoke cokery, ensuring a minimum traffic of 250 000 tons by waterway.

The renewal of the Canal district is an ambitious and complex project. Its influence extends further than Brussels-capital region‘s borders and points out relationship between Brussels (Walloon) and the Flemish authorities. New collaborations could come from that project and thus contribute to a rapprochement.

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