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Brussels, not yet an Eco-Capital
Last week, Brussels came second in the contest to become Europe’s next eco-capital. To be beaten by Bristol was a great disappointment to the Brussels government. However, it seems to be the right decision. Brussels is doing rather well as far as green spaces and sustainable building are concerned. But a disastrous mobility bulletin ruins the party. Hopefully, missing out on the ‘green capital’ crown will not be the end but, rather, a new beginning for the drive towards a truly sustainable European capital.
Half of the surface of the Brussels Capital Region (8,000 hectares) consists of green spaces, either private or public. 14% of it is even classified under the NATURA 2000 label, a European network of natural or semi-natural sites of great value owing to their exceptional fauna and flora. This is rare for a city the size of Brussels and it is something few Brussels residents are aware of. That might be in part because these green spaces are so unevenly spread out. Almost all of the big parks lay on the city’s outskirts, so people in the central districts have no direct access to them. The Sonian Forest, which represents a fifth of all green spaces, is a good example of a green space that is hardly connected with the urban fabric. Meanwhile, in the densely populated quarters, very few new parks have been created over the recent years.
The Brussels government took a few ambitious decisions in the field of sustainable building over the last decade. It put in place a set of ‘energy subsidies’ for individuals, groups and businesses to encourage them to renovate, better insulate and better equip their buildings to save energy and reduce CO2 emissions. It promotes the low energy standard for renovations and imposes - one of the first cities worldwide to do so - the passive standard for every new building after 2015. As 70% of all CO2 emissions originate from houses, this seems a good priority. However, it takes decades to fundamentally change the buildings in a city and critics also point out the Matthew-effect of building subsidies: those who (financially) can invest in buildings – owners - will profit from subsidies while those who don’t have the money, mostly tenants, stay behind in poorly equipped houses.
Had it been based on the green spaces and the sustainable building criteria alone, Brussels might have snatched the title of eco-capital, and rightly so. But as most citizens of Brussels would have wondered, the crucial question was: what about the traffic and the noise- air pollution caused by it?
Brussels tops just about every list of most congested cities in Europe. Cars dominate the city view everywhere you go and almost 80% of all street surfaces consist of either parking spots or driving lanes. The Brussels government recently decided that low emission zones (where only ‘green’ cars would be allowed) were not to be implemented in Brussels because it would be too expensive. There are no concrete plans for a congestion charge and there is still no coordinated parking policy in the Brussels Region. Car-kilometres keep going up. Although cyclists are not as rare a presence as 10 years ago, cycling itself is still hazardous. The growth of cyclists has recently stalled, probably also due to the lack of new bicycle paths over the last years. Meanwhile, public transport underground is overcrowded and trams and buses are too often stuck in car traffic.
The result of this lack of an ambitious transport policy is that Brussels has too few qualitative public spaces, making it less attractive as a city to live in or to visit. More importantly, levels of noise or air pollution are dramatically high and sincerely threaten our health. The World Health Organisation calculated that fine dust (PM10) and NOX levels in our city, both essentially generated by cars, reduce life expectancy by 13.6 months and cause about 1,100 premature deaths in Brussels alone. The European Commissions threatens to fine Belgium for not respecting its obligations to reduce air pollution. On June 21, one of Brussels’ main PM10 measurement stations, in Haren, recorded its 35th transgression of the European fine dust norm: the reading was the maximum allowed... for one calendar year.
Finishing second might prove to be a blessing: it will remind us that good things have been done but that a lot of bold decisions have yet to be taken to make Brussels a worthy European Eco-Capital.