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The picnic that changed Brussels: How a Bulletin campaign 50 years ago helped pedestrianise the Grand Place

21:52 30/05/2021

The Grand Place, that beautiful square that we all know in the centre of Brussels, has served many functions throughout the years. Its buildings date from the 17th century. It was bombarded in 1695, set on fire, and rebuilt, and its town hall was used as a hospital in the first world war. After all that, it’s now a tourist attraction, and was voted the most beautiful square in Europe in 2010, welcoming hordes of tourists every year.

So it’s hard to imagine that in 1972 you could actually park your car in the Grand Place and head off to do your shopping. But that’s exactly what it was like. Imagine today, driving your car in through the narrow cobbled streets, past the souvenir shops and parking up in front of the city hall.

Brussels was going through a lot of quick changes in the 1960s. The city’s planners wanted to modernise Brussels and the city was developed then with the car in mind. They didn’t think too much of preserving architecture or about pollution – it was a different time.

(c) Belga Archive

And this was the result. Traffic had always gone through the Grand Place. Horse-drawn carriages had crossed the square in the past. But this wasn’t really an issue until the car came along and really took over, when Grand Place essentially became a large car park.

Exactly 50 years ago this month, The Bulletin played its role in the history of the Grand Place becoming pedestrianised. One of the most important decisions in Brussels’ recent history was actually initiated by an expat journalist writing an article for the city's expat publication.

Around 1971, the topic of the Grand Place becoming car-free was being debated in Brussels. Back then, the Grand Place wasn’t a tourist attraction. Instead, tourists got buses that parked on the square, and they visited the souvenir and lace shops nearby. But local citizens often complained about the cars on the Grand Place.

Then, in May 1971, John Lambert, a British journalist for the Sunday Times, wrote a piece in the Bulletin suggesting starting a campaign to try to get traffic out of the Grand Place, even just on weekends and on summer evenings so that citizens could enjoy the square.

Lambert was inspired by the city of Bremen, which had been partially pedestrianised in the 1960s. He also envisaged the Grand Place like Piazza San Marco in Venice - obviously without the sea and the good weather. But he had a vision of it with artists selling their paintings: a place where you could meet your friends. He asked any readers who would be interested in supporting the campaign to get in touch with him.

Lambert received a hugely positive response to this article. And so, The Bulletin jumped on board and launched a campaign to pedestrianise the Grand Place, and started a petition to free it from all traffic. They described the Grand Place as "the most beautiful car park in the world" and complained about the impact of exhaust fumes’ on people’s health, saying it damaged the historic buildings.

The petition was signed by many Brussels residents. Thousands of signatures came flooding in, from ordinary citizens to film stars, Eurocrats, businesspeople and even Jacques Brel.

One the other hand, shop owners nearby were worried. They were afraid that people wouldn’t shop far away from their cars and that it would impact their businesses. Their cause was backed up by the mayor at the time, Lucien Cooremans.

At first, The Bulletin failed to get the city authorities to move. But it kept fighting. Staff decided to organise a sit-down protest - a giant picnic on the Grand Place, blocking access for vehicles. "Bring your children, your grandmother and your umbrella (just in case!)" the announcement said. Hundreds of people came to eat sandwiches on the square in protest.

A few months later, Mayor Cooremans gave in. In March 1972, the City of Brussels finally announced that private parking would be banned on the Grand Place from March to September of the same year, as an experiment to see how it would work.

When the mayor announced the long-awaited new rules for the Grand Place, the Brussels Hilton hotel reportedly sent The Bulletin a cake of the square complete with a "No Parking" sign to celebrate! News of the campaign even made it as far as the pages of the New York Times.

But it wasn't a total victory. Drivers were banned from parking, but cars were still allowed to drive through the square. And so, people weren’t able to actually enjoy the middle of the square like they had hoped.

The editor of The Bulletin, Aislinn Dulanty, said at the time that this was "just the beginning". Parking was over - their next aim was to get a ban on the traffic going through the Grand Place. But for that, they would have to wait until much later.

Until 1990, to be exact - 18 years after the ban on parking. There had been regular calls asking for its pedestrianisation, but no one dared to completely ban traffic. However it seemed like now, after a long battle between supporters and opponents of the ban, that the time was finally right.

According to mayor Hervé Brouhon, the City of Brussels had been thinking about the pedestrianisation of the Grand Place and its surrounding streets for several years. But a car park nearby prevented the project from materialising. The licence for this car park was due to expire on 15 September 1990, so the city took this opportunity to conduct a pedestrian experiment. So for three-and-a-half months, all traffic was to be banned on the Grand Place, and also on the adjacent streets. After 1 January 1991, they would decide for good.

At the time, Le Soir welcomed this "ambitious" attitude. Mayor Brouhon sent forms to the inhabitants and traders of the Grand Place and surrounding area, asking them their opinion. Not everyone was in agreement but a small majority came out in favor of the ban.

After the test, and three consultations with residents and traders in the area, the Grand Place was finally pedestrianised on 21 March 1991. And so it was that the square got its freedom and became car free. Not long after, it was promoted further and named by Unesco as a world heritage site in 1998.

Now, there is the flower carpet every two years, a light festival at Christmas and concerts and parades throughout the summer with crowds of tourists taking pictures of the square.

And the movement left a legacy. Over 40 years later, in 2012, the philosopher Philippe Van Parijs referenced that same picnic from 1971 when he was campaigning for the pedestrianisation of the Boulevard Anspach.

He called on citizens to follow the example of The Bulletin’s campaign and have a giant picnic every Sunday afternoon, to block traffic. PicNic the Streets was successful and the boulevard became a pedestrian zone in 2015, giving Brussels the second largest car-free zone in Europe after Venice.

It all started with one person's idea in an expat newspaper, showing the power of one idea in starting momentum. And the power of a picnic.

Photos: Belga Archive (black-and-white image), Nicolas Materlinck/Belga (final image), Guy Wets (all others)

Written by Karen McHugh