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A historical perspective on the central boulevards in Brussels’s city centre

Sofie Vermeulen et al. (éds) Towards the Brussels Metropolitan City Centre, Collection du BSI, Bruxelles, Editions de l’université de Bruxelles et VUB Press, 2020, pp.113-135.


The new pedestrian zone has emerged as one of the main paths to soft mobility in Brussels. Proposing a pleasant walk in the heart of the city, it also provides –if one pays attention – an awe-inspiring view enlivened by numerous representative façades of Belgian architecture from the second half of the 19th century. Passers-by discovering Brussels by strolling around the Bourse building may wonder about the origin of this broad straight line or its beautiful facades that are, at the most, flustered by two recent buildings that adjoin the Place De Brouckère. They may also wonder why the new space is not greener. Would several large trees not help make it look less inanimate?

These legitimate questions are partially answered by the fact that this major north–south axis emerged from the desire to hide a small river, the Senne, and that the cobblestones on the pedestrian zone were not laid on loose soil, but on an impressive work of art undertaken in the middle of the 19th century to hide the river by channelling it into tunnels. In other words, understanding the layout and the actual organization of this new ‘pedestrian boulevard’ requires one to go back to the middle of the 19th century, to when the decision to vault the Senne was taken, generating major spatial and socio-economic changes in the lower part of the city. It is therefore understandable that a row of large trees in the middle of the pedestrian zone would have ruined a carefully thoughtout view, hidden some beautiful facades, and, above all, would have been impossible from a material perspective, because the pedestrian zone overlays a major pipeline. Others will question why the river was hidden from the public, pondering over whether walking along a small stream in the heart of the city might be somewhat enchanting.

These various reflections are especially coherent since, during the development of the pedestrian zone, even its designers couldn’t ignore the logic that had prevailed when the central boulevards were built. In other words, a perfect understanding of this new path to soft mobility, as well as the configuration of the city centre, requires a glance into the past. 

Mis à jour le 2 février 2024