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Brussels' canal district: Belgium's social escalator

May 31, 2013
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To most people, Brussels' canal district is synonymous with anything but positive news. Crowded neighbourhoods, few public spaces, widespread poverty and unemployment, insecurity, a poorly educated youth and dirty streets are the prevailing images that come into mind when we think of Molenbeek, Laeken or Anderlecht. Apart from the fact that these images are an oversimplification, it is true that the canal area has enduring problems that are far from being resolved.

Poor public management and political incompetence are often blamed as causes for this situation. Depending on your point of view, politicians on the right are blamed for neglecting certain neighbourhoods, whereas those on the left are often seen as too permissive. However, two observations mitigate these viewpoints and show that some of the problems are well beyond the scope of intervention of the local political level; they find their origins in the history of Brussels' industrialisation and the less visible phenomenon of social mobility.

Since the industrial revolution almost 200 years ago, the canal area has always been the economical heart of Brussels. Therefore, it has always been the place where immigrants first arrived to look for a job and settle down. In the 19th century most of them were poor and illiterate Flemish peasants who fled the countryside not to starve to death. After World War II, migration became more global and many southern Europeans took ‘their’ place, followed by north Africans from the sixties and seventies onwards. Over the past two decades the canal district has attracted a mix of eastern Europeans, sub-Saharan Africans and migrants from the Middle East.

It is tempting to see Molenbeek, Laeken and Anderlecht as fixed and timeless entities which do not evolve – positively at least - and socio-economic statistics might indeed suggest the opposite of an overall positive evolution over the last 20 years. But the reality is quite different and there are several ways of interpreting the figures. Statistics tell us also that the population in Anderlecht and Molenbeek grew on average by 10% between 2006 and 2012. These numbers suggest that the citizens of those municipalities going to vote in 2012 should have increased by 10% in comparison to 2006. However, more than one in three Molenbeek citizens voted for the first time for the municipal elections in 2012! This means that in 6 years’ time a large number of immigrants arrived, but it also means that a lot of people left Molenbeek.

A large proportion of them moved to lower-middle class neighbourhoods in and around Brussels. It is fair to say, without exaggeration, that every twenty years or so the whole population of Molenbeek is replaced. This high mobility characterises ‘ arrival cities': diverse and socially vulnerable boroughs, as described by Doug Saunders. In his book Arrival City, Saunders relates the worldwide evolution of urbanisation – today more than 50% of the world’s population lives in cities – to social mobility via arrival cities like, for instance, the historical centres of Molenbeek, Anderlecht and Laeken.

Public perception tends to dwell on the continuity of problems in these neighbourhoods, rather than the fact that the people who pass through them often accomplish remarkable personal social upwards mobility. To quote Saunders: “We need to look at [these neighbourhoods] differently: not as a set of points but as a collection of human trajectories. People do not simply live in these neighbourhoods; rather, they move through them. Some of the most successful ‘arrival city’ neighbourhoods, in terms of economic integration and social mobility, are the ones whose poverty rates appear to be staying the same or even getting worse.” Poor people arrive, educate their children and find a job in these neighbourhoods. Once they have moved up the social ladder, they continue their trajectory to 'better' lower-middle class neighbourhoods. We could therefore say that Molenbeek, Anderlecht and Laeken represent Belgium's social escalator and thus fulfil an essential role in our society.

Does this mean that local politicians are relieved from their responsibilities? Of course not! Saunders pleads for a multi-layered policy to address the current problems in arrival cities. A basic condition to enhance the overall quality of life in these neighbourhoods is the quality – and availability - of public spaces. Streets and squares should be safe at all times. They should be clean and less congested by traffic and parked cars. Also, and more controversially, Saunders calls for the elimination of small-business barriers such as the business certificate required within 6 months of opening a shop. He views it as an incomprehensible obstacle for many immigrants. Even more controversial in terms of local policy today, is the view that ‘call shops’ function as hubs of informal international social networks and are essential for the social escalator role of arrival cities. Finally, Saunders pleads for a better social mix that should be put in place via an ambitious housing policy and investing heavily in qualitative 'magnet' schools. Saunders: 'The most successful arrival city immigrant neighbourhoods in the world have combined incoming migrants with young native-born couples, artists, and entrepreneurs; this mix tends to accelerate social mobility.'

It is by providing these policies in arrival cities such as Brussels’ canal district that local politicians can – indeed,  must  - play a vital role, so that Molenbeek, Anderlecht and Laeken become both successful arrival cities for immigrants and attractive neighbourhoods for native-born citizens.

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Comment
brusselsrower Jun 3, 2013 12:06

While the Canal is a blind spot in most expats’ awareness of the city, this is not entirely true. Every Sunday morning a substantial group of expats (and Belgians) gets up close and personal with the waterway, as they boat from the RSNB rowing club in Neder-Over-Heembeek. We know the Canal is not beautiful, but it is a valuable resource, for leisure as well as for commerce. Upgrading of the waterfront is taking place in Vilvoorde, as well as around the Place d’Yser in Brussels. Bruxelles-les-Bains helps to raise awareness. It’s a long process, but I believe that Brussels will gradually come to regard its Canal as an asset rather than a liability.

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