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Brussels and Washington, DC: Exchanging Ideas and Strategies for Urban Sustainability

December 18, 2012

On December 9-12, 2012, a delegation of government representatives from the Brussels-Capital Region visited one of their sister cities, Washington, DC, to meet with their counterparts. The exchange took place as part of the diplomatic program called “Visit Brussels via Washington DC” and the annual “Brussels Day” celebration. The agenda included two talks that allowed leading architects, urban planners and sustainability policy makers in both cities to exchange ideas about urban planning, architecture and the concept of “sustainable cities.”

On December 10, Olivier Bastin, Chief Architect of the Brussels-Capital Region, Alexandar D’Hooghe, Associate Professor in Architectural Urbanism at MIT, and Roger K. Lewis, FAIA, columnist at the Washington Post spoke about the major challenges and achievements of their profession at the District Architecture Center. The DAC is currently hosting the exhibition “The Cradle of Art Nouveau, Victor Horta and Brussels”, which highlights the impact of Art Nouveau as an architectural style on the city of Brussels. Bastin and D’Hooghe stated that population growth, limited natural resources, and social inequality were some of the biggest problems facing Brussels in the coming decades. The city leaders drafted a Regional Development Plan for Brussels for 2040, a year when they expect approximately 200,000 additional residents. The planning process included an inventory of existing policies and practices, which helped leaders understand the successes and failures of previous projects. Planners hope to accomplish two goals: to stop the exodus of middle class residents from the city to surrounding suburbs, and to provide sufficient housing for the working class.

 

For Brussels’ plan, the concept of a “local scale” city is central. Planners want all services to be accessible by foot or bike. They acknowledge that land resources are limited, and plan to use high quality architectural projects to incorporate natural resources, public spaces, and urban density in harmonious, meaningful ways. They believe that compact (versus sprawled) cities promote fiscal equity, energy savings, cultivation of social networks, and other benefits that lead to improved living environment for all residents. Architect Alexander D’Hooghe highlighted one project that will convert an industrial site at the edge of the city to a mixed use public space that will host a marketplace and various cultural events, and serve as a gathering space for residents. The design would allow for a flexibility of uses over time, encourage discussion of urban food systems (currently the site is an operational slaughterhouse), incorporate market spaces and residential uses, and encourage pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

 

On the following day, December 11, the talk “Urban Sustainability: Best Practices for Environmental, Transportation and Economic Growth” brought together two panelists: Veronique Verbeke, Chief of the Brussels Department of the Environment, and Brendan Shane, Chief of the Office of Policy and Sustainability in the District Department of the Environment.  Verbeke discussed the process of compiling and publishing Brussels’ “State of the Environment Report”, which used a set of indicators to assess the state of multiple energy and environmental sectors.

 

Shane spoke about the DC Mayor’s “Vision for a Sustainable DC” document. In the winter of 2011 and 2012, nine different public working groups examined best practices, existing conditions, and public comments in order to develop key recommendations for DC’s first sustainability plan. The final vision document includes ambitious goals for the District over the next twenty years, including cutting citywide energy use by 50%, increasing use of renewable energy to 50% of total use, bringing locally grown food to within a quarter mile of 75% of the population, achieving zero waste, making 100% of DC waterways fishable and swimmable, using 75% of the urban landscape to filter or capture rainwater, and developing three times as many small businesses based in DC. The planning document includes short-term, mid-term and long-term actions for reaching these goals.

 

While there are many challenges ahead (obtaining financial resources and political will to implement proposed strategies, developing metrics of long-term success, etc.), it is inspiring to see that urban planners are hopeful and optimistic about reimagining cities as places where environmental sustainability, social and economic equity can be achieved in creative ways.

 

Angelica Murdukhayeva, Washington, DC, HII Contributing Blogger

 

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