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School of Geography

Case Study Cities - Brussels


Case-study: Brussels (Belgium)

Fieldwork: Summer 2011

Title: Brussels: the city that got used to crises

Authors: Stijn Oosterlynck (local researcher) & Ramon Ribera-Fumaz (guest researcher)


Crisis is not a new phenomenon for Brussels. Ever since it lost its status as the uncontested capital of the unitary Belgian nation-state in the 1960s, Brussels has been plagued by strategic disorientation and lack of institutional leadership. While Brussels internationalized in social, political and economic terms, with the arrival of the international public sector (most notably the European Union institutions and NATO), the rise of the international service sector (amongst others business services) and migration, its governance system was not transformed accordingly and remained stuck in national and local conflicts, rooted in the language struggle and the local fragmentation of the city in 19 different municipalities. Because of the lack of coordination between the actors and processes of development on different spatial scales in Brussels, the city has been called an example of strongly disarticulated development (Oosterlynck, 2011, Swyngedouw and Baeten, 2001). Increasingly, over the last decades, this condition has been framed in public debate as a crisis of the Brussels system of urban governance, especially by Flemish politicians. At the same time, over the last decades, Brussels has witnessed strong forms of social polarization (Kesteloot, 1994, Kesteloot, 2000, Kesteloot, 1995), reflecting the dual labour market hypothesis of global city theory. Brussels is the third richest city in Europe (in terms of Gross Regional Product) and produces around 150% of the amount of jobs that can be absorbed by its labour active population. However, this economic dynamism is not matched by the socio-economic profile of its population, with high levels of unemployment, especially among young people (ranked 12th worst for European cities), high levels of poverty and social exclusion and low average educational performance. In public debate, this is increasingly linked to the failure – or indeed the protracted crisis - of its fragmented and disarticulated governance system.

What could the financial-economic crisis mean in terms of changing governance rationalities to a city whose governance system has been perceived to be in disarray and has had no clear leadership across different spatial scales for decades? The crisis has amongst others impacted on the Brussels urban governance system through a worsening budgetary situation. Income taxation and real estate taxes have decreased, dividends have not been paid out on the shares held by municipalities and the expenses for public welfare centers have increased. However, this comes on top of long term budgetary problems for many municipalities in Brussels and their structural ‘underfunding’ (decreasing share in regionalized Municipality Fund) and hence does only add to an already protracted - and hence normalized - sense of budgetary crisis. Another impact of the financial-economic crisis is through rising unemployment and increased requests for financial and other assistance with public welfare systems. But here again, before the crisis Brussels already suffered from severe socio-economic problems, which, according to the 2009 BCR government declaration, makes that “the challenges of employment, training and education are more important than ever, given the consequences of the economic crisis”. The Brussels Capital Region has not developed an overall response to the crisis or a formal recovery plan, but has set up several limited short term economic measures such as the provision of short term credit to companies and ‘express guarantees’ to finance professional investments.
Research questions:

  • How does the global financial-economic crisis filter through the complex and fragmented Brussels urban governance system? Who is responding? How concerted is the response? Is there any strategic leadership emerging? (urban governance rationalities)
  • What is the impact of the global financial-economic crisis on the strong forms of social polarization that are characteristic for the disarticulated Brussels socio-economic development model? (social and geographical uneven impact of crisis within Brussels)


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