• Brussels is the de facto capital of the European Union, with over 80,000 residents employed by international institutions
• Much of its cultural policy is made by its French and Dutch linguistic communities
• Since 2015 it has had the second-largest pedestrian zone in Europe, after Venice
City data: Key facts
- Geographical area: 161 sq. km
- Total population: 1,175,173
- Percentage of total national population living in the city: 10.5%
- Education level – percentage with degree level or higher: N/A
- GDP (PPP) million: $83,414
- Percentage creative industries employment: 6.47%
Founded near the end of the tenth century, Brussels quickly became a major centre for trade. Over the course of its history it has been ruled by Spain, Austria France and The Netherlands, and was occupied by Germany during both world wars. It became the capital of an independent Belgium in 1830.
Brussels considers itself not just a city of culture but a ‘city of cultures.’ It is the centre of a federal state composed of regions and linguistic communities – the Dutch-speaking Flemish, the French-speaking Francophones and a significant German-speaking minority. In 1989, Brussels became a region in its own right, the Brussels-Capital Region.
Today Brussels has a population of nearly 1.2 million, having grown rapidly since the mid-1990s. It is a ‘hyperdiverse’ city, multicultural in a different way than the country as a whole, as 62% of its residents are foreign-born. Although surrounded by Flanders, Brussels is predominantly French-speaking – and it now has a significant proportion of residents who speak neither Dutch nor French as a first language. It remains to be seen what impact this demographic evolution will have on the politics of the city’s linguistic communities.
As well as being the de facto capital of the European Union, Brussels serves as a base for many other international institutions, including NATO. Over 80,000 Brussels residents work directly for these institutions, with the total ‘EU expat’ community estimated at well over 100,000.
Brussels benefits from comparatively moderate housing costs and proximity to a wide range of green spaces, and urban space for expansion. Its Grand-Place or Grote Markt, mainly rebuilt in the late seventeenth century, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the city is also known for its Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture. Although it has so far largely resisted the pressures of gentrification experienced by many other world cities, inequality in Brussels is a serious issue, with high unemployment and over a third of the population living with an income below the at-risk-of-poverty income threshold.
The historic diversity of Brussels has led to institutional fragmentation on both a governmental and cultural level. The Brussels-Capital Region is made up of 19 highly autonomous municipalities, and much cultural policy (and budget for culture) lies in the hands of the linguistic Communities (French and Flemish) and of their local representatives in the Brussels-Capital Region (COCOF and VGC). While increasing the city’s cultural dynamism and diversity, this complexity can prove a roadblock to coherent policy.
In 2000 Brussels became the European City of Culture, prompting new approaches to collaboration within and between linguistic communities. Two cultural networks were created – Réseau des Arts à Bruxelles (RAB) and the Brussels Kunstenoverleg (BKO) – to represent institutions from their respective linguistic communities. In 2007 they came together to sign a collaborative agreement on culture and in 2009 they developed a groundbreaking ‘Culture Plan for Brussels’ which emphasised the need for cooperation and multilingualism. In 2014 the Brussels-Capital Region took on a ‘bi-communitarian cultural competence,’ one of the needs identified in the plan.
In recent years Brussels has experienced a cultural renaissance. From being viewed as a symbol of European bureaucracy, it has transformed into a new centre of the European art scene, with artists and collectors drawn by its internationalism and relatively low rents. Brussels is seen as a somewhat eccentric, quirky city whose diversity of life and government is one of its strengths. Some have called it a ‘new Berlin.’
During the post-war period Brussels became known for its unsympathetic urban redevelopment – coining the term ‘brusselisation’ in both French and Dutch – and for its congested roads. Yet recent trends have been entirely the reverse. In 2015 Brussels launched a new pedestrian zone in the city centre, said to be the largest in Europe after Venice. Alongside the pedestrianisation there will be infrastructure improvements, with new trees and green spaces replacing cars.
In 2020, Brussels will get a new Museum for Modern and Contemporary Art, while the long-overdue reopening of the national Museum of Modern Art is being undermined by the federal state. The new museum, supported by the Brussels Region, will be located in the city centre in a former modernist Citroen warehouse. Other recently completed or current projects include the creation of Train World railway museum, ADAM Art and Design Atomium Museum, MIMA Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Arts (located in the Molenbeek area), La Madeleine concert hall, MAD Brussels fashion and design centre, House of European History, Cirk international circus arts centre, Belgian Beer Palace, and Library of the Dukes of Burgundy.
Brussels is a city of many faces: traditionally multiethnic and multilingual, diverse and fragmented. Its institutional complexity provides both a barrier to cooperation and a space for new thinking. Despite its challenges, Brussels has developed a new cultural energy which is now attracting attention across Europe.