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Brussels city profile | city data

• 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

Founded between the 8th and 10th centuries, Brussels quickly became a major centre for trade. Over the course of its history it has been governed by, among others, Spanish, Austrian, French and Dutch rulers. 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 speaking Dutch, French and German. 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. 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 50,000 Brussels residents work directly for these institutions, with the total EU working community estimated at about 275,000. Brussels benefits from comparatively moderate housing costs and proximity to a wide range of green spaces. Although Brussels is one of the richest European regions in GDP per capita, it has a high unemployment rate and over a third of its population is at risk from poverty.

The Brussels-Capital Region is made up of 19 highly autonomous municipalities, and much cultural policy and budget lies in the hands of the French and Flemish linguistic communities, a fragmentation which can be a roadblock to coherent policy. However, in 2009 there was a groundbreaking ‘Culture Plan for Brussels’ which emphasised the need for cooperation and multilingualism. 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 a significant number of collectors drawn by its internationalism and relatively low rents. Art collectors have become more prominent cultural actors, opening 12 private galleries and art centres in the past decade, including Garage Cosmos, Royal Ice Rink and the Loft of Alain Servais. Many also offer additional cultural services from workshops to emerging think tanks such as ThalieLab. Multiculturalism is also broadening beyond European identities, and Brussels creatives have been at the forefront of work to give a voice to new communities, which may not see their life experience reflected in formal cultural institutions. Projects include creating a welcome for refugees through film screenings and new festival styles, which allow citizens to curate as well as consume arts events.

Recent capital projects have seen the reuse of the city’s historic and industrial buildings as major cultural spaces. The Kanal Project is creating a cultural hub in a 1930s modernist industrial building, with two museums, an auditorium and vast multifunctional public spaces, while a renovated building combining architectural grandeur and aesthetic finesse is home to MAD Brussels, a platform for the fashion and design sectors. The House of European History is a museum unique in seeking to tell the story of the continent as a whole, particularly focusing on the 20th century, and offering a narrative in all the languages of the European Union.

Brussels is a city of many faces: traditionally multi-ethnic 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.