Downtown, pedestrianization and lifestyles

Research program of the Mobile Lives Forum

January 2019

In 2015, a vast pedestrianisation project for the central boulevards of Brussels was launched, radically changing the face of a city centre that had been designed for the car. The research aims to assess the impact of this pedestrianisation on lifestyles. It focuses both on how activities are deployed in the built and social environment of the pedestrian zone, and on how these activities fit into people’s lives. What lessons can be drawn from a project to drastically reduce the place of the car in the heart of a metropolis? To what extent can such a project foster the transition towards more desirable and sustainable lifestyles?

We will first address a specific aspect of the process: the indeterminacy characterising the project, from its conception to its implementation. We will then discuss the imaginaries that fed into the process, fed back into it and through which users appropriate the pedestrian conceptually and practically. We will then return to the research hypotheses, detailing in particular the impact of this urban project on lifestyles.

To download : rapport_recherche_t2020_4.pdf (8.6 MiB), synthesefinale_200120.pdf (650 KiB)

The Brussels problem ##

The urban policies of the 1950s to 1980s carried a vision of Brussels as a place of consumption and administrative capital, which was to become a «  point of convergence of the motorway network on a national scale  »1 . The public space was then arranged in favour of the car, with central boulevards with four traffic lanes, relegating pedestrians to congested sidewalks and pushing tram traffic underground. In the 1970s, social movements arose to challenge this conception of the city based on speed and called for a different way of thinking about the city, giving back a place to slowness. Alongside the arguments linked to sustainability and citizen participation, other voices were raised stressing the need to strengthen the attractiveness of Brussels’ city centre and to attract the middle classes to the city. Indeed, Brussels is marked by a strong peri-urbanisation resulting in particular from the location of the most advantaged households in the municipalities of the second ring or periphery, leaving the city centre largely to the working classes. Nevertheless, its strong multifunctionality (housing, shops, administrations, tourist and recreational facilities, etc.) makes it an attractive location on a supra-local scale, which raises issues of accessibility and mobility.

The development of the «  Pedestrian precinct  »

In this context, a project to extend the pedestrian zone of Brussels to the central boulevards, called «  the Pedestrian ", is being launched in 2015, in a very unprepared manner. Indeed, the political decision to pedestrianise is taken abruptly and focuses first on the objective of freeing the Anspach boulevard from cars, without any in-depth reflection on how this space could be reinvested and reappropriated. This decision was taken in response to a citizens’ initiative, PicNic The Streets : in 2012, the call of a philosopher in a daily newspaper was widely relayed on social networks and led more than two thousand people to invade Anspach Boulevard for a picnic. The idea is for pedestrians to re-appropriate a space that was previously reserved for cars.

The authorities must then face the challenge of reconciling the aspirations to free up public space, expressed in particular through PicNic The Streets, and those of motorists in the context of an all-car imaginary that is still very much alive in Brussels. They are therefore reluctant to thoroughly rethink the place of the car on a metropolitan scale ; pedestrianisation has thus been accompanied by the reorganisation of car traffic in the adjacent streets, in order to avoid penalising motorists. From the outset, the project was therefore part of an apparent paradox between the disappearance of the car from the city centre and measures to continue to ensure its accessibility by car.

Subsequently, the implementation of the project was hesitant. It is based on a mobility plan, a public space development plan and a commercial development plan, the first having been put in place almost two years before the second. Work on the development of public space began in September 2017 on several sections of the boulevard. At the beginning of the research, the pedestrian zone will include spaces in various stages of construction; areas already developed will be located next to spaces still in their initial state or under construction.

The heterogeneity of the whole is increased by the diversity of the mobilities that are deployed there. While the space is primarily intended for pedestrians, other active modes (bicycles, scooters, etc.) are allowed, as well as, in some places, buses, but also, under certain conditions, delivery vehicles, local residents and taxis. A traffic lane has also been reopened in certain areas of the Pedestrian Zone, following appeals against town planning permits and police decisions.

The implementation of the Pedestrian Zone project has generated many controversies, mainly due to the lack of public consultation and the unpreparedness in which the project was decided. In this context, the Brussels City Centre Observatory (BSI-Brussels Centre Observatory) was set up within the BSI (Brussels Studies Institute) 2 in order to objectify the debates on the Pedestrianisation project and to evaluate its effects on the functioning of the metropolis. In order to follow the present project on the consequences of pedestrianisation on lifestyles, a research team involving researchers from various disciplinary fields (sociology, anthropology, archaeology, geography) was formed within this observatory. At their side, a team from the TOR research group of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), a reference in the field of Time Use Surveys for several years, has intervened to implement a system of spatialized activity logs.


The research aimed to understand how the development of the Pedestrian Area has affected the overall lifestyle of its users, former users, or those who live in this space without using it. Inhabitants of the pedestrian zone, active people who work there, occasional or regular users, inhabitants of the Brussels agglomeration, former users of the city centre : all may have been impacted by the development of the Pedestrian Zone. The researchers thus hypothesized that the project had an effect not only on the users of the city centre, visible in the public space, but also on those who are not seen there. The whole activity programme of these people, their shopping, leisure and mobility habits, their sociability could be reconfigured ; the project could also influence their representations of the district, their living environment, Brussels or their opinion on the pedestrianisation of a city centre.

They also hypothesized that it is possible to observe traces of the lifestyles of those who practise pedestrianism today in the public space of the Pedestrian. The mix of populations and uses of this space, in addition to the heterogeneity linked to the different stages of progress of the work, makes the Pedestrian Area a real laboratory for the study of social interactions, mobility and user behaviour. Three sub-hypotheses were then formulated :

A dual methodology

To investigate these questions, the researchers used a dual methodological framework consisting of two research modules conducted concurrently.

The results

The indeterminacy of the project, from its genesis to its implementation

The researchers first insist on the impact of the indeterminacy of the project, from its conception to its implementation, on the perceptions and appropriation of the Pedestrian. The term indeterminacy refers to the elusive nature of the status of the Pedestrian and the vagueness surrounding the definition of its identity ; thus, the interviews conducted show that the respondents find it difficult to imagine what the area might look like once completed and how it might function.

Firstly, the Pedestrianisation project is accompanied by very unclear communication from politicians about their aims for the city centre. The project involves different actors (cabinets, administrations, parapublic organisations) and different levels of power (municipal, regional, federal) who do not necessarily share a common vision and who sometimes send out contradictory messages about the project and the city centre. In addition, communications from the media, the association sector, merchants, citizen platforms, etc. contribute to maintaining vagueness.

This indeterminacy is a source of apprehension, incomprehension and rejection of the project for the majority of the people interviewed (residents, shopkeepers, employees of the area or public services, real estate developers, etc.). During the latency period that elapsed between the closure to cars and the start of work, the area was perceived as left to itself for many months. This feeling of abandonment was reinforced by the lack of information about the duration of the works or their phasing, which was particularly anxious for traders for whom the works represented significant losses.

In connection with the indeterminacy that accompanied the project, the status of pedestrians has changed several times, with some vehicles being sometimes allowed in the space and sometimes prohibited. For example, before March 2019, one of the sections had the status of a meeting zone and cars could therefore circulate there. Starting in March 2019, the section became pedestrian again and was then reopened in the summer of 2019 to car traffic for several weeks without clear communication. This led to misunderstandings on the part of motorists as to which lanes they were authorized or not to use ; similarly, pedestrians were sometimes surprised by the presence of cars on a perimeter they thought was pedestrian. This led to several incidents of pedestrians crossing when a car was entering the road, and a sense of insecurity that was witnessed by those surveyed. In addition, the researchers note that the legal status of the zone took a long time to percolate through the relevant services, particularly the police, which led to problems between users and police officers. For example, the owner of a delivery company indicated that his drivers were fined several times when they entered the perimeter at authorized delivery times.

However, this latency period at the beginning of the project’s implementation was also an opportunity for spontaneous appropriation of the space, made possible by temporary arrangements such as the installation of ping-pong tables on the boulevard.

The Pedestrian, a space conducive to various appropriations

925 metres long and 26 metres wide, the Pedestrian Area is characterised by a very marked longitudinal profile, inherited from its former function as an urban boulevard. Three squares break with the linearity of the space, the Fontainas squares to the south, the de Brouckère squares to the north and the Bourse in the centre ; this thus delimits six sections, each with its own identity and atmosphere. For the people surveyed, this rectilinear aspect of the pedestrian area makes its specificity; its « enormous », « disproportionate » character, according to some respondents, contrasts with the perception they have of a public space. Because of its linearity, the Pedestrian is perceived more as a walk, a place to stroll, than as a public place where one stops. However, the uses observed by researchers are more varied.

In fact, the researchers observed the way in which users invest this space according to the hours and days of the week. They show that despite the pedestrianization, pedestrians mostly use the side lanes to move around, while two-wheelers prefer the median lane. During weekday mornings, travel seems to be mainly functional, people do not stop and pass through the zone ; at noon, the intensity of the flows increases, pedestrians start to overflow on the median strip, some stroll while others pass through, the public space is occupied more largely in a static manner. At the end of the afternoon, the researchers again observed functional movements linked to the return from work ; when the weather is fine, families are also present (returning from school, children playing on the Pedestrian, etc.). In the evening, the uses vary according to the seasons ; in winter, the pedestrian is deserted, while in summer it is used by many users who settle there and spread out over the entire road network.

Developments on the pedestrian area influence the uses made of it. The researchers observed in particular how the benches were designed and used by people and showed that they contribute to the potential of the pedestrian area by encouraging multiple uses. Indeed, the benches that were chosen are large, wide and have wide backs that do not cover the entire length of the bench ; they can thus be used as simple benches but also as picnic tables thanks to the central backrest.

The covering chosen is another element which determines certain uses. On the Pedestrian Area, the choice of irregular and raised paving stones makes it difficult for certain categories of users, such as wheelchair users or those with pushchairs, to move around.

Finally, the researchers show that the work, which is extremely present on the Pedestrian Area, is also a catch for certain uses. They arouse the curiosity of passers-by, who stop to look over the barriers. While during the day, the barriers force users to go around the work zones, the bans are often diverted in the evening when the work stops : many people open the barriers to cross, or even set up inside the work zones - this is the case in particular for some homeless people who take shelter there at night or store their belongings there.

The pedestrian, a space perceived as welcoming and pleasant?

The interviews made it possible to supplement the detailed observations made in the public space by shedding light on the sensitive experience of the Pedestrian. Firstly, they showed that the inhabitants of the area, particularly pedestrians and public transport users, use it more than before. Whereas before the pedestrianisation, the strong presence of cars and the associated nuisances (pollution, noise, difficulties to cross) led many respondents to avoid the boulevard, they use it more since the pedestrianisation, thanks to an easier crossing. They thus consider it as a binder in the Brussels city centre. On the other hand, pedestrianisation is sometimes experienced as having created a strong break in the east-west connections within the city centre, particularly by motorists who can no longer cross it and have to take other routes that they do not necessarily know ; this can lead them to give up travelling or to give up taking the car. However, while the removal of the car is appreciated by pedestrians, the new sharing of space with the coexistence of different modes of transport is a source of insecurity. For example, the presence of bicycles or scooters at rush hour makes pedestrians feel unsafe, as does the presence, legal or otherwise, of motor vehicles on the pedestrian or at intersections with nonpedestrian lanes. This insecurity is felt in particular by parents for their young children or by the elderly.

Another form of insecurity, associated with crime, is debated among respondents. Some feel unsafe on the pedestrian walkway, which they describe as cut-throat, while for others, the heavy use of the area gives them a sense of security. Researchers have shown that certain audiences are associated with crime in the respondents’ discourse ; some complain that pedestrianisation has attracted pickpockets and drug dealers. In general, the « marginal » (homeless or precarious people who enter the area during the day), who are very present on the pedestrian area, are perceived as a source of insecurity - particularly in relation to alcohol. The interviews also highlight a feeling of insecurity linked to gender, which concerns some women. In fact, the observations made it possible to observe some scenes of men questioning women ; moreover, one respondent emphasizes that the place and position of the benches also affect the feeling of safety of women, who may feel that they are being observed by sitting men.

The researchers also stress the importance of the issue of cleanliness on the Pedestrian, which many respondents mention. Indeed, dirt is considered by many to be a characteristic of the Pedestrian, linked to poor waste management. In fact, the researchers were able to observe the frequent presence of numerous bags of garbage stored without organization in public spaces, often near the many restaurants and cafés. The feeling of dirtiness contributes to tarnishing the image of the pedestrian.

Despite these problems identified by the researchers through interviews and observations, the Pedestrian is also a place perceived as convivial ; the numerous café terraces contribute to the liveliness of the boulevard, while the Place de la Bourse hosts various events, from demonstrations to street shows.

Has pedestrianization brought about a shift towards more sustainable lifestyles?

The interviews were also an opportunity to explore the question of the evolution of people’s lifestyles linked to pedestrianisation and in particular to study whether it had led to a reduction in the place of the car in lifestyles. However, the research took place during a transitional phase when the improvements had not yet been completed; the researchers therefore observed very little impact of pedestrianisation on people’s mobility practices.

Overall, they identified a difference between the inhabitants of the city centre and those of the periphery. Downtown residents say they walk a little more than before ; they go more to the Pedestrian Area, which they can cross more easily. They use their cars a little less than before. However, these people already used their cars very little before the pedestrianisation. On the other hand, the inhabitants of the centre testify to the impact of pedestrianisation on their social life : some of them indicate that their relatives no longer want to visit them because of the difficulty of accessing the city centre by car ; it is therefore now these respondents who travel most often to visit their relatives.

For the inhabitants of the periphery, who often prefer to travel by car, pedestrianisation has led them to avoid the city centre, or to go there by other means than by car. Some, however, have not changed their mobility habits and continue to use their cars when travelling to the centre ; they know the area well enough to find alternatives.

The Pedestrian, a front line where imaginations clash

Finally, the researchers show that, beyond the uses observed and the lifestyles deployed, the pedestrian is interesting to study because it constitutes a space that polarizes debates, an arena where several imaginations confront each other. They thus take up the image of combat, which shows a struggle between different imaginations carried by different actors who weigh differently in the game : some have more facilities and tools than others to support and concretise their visions for the city.

Two imaginations are developed: on the one hand, that of a city for pedestrians, calmed down, as opposed to the imaginary of the all-car city; on the other hand, that of the future of the city centre.

The pedestrian is linked to the imagination of a city for pedestrians, in connection with that of a less polluted and more ecological city; it is also defined in opposition to the « all-car ». The Brussels Capital Region, in particular, supports this vision through various mobility plans, such as the IRIS 2 plan implemented in 2011, which aims to combat the omnipresence of the car and to promote active modes and public transport. Subsequently, a new Regional Mobility Plan (Good Move) aims to make Brussels a walkable city where everyone can find basic services in the immediate vicinity of their homes.

The pedestrian thus symbolises the shift in the balance of power against the car. However, this change is not fully assumed at the level of the City of Brussels ; for example, the mayor never uses the word « pedestrian » and the site dedicated to the city centre speaks of « boulevards in the centre »; the researchers point out electoral issues and note an opposition between pedestrians and cars which would be too sensitive a subject to be tackled head-on. In fact, defenders of the car, still very present in the Brussels imagination, have spoken out against the pedestrianisation project, using arguments based on the victimisation of the motorist, « pushed into a corner of the road », « made to feel guilty », « stigmatised »…". (Freesponsible association).

This opposition of points of view is reflected in the discourse of the respondents, particularly between those living in the city centre and those living on the outskirts. While the former appreciate being able to cross the pedestrian crossing more easily, the inhabitants of the periphery are generally unfavourable to the project. According to some respondents, noise, horns and movement are part of city life and its animation, and are more desirable than what they perceive as a large, lifeless and mineral space. In their view, the city as a public space should be passable by car. On the other hand, the inhabitants of the city centre are generally in favour of pedestrianisation.

Public authorities are dealing with these tensions between car advocates and pedestrians. Researchers therefore analyse their action as a compromise aimed at making the car invisible from the pedestrian area while avoiding penalising motorists. Car parks are thus set up near the area and the city centre remains accessible by car. Thus, the pedestrianisation project does not call into question the centrality of the car as it is too closely linked to the economic dynamism of the centre. Located in the heart of a metropolitan city centre, the pedestrianisation project remains a destination and must be both accessible and attractive : therefore, the invisibility of the car in a quiet city centre and accessibility by fast roads are two aspects of the same quest for attractiveness.

Within the city, two scales are potentially in conflict, the metropolitan scale and that of the neighbourhood ; in other words, the global and globalized dimension is opposed to the local, inhabited dimension. In the case of the Pedestrian, the researchers have highlighted in the controversies linked to the project an opposition between these two dimensions, between visitors and inhabitants. They consider that there is a difficulty in reconciling the objective of creating a city shaped for its inhabitants and where it is good to live, with that of revitalising the economic attractiveness of the centre by targeting visitors and tourists in particular, all the more so as the Pedestrian is at the heart of a European capital that lives in part thanks to its economic, tertiary and commercial dynamics. The Pedestrian Centre thus raises the question of the scale at which one imagines Brussels.

In fact, the interviews show that the respondents fear that the logic of attractiveness of the centre may take precedence over the interests of the inhabitants and modest shopkeepers of the city centre. They point in particular to the transformation of the pedestrian shopping landscape, with the arrival of large chains that are taking precedence over local shops, or shops targeting a « bobo » clientele, which are poorly adapted to the modest households living in the area. Some respondents also fear what they call a « disneylandisation » of the city centre, through projects and developments that favour tourists to the detriment of local users. In particular, the Airbnb platform offers a very large number of apartments located in the city centre ; this mobilisation of the housing stock for tourist uses risks in the long term to drive out the modest inhabitants and to encourage gentrification. Another striking example of the transformation of the pedestrian area according to the logic of attractiveness is the project of «  Belgian Beer Experience  » which is to open its doors in the Bourse building. To amortize its cost and pay its employees, it would require no less than 400,000 visitors a year and is therefore envisaged as a major tourist attraction.

Thus, the case of Brussels shows that while pedestrianization makes it possible to reduce locally the negative impacts of the car (noise, pollution, spatial hold) and offers pedestrians the possibility of reappropriating space, such a policy is not without ambivalence. Indeed, this project seems to be in line with the logics identified by Brenac et al. 3 in European city centres, where pedestrianisation would largely respond to a search for attractiveness ; these evolutions are likely to benefit the dominant economic players, to the detriment of local inhabitants, traders and users, without calling into question in depth the place of the car on a metropolitan scale.

1 DE VISSCHER, J.-P., NEUWELS, J., VANDERSTAETEN, P. et CORIJN, E., 2016. Brève histoire critique des imaginaires à la base des aménagements successifs des boulevards, In : CORIJN, E., HUBERT, M., NEUWELS, J., VERMEULEN, S. et HARDY, M. (eds), Portfolio#1 : Cadrages - Kader, Ouvertures - Aanzet, Focus. Bruxelles : BSI-BCO, pp. 135-147,

2 The Brussels Studies Institute (BSI) is a research platform bringing together 27 research centres and more than 250 researchers from 6 different universities and invested in various disciplines. It brings together a team of academic and non-academic experts in support of research projects and the valorisation of research results. The ISB is currently conducting some fifteen research projects involving multidisciplinary, multi-actor, inter-university and inter-community teams according to the themes developed. The BSI-BCO (Brussels Centre Observatory) was formed within the BSI (Brussels Studies Institute) to deal with the controversies raised by the development of the Pedestrian Zone and to objectify the debates. It studies the effects of the pedestrianisation of central boulevards in the multiscalar functioning of the metropolitan city. This observatory now brings together some fifty academics and researchers from various disciplines and attached to 15 research centres linked to 5 different universities.

3 Thierry Brenac, Hélène Reigner, Frédérique Hernandez. Centres-villes aménagés pour les piétons : développement durable ou marketing urbain et tri social ?. Recherche Transports Sécurité, NecPlus, 2014, Piétons, 2013 (04), pp.267-278.


To go further