Last month, I was invited to speak in Brussels on the subject of the city’s competitiveness and how the city is perceived by the rest of the world. The first thing that struck me as I reviewed the existing literature and statistics was the very wide-ranging views about the city, its issues and how it should evolve. The debate partly revolves around the problem that, while Brussels is of course seen as the capital of the European Union, it also has a parallel reputation as a dull, bureaucratic and divided city. With these diverse views in mind how can we uncover the true essence of Brussels and what does this mean for the city’s future?
To get a wider perspective on a city, a look at the extensive range of city competitiveness indices is usually useful; in Brussels’s case, it is clear that, while it performs relatively well in indices measuring liveability, innovation, reputation, talent and governance, other European cities (including Copenhagen, Stockholm, Amsterdam and Vienna) often outperform it. On the other hand, more comprehensive indices, which include a wider range of factors, including a city’s capacity to exert soft power, seem to get under the skin of the city and measure what many would see as Brussels’ raison d’etre – policy impact and decision making. A.T. Kearney’s 2015 Global Cities Index, for example, considers Brussels to be one of just 16 ‘Global Elite’ cities, while the Mori Global Power City ranking places Brussels 25thin the world. As such, its global presence is in no doubt.
But, in recent years, Brussels has become a relatively underpowered real estate market, a far cry from the heights of the late 1980s when the city was at the top of the list of European investment destinations. Despite its political importance, Brussels attracts a lower level of real estate investment than many of its European peers. At just US$5 billion over the past three years, it has attracted less than Dublin, Copenhagen and Amsterdam. JLL’s own Investment Intensity Index, which looks at a city’s investment volumes in comparison to its GDP, also shows Brussels as an underperformer at only 70th in the world ranking. This is in spite of a highly internationalised real estate market, which has seen significant growth in the diversity of investment sources over the past half a decade and the fact that Brussels is one of the twenty largest office markets in the world.
It would be easy to come away from such analysis feeling a little despondent but the fact is that, unlike many cities struggling to re-establish themselves, Brussels has already seriously contemplated its issues and, most importantly, is listening to the city’s business voice in creating and implementing policies and actions to address a good number of the problems.
Urban transformation is already underway. The ongoing ‘Tour & Taxis’ project has involved the conversion of historic warehouses and depots to form new entertainment, leisure and exhibition spaces, as well as including the new IBGE building, Europe’s largest passive office building at the time of completion. In the future, the ‘NEO’ development may offer the largest changes – with a new entertainment-focused district planned for development around the existing tourist attraction of the Atomium. These schemes are seeking to modernise the city’s urban fabric, while maintaining its unique heritage – and offer a new vision for Brussels that addresses some of the city’s needs.
A focus on restoring the city’s vibrancy is also clear. A 50-hectare pedestrianised area is being trialed with the explicit aims of improving liveability, restoring the grandeur of the city centre and changing the reputation of one of Europe’s most congested cities; while the new House of European History aims to both cement the city’s position as Europe’s capital and add another element to Brussels’ cultural offer.
The city’s relative affordability in terms of housing and rent is an important addition to its attractiveness, potentially offering opportunities for young talent and entrepreneurs crowded out of Europe’s more expensive cities.
Brussels has the opportunity to harness a strong and broad range of economic development organisations to help drive it forward, the ‘Business Route 2018 for Metropolitan Brussels’, for example, charts a clear pathway for Brussels’ future success, including the need for a shift towards becoming a more vibrant, knowledge-driven city and one that is about its citizens and not just its administrative role.
The need for a vision for the wider metropolitan area is also a repeated theme throughout the many strategies for the city. Brussels must move beyond its fragmented administrative framework to become an integrated, diverse metropolitan region. JLL’s latest City Momentum Index has seen Brussels jump 40 places between 2015 and 2016 – a sign of renewed dynamism in Brussels.
Despite the many different frames of reference for assessing Brussels’ current standing, the deep interest in the city prevails, not just because of its economy, its social issues or its politics, but in the continuing debate about what kind of city Brussels truly is and wants to be. The city can no longer rest on its laurels as a political hub. In the new global system of cities, Brussels has an opportunity to maintain both its position as Europe’s capital and develop a truly global reach. To achieve this, however, the city must be daring and take bold action to escape its traditional national boundaries and cement its place as a world class city on the world stage.