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Pedestrianisation of Brussels and the impact on retail activity

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The Brussels pedestrian area was launched in June 2015. Hailed as being the largest in Europe, this expansion of the existing pedestrian area runs along Boulevard Anspach, from Place de Brouckère through to Place Fontainas. 9 months on, the issue is still being hotly debated by politicians (both those in power and those in opposition), as well as by retailers, local residents and associations such as the BECI. The debate has been so lively that in April 2016, the decision was made to establish a Pedestrian Watchdog with the aim of taking an objective view on the pedestrian area, in terms of its impact on socio-social, socio-economic and demographic activity.

9 months on, after the lockdown in Brussels following the Paris attacks and the terrorist attacks on 22 March in Brussels, now seems to be the right time to make the first assessment. 

Given its leading position in the commercial real estate market and without wanting to take sides, Cushman & Wakefield would like to share its views on the impact of pedestrianisation and suggest some improvements for this Brussels city centre urban regeneration project. 
Firstly, our observations:

1.The idea of expanding the pedestrian area to strengthen the tourist and retail appeal of the city centre is an excellent one. However, the creation of a pedestrian area also needs to have a genuine tourist and/or retail appeal in order to sustain it (as can be seen for Rue Neuve or Grand-Place). However, neither Boulevard Anspach nor Place de Brouckère are tourist destinations and the idea of ‘opening’ such a public space is not enough to transform it into a destination. This is particularly true as it is currently much more pleasant to take a walk in the Parc Royal for example. 

2.Too large a pedestrian area, too rapidly implemented, with no public consultation or impact study. Once again, though the intention may be commendable, the rapid and brutal creation of this pedestrian area has disrupted consumer habits, the daily lives of local residents, affected how people use the area and has had a particular effect on access to the city centre. Additional problems to add to these negative impacts include: lack of urban planning, deterioration of public space, lack of cleanliness, lack of cleaning …   

3.This constitutes a blow to the existing retail activity; activity that has taken time to develop.  For example, the Dansaert district may currently attract 9,200 people on a daily basis and be a destination for a specialist clientele, but it should be noted that this activity gradually developed into a district specialising in fashion and design. In 2008, there were only 7,500 visitors per day. Dansaert may have stabilised in recent years, but the balance remains fragile and it wouldn’t take much to weaken the retail framework. And that is exactly what the pedestrian zone is doing. Retailers are currently feeling the effects. According to Boris van Haare Heijmeijer, Partner and a member of Cushman & Wakefield’s International Retail Board, the turnover of some retailers has fallen by 20% to 30% since the pedestrian zone was introduced, i.e. before the lockdown and before the attacks in Brussels.  It takes time for the retail fabric to develop and become a genuine destination for shoppers and the slightest grain of sand could cause the machine to grind to a halt, stalling activity and driving away shoppers. 

Retail experts at Cushman & Wakefield are appealing for:
1.Genuine dialogue with players in the retail market and the main city-centre landlords to ensure a coherent phasing of the various work sites and a genuine endorsement of the pedestrian area by all of the stakeholders involved. It also appears to be vital to consult with the 200 or so retailers who are currently struggling.

2.A coherent, manageable, phased introduction. As similar projects were implemented in cities such as Antwerp, Ghent or Louvain – the creation of such an area must be thought through, coherent and, in particular, phased.  As such, the first stage for the pedestrian area should start at Place de Brouckère and run along to Rue de l’Evêque or Rue de Gretry so that it incorporates the renovation of “The Mint” (the renovation of the base of the Monnaie centre) along Boulevard Anspach, thereby complementing the natural extension of the Rue Neuve and Rue des Fripiers pedestrian zone. This more manageable implementation would certainly allow for a better appropriation of this space which could then become a genuine tourist area and destination. 

3.Clear and objective communication on the pedestrian area. It seems to be vital to carry out an impact study on the pedestrian area and to communicate it objectively and fully. This would result in a clearer definition of the authorities’ vision for the pedestrian area, the timing for the implementation (that should be minimised and adhered to so that any damage to the retail activity in the city centre is nominal), its impact on the economic fabric of Brussels and, in particular, its appropriateness and its balance with Rue Neuve which, we need to remember, is the most visited retail high street in the country. Currently, residents, tourists and retailers are being penalised twice by this chaotic implementation – once by the lack of consultation, communication and access to the city centre and a second time by the duration of the works planned for the final redevelopment of the pedestrian area. 

The message is therefore a strong one, requested by all parties – clear communication and a strong, shared vision are requirements for a coherent and structured implementation of the pedestrian area in Brussels. This vision appears to be crucial to the success of this urban regeneration project, to strengthening retail activity and developing the tourist appeal of the city centre. 

The Brussels pedestrian area