Postcard from Brussels: on just cities and urban experiences

I’m Nathalia and I’m turning 32 on the 8th of May. I’m from the Netherlands and I was born in Doetinchem, a small town close to the border with Germany. I moved to Amsterdam for my studies, I lived there until one and a half years ago, but never really fell in love with it. Then I moved to Brussels - attracted by some weird things I knew about it. The two languages, the different municipalities, the presence of the EU, etc. It was a strange choice, I didn’t know Brussels at all, but I think it was a good choice as Brussels continues to inspire me. My areas of expertise and interest are urban/emotional/feminist geography, the just city and feminism and emancipation in general.

My professional life before Corona

In January I quit my job, so I was already without a job before Corona. I used to work for the city of Amsterdam, as a policy advisor for a just city, women’s emancipation, and fairness issues in the city. I used to go to Amsterdam every few weeks, but mostly I worked remote, from cafes. I would see a lot of people, I would dress up nicely, had a social feeling. Seeing different environments and people all the time made me happy and I loved the feeling of freedom.

I want to work as a freelancer now, because I like the freedom and being able to work for different projects, focusing more on the content of the work instead of also having to spend energy on team meetings, etc. In January I wanted to give myself a few months off, and see where my passions took me. I got two assignments as a freelancer, one of which was to design an urban experience for a festival about the political body. Due to the crisis, both assignments were delayed. They wouldn’t have paid rent anyway. I live off my savings now. In the future, for more paid work I would rather work on writing EU applications as a more lucrative job.


Postcard: Every morning I take a picture of the tree in the middle of the square I see from my window.

Equity and belonging in the city

I created Urbanistas Brussels, a network for women city makers in Brussels: geographers, architects, planners, and just women interested in the city, wanting to connect and share and to make the city a better place.

Another personal project is Urban Boudoir, with which I focus on emotions and personal experiences in the city. Something that inspired me to continue working on this topic was an amazing workshop I participated in last October, a series of embodied night walks. We would walk with 10-15 women. We would choose where we’d go in the city. Every time someone else would choose and it stood out to me that some people chose neighborhoods where a lot of migrants were living, as these were seen as ‘unsafe’ neighborhoods. There was sometimes this idea that we needed to ‘reclaim the city’. I don’t feel comfortable with that as I haven’t lived in Brussels for a long time, so it wouldn’t make sense for me to ‘claim’ or to ‘reclaim’ the city. And we visited areas that me and some of the other women had never been to before, so how can we say that we want to ‘claim’ or even ‘reclaim’ these areas? Actually, I don’t believe in ownership over the city in general. I believe more in growing a ‘sense of belonging’.

Sometimes we stigmatise one whole area and the people living there when there are in fact just 1 or 2 more unsafe streets. In the process, we all became more aware of our position, how even personal experiences can make you project your fear onto the public space. It was humbling. We read a paragraph from Sara Ahmed’s book The Cultural Policies of Emotions. She wrote about how the bodies that are least in danger fear the most. Fear is sometimes a ‘reasonable response’ to vulnerability, but anxiety doesn’t always correspond to actual danger. She writes that when we feel exposed to possible danger or discomfort our bodies shrink and the world starts pressing against it. It sounds a bit spiritual but it’s true. When we fear we literally start taking up less space and we won’t slow down or look around anymore. In this way we don’t establish a relationship with the space and it will then never evolve into a place for us. From then on I ask myself: What am I feeling exactly? Where does my fear come from? Where do I feel it in my body? Where am I projecting it?

The just city is a city that centers around equity, diversity and democracy. Equity is the most important aspect for me - it is different from equality in that it means that people win the same and lose the same when public policies are rolled out or when there are interventions. During the lockdown you see this gap being felt - people are chased by the police and lose their life, yet others like me gain so much freedom from the lockdown. The same situation impacts people very differently. Another way in which this plays out is that when neighborhoods are upgraded, made more green or more walkable for example, it’s a good thing, but what happens then is that more people want to be there, nice coffee places and businesses appear, rents go up, and people who used to live there get pushed out. What we also see is that generally white women feel safer in predominantly white areas. In this way, the freedom, and therefore the emancipation of one group goes against that of the other. Darnell L. Moore of The Feminist Wire writes about this in The Just City Essays. He writes that whiteness has become a signifier for safety, for wealth, for business opportunities, for good. Increased whiteness in a neighborhood brings increased resources and more police presence. This police presence does not guarantee safety in the same way for black people as it does for white people, as we can also see in Brussels. For making the city more just we therefore need a more intersectional approach; different groups and different interests need to be kept in mind at the same time by the same people.

Thinking about life after Corona and what could be different in Brussels

What really intrigues me about the corona measures are the changes that we will feel on the personal level and how these will influence the dynamics in public space. I think our sense of personal space is going to change, for example. Right now, if I walk the streets and my thoughts wander, I forget to keep 1.5 meters of distance between me and another being, because the prescribed 1.5 meters is not ingrained in my body yet. It might be that in a while it will be, and I start feeling iffy if a person moves within that 1.5 meter radius. This development has consequences for public space as well. A bigger personal space requires wider sidewalks, a different design for benches and wider door frames, for example. There’s also this idea of creating one way streets and sidewalks. This will influence the interaction people have with each other in the streets. It means that you won’t cross paths with as many people anymore. I foresee lost shared smiles and lost flirts! Something else I see is that more people start intentionally using public space. I hope this is a sustainable change. I’ve had a lot of conversations with women about how they engage with public space, and what really stood out to me is that women oftentimes only use public space to get from A to B, especially at night. There’s so much to enjoy outside in the city and I hope that in the future we will all feel more comfortable lingering outside, without a reason besides enjoying ourselves.

On personal rhythm during the lockdown

Every few months or years I’m asking myself: why am I doing what I’m doing? Am I in the right place? Does the motivation come from the right place? These questions came to me again during this period, and luckily this time I had more time to feel what the answers were, rather than motivating everything with rationale. I’ve noticed that I normally feel so much pressure to show myself, to establish myself, and that I experience so much FOMO - that faded away for the most part during the Corona crisis. When I hear about people starting new projects, like in the [edgeryders] community, I do think about whether I should too, and I feel this pressure… before I could not feel the difference between internal and external motivation. So maybe this is a beginning to get more in touch with myself.

I’ve been reading a lot of books - one in particular about attachment styles, and fear of commitment and abandonment. It’s a Dutch book, but a translation is in the making. It’s called Liefdesbang, or Love Phobia, and it’s by Hannah Cuppen. She writes that we sometimes feel that we need to earn the right to exist. We want other people and the outside world to reassure us that we matter, that we’re worthy. I became aware of that tendency in me now. It’s a sign of growth, maybe I was doing those projects before to be seen, rather than have them come from inside. It’s a relief to realise it, but also scary, because now I don’t know what to do. The question I now have: If I feel worthy as a person regardless, what would I still do?

Another book I am reading is Intimiteit, or Intimacy, by Belgian psychiatrist Paul Verhaeghe. Coincidentally, or actually I don’t think it’s a coincidence, he also writes about the role of other people in our lives, but he mostly refers to the Other as an abstract being, an always present mechanism that influences how we feel about ourselves. The intimacy that he writes about has to do with feeling intimacy within ourselves. A really important book in these isolated times.

I really miss purpose. At the beginning I didn’t really feel that way, but now I miss having a reason to get up. It sounds worse than it is, because I am not depressed, but I don’t even feel like going outside to take a walk at this point, while I normally love walking in the city. I go running sometimes, but I don’t leave the house much.

I don’t have a lot of structure i.e. I don’t get up at the same time every day. But there are rituals that I really like: Every morning I take a picture of the tree in the middle of the square I see from my window. At 8 in the evening we clap for care workers, and musicians and actors around play songs every night. These are the start and ending of the day, and this gives me structure.

I started to make my own coffee, including cappuccino. I also buy flowers to give my house a little more color, and things like that. That helps to feel more comfortable in my home and it really works. I feel really happy with my place right now.

I feel more mindful: even if I don’t have big events daily, the days are full of little experiences and I am more aware of all my senses. I think it’s a sort of micro awareness, and I want to keep having it. I now feel that I don’t have to go very far or travel far places to have rich experiences.

Curious from Edgeryders:

I would like to know more about European grant writing possibilities, so if anyone knows of projects coming up or needs help they can let me know. Also, I am always interested in sharing thoughts on the city and exploring ideas together. People can of course always contact me if they have questions about equity and emancipation in the city.

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Happy birthday @Nathalia, perfect time for your introduction to Edgeryders :slight_smile:

During lockdown, myself and other friends have more than once been on a borderline conflict when we were trying to get by or do groceries and someone who was not conscious of the rule was standing too close, or ‘breathing down your neck’. I had a distinct feeling of being attacked, which is not really rational is it?
I’m even more sensible to private space because of family history in a communist country where everything was about standing in line. Queues where the place to get your basic needs covered, but also to socialize, gossip, etc. To this day, our cultural idea of private space is still being reclaimed as we’ve come to terms that not everything is scarcity anymore. It speaks to your observation too:

After living 3 years in Brussels, I still think there is so much to see yet, especially in the sense of spending time in public places. I remember when I first discovered Place de Londres - the buzziness of the place made it an instant favourite, or the square in front of the bar L’Athénée where often you could just get drinks and sit around the actual tables because there’s no spot left, or even the small hangout space in front of Cinematek when during the summer you can stop for a glass of wine standing, which really encourages interaction with strangers. But guess what: they’re all pretty central Brussels [hm].

Is there a favourite public place outside the Brussels centre you would recommend?
Also paging @rmdes @andreja @marina @BaobabUrbain @Emmanuel and recent movers in town like @owen :slight_smile:

Hi Nathalia, thank you so much for sharing this glimpse into your life from Brussels (and Happy Birthday! :tada:)!

There are lots of parallels here in Barcelona with the “Superillas” - The idea is to give less space to cars and make these 3x3 “blocks” more pedestrian and bike-friendly. I personally think it’s a wonderful, pioneering project of sustainable urban development. However, there are a number of residents in these block that think forces of gentrification will push them out of the area. I absolutely agree that different stakeholders need to be kept in mind - in fact, I’d be curious to see how different levels of inclusion in the process would create a feeling ownership and engagement. I remember that there’s a few urban garden / transition projects in Brussels, do you know whether or how are they engage different groups?

Yes, I used to have a lot of serendipitous interactions with people, and now it seems like that this is over. Similar to how we often text before we call, I think we’ll be doing much more pre-/meta-negotiations before actually engaging with others.

Are you mostly looking for paid positions as a grant writer, or would you also be interested in helping groups who align with your interests and charge a fee if the proposal is successful? As I see a lot of movement these days, I think there’s a lot of organizations who could be interested in the latter.

Probably no secret to people living in Brussels and I’m not sure if it it’s outside of what is considered the center, but my favorite memories are from evenings with friends and strangers at the bustling Parvis de Saint-Gilles.

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Yes, Parvis is the place, especially when it’s sundrenched during summer afternoons :slight_smile:

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I remember the first time: It was a long, tiring day that started rushing to the Eurostar in London at an ungodly early hour, followed by a marathon of institutional meetings. The text from my friend said little more than to take the metro to Parvis de Saint-Gilles and “find her”. As soon as I emerged from underground, the lively atmosphere surrounded me. It was the last hour of sunshine, with food trucks buzzing, kids running, and people sitting everywhere with their wine or beer and snacks, and within 2 minutes I actually did find my friend, at a table that felt like it’s in the middle of it all.
After a somewhat sterile first welcome at Gare du Midi and the European Quarter in the morning, this will remain my mental image of arriving in Brussels as a visitor.

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Also ping @Mar_ta if you have suggestions.
And welcome to Edgeryders!

Hey! Nice to read you in this forum Nathalia, very nice photo. i have lived in bxl for many years but i keep discovering. I recently discovered Parc Roi Baudouin in Jette, ate breve :wink:

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How interesting! It’s a bit like an immune disease. If you grow up in a sterile environment, your immune system “goes off kilter” and sets its thresholds too low, attacking your own body.

This is not obvious to people not from Belgium: a young man in Anderlecht died trying to evade a police action to enforce lockdown measures. The police chased him on his scooter, and he collided with a second police car that had been called in as backup. Here is an article in English.

I am not a city planner… are you sure it is not the other way around? As the money moves in, more white people also move in?