Brussels: How to help boost a Post-Corona City
On March 22nd 2016, I was due to present a revised socio-economic community based model of the Improvement Districts, but the 22nd of March was a tragic day for Brussels. My talk on the Business Improvement Districts was cancelled.
A few months after the initial attacks that already saw our City succumb to the military presence after the Paris attacks previously. During that time the City was traumatized and the streets were emptier than the usual hoard of shoppers, office workers and families wandering in the City.
“For me that was a significant moment in the history of the city”, recalled writer and journalist Derek Blyth. “I was interviewed twice during the day, the first time late morning for Sky news and then at the end of the afternoon for CNN in the US. So I went down twice to the Bourse, the first time the streets were chillingly deserted, but by 5pm there were crowds of young people on the steps of the Bourse. It struck me how quickly the city recovered (although the news reports went with the story that the city was traumatized). I wonder if it will be the same with the virus lockdown. At the moment we are still traumatized but I think life may quickly return.”
My talk was rescheduled. I spent 4 weeks preparing. I sent out emails, then reminders. I wanted to ensure I had the public administration, private sector and some civic society and local active citizens attending the launch event of BIDs Belgium. Sending individual emails and reminders. Then having to cancel due to the attacks and kick starting the process all over again for the following month April.
The first talk was at Muntpunt, the Flemish Library in the centre of Brussels. Many local associations were interested in and around Brussels. Other talks followed in the cultural venue of the Beursschouwburg in the fashionable area of the City with the then ‘Dansaert District’ association, not long after rebranding to Downtown Dansaert. Spending time talking to Carine Lauwers and Lieve Buyse running this association Also presenting at Sofitel Hotel, for the Louise district.
Yet some associations were afraid of ‘losing’ their public city funding if they were seen to be collaborating with others and adopting a progressive ‘inclusive’ model in which we also spoke about the ‘social economy’. Understanding from a city or regional level that when it came to combining forces, it could only be the Government funded /public bodies representing them.
Some wanted to use it as a party specific political strategy. Some wanted to ‘own’ it without realizing it wasn’t anyone’s to own. It was about taking a new path of a horizontal integrated approach, empowering the community to take ownership, creating the much needed trust, to instil a sense of pride. Perhaps the City was not ready for this?
Now we face a different type of crisis, yet similar challenges in one respect will be and are being felt across the board. We have seen the relaxing of the restrictions with regards to some of the commercial zones for example. The streets gathering small crowds, despite the attempts of stores to keep to the advised restrictions and rules. Some stores and businesses were allowed to open along with cultural institutions and museums. Yet some sectors such as hospitality only opening over the last days.
This raises a fundamental question. Will some stores and businesses decide to stay closed? Especially if the cost of opening outweighs the cost of closing. There requires overall to be coherent realistic guidelines and measures . Ensuring safety of the staff and the consumers. Everyone has to adapt.
Businesses, hospitality sector, schools, offices are working on the designing of the logistical processes needed. Whilst some may ‘redesign’ their processes and their physical spaces, to ensure social distancing and adapting to new ways of working. Perhaps some are questioning if they need office space as large as before? If the way we work has changed during the epidemic, then it will impact how we work post Covid19. Most that have the ability to work from home will continue to do so. Instead of the one / two days working from home – it will be one or two days in the office and rest at home. There is much to consider
I have spent several years observing, working and contributing to a number of sectors. Continually learning. From my qualification of Design and utilising my transferable skills of my experience in Retail, Hospitality, Social Entrepreneurship, Education, Placemaking, Women’s Groups and Government. My work has taught me that we need to bridge the ‘knowledge gap’ with community capacity building. That we need a resilient, cohesive, positive approach that creates impact across our communities. We need to tap into the network of visionaries, entrepreneurs, creatives, cultural and artistic community who can co-design spaces, scenarios and new narratives. Together with and for their neighbours. Not forgetting to include the many developers, landlords and investors. Those who are willing to go a step further to experiment, be flexible with new and innovative ideas. Without the ‘red tape’ of bureaucracy. Creating zones across our communities that can be ‘bureaucracy free’ along with car free, pollution free streets. To be more inclusive, by redesigning our city, spaces to be more green, healthy and open. Appealing for families and shoppers by accommodating those with physical disabilities and those who are neurodiverse, amongst our colourful communities. All of this and more. Whilst we keep sharing, collaborating, creating and educating. To fill the cracks that as Brussels citizens we have already proven do well with some of the inspiring community initiatives we have seen during the lockdown period. To be kind and showing empathy for each other, whilst utilising the city’s dynamism. Building on trust and creating inclusive ‘task-forces’.
This also takes me back to the last years and some of where my ‘Design’ and Branding knowledge was taking me when I first started the BIDs. Explaining then the need to bridge that ‘digital gap’ at many levels from those online with good websites to those on social media and the ‘power of instagram’. Some store owners explained they were driving sales through instagram and their social media. Aiming their sales towards the cultural and diverse community of Brussels. Utilizing their knowledge and networks of their own multicultural / international staff. Certainly those store owners and ‘role model leaders’ that understood the richness of Brussels diversity and storytelling and how this contributes to the success and melting pot of this City.
These leaders also kept ahead of the game with keeping abreast of the trends back then, both locally and internationally across a variety of relating sectors. Others developed their space into concept stores. Enhancing the all important ‘customer experience’ to understanding omni-channeling marketing media and how this can create brand loyalty, etc.
During this period I met a number of the shopping street associations. I met several boutique business owners, hotel managers. We discussed the differences from each of the stores and their advertising, marketing and branding approaches, their approaches for the all important ‘customer experiences’, recognizing the advantages and disadvantages of each of their outlooks.
Trying to convince some of them of the advantages of taking a collaborative approach and sharing, discussing their shared vision from the use of public spaces, with commerce, with local citizens who could help identify their shared priorities for the general community improvement. Not solely focusing on the economic impact, yet the socio-economic aspect. Well-being, sustainability and circular economy with understanding better the consumer behaviours and trends. Certainly now, this is crucial with the adaptations related as a result of the pandemic.
Looking back to 4 years ago, there were also ad-hoc ‘calls’ for projects to revitalize the city. Bringing the then Government funded public agency, collaborating with a local NGO. Resulting in a competition and ‘one off’ calls for approximately €30,000 for each project.
Unfortunately these projects did not last 4 years and most of which have disappeared. Why not utilize funds, not for competitions? To create a diverse group of multi-disciplinary task forces with expertise in various fields, to collectively and democratically vote to prioritize where that money is needed through collective discussion with businesses, creatives, and community projects.
COMMUNITY, CREATIVITY & CHOCOLATE
We did many local experiments and sessions with visiting and meetings with Cities such as Gent and Mechelen. Inspired by the BIDs and placing strategies for socio-economic regeneration in their Cities. Having meetings with the many then Brussels Ministers. Also with my own municipality of Koekelberg.
Working on pilots and local projects such as ‘Art & Chocolate’. A successful collaboration with the Belgian chocolatier Frederic Blondeel and an active local entrepreneur, in his 80’s. Jean Goessens who has a wealth of knowledge under his wings. ‘Community, Creativity and Collaboration’ being at the heart of this project which brought together local creatives of all ages and colours to exhibit works at the Gallery space of Blondeel.
A space that was unused and given as ‘community social responsibility’ by Blondeel for Jean and I. Encouraging locals and tourists to visit and buy from both the attached retail outlet of Blondeel and paintings that were also for sale from the Gallery. Encouraging that much needed ‘feel good’ factor for the local community each time we would hold a vernissage, thanks to local sponsoring of food and beverage outlets and the many volunteers that helped. A local cross-sector collaboration that created a positive impact and powerful story with our intergenerational, cross-cultural collaboration. Including socio-economic, ‘healthy community’, resulting in further brand loyalty for Blondeel with a new clientele of the fairly new location at the point. A joy to work on this project with my collaborator and valued friend Jean Goessens.
We require to be more open and inclusive whilst looking at alternative models at a more systemic level. Knowing the local community of SME’s, Creatives, Freelancers, Entrepreneurs, they are all being hit hard. Working together across a variety of disciplines and sectors, with our Creative thinkers and the Tech communities. With collaboration and drive for designing more inclusive ‘healthy’ and sustainable communities at the heart, which I’ve always believed as being crucial. Interest arises again from some for this city.
I contacted Carine Lauwers of the Boutique Atelier Unica recently. To ask how the District is impacted and how she envision the ‘post Corona City.
” Dansaert is going through rough times but we’re still standing and supporting each other. Making masks instead of dresses at this moment, but looking forward to start working on new projects. The benefits of the Unica masks go to the Streetnurses. They need extra money in these times!
A post Corona City should preserve what has improved through the lockdown (cleaner air, safer streets, a calmer rhythm of life..). Changing what will no longer work (omnipresent cars, overgrowth of international unethical chains..), and support what has already begun to germinate with the cooperative initiatives and local eco-products.”
It’s been frustrating that as a result of the impact on the economy and our communities 4 years ago, no structural and sustainable initiatives created long lasting change. An anticipatory, proactive approach to consider unexpected external factors and bridge the gaps in innovation, technology and the designing of processes and strategies should have been seriously considered for the Brussels community, with the Brussels community. Building on the creative, culture, arts and heritage of the past to create collective new futures with ‘Brussels urban narratives’ with it’s colourful people.
We must better utilize and break down the silos, between the many design and creative institutions that receive public funds, moving on from the ‘aesthetic’ to the strategic. Working together for Brussels of tomorrow if we are to achieve the European Cultural Capital in 2030. Installing pride via the intrinsic value of design, creativity mixed with technology can create a vision for Brussels. In educating, collaborating and advising across all sectors, to learn from the past in the challenging times of today and to anticipate for tomorrow.
The fragmented over-populated political structures must take new shapes and forms. Looking from the short term gains to some foresight and vision with leaders open to take the city further into the coming decades in a sustainable and climate resilient way. Governance structures remodelled into not only participatory models, yet also with anticipatory governance. Collaboration and a systemic vision looking beyond the cultural, linguistic and political divides.
Can we focus on the variety of ecosystems working alongside the ‘ego-system’ and break those much needed ‘silos’ of working together for a shared vision creating a long term positive impact for our City? Can there ever be diverse, inclusive, multi-sector civic/public/private, etc., ‘taskforce’ who work together in an anticipatory/participatory way for the greater good? Can we build on the much needed ‘Trust’ and preserve the positive initiatives that have arisen? Is Brussels ready now?
Written By: Rozina Spinnoy
With Thanks to Derek Blyth and Carine Lauwers
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