To turn environmental challenges into economic opportunities, the regional administration for environment and energy mandated by the Brussels Region government adopted new roles of facilitating and coordinating bottom-up and top-down approaches. Together with agencies in charge of the region’s economic development and other public administrations from the Brussels region it co-elaborated a development concept in which environmental and economic issues are closely connected. Two large programmes have structured the transition: the Employment-Environment Alliance and the Regional Circular Economy Plan.
Like in other regions, environmental concerns were seen in Brussels as constraints and costs. At the same time, economic policies focused on exports and jobs for the low-skilled unemployed. Silo thinking and poor institutional communication resulted in a disconnection of these two policy areas.
The fragmented and somewhat uncoordinated policy response can be illustrated with the difficulties that the region experienced in overhauling the neighbourhoods around the canal. Traditionally inhabited by working class families and for a long time the industrial hub of Brussels, the canal area has known a protracted decline since the late 1970s. Today it harbours many derelict industrial buildings and very high unemployment and poverty levels. This situation brings both environmental and economic challenges: a large part of the canal area is polluted so that soil remediation is key to regenerating the area. The canal has also been an asset for transporting goods in and out of the city by waterway, a solution that could become important again as cities struggle to decrease their environmental footprint. As for economic challenges, the decline of the industrial activities has put many blue-collar workers out of job. Often of foreign origin and characterised by a relatively low level of education, this population has struggled to find new employments in the city region's tertiary economy. Most, worryingly, this holds also for the large group of young people with working class backgrounds so that youth unemployment in the canal area is particularly high.
While public investments in the regeneration of Brussels has been high, so far the policies have struggled to provide solutions that meet simultaneously environmental and economic challenges. According to research by TURAS (Kampelmann, Van Hollebeke and Vandergert, 2016), the reason why regeneration efforts have been relatively unsuccessful despite high financial investments is that the physical overhaul of the city has not been closely coordinated with policies targeting people. For instance, it has been quite common that training and labour market policies in a specific neighbourhood have been often disconnected from investments in the renovation of abandoned factories or brownfields. To some extent, it seems that urban regeneration has tried to update the "hardware" and the “software” of the city without ensuring that the two remain compatible and complementary.
The region will harness local economic opportunities and employment while also addressing environmental challenges. The creation of socioeconomic value will be more closely related to the territorial scale and actively include local stakeholders and assets.
The vision for the development of the region builds on the contributions of institutional entrepreneurs, pioneers, and front-runners –future policies will be able to integrate their energy and ideas into environmental and economic plans. The environmental challenges, such as soil pollution, transport, and waste treatment will be addressed in ways that directly benefit the population of the city that is most in need of economic improvement. In many areas, this involves considering solutions that create employment opportunities for Brussels’ large pool of young unemployment individuals with working class and/or foreign backgrounds. The result will be a city in which the economy is not abstract but grounded in specific territories (a neighbourhood, a part of the city…). The economy will function in symbiosis with the environment at different scales, organizing circular flows at the most efficient scale. Ultimately, this will provide for qualitative jobs and healthy, inclusive and sustainable lifestyles.
Strengthening the role of bridging actors in order to overcome the gap between multiple scales, actors or dimensions in social-ecological challenges. Bottom-up initiatives are not consulted but actively engaged, researchers are not neutral but provide reflective support through action research and public authorities are not passive administrators but brokers and facilitate change.
At the core of the strategy is the idea to use the political momentum for social-ecological discourses around "green growth" or "circular economy" to redefine the relationships between public authorities, bottom-up initiatives, and academia.
Another important part of the strategy builds on the promise of circular economy to respect environmental limits without reducing economic well-being. If economic activities are built around circular loops in which resources can move indefinitely without being turned into waste, embracing the departure from linear economic models will put Brussels at the forefront of a new form sustainable development.
Finally, the strategy can build on the rich network of actors and the diversity of experimentations with alternative solutions that characterizes Brussels. The policies that form the core of the city’s transition have in common that they recognize the high potential of bottom-up initiatives but try to connect them to development plans at wider scales as well as to more established actors and administrations.
Facilitated by the Regional Authority the Employment Environment Alliance was implemented between 2011 and 2015 and subsequently a Regional Circular Economy Plan was launched in 2016. Two pilots are taking place at the local scale (the “Crown Barracks” and the “Studio Cureghem”) and the third one at Regional level (“Operation Phosphore”).
The Crown Barrack project is about the reconversion of a former military compound of around 3 hectares. The site will be used to implement a range of circular economy principles in the areas of material flows, water, energy and waste. The pilot project is also innovative in the way in which the programme for the reconversion has been co-created with a wide range of stakeholders, and notably the two big universities that occupy neighbouring sites.
The Studio Cureghem pilot is also about the reconversion of a physical space, but in contrast to the Crown Barracks it looks at a temporary reconversion before the building, a large industrial asset of around 20.000 m2, is handed over to its long-term purpose. Working with a team including cultural, social, environmental and economic actors, the building will be activated over a space of 5 years and provide useful services with high social added value for the surrounding community.
Finally, Operation Phosphore also taps into Brussels’ rich network of NGOs and bottom-up initiatives. The purpose of this multi-actor platform is to reassess how the management of organic waste in the region can be rendered more circular and ecological: while most of the organic waste is currently incinerated, Operation Phosphore wants to find ways to give the nutrients in the waste back to urban or periurban agriculture. The production of energy from waste is also being considered.