• Giulia C Verga

I am 95

I am 95, it is great to be still around. I spend my days home or around the neighborhood where I have been living for the past 65 years. Well, I haven’t really lived here all the time, but here it is where I have always felt at home. I built the apartment in 2015, and things have changed a great deal since. Climate de-regulation became more and more evident, and we have been dealing with droughts that alternate with heavy rainfalls, our relationship with sealed and permeable surfaces has changed: we fear sealed surfaces. We fear them as they do not allow water infiltration during rainfalls, they become platforms of accumulation and acceleration of water streams, that are nowadays so difficult to deal with. Paved streets become riverbeds, where flows are too abundant and where even the smallest slope risks to turn into a cascade. We fear sealed surfaces also because they get so hot during heatwaves, so hot! These surfaces just accumulate too much heat, they become like radiators during the night when the city tries to get some fresh air. They just do not allow the air to cool down. We therefore fear asphalt, street surfaces and parking lots. We fear stone surfaces and brick walls. We fear concrete: walls, floors, ramps, columns. We also fear metallic and mineral rooftops, tar coverings. It brings some hope when we come across trees, bushes, wild grasses that cover public spaces.

Artwork by Clothilde Buvat ©
Artwork by @tavub ©

the region could finally find extra land where to infiltrate water during rains and grow greens... shifting mobility modes turned out to be a pivotal moment for Brussels and its surroundings

A public regional policy obliged half of the parking spaces in streets and also private properties to be replaced with permeable and planted areas. It was not easy to find plants that would thrive in those difficult spaces, especially having to deal with impoverished (and polluted) soils and with heavy rains and snowfalls alternating with extreme heat and draughts. Some pioneering plants became familiar and we started calling them ‘local’ already 30 years ago. I remember, how moving from a car parking-based public space to a plant-based one was not an easy process. First all public transport networks had to be improved and made for free for all. Not to penalize early and late workers, most often from lower-income backgrounds, it was important to provide public shared minibus on demand, running 24/7. This allowed to reach also less-accessible areas overnight, ensuring a socially fair shift from private car-based mobility to a more public one. Since then, not only the air quality started improving but the region could finally find extra land where to infiltrate water during rains and grow greens for climate control and biodiversity enhancement. Plants helped lower the heat-island effect, in 5-10 years their shadow started being really appreciated as well as their moisture. Shifting mobility modes to less-polluting and less-space consuming ones turned out to be a pivotal moment for Brussels and its surroundings. At the beginning of the 2020’s, over 25% of the total regional land was made up of public roads, squares, paths, car parking, airfields, military land, cemeteries, yards and unbuilt parcels[1]. It represented a total of almost 43 squared kilometers over the 162 of the whole Brussels Region. At the time it became clear that these spaces had a lot of potential: they could drive the change towards the conversion of sealed surfaces into permeable ones.

During the first 10 years, the region planned on converting 2% of the total regional surface into permeable soils. The aim was to reach 5% of the region in 20 years, and 10% in 30 years. They did not manage to reach their ambitions, anyhow we now have much more permeable and planted public spaces than before, especially in the streets. Due to the multiplications of public (and private) green areas, maintenance became an issue. The motto became ‘the best gardener is the laziest one’. No water was to be used for plants, it became too precious for that and had to be used only for food production. Weeds started being perceived as resilient plants and no longer as ‘enemies of designed gardens’, they became allies; they did not die and kept spaces green, soils moist. The region gave trainings on how to follow permaculture principles, in order to work in synergy with local dynamics without trying to fight them. The ambition to convert rooftops into gardens was less successful: it required a lot of effort into reinforcing structures below, making watertight surfaces, bringing soil on roofs, maintaining them, etc. Some nice examples exist but were mostly realized on top of public buildings, where a combination of flat roofs and over-dimensioned structures made it possible.

Food production became more and more a crucial aspect of our lives. In order to ensure access to food, the inhabitants have organized themselves into food cooperatives

The region stopped land consumptions: in the early ‘40s there was a ban on any expansions of infrastructures and buildings. Nevertheless, the population did not decrease nor stabilized. Due to the slow but constant migratory flow moving north, we have learned to inhabit differently than in my youth: we have learned to live smaller, denser if you wish. I am sharing my three-bedroom appartement with another family. Space became precious and therefore it must be shared when possible. Large corporations, that until the ‘30s were allowed to demolish and rebuild their headquarters every second decade or to speculate on rents keeping their properties vacant for years, are not allowed do it anymore. It became easier to occupy available spaces, to inhabit them. Legislations eased permissions for reconversions of offices into dwellings and also granted permissions for light-structure sand small homes to be legally placed. Food production became more and more a crucial aspect of our lives. In order to ensure access to food, the inhabitants have organized themselves into food cooperatives, each dealing with a specific kind of food type. We have for example cooperatives dealing with bread and pasta, others dealing with fruits (and byproducts such as juices and jams), or with eggs, others with vegetables, honey, meat, dairy products, beer, etc. Today I went buying bread at the bread cooperative of Brussels south. The flour comes from Pajottenland, the agricultural area nearby, the oven is managed by 15 people working there fulltime and another 15 yearly volunteers. In general, the cost of basic goods increased: geopolitical instability and the will to reduce environmental footprints initiated the redevelopment of local supply chains. As the cost of Belgian and European labor did not diminish, all kinds of production costs grew. It became clear that we all had to take an active role into basic need provisions and cooperatives proposed an interesting exchange. By giving them two full days of work per year people interested could have special prices for the goods produced.

Also waste management became too expensive: basically, the Belgian state did not know where to put it, apart from burning it. Solutions in regard to trends of over-wasting were not easy to find if the reflection kept on focusing only on the end of life of goods. The state (and Europe) started to question first plastics, then more in general packaging, then eventually they tackled the real problem: over-consumption. Eliminating single use packaging, we realized our trash bins only need to be emptied every two to three weeks. No more slices of cheese or tomatoes in sealed plastic, this felt incredibly good. Organic waste became very easy to manage and we now bring it to the local collective compost point, maximum five minutes walking from home. We have all been trained on how to select things that end up there and how it actually works. When the compost is ready it is brought to fields nearby and used as fertilizer. The region coordinates cargo-bike riders and they mostly move ‘things’ around the region and nearby in a radius of 10km. They also move compost, among the rest. Since there are less cars in the streets this kind of work became quite attractive to sportive young people. Other ‘things’ carried around the city include appliances, clothing, and in general all the ‘stuff’ people want to get rid-of but cannot trash. Well yes, we now have a very limited volume of things we can dispose of, all the rest goes to public and private reclaimed materials’ libraries. They are actually some of the most exciting places to visit in Brussels. Their architecture, location, size and activity make them as interesting as museums. They actually are museums; you can walk through people’s lives. It’s a contemporary anthropological experience of unused artefacts. Quite something indeed!

In order to keep these ‘things’ local, the alternative Brussels-based currency is used. You cannot buy things in Brussels unless you use the local currency. These reclaimed material libraries are all around the region: in the peripheral areas they have large surfaces, but they also assure a more intermittent presence in the urban tissue with smaller facilities. What works is the constellation (the network that they create) that is able to manage large flows but also to engage with dense contexts and proximity services. Brusselers therefore started using what was at hand, valorizing what was there instead of getting new things. Also, as things were more expensive, we have all somehow been obliged to consume less. Nowadays it is not only expensive to buy things but also to trash them. In the 20’s it would have been called ‘circular economy’, but nowadays it became clear that this lifestyle goes way beyond the economy. Soberer behaviors became a collective engagement in respecting the environment by limiting humans’ impacts on it. In the end I realized that I had more time as there were less decisions to take, less shopping choices to make, less time spent managing the too many things we owned. I felt like there simply were less things to be desired, earned, managed. It became nice to make the things I really needed, such as food, or to garden collective green spaces. It started feeling good, it made sense, everyone somehow started seeing the bigger picture behind daily gestures.

[1] See IBSA (Institut Bruxellois de Statistiques et d’Analyse) data on landuse (Occupation du Sol) in 2019.

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Existing Nature-Based Solutions

New/Innovative Nature-Based Solutions