At the beginning of 2017, the Cabinet Citoyen & Burgerkabinet initiatives were launched by the Flemish Region and the Federation Wallonia-Brussels with one idea in mind: get a better hold of what citizens really think of Brussels, or more precisely, what perception they have of the Belgian capital. CitizenLab was selected to be in charge of the digital participation platforms of the project.
The results of the participatory democracy experience in Brussels were released a couple of weeks ago. We dissected them for you: below are the 3 main things that you should remember about this initiative. And we can finally answer the question: what do citizens really think about Brussels?
You can read an article about the initiative launch here (in French).
About the Brussels participation initiative
Here is how the Burgerkabinet & Cabinet Citoyen initiative was structured:
– Two online participation platforms, provided by CitizenLab, one in French and one in Dutch,
– An online discussion tool, the Synthetron, offering 1-hour online discussion sessions to reach consensus on selected topics,
– Two citizen assemblies (one in French, one in Dutch) of 150 citizens each, who gathered to debate in presence of Sven Gatz, the Flemish Minister of Culture, Medias, Youth and Brussels, and Rachid Madrane, the Minister for Youth Aid, Houses of Justice, Sports and Promotion of Brussels at the Wallonia-Brussels Federation.
The consultation time has now ended and the results have been released. See below a little overview of the outcomes of the experience:
source: Cabinet Citoyen/Burgerkabinet
When evaluating Brussels, the participants globally had positive feelings and remarks to share about the city and what makes it unique, but there was also room for criticism, suggestions and improvement. Here are the three great learnings from this experience:
1. Flemings and Walloons have similar perceptions of Brussels
Whether it is positive or negative, the perceptions of Brussels tend to be similar in both communities, which lead to a global evaluation of the perception without distinction of languages. For instance, the most popular priorities to discuss in both communities are:
– “Brussels: a capital city”
– “Brussels: a place to live”
– “Brussels: a cultural place”
The only slight differences noticed were a focus on “Brussels: a place to work” for the Dutch-speaking community, and a focus on “Brussels: a sports city” for the French-speaking one. Also, on Burgerkabinet, the participants admitted quite often that they did not know Brussels very well – this was less the case on Cabinet Citoyen.
Below are ideas and themes that came up on each platforms, put together into word clouds:
source: Cabinet Citoyen/Burgerkabinet
2. Not all of Brussels’s assets are fully exploited
The participants shared a mixed vision on Brussels: even though they saw many positive aspects to the city, they were always qualified by some drawbacks and objections. The citizens highlighted that the capital could be improved if these great assets were more exploited and promoted. For instance:
– There are many beautiful green spaces within the city but its streets are very polluted and congested.
– The education provided in Brussels is high-quality but is too separated between the two communities.
– Brussels is a very rich place in terms of cultural diversity, however the city is actually lacking connections between communities and sub-cultures: the Belgian capital is multicultural but not intercultural.
And this last example introduces the last learning of this experience:
3. The divides in Brussels remain too strong
The citizens assessed Brussels more negatively regarding the cohesion within the city, or more specifically, the lack of it. The participants shared their discontentment around some remaining divides.
First, between French-speaking and Dutch-speaking communities when it comes to activities, initiatives, information available and resources. It was stressed that this divide is not representative at all of the city, and that citizens from both communities want to mix more with others, same with the more international crowd.
Also, citizens found that each of Brussels 19 municipalities have identities that are too strong, and this damages the global cohesion of Brussels as a city and a capital. The participants suggest to develop a consistent vision for the city, not based on municipalities but on competences instead. Brussels residents identify more to their neighbourhood rather than their municipality, therefore these irrelevant frontiers could become blurrier and leave more space to a more homogeneous capital city.
Another lasting divide concerns the levels of power. Globally, the citizens are in favour of more centralisation of the competences towards the region-level. They wish for more coordinated actions in the city-region, especially regarding employment, innovation, and entrepreneurship. They also propose multilingual political parties which would speak to the whole of Brussels inhabitants without distinction between communities.
So, what do citizens really think of Brussels?
Here are the key things to remember of this participation project:
– Both Dutch-speaking and French-speaking citizens have similar opinions, ideas and recommendations regarding Brussels,
– The themes that were most actively discussed were diversity & cohesion, education and mobility.
– In all these themes, the main recommendations that emerge are that we need to invest more in Brussels’s infrastructures and the necessity to break down the barriers.
– In terms of governance, citizens ask for a stronger role of the Brussels region, instead of the municipalities and communities.
– There are small groups of citizens who are eager to participate and that were not necessarily considered in the first place: the expats. Indeed, they are lost in the traditional political landscape of Brussels (between language divides and levels of powers), therefore participatory democracy is a way for them to express their expectations and take part in the shaping and decision-making of the region they live in.