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  • Foto van schrijverMira Kaloshi

Brussels’ Stations: A Problem For Policy Makers Or Civil-Society?

Brussels, renowned for its elaborate train station network, represents a junction of history, architecture, and modern societal dilemmas. Once admired for their architectural grandeur and urban interconnectedness, these stations now mirror the intricate array of problems that our society deals with.

Auguste Payen’s architectural marvel, the original South station, once stood as a symbol of grandeur, with a magnificent entrance and spacious train halls. Situated at the Koningsplein, its strategic location provided seamless access to the heart of the city through nearby streets. Equally impressive was the Brussels North station, which also left its own architectural imprint. In the early 20th century, the city aimed to streamline connectivity by creating a central connection between North and South, and rebuilding the architecture as we know today.

The North-South connection has long been a topic of discussion among political circles, particularly in the context of congestion. Nevertheless, the concerns regarding our stations extend beyond overcrowding alone; they encompass a complex socio-cultural challenge. Rising crime rates, homelessness, and an uncertain migration policy have become intertwined, making it hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Deeply rooted within this socio-cultural tangle is the increasing consumption of hard drugs, particularly crack.

This issue extends beyond safety and embeds itself in the jurisdiction of public health and well-being. Bruno Valkeneers, spokesperson for Transit in Schaerbeek, a nonprofit shelter for drug addicts, highlights in an interview with Bruzz the alarming rise in users in recent years. Valkeneers also underlines the importance of Gate, Brussels’ only safe consumption venue, co-managed by Transit, where users have access to uncontaminated supplies, health monitoring, and consultations with medical professionals and social workers. Valkeneers points out in his interview that despite the growing hard drug consumption, government financial constraints mean that the expansion of such spaces is only planned for 2027.

The “lack of resources” argument echoes equally within the corridors of our Ministry of Interior Affairs as Minister Verlinden emphasises that the intervention at the South station cannot become the daily standard. The extensive police operation resulted in the arrest of 56 individuals, encompassing the homeless and those with uncertain legal status. While this operation, a joint effort among federal, regional, and local participants in law enforcement, immigration services, and civil society collaboration, was lauded as a success by the minister, the way forward remains undefined by her, and at this point, by anyone.

The problem with safety in our stations is unfortunately, not a very straightforward one. Instead, it’s composed of diverse issues anchored within federal, regional, and local jurisdictions. While the local and regional governments scream for extra resources, the call from civil society goes beyond that— it’s a call for a sustainable drug policy framework. Valkeneers deciphers the rising drug consumption as a consequence of increasing homelessness worsened by the aftermath of the pandemic, coupled with a growth in drug smuggling. His proposal urges law enforcement to shift focus from users to drug dealers, while also highlighting the issues associated with a complete drug ban.

On Twitter, the discourse has also moved beyond the simple scapegoat of “resource scarcity.” Some say that our train stations are not just unsafe but also dirty, emphasising the maintenance neglect, and comparing this to the recent investments that have been made to upgrade the stations of Mechelen (Malines) and Luik (Liège), calling these projects ‘railway cathedrals’. Others argue the use of tax money.

But according to Minister Verlinden, Brussels’ governance structure is the real elephant in the room. “Due to the complex structure in Brussels, there are sometimes overlaps in powers, leading to vague responsibility. Coordination can hopefully quickly and visibly change everything.”

Raising the issue of Brussels’ or even Belgium’s governance could, however, lead to a myriad of other debates, ranging from linguistic and cultural divisions to the distribution of political power and the effectiveness of administrative structures. There’s no denying that not just the stations, but the city as a whole, requires a lasting resolution. The form of that solution will evolve from a harmonious collaboration between the government and civil society, as well as a responsible allocation of extra resources. Yet, it undeniably underscores the necessity for heightened cooperation among policymakers across the many tiers of our political landscape.

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