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  • Foto van schrijverMira Kaloshi

Reflections on #CarFreeDay — Brussels: for some a stop along the way; for most a forever home.

Nearly a decade ago, I sat at a very interesting college class in Mechelen. An alderman unveiled the council’s grand vision for the city’s transformation. They had a very specific target audience in mind: young families with children. As a twenty-year-old Mechelaar at the time, I couldn’t help but sigh, foreseeing a future where they’d overlook students. “No cool bars,” I thought. “Just pristine public squares, car-free zones, extra parks, and family-friendly activities in the heart of the city. Yawn!” I had forgotten that not too many years before that, I was the kid in the ‘family with kids.’ And back then, my life was a never-ending game of dodging macho men in BMWs racing through the ‘Bruul,’ the city’s now-car-free shopping promenade.

Although I can’t recall Mechelen’s city government ever holding a referendum on their ambitious transformational plan, or sharing the exact approach, looking back a decade later, it’s evident that there was a common vision among the city council. That they tailored their efforts to what they believed their target audience needed, not necessarily what it wanted (this isn’t a discourse on deliberative democracy)—a clean and safe environment for families to enjoy.

As the vision foresaw, in the last decade the city became greener, cleaner, population grew by 10,000, simultaneously making it an enticing hub for local businesses. As crime and accidents declined, the city also became a safe haven for the most volnurable demographic — women, children and the elderly.

Back to Brussels where I won’t be introducing a comperative analysis between a buzzing capital-region with 1.2 million inhabitants, 19 communes, and two, or should I say three, linguistic communities, and a modest town of 87,000 Flemish speakers. But there’s a valuable political lesson that can be drawn from Mechelen’s transformational decade: the power of a long-term political vision.

As I biked through Brussels’ car-free streets on Sunday, I was mostly greeted by families with toddlers confidently riding their bikes and I was reminded that behind the daily hustle and bussle there’s a little bit of Mechelen in Brussels. Not because a kid on a bike is the Flemish dream but because Brussels too is mostly a forever home — and for the second most diverse demographic in the world. Consequently, it raised the inevitable question: If, amidst all our diversity, we can come to a consensus that a “happily ever after” is attainable in this city, what is preventing us from conjuring a collective approach to ‘happy’?

Not every Brusseleir may buy into the idea that mastering the ‘bakfiets’ and chasing the middle-class dream is the recipe for urban bliss, but there’s one undeniable truth: whether you ask a Brusseleir with a brain from any corner of the city, they’ll all agree on the desire for a city that’s clean, safe, and accessible.

If you inquire about the “how,” you’ll quickly realise that’s where the political complexity lies. There’s no one-size-fits-all method to create the perfect city, despite what some may hope amidst the euphoria of #CarFreeDay. This lesson became apparent to me in my current home, Schaerbeek, the most diverse commune in the region, which has faced every imaginable issue. The only feasible approach is to acknowledge that while Mechelen may have taken a decade, Brussels might need a bit more time.

Nonetheless, this should not discourage our elected officials from consistently promoting the long-term vision, recognising the positive effects of car-free days and other sensibilisation efforts, instead of getting entangled in petty disagreements over the approach to creating the ideal city — assuming there was a shared long-term vision in the first place, of course.

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