MIXITY Walk: European Quarter

MIXITY Walk: European Quarter

Brussels has plans to create for vulnerable road users (cyclists, pedestrians,etc.) an attractive route from the city centre to the European quarter and on to Cinquantenaire park. However, even today before the project has been completed it is well worth travelling along the route. It takes you through a whole number of unexpected spots.


Until the late 19th century, the Leopold Quarter was still farmland: a rural landscape dotted with ploughed fields, grassland, swamps, lakes, small farms and country estates. The urbanization of the area did not start until 1839, commencing with the construction of a prestigious urban expansion project just beyond the centuriesold, recently torn down city wall. A new quarter began to emerge between rue de la Loi and rue du Luxembourg, in an area which we now call the European Quarter. The cream of Brussels society flocked to this modern monumental quarter, built in a chequerboard pattern with broad avenues, large plots of land and charming parks and squares. It was perfectly situated: far from the hustle and bustle of the city and the common folk, yet close to Brussels’ political and financial heart. In the decades to follow, Brussels underwent dramatic growth and the Leopold Quarter was taken up in a larger urban fabric.


After World War I, the first inhabitants left their big town houses for stately villas in the green countryside. The old houses shed their skin, as it were, to become offices or were renovated. A genuine office quarter was born. In 1957, seven countries established the predecessor of the European Union, the European Economic Community, and chose Brussels as the preliminary capital of Europe. The Belgian government made every possible effort in the following decades to legalize this status, with the Leopold Quarter as an ideal political centre. Today, Brussels is still not officially the capital of Europe, but the Leopold Quarter and its surrounding quarters are referred to collectively as the European Quarter.


The European Quarter includes all the neighbourhoods where the majority of pan-European institutions are established, covering the area in which the Ixelles/Elsene and Etterbeek municipalities as well as the City of Brussels are located. The quest for and construction of new office building complexes for the growing European Union is still causing some tension in this quarter, as this stands in shrill contrast with the residents’ desire for a pleasant living environment, The Brussels Capital-Region has therefore developed a Master Plan in conjunction with the European Commission to improve the residential and working climate in this area. This involves improving accessibility to public space for pedestrians, strengthening the residential function, preserving the cultural heritage and concentrating office buildings in designated areas.


This district is very international. The at least 50,000 inhabitants working for a European institution come from the 28 member states of the EU. Additionally, there are just as many people from an even more diverse background, who are active in the numerous businesses, organizations and embassies that directly or indirectly collaborate with the European institutions. The number of lobbyists alone is estimated at 20,000 at least! The Parliament and the other European institutions are generally visited by tour groups during the week, and by individuals during the weekend. The language most spoken in the European Quarter is Eurenglish: a simplified variant of the English language. It is spoken by European officials and their interns. However, walking around the neighbourhood and keeping your ears open, you will hear fragments of numerous other European languages. Now,  that’s a fun game: guess the language you are hearing!


In the past few years, more and more residential buildings have emerged in this neighbourhood, which until previously had been primarily an office quarter. These days, it is also a place where people live, shop and unwind. One of the biggest differences between here and elsewhere in Brussels is that the offering of pubs, cafés, restaurants, cultural institutions and shops has a more international allure.


Walking from the city centre towards parc du Cinquantenaire, you will notice that the stream delves into the depths at a certain point to rise up again quite a distance further on. At its deepest point, the Maelbeek is concealed beneath the asphalt. Its source can be traced to the park of the Abbey of La Cambre, from where it immediately takes an underground route northwards, up until the point where it joins the Senne in Schaerbeek/Schaarbeek. Aside from its undulating yet rugged contours, the Maelbeek has left another clearly discernible trace in the European Quarter: the lake in Leopold Park.


The car is still king in the European Quarter. However, the new pedestrian axis linking the centre of Brussels to Parc du Cinquantenaire, and which starts at parc de Bruxelles, is an initial attempt at restricting motorized vehicle use. The Master Plan intends to give the entire quarter a more pedestrian-friendly allure. Of course, there are plenty of alternatives available for getting around the heart of the European Union without a car; on foot, or by (villo) bicycle, train, bus or metro. You will find multi-modal hubs at Schuman Station (trains, buses and metro), Luxembourg Station (trains and buses) and Arts-Loi metro station.