City eyesore turned park
City eyesore turned park
The action group CanalPark BXL is pulling out all the stops to convert a concrete jungle of a no-go area into a lively neighbourhood park: building a play area, raising funds, and planting trees.
“In Brussels it always takes a very long time until politics can change something. In the case of Porte de Ninove, where we would like to have this park, nothing has happened for 15 years. And this is only because three authorities are jointly responsible. We’ve been promised a park for years now, but so far nothing has happened,” say Bram Dewolfs and Yannick Schandené from the CanalPark action committee. That’s why they have begun to get things going on their own.
Their first trick was “Picnic the Streets” in September 2013, when one of the major traffic arteries in Brussels was blocked by picknicking citizens. Various activists, members of CanalPark, and dedicated Brussels locals gathered there. They had all kinds of ideas how to turn the concrete desert around Porte de Ninove on the west bank of the Brussels canal into a public park. “The neighbourhood could really use it well, ” says creative activist Bram Dewolfs. “Through CanalPark, we were in touch with residents in the area around Porte de Ninove. It was quickly clear that many people would prefer a green area to a concrete space lying idle. Also, many children living here do not have enough space to play.”
Activism in the 21st century
Since the first playful and focussed actions by CanalPark, politics itself has taken a step in the right direction. The hall that had been rotting on the premises was torn down. The huge building the size of a football pitch had stood empty for years. There was a serious danger of it becoming a wild rubbish tip. After it was torn down, the creative resistance fighters of CanalPark immediately began to clear up the area and claim it with trees. There is still no real park at Porte de Ninove, but there is a pop-up forest that the CanalPark action group planted. For this purpose, the activists organised a Growfunding campaign: a way of fundraising that, believe it or not, generated 6,000 euros. “Some people sponsor a tree. Other fans of the project bought toys and a slide – ideal for children in the park,” explains Yannick Schandené.
There is still some money left. The CanalPark committee is currently considering new activities. “They don’t need to cost a lot. For example, by someone knowing someone who knows someone else, we obtained a batch of grass mats free of charge. We used them to cover the concrete surface, as a playful event. Beautiful photos were taken. And they spread across the social networks like wildfire. That’s what I call efficient activism in the 21st century: playful, original, and covered by social media,” Yannick recalls enthusiastically.
Come and see for yourself: the improvised pop-up park at Porte de Ninove works. Very quickly, it drew numerous visitors, especially from the neighbourhood. “In the summer, around 15 older Algerians gathered under the trees every evening. They came here to chat and for a cup of tea. The park is becoming a real meeting point,” enthuses Yannick. Often, the sources of participation are unexpected. Once, when the committee, along with a few activists, tried to cut the hedge around the park with poor quality tools, a retired gardener from the neighbourhood intervened. He dug out his professional tools and finished the job in barely an hour. In this sense, the park is really a piece of community work – and one that motivates Yannick, among others: “It is unbelievable how everything has changed here since the picnic. And it is the initiatives of the citizens and neighbours themselves that have to be thanked. The ideas rise from the bottom up. Politics can actually do nothing but follow.”
Even as politics is slowly entering the arena, the work of the CanalPark group is far from over. Admittedly, its actions have put the park back on the political agenda. But the committee is continuing to fight for a fully-fledged park, not just for a small strip of green. The area is 2.5 hectares in size and has huge potential. At the same time, the activists are fighting against alternative plans for the park-to-be, for example against the idea of cutting it into pieces. A tram line was supposed to be directed through the area, but this is off the agenda for now. So Bram Dewolfs can dream on: “Our ultimate goal is to have a big park to meet people’s needs. A park that offers space for meetings, games and relaxation. That would be wonderful.”