A Swamp Grows in Brussels
“Over time, not only have a multitude of animals, mainly waterfowl, come to inhabit this bit of abandoned architecture, but as one of the few “green” spaces in the neighborhood, it has also become an asset to neighboring residents.”
By Laura Brown
Walking along Avenue Van Volxem — a major conduit for cars, buses, and trams in a densely-populated, low-income area of Brussels — I hear a strange sound along a certain stretch of the road. What sounds like a chorus of frogs reverberates from the apartment houses opposite an abandoned lot. Peering through the unassuming chain-link fence at the lot’s edge, the sound gets louder and I find the source: a marshy pond replete with waterfowl, frogs, reeds and cattails has filled the foundation of a demolished building.
Though you wouldn’t know by looking at it, the Wiels Marsh, as it has come to be known, has been the topic of several courses and conferences at local universities, and is a destination for guided public tours — on the site’s wildlife, the neighborhood’s water system, and the urban history and future of the site. Since the beginning of its formation in 2008, this accidental body of water has become home to over 170 species of flora and fauna (though as many as 329 species have reportedly been observed), including several protected species, and a battleground between human and animal interests involving citizens, real estate developers, and the city.
Previously owned by the Wielemans Ceuppens brewery for over 100 years, the land where the marsh now sits was acquired a private real estate company, JCX Immo, in 2003. This acquisition was part of a larger public-private deal, initiated in 2001, in which the Brussels-Capital Region acquired two of the brewery’s buildings, which are now an art museum and community arts center, through the exercise of eminent domain. In 2008, JCX abandoned the construction of an office building on the site, leaving behind only the building’s foundation, which has since developed into the body of water that is there today.
Over time, not only have a multitude of animals, mainly waterfowl, come to inhabit this bit of abandoned architecture, but as one of the few “green” spaces in the neighborhood, it has also become an asset to neighboring residents: a community garden and apiary frequented by local residents now sit on the adjacent grounds. The marsh also acts as a naturally-occurring reservoir for storm runoff, a problem that causes frequent flooding in the area and that the city is struggling to solve by engineered means.
The Wiels Marsh gained little public attention until 2016, when JCX requested a permit for the development of a large residential project, which threatened to entirely eliminate the body of water. Concerned citizens, and in particular a grass-roots campaign to “save the swamp,” organized in large part on Facebook, successfully blocked this plan, along with a revised plan submitted in 2018.
In 2021, the Brussels-Capital Region purchased the land as well the Hotel Metropole, an older, abandoned building that is partially submerged in the swamp. The region rolled out a multi-faceted plan: the preservation of most of the existing marsh; the development of public space around the marsh, including the grounds of the current community garden and apiary, by Brussels Environment (the region’s parks department); the development of a new building containing 70 to 80 subsidized housing units by Citydev (a regional organization tasked with developing affordable housing); and the extension of the existing abandoned building. According to currently-available plans, all new construction involved in these last two projects will be placed on areas that are currently occupied by the marsh and its animal inhabitants.
Compared to the 2016 plans for private development, the Wiels Marsh has ostensibly been “saved,” but citizens hoping for the preservation of the entirety of the marsh and its surroundings with minimal human intervention still find this solution less than satisfactory. While the region is surely keen to demonstrate that its injection of public funds amounts to money well-spent for its human taxpayers, it is difficult to see how this construction will avoid disturbing the wildlife in the remaining area. According to Geneviève Kinet, a representative of the not-for-profit Marais Wiels Moeras association with whom I recently spoke, the earth beneath the marsh is heavily polluted but does not currently leak into the water. Construction on the marsh would require draining those areas and disturbing the earth, potentially polluting the remainder of the marsh.
As for the need for additional housing, Kinet clarified that the proposed housing units will not be rent-controlled rental units, as I had thought; they will be sold in a public-to-private scheme in which buyers purchase at a subsidized, below-market price, and can re-sell at market prices after a certain waiting period (10 or 20 years, according to Kinet). Rather than providing durable affordable housing, the plan enables 70–80 buyers to realize huge profits after this period. As for the need to construct new affordable housing in the first place, it has been argued that the shortage of affordable housing public would be more effectively addressed through the public utilization of existing unoccupied real estate — ten thousand residential units and one million square meters of unoccupied office space — as well as rent stabilization and higher real estate capital gains tax.
Aside from the new construction, two previously aligned arguments for the swamp’s preservation — its value as public green space for the enjoyment of local residents, and the preservation of a habitat for wildlife — have come into tension. The region has tasked urban planning and construction firm Beliris with the development of a park that will include the remainder of the marsh and is politically motivated to make the marsh and its surroundings attractive to visitors, thereby demonstrating its value as public greenspace. It remains to be seen to what extent this will affect the currently placid and hard-to-access marsh. According to Kinet, each stakeholder in the development of the marsh area is tasked with assessing the environmental impact of their proposed project but a global analysis of the combined impact on the marsh of all the projects is neither required nor planned.
While the Wiels Marsh is here to stay, albeit in a different form, in the competition of visions for the site’s future it is the city’s politicians, having made a politically-appealing compromise, who are the true winners.