The Greening of Brussels Evelyne Huytebroeck, former Minister of Environment, Energy, Water Jurisdiction and City Rejuvenation in the Regional Government of the Brussels - Capital Region. Photo: M. Maltseva

The Greening of Brussels

Women with short hair are braver, the saying goes in Bulgaria. Evelyne Huytebroeck is one such woman. She served as Minister of Environment, Energy, Water Jurisdiction and City Rejuvenation in the Regional Government of the Brussels-Capital Region until 2014, and as she recalls what it took to make Brussels greener, her eyes are sparkling. She always starts her sentences with “we” and never says “I”. She talks of “our” projects instead of “my” initiatives.

Green buildings, green neighbourhoods, a green city – these were the pillars of Brussels’ campaign to becoming a European Green Capital. And while the desired EU award escaped the city’s grasp, its pursuit made Brussels a better place to live in and gave the local economy a significant boost, according to Huytebroeck.

Green houses and green jobs

The first thing that we did was to focus on sustainable buildings, Huytebroeck told a Green Economy Forum held by the Bulgarian Greens at the end of November 2016. Buildings are responsible for three quarters of greenhouse gas emissions, and the level of unemployment in Brussels is as high as 20 to 40 percent in some regions, especially among young people. “That is how we came to the idea of creating a program for employment through promoting green buildings”, Huytebroeck explained.

Promoting green buildings was a crucial step for the whole region. A local demographic boom was calculated to require some 70,000 homes. These new homes have to be energy efficient, and people have to be educated on what to look for in an energy-efficient home. The people’s knowledge about this topic will then create sustained demand for greener solutions down the road.

Buildings are responsible for 40% of all energy consumption today. Photo: A view of Brussels’s CBD by Infurno, CC-BY 3.0

A contest was organized to find the best projects for new, zero-energy buildings (ZEB). They had to include several criteria such as an appealing modern architecture, use of ecological building materials, proper budget per what was allocated, and suitability for different usage profiles.

Some 80 projects entered the contest covering ideas for commercial and residential buildings, schools, hospitals, and social housing units. Five exemplary projects were chosen by the jury to be completed.

Approximately 1,500 new jobs were created through the program for employment in the new, sustainable construction field. “We needed architects, engineers, builders – and we educated young people and gave them employment”, Huytebroeck explained.

She herself has graduated in journalism and social communication at the Free University of Brussels. A communications expert is always true to his or her mission: communication to the public was a core part of the initiative for greening Brussels. Therefore the message to the public was strong.

The Environment division of the Regional Government itself moved into a new building, one of the city’s first zero-energy buildings. Some people like it, others dislike it. Nevertheless, it is an exemplary new building that “speaks” zero-energy construction.

Actually, the Regional Government of the Brussels-Capital Region was a coalition of seven parties (five ministers + three state secretaries). Therefore, their common move into the new, sustainable building was really an important message to the public.

The new headquarters of the The Environment division of the Regional Government of Brussels is a net-zero energy building. “Given that the organ issues ambitious guidelines for sustainability, its own quarters function as an edifying national and international example,” the architects say at Photo: cepezed | Léon van Woerkom

What happened afterwards was important to the local economy. “In 2007 passive house buildings were more expensive than the others. They were some 10-20% more expensive”, Huytebroeck says.  After the educational program and the construction of the exemplary new buildings, the market changed. Demand was getting stronger and stronger for energy-efficient buildings. During the second phase of the project, in 2009-2014, there was huge demand for new, sustainable buildings and this market segment got hot. Passive buildings became common. Today there is no difference in the pricing.

“This was a win-win situation to us. We created new jobs for young people, we helped cope with the unemployment, we educated people and we created demand for low-energy buildings”, the city’s environmental official says.

All of the different sectors of the economy participated in this process. “Public and private organizations sat on the round table: there were private companies, architects, schools – all of them joined. We did not tell them what to do – they started discussing and deciding. It was a bottom-up change”, the city minister explained.

Local communities were involved in the process of greening the city. They could decide in what ways to change their neighbourhoods. Most people wanted new parks, new playgrounds, and places for open-air sports.

Sustainable food

Having triggered a major shift towards a greener mindset, the Brussels government started talking of sustainable food.

As a part of the metamorphosis, sustainable food was to play a crucial role, the city’s government believed. They wanted to make people understand this and change their habits. Brussels’ local mayors and NGOs initiated a plan to promote sustainable food. They started working with schools for creating sustainable canteens, sustainable gardens and urban farming, and restaurants with sustainable food as part of their menus. This soon became viral, just like the Slow Food movement did some thirty years earlier.

The idea of urban farming was introduced as well, including rooftop farming. “It became a crucial part of our change as people started demanding healthier, local and sustainable food”, Huytebroeck said.

Ironically, Brussels did not win the European Green Capital Award in 2015. But Huytebroeck is still satisfied with the real-life reward that the city’s local economy did win: both the building industry and the F&B sector was reshaped and boosted.

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