The History of Suburban Brussels

An American would feel right at home in the suburbs of Brussels. Mid 20th century ranch-style tract housing and newer contemporary homes are the norm, as medieval architecture and tourist attractions are noticeably absent. So too are the housing projects, multi-unit apartment complexes, and major public transportation links that predominate other European suburbs. Drive for tens of miles outside of the city limits and the landscape is no different from the immediate fringe areas of the urban core.

The miles of suburban Brussels are extremely crowded, as the official population count has surged past 600,000 people. The area is slightly denser than the San Jose, CA city limits and only 15% less dense than Los Angeles. Over the last fifty years, the core city has lost 1/3 of its residents, yet the entire Brussels metropolitan area has grown by over 500,000 people.

A Brussels Suburb

The capital of the European Union is certainly an interesting case in the world of suburbia. Split by two languages—the French speaking Walloon region to the south, and the Flemish speaking northern suburbs—the Brussels periphery is a story of significant urban sprawl.   While it has similar physical characteristics to its Scandinavian counterparts—most notably Copenhagen and Denmark, commonalities to Paris, Amsterdam, and most other cities across Europe are few.

The suburbanization of Brussels—much like that of Paris—involved a 19th century leader who aspired to transform the city into a grand capital. The plan ultimately fell short, but stimulated the growth of suburban Brussels.


The upper class in Brussels had idealized establishing an élite capital since the county’s independence in 1830. In the mid 1800s their hopes began to be realized, as the city acquired broad avenues and grand buildings in a “desire by the aristocracy and upper middle class to build a city in the image of Paris by promoting urban growth.” Belgium’s leader Leopold II, who was determined to follow the path of Baron Haussmann in France, led this strikingly similar urban redevelopment project. Much like Haussmann in his use of grand public spaces, Leopold II set out to create buildings and monuments on large streets that cut through the city center, while establishing urban parks and other projects along arteries. The Belgian elites prevented the working class from intervening during this period and the best interests of the city center were promoted ahead of overall population concerns.

The forgotten working class was then pushed out of the city and into the suburbs, which grew from 142,164 people in 1866 to 328,953 in 1890. The growth of the suburbs coincided with Belgium’s industrial revolution and many of these displaced lower class workers soon found employment in industries. As the city continued to change, a housing act in 1889 ordered the demolition of unsanitary buildings in the city center, in a move that was made to force out the remaining lower classes from city life. The working class residents that remained still refused to leave the city center, bunching up into the few remaining enclaves for the urban poor.

An Industrial Area in the Suburb of Diegem

Beginning in the late 19th century, many of the proposed plans by Leopold II began to stall, as worker strikes were prevalent. The working class in Brussels maintained a great sense of nationalism and unity during this time of displacement, in part because suburban residents continued to embrace their cultural history. The government also never fully relinquished its attention towards the working class, offering public housing and providing forms of public transport to suburban citizens, even providing discounts to poorer travelers. Still, most suburban workers lived up to ten miles away from the closest transportation, and while at times the government showed a willingness to support its entire population, the fact remained that the suburban lifestyle was neither ideal nor preferred for Belgian citizens.

The Belgian élite ultimately could not sustain a firm division between the rich and poor, and a lack of cohesiveness after Leopold II ultimately undermined the transformation efforts. Numerous attempts to resume the work would occur, and with the German occupation in the 1940s, the original ideas championed by the urban élite never fully came to fruition.


Post WWII Brussels experienced significant population gains in the city center until 1970. Housing preferences were still focused on the urban core. Yet the following period—from 1970 to 2000—saw central Brussels lose a significant population to the suburbs. A growing number of families with middle class status and real household income spurred construction in many peripheral areas, as the city center was experiencing overcrowding due to the decades of sustained population growth.

An Ariel Shot of Suburban Brussels

International migrants also stimulated middle and upper-class suburban growth. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 opened up Belgium’s borders to goods, capital, and most importantly people from all across the European Union. Brussels had been a relatively homogeneous entity of multi-generational Belgians for centuries, but the increased mobility of European citizens changed the makeup of the city. Industries recruited international immigrants, as the population of French natives in Brussels doubled from 1991 to 2001. A number of Eastern European nations—most notably Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary—also sent significant numbers of people to Belgium’s capital.

The living preferences of the previous century had all but reversed. Affluent residents of Brussels continued to build houses in the suburbs.  Middle and upper-class immigrants followed, many of whom settled directly into suburban life without experiencing the urban core. Unskilled laborers—both native to Belgium and from other countries—moved into the city center as real estate prices dropped.

Higher household incomes in the center of Brussels were ultimately replaced by poorer residents. In the 1970s, the income tax per inhabitant in the Brussels Capital Region significantly outpaced the country mean (index of 100). By 1990 the region’s mean taxable income had fallen to equal standing with the Belgian mean. The downtown trend continued, as the 2007 Brussels figure is lower than the entire country.

Income Tax by Municipality Relative to the Belgian Income Tax (index=100)

The data suggests that the downward trend has at least slowed. Gentrification in some municipalities may have started to inverse in recent years, and signs show an increased number of young professionals moving into the city, mainly to attend higher education. Students typically have little income and hamper income statistics, as their lack of paid work does not correlate to their social status or access to disposable income from parents.

New policies are also making it more attractive to live in the urban core. Vast supplies of rental housing makes is an attractive option for students and others in a transitional stage. The city still offers beautiful squares and historic buildings, as well as the jobs and resources that come with its status as the EU capital.

Yet suburbs are still the big draw. Homes are generally smaller than their American counterparts—in line with smaller household budgets, but the similarities are clear. Two different cultures, one common theme. Vast areas of urban sprawl predominated by middle and upper-class families who choose a suburban life over the city center.

-Matt Milloway

**author’s note:  The chart came from ADSEI and the article’s lone quote is cited below.

Alexander B. Murphy, “Landscapes for Whom?  The Twentieth-Century Remaking of Brussels,” Yale French Studies, no. 102 (2002): 192,


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One Comment on “The History of Suburban Brussels”

  1. Barbara Connors
    October 6, 2011 at 9:29 pm #

    Brussels doesn’t seem to fit the norm of most European cities. I’m thinking its EU headquarters status has definitely had an effect. It seems more open to suburbia and a general flow of the middle class for jobs.

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