Enacting Citizenship in an Urban Borderland: the Case of Maximilian Park in Brussels

The European Journal of Creative Practices in Cities and Landscapes. Vol 1, no 1 (2018)
ISSN 2612-0496

Enacting Citizenship in an Urban Borderland: the Case of Maximilian Park in Brussels

Racha DaherKU Leuven

Racha Daher was trained as an architect and urban designer. Interested in the catalytic power of public space in the city, she co-founded Hive Public Space, an NYC-based urban design startup that focuses on urban transformation through public space (re)development. She currently teaches urban design studios based on systemic and ecological design-thinking, and is undergoing PhD research on designing for inclusion in an age of migration, through exploring mobile social ecologies and their spatial manifestations.

Viviana d’AuriaKU Leuven

Viviana d’Auria was trained as an architect and urbanist at Roma Tre University and pursued studies in Human Settlements at the KU Leuven where she also completed her PhD. She has been Rubicon fellow at the Department of Geography, Planning and International Development Studies of the University of Amsterdam and is currently Assistant Professor in International Urbanism at the Department of Architecture, KU Leuven. Exploring “practiced” architecture is an integral part of her research within a more general interest in the trans-cultural construction of cities and their contested spaces.

Published: 2018-12-31


This paper explores the relationship between asylum seekers and Maximilian Park, a contested site in Brussels in terms of unresolved conflicts around migration, refugees and borders. By tracing the park’s evolution as part of the North Quarter, and understanding the various transient trajectories that characterize this urban area, the paper will probe into the interaction between “full” and “temporary” citizens. Through spatial synthesis and mapping, the paper will first unpack the urban history of the North Quarter as part of the arrival infrastructure of the European capital. The connections between groups with varying degrees of vulnerability who claim spaces with more or less legitimacy will be explored through two main sources complementing ethnographic analysis. Firstly, narratives developed by the local press will be used as a means to unfold the main perspectives when dealing with the complex topic of migration and public space; secondly, the on-line organization of a key civil society organization active in the support of migrants will be interrogated. Building on the notion of “non-citizen citizenship” the authors will conclude by critically reflecting on what form the extension of rights could take to help craft a revised form of citizenship based on the politics of presence in the city.

Corrected on December 20, 2019. See https://doi.org/10.6092/issn.2612-0496/10111

Nation-based notions of citizenship are increasingly confronted with the contemporary condition of mobile inhabitants in our cosmopolitan era. This tension has intensified in recent years in the context of asylum, challenging the sovereignty of states, their control of borders and their management of migration. In Europe, the unrecognized presence of displaced people defies state control. Their mobility manifests itself in public space, where they claim access to the urban sphere appropriating public amenities and infrastructure to their needs. In Brussels this condition has played out in the North Quarter. Over time, this area has been characterized by infrastructural accumulation, migration, social polarization, and aborted visions, leaving it with a character so ambivalent that it has presented itself as a place of welcome, hosting many asylum seekers moving through Europe during the recent migration wave. This group, the “non-citizens” referred to in this article, have taken shelter in Maximilian Park, as well as in the busiest station in the city, the North Station.

This contribution highlights the processes in which a specific group of non-citizens enact themselves as citizens by virtue of material presence and public space appropriation, with the help of recognized citizens performing acts (facilitated through an online platform) that challenge static notions of citizenship. It will touch upon the concepts of “non-citizen citizenship” and “acts of citizenship” as they relate to the specific urban context, in attempt to answer the question: is citizenship generated by administrative status or by material presence and participation in the urban realm?

The article first begins by describing the urban history that has led the North Quarter to take on its current spatial condition. It further highlights the discourse covering the topic of non-citizens in the area by analyzing postings of a local Brussels-based multimedia outlet, BRUZZ, known for its socio-cultural reporting approach. It then moves on to illustrate how a citizen group, Plateforme Citoyenne de Soutien aux Refugiés1 (PCSR), have mobilized both virtual and physical public space, using Facebook to extend support to non-citizens. PCSR has been selected as a case of study due to its prominent position defending the claims of the non-citizen group inhabiting the public space explored. The research presented has used multiple approaches, from direct observation to media analysis, to digital (social media) ethnography. These methods have been integrated to show how public space can be used as a means to enact urban citizenship.

Enacting citizens, non-citizens, and public space

Several authors have written about the manifestation of Maximilian Park as a camp site for asylum seekers mainly from Syria2 during the 2015 “crisis.”3 This “crisis” consolidated the North Quarter as a waiting ground for non-citizens and a space for citizens to creatively engage in social and political actions.4 Specifically, Maximilian Park and the North Station have become political sites that fall out of the control of the nation-state, and in which organizations such as PCSR, have emerged and operate beyond and despite the state, putting pressure on state institutions and challenging the notion of border-based citizenship and access to rights.5

We aim to move beyond the momentum generated by the “crisis” and engage in the contemporary condition of Maximilian Park by building on the concept of “non-citizen citizenship.” This contribution will therefore focus on the challenge that liminal and hard-to-govern subjects pose to citizenship, as an analytical strategy to redefine it in a dynamic way.6 Scholarship on “non-citizen citizenship” has challenged the way citizenship is tied to the idea of the nation-state. According to Stevenson, cultural versions of citizenship “need to ask who is silenced, marginalized, stereotyped and rendered invisible.”7 This form of framing citizenship is concerned with “who needs to be visible, to be heard, and to belong.”8 Stevenson insists that “ideas of cultural citizenship need to be able to define new forms of ‘inclusive’ public space... so that ‘minorities’ are able to make themselves and their social struggles visible and open the possibility of dialogic engagement, while offering the possibility of deconstructing normalizing assumptions.”9 In light of such emphasis on minorities, we follow Swerts’ indication that undocumented migrants, as persons residing in a country in which they have no legal permission to be present, are an extreme case of non-citizens, and as such particularly relevant to understand how citizenship is being transformed from below. In this paper, this social condition is analyzed in Maximilian Park.

Maximilian Park and its surroundings have been significantly re-signified by the multiplicity of practices performed by non-citizens and their many related networks. By claiming these spaces and appropriating them for their use, non-citizens operate outside the normative sphere of what their illegal status allows, acting both as citizens and agents of contestation.10 In that sense a double enactment manifests itself in this condition, an enactment of the citizen and that of the non-citizen, both of which could not happen in the same way without the enactment of Maximilian Park itself. The public park has shown its full capacity in this sense: it is not only a neutral, open space concerned with the intermixing of various groups, but it becomes a space entangled with the cosmopolitan posture of PCSR and the non-citizens it supports, who are “not only concerned with the ethical relations between self and the other, but seek an institutional and political grounding in the context of shared global problems.”11 The contemporary cosmopolitan condition, in which the movement of people and information across borders is amplified, becomes an instrument for such enactment and contestation, and through which new spaces are defined so that they are “neither describable nor governable from the perspective of the fixed and self-contained boundaries of the nation-state.”12 This not only holds true for social media outlets, but also in physical public spaces such as Maximilian Park. Furthermore, this cosmopolitan condition challenges a “deep moral contradiction at the heart of the modern state” shedding light on its incompleteness and the ethical ambitions that still lack at the institutional level."13

This takes us to a last point worth noting in the context of this contribution, which concerns the forms of action and mobilization of migrants. As has been noted, these cannot resemble that of collective political subjects,14 because they do not form classical social movements, but instead have to operate differently because of their unrecognized status. As such, this paper sets in conversation the notion of “non-citizen citizenship” with the contributions made by scholars on “autonomous migration,” to focus on mobility’s social aspects rather than on the ruptures performed by protest marches, occupations and other comparable expressions relying on the self-organization of undocumented migrants and on the advocacy efforts of human rights activists.

The North Quarter, Maximilian Park and the North Station

The North Quarter’s urban history has much to do with its position as a place of arrival. Brussels developed where the navigability of the Zenne River ended, as its watershed was composed of unsuitable swampy land. As the city grew, the river became insufficient for the economic purposes of the time, following the technological innovation of transport modes. The floodplain was continuously reshuffled by infrastructural upgrades and shifts: first, river transport was transferred to a canal; then, the canal was extended, to be substituted by railways, railyards and train stations; the rail system was in turn challenged by a widened sea channel, deep sea docks, quays, and warehouses; the railways were electrified; and finally, the subsequent prominence of cars and trucks turned boulevards into urban motorways with viaducts further expanding the city. Throughout this process of infrastructural sequencing, all competing in function and sharing the North-South Zenne watershed, the insalubrious river was covered and a major watermark erased (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 Infrastructural sequencing in Brussels. (1a) Brussels was a walled city in the valley of the Zenne River. (1b) A canal system parallel to the Zenne River supported economic activity. (1c) By the 20th Century the Zenne river was completely covered and the floodplain occupied by rail and road infrastructure. Maps by Racha Daher, based on historic maps by the Cartographic Military Institute.
Fig. 1 Infrastructural sequencing in Brussels. (1a) Brussels was a walled city in the valley of the Zenne River. (1b) A canal system parallel to the Zenne River supported economic activity. (1c) By the 20th Century the Zenne river was completely covered and the floodplain occupied by rail and road infrastructure. Maps by Racha Daher, based on historic maps by the Cartographic Military Institute.

The North Quarter, a fin-shaped territory just north of the pentagon,15 lies at the confluence where this infrastructural sequencing and its remnants co-exist. Throughout the last century, the quarter has featured disease, disrepair, decay, and societal destitution. The area is also marked by the incompleteness of projects that never came to fruition. The most prominent vision took place in the end of the 1960s, when 53 hectares of urban fabric were razed to make way for economic and commercial development in the name of progress and prosperity. Squeezed between the canal and the rail line, and marked by the World Trade Center, the “Manhattan Plan” intended to create a world-class economic hub and attract international businesses. The project never reached the overestimated potential it aimed for and it was never completed. Instead, it created a quarter full of vast land and vacant buildings. The razing of the old fabric resulted in an erasure of the layers that formed the area’s identity over time, but also in the mass expulsion of local residents. Following this displacement, the Manhattan Plan was aborted, leaving the wiped-out fabric empty for many years. Alternative housing was provided to only a small portion of displaced residents, and “compensations”16 ended up materializing in the form of undefined and fragmented patches of green area all labeled as Maximilian Park.

The area known as Maximilian Park today is composed of vegetated surfaces, playing areas, shaded walks and a didactic farm. Before the park’s establishment, the area was occupied by an international passenger heliport inaugurated in 1953 to accommodate intensified service for the 1958 World Exposition. The heliport was closed eight years later, remaining abandoned until the Manhattan Plan’s troubled execution. The plan’s partial implementation created a commercial district, and mono-functional office towers today cast their shadows on an area where tens of thousands of synchronized employees march at peak hours through the otherwise desolate Simon Bolivar Boulevard that marks the entrance of the North Station. They head forth to catch one of the many trains passing through the most active station of the Brussels Capital Region. Their daily procession to and from the station proceeds largely uninterrupted, and few existing food joints are active at lunch break and no further, since after-work gatherings are seldom amongst a largely commuting population.

The aborted plan also produced a distinctive and omnipresent vastness, creating the conditions for harboring several groups with weak legitimacy by implicitly offering its oversized infrastructure to homeless people, asylum seekers and “transit” migrants.17 The quarter today is especially entangled with migration, and the park has unconditionally offered the right to its usage, along with a strong co-dependence on the nearby North Station’s facilities. The station is a main hub for multi-modal transport combining city metro, national rail, and international bus lines. It has a history of demolition and construction closely related to that of the long gone Allée Verte Station constructed in 1835, and whose site today partially coincides with that of Maximilian Park. The Allée Verte Station was the earliest passenger rail in Brussels and the first to connect to other European cities. As the need for more capacity arose, the North Station opened a few blocks away, resulting in the use of the Allée Verte exclusively for freight transport which in turn, further shifted west as a new larger terminal, Tour et Taxis, opened at the turn of the 20th century, accompanying canal widening and the establishment of a port. By mid-century, the Allée Verte made way for the aforementioned heliport. As the North Station became saturated, it was demolished and a larger building was constructed a few blocks north, further adding the role of passage and multi-modality. The new North Station was part of the “Jonction Nord-Midi” plan, which created direct rail connection through the old city, linking the North and South stations of Brussels. It is this North Station building of 1952 that stands today to provide its infrastructure to the temporary migrants of the North Quarter (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 The North Station has a history of relocation linked with the Maximilian Park site, the former site of the Allee Verte Station. (1a) Allee Verte Station: the first station on the passenger rail connecting Brussels to Europe is constructed. (1b) The first North Station is constructed to increase the passenger capacity not fulfilled by Allee Verte, which soon became exclusively used for freight. (1c) Tour et Taxis becomes the major freight terminal, diminishing the role of the Allee Verte. The canal is widened, the industrial port expanded and the basin constructed. (1d) The new North Station is constructed to increase passenger capacity. The first North Station is gone and the river is covered. The Allee Verte and the basin are replaced by a heliport, where Maxilimian Park is today located. Maps by Racha Daher, based on historic maps of by the Cartographic Military Institute.
Fig. 2 The North Station has a history of relocation linked with the Maximilian Park site, the former site of the Allee Verte Station. (1a) Allee Verte Station: the first station on the passenger rail connecting Brussels to Europe is constructed. (1b) The first North Station is constructed to increase the passenger capacity not fulfilled by Allee Verte, which soon became exclusively used for freight. (1c) Tour et Taxis becomes the major freight terminal, diminishing the role of the Allee Verte. The canal is widened, the industrial port expanded and the basin constructed. (1d) The new North Station is constructed to increase passenger capacity. The first North Station is gone and the river is covered. The Allee Verte and the basin are replaced by a heliport, where Maxilimian Park is today located. Maps by Racha Daher, based on historic maps of by the Cartographic Military Institute.

Upon exiting the station into Simon Bolivar, two blocks down, one turns a corner around one of the World Trade Center18 towers, where metal barriers make the sidewalk almost impracticable. They are placed in correspondence with the secondary entrance to the Immigration Office, where applicants have to queue to file for asylum. The paving shows signs of lengthy waiting and is constellated with disparate materials for overnight shelter, from cardboard boxes and blankets to leftover meal packaging. On the other side of the street lies the most defined patch of the Maximilian Park, making up a full block as one of the main public spaces of the North Quarter of Brussels. At around 7 pm, the park is at its busiest. A long line forms for the provision of food. A few women can be spotted amidst a definite majority of young men from sub-Saharan Africa—if one is to judge from the languages spoken, from Tigrinya to Zande.

A walk through the park illuminates how its infrastructure is being used at its utmost by the same demographic waiting in line, from teams playing in the football field to a smaller group using the public water fountain to wash themselves and their belongings. The gentle slopes at the opposite end of the food distribution point host young men who rest in the shade surrounded by empty containers of various kinds: from Styrofoam hamburger boxes to sandwich paper bags and a wide array of take-away cups and paper towels. Waiting seems to be a major activity in the park: for access to drinking and bathing water, for food delivery, for rides to safe havens across Belgium or to the Porte d’Ulysses, the newly re-opened accommodation shelter19 where 300 overnight stays are catered for by volunteers of the citizen-led PCSR.

Investigating cultural discourse and mobile commons

Foregrounding autonomy in migration means to acknowledge and build on the capacity of migration to develop its own logic, made obvious by the “multiplicity of actors who install relations of justice on the ground in the midst of [...] sovereign control.”20 Such actors contribute to the construction of “mobile commons” that in turn contribute to “creating conditions of thick everyday performative and practical justice so that everyday mobility, clandestine or open, becomes possible.”21 Mobile commons constitute the infrastructure that un-recognized citizens navigate and utilize to access information and build the networks they need to get by. The effective reservoir put in place by this multi-faceted community, involving the politics and infrastructure of care, as well as the invisible knowledge of technological connectivity (to name some of the more central components of such commons) will be highlighted in the next two sections. These will delve into the analysis of cultural discourse on the topic through media coverage by BRUZZ, as well as in the virtual realm of the activist citizens of PCSR operating on Facebook.

Views from BRUZZ on Maximilian Park

As the previous section has highlighted, the North Quarter’s development was contentious because of the district’s specific urban history and socio-economic evolution. This section focuses on how the park became a visible manifestation of the struggles between solidarity movements, migrant agency, and governmental action, and how this was reported on by the local media BRUZZ.22 This choice rests on the fact that BRUZZ is an important Brussels-based, trilingual paper with an emphasis on culture. It focuses exclusively on events taking place in Brussels itself, and is thus distinct from national headlines that have been analyzed in prior studies on migration. As the official website of the Brussels-Capital Region states, “BRUZZ is the reference for everything that is happening in Brussels.”23

Due to the proximity of Maximilian Park to the Immigration Office, various spontaneous encampments were installed in this area between 2000 and 2013, usually as a consequence of chronically unresolved difficulties around migrants and bordering policies. In the course of the so-called “refugee crisis,” an encampment was formed again, largely due to the decision to limit the number of applications that could be processed daily.24 Asylum seekers waited in the park, even overnight, and subsequently attracted support to make their waiting dignified. This situation resonated with a comparable surge of solidarity by private citizens on the occasion of asylum seekers from war-torn Syria reaching Europe.

In late 2015, BRUZZ provided consistent coverage of the park’s transformation and the park-neighborhood relationships when migration patterns were subject to change in the aftermath of the “crisis”. The North Quarter and Maximilian Park were not only influenced by the numbers of Syrian asylum seekers, but also by how other migratory routes passed by Brussels after the closure of the Calais “Jungle” in October 2016. Prior to 2015, among other topics treated under the rubric of samenleving,25 BRUZZ had reported protests by the Front des Migrants, a network of asylum seekers whose applications had been refused but who remained in Belgium nonetheless. Its earliest online post about the park, however, dates back to 2005, and concerned the proposal to install an open air swimming pool.26 Five years later, reporters followed forty undocumented migrants, “victims of a failing asylum policy,” who camped in the park until they were relocated to a former office building.27 In 2011, refused asylum seekers were expelled from overcrowded reception centers, and 150 of them ended up camping in the Maximilian Park, to be forcibly removed after a few weeks.28 Yet, most of BRUZZ’s pieces focus on the month-long existence of the Maximilian camp that hosted over 5000 asylum seekers thanks to 9000 estimated days of voluntary work.

At the time of the 2015 camp, intense public discussion was generated “by creating links between different marginalized groups and by putting ‘outsiders’ at the center of the debate.”29 BRUZZ entries concerning this debate reflect frictions between various actors dealing with migration. Besides covering the different views of the federal government, the Brussels Capital-Region, the City of Brussels and the multiple caretakers involved, the local media outlet followed the development of volunteer response. Once the camp had completed its month-long existence, BRUZZ published an account of its last 24 hours30 and a yearly overview that questioned the political polarization between Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration and the refugee organizations like PCSR.31

In contrast with other organizations, PCSR had accepted the camp to be vacated, on the condition that the Federal Government would take the responsibility for providing longer-term infrastructure for sheltering the migrants. Other actors, such as many undocumented migrant networks operating in Brussels refused to leave the camp.32 Following the eviction, they installed a protest camp along the Willebroeck dock where assistance was still available to those in need, but they were ultimately arrested.33 These various “acts of citizenship” relied both on the advocacy efforts of human rights activists and on the self-organization of undocumented migrants.34 As expressions of “non-citizen citizenship,” they are part of “the plethora of political practices through which non-citizens make claims to belonging, inclusion and recognition in their societies of residence.”35

By early October 2015, BRUZZ reports how Maximilian Park is reinstated as a public space for the neighborhood. A first initiative concerns an outdoor work-out area installed after a public call for “cool initiatives that could improve life in the city.”36 The artistic project titled “Nature-Art-Cohesion,” expected to improve the “living together” of social associations, companies and artists in the area, and was later exhibited in Maximilian Park.37 In early October 2016, however, the main focus changes again, aligned with the increased numbers of migrants using the park’s infrastructure. Journalists reported that between 20 and 40 migrants had been sleeping in the park since the end of June 2016.38 By the end of the year, their number had risen to 75, 60 of which from Sudan.39 As a consequence of the park’s use as a site to rest, camp, and benefit from basic assistance near a major transport hub, police raids became commonplace. Their increased frequency, BRUZZ reports, is due to “the persistent complaints from local residents about heavy nuisance. Every night people sleep on the street, the bushes serve as a toilet.”40 The presence of asylum seekers sparks objections from longer-term residents of the North Quarter, including shopkeepers of migrant origin along the nearby Brabantstraat.41

The intensification of police activity coincides with an increase in brutality, as documented by several online articles on BRUZZ. This escalation triggered the sympathy towards the asylum seekers by North Quarter residents who witnessed the ill-treatment, balancing those complaints that had generated police intervention in the first place. Likewise, artistic practice expressed solidarity by means of an installation in the park.42

The period ranging from June 2017 until the re-opening of the Porte d’Ulysses a year later is particularly revealing of how Maximilian Park became the central stage for embodied claims between policing actions, vulnerable claimants and caretakers of a different demographic than the asylum seekers from war-torn Syria.43 The change in origin of asylum seekers from mainly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans to Eritrean and Sudanese men aspiring to reach the UK, meant that the contested term “transit migrant” became widespread in describing displaced people using the park’s infrastructure and the related solidarity networks. Articles in BRUZZ adhere to this vocabulary, and alternate accounts of police identity controls, arrests, and confiscations of migrants’ personal belongings. Confrontations between supporting organizations and police intervention significantly transformed the park’s physical space. Medecins du Monde (MdM), for instance, increased its medical assistance two-fold, without any influence on repressive police action.44 Rather, an opening was provided by the City of Brussels, granting temporary space in the park for medical assistance, in alliance with MdM.45 Moreover, volunteers and citizens begin to denounce the inhumane treatment of migrants by means of legal action, and PCSR intensified its lobbying through demonstrations and expanded its protection of migrants by hosting them in private homes. From September to November 2017, 50,000 overnight stays were facilitated by PCSR, while tensions continued between various government levels either in favor of or against the opening of the night shelter in Haren.46