Port of Brussels: integration, an absolute imperative and belief

Published by  4 December, 2018 3:29 pm Leave your thoughts

AIVP recently organised a study mission to Belgium for its members. The trip focused on the co-construction approach that is central to city-port project initiatives in five Belgian port cities. The case of Brussels, which we will look at here, is of particular interest.

The Port of Brussels is an AIVP member since 1991

This year sees the Port of Brussels celebrate the 25th anniversary of its creation as a Regional Company, following reforms by the Belgian State to regionalise ports and waterways. Since then, it has been a public interest body, attached to the Brussels-Capital Region. It occupies a central position in the heart of the Region, with 6 kilometres of docks along the 14 kilometres of canal that cross the Brussels Region from north to south.  As the country’s second-largest inland port, it plays a vital role for Brussels in terms of the economy, the environment, and jobs. Much of Brussels’ supplies are brought in via the water, whether food or agricultural produce, construction materials, petroleum or metallurgical products. This activity supports 12,000 jobs directly and indirectly, across the 400 businesses of various sizes that make up the Brussels port cluster.

In addition, shipping some 7 million tonnes of goods shipped via the waterways in 2017 helped to avoid 650,000 truck journeys, 100,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions, and €25 million in external costs.


The port of Brussels is keen to act as a facilitator for logistics activity, by encouraging the use of rail and water transport via a network of trans-shipment platforms along the canal, combined with a last kilometre freight strategy allowing palletised goods (consumer goods and construction materials) to be carried as close as possible to end consumers. At the centre of the city, there are four trans-shipment points and two hubs for temporary storage, grouping, repackaging, etc.

With constantly growing river traffic and a prime location in the heart of a rapidly expanding city, the Port was also faced with pressure on its highly sight-after waterfront spaces. Its response, in the form of its 2030 master plan, is based on a very pro-active strategy of integration that goes hand in hand with that of the Brussels-Capital Region’s own Canal Plan, in terms of both solutions and the co-construction approach adopted.


The Canal Plan: co-construction and evolutive urban planning

The plan, for the land along the 14 km stretch of canal that passes through seven of the Region’s municipalities, was devised by Alexandre Chemetoff starting in November 2012, following an international competition. Density, mix, and urban integration are the three priorities: mixed urban uses with consolidated economic activities, a mix of populations, housing development (with potential for 25,000 homes), densification and rationalisation of land use, and creation of attractive public spaces. A Landscape and Urban Quality Plan was also specifically created by the design offices Org Squared and Bureau Bas Smets, to ensure consistency between the various types of public spaces and projects.

The Brussels government approved the plan and launched implementation in early 2015. A dedicated team was set up, and the method adopted was focused on partnership and co-construction between public and private stakeholders backing projects. That constant dialogue between the Region, municipalities and project sponsors gradually saw the Canal Plan take shape. Developed as part of the Canal Plan, the Béco and Vergote docks projects and the passenger terminal are good examples of the Port of Brussels’ integration strategy in action.

Brussels, a port at the heart of the urban fabric

Work on the passenger terminal in the outer harbour, on the left bank of the canal, was officially launched in July 2016. A large part of the construction materials needed were brought in via the water. The nearby road was redeveloped and a bridge built over it to allow access from the terminal to an existing green promenade area. The terminal will help support the growth of river cruise traffic, with 12,000 passengers in 2017, a figure expected to rise to around 35,000 by 2030. The positive impact for Brussels has been estimated at 5 million euros per year. The Brussels Cruise Terminal was officially opened in April 2018. The dock is also used for excursions and a waterbus running between Brussels and Vilvorde, helping to promote more sustainable mobility and improve access to the different districts.

. © Port de Bruxelles

Given the Béco dock basin’s proximity to the city centre, the emphasis was placed on cultural, recreational and residential purposes. On the left bank, the “Materials dock” was redeveloped between 1993 and 1999 as a public leisure area. The “Quai des Péniches” dock on the right bank was itself redeveloped between 2000 and 2002 as a multi-purpose public space. A bridge reserved for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport will be built by 2020, to allow access to the canal area and the Tours & Taxis district, a canalside former industrial site, and various port businesses. A district including housing, facilities, offices and shops will also be created on the right bank.

As regards cultural activities, those who took part in the study trip to Belgium organised by AIVP last November visited the museum of modern and contemporary art at the new KANAL – Pompidou Centre, a cultural hub designed by NoArchitecten-EM2N-Sergison Bates and developed in the former Citroën buildings. In addition to the museum, the hub is also home to an Architectural Centre (CIVA) and public spaces dedicated to culture.


Some wholesale trading businesses have been relocated from the Béco dock to the Vergote dock sector, freeing up space at Béco for a new park. One of those businesses is Mpro (construction materials, a subsidiary of the Irish Grafton Group PLC), already present at Vergote dock, which will bring together its activities at the port of Brussels on a single site, the “Construction Village”. For the Vergote dock, the priority was to consolidate and strengthen economic activity and create public spaces. The projects undertaken as part of this approach include the TACT (standing for Terrain Adjacent to the TIR Centre), which will be a productive economy hub hosting urban businesses, and the development of certain public spaces in the district.

Here, however, we will focus on two projects that are particularly good examples of this integration-oriented approach: the Construction Village mentioned earlier, and the project of the company Inter-Béton.

The “Construction Village” was inaugurated in March 2018. One of the pilot projects of the Canal Plan, work began on April 2016. The project was devised by Belgian firm Tetra Architecten, which was selected for the job. The project combines sustainable logistics and urban integration. It will be a logistics hub essential to the life cycle of waste and construction materials for the city. A 30 year lease was granted to Mpro, with a commitment to use the waterway to transport annual traffic of at least 210,000 tonnes. This multi-functional, modular space combines storage areas, show-room and offices on a site covering 25,000 m², including 7,000 m² of sustainable warehouses. The roofs of three warehouses are equipped with a rainwater collection system and some 1710 solar panels have been fitted. The project received an award from the Holcim foundation in 2014 for its sustainable construction, and was also awarded the “steel construction” prize in 2018. An Urban Trans-shipment Centre linked directly to the Construction Village and the TACT Centre (mentioned above) will also be created.

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Flexibility, architectural design including references to the site’s industrial past, and work on the immediate surroundings and open spaces to preserve access to the canal, are other steps taken to help integrate the Village into the urban fabric more effectively.

Integration was also key to the competition launched by the company Inter-Béton for its production site at the Vergote dock, next door to the Construction Village. The site handles 170,000 m3 of concrete every year, and generates daily traffic of 220 trucks. Its position at the heart of the city and its proximity to the various worksites in the region are presented as an asset for the Brussels construction industry and allow transport to be limited. However, the presence of this kind of activity in the middle of the urban environment has drawn criticism due to its impacts (noise, dust, etc.). It was therefore not only desirable but vitally necessary to integrate the site effectively, in order to be able to maintain its activities in the urban setting and satisfy the ambitions of the Canal Plan. Two competitions were launched. The first invited ideas from architecture students, while the second was focused on projects with an emphasis on reducing noise pollution and dust emissions, and integrating the site into the city environment.

The “Mix-City” project, created by BC architects & studies in association with Jasper Poesen, was selected in March 2017. The project includes measures to reorganise truck traffic and storage zones, and create a canopy above the loading zone to reduce noise and host the new offices for Inter-Béton’s staff, who will have a good view of their activities. Part of the canopy will also be open to the public, acting as a viewing platform with panoramic views of the canal. The industrial tower will also be turned into a distinctive new shape on the city skyline, a kind of urban beacon. The project also received a Larfage Holcim Award in 2017.

All of these projects reflect the strategic visions and priorities set out in the 2030 master plan mentioned in the introduction, namely to consolidate the essential role played by the Port of Brussels in its city and the capital Region, while optimising the use of its land and the way it is integrated into the urban fabric, and maintaining constant dialogue with urban stakeholders, the port community and the population. This latter priority may be partly achieved by the Port Center which could open in 2019, following the signature of the AIVP Port Center Missions Charter in 2017.

December 2018


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