Picnic the Streets! Can an unauthorized picnic change a city? | Philippe Van Parijs | TEDxUCLouvain
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Picnic the Streets! Can an unauthorized picnic change a city? | Philippe Van Parijs | TEDxUCLouvain

Translator: Michele Gianella
Reviewer: Elena Montrasio It all started with a deep conviction: the conviction that it was
the duty of my generation to give hope to your generation, to the generation of my children
and of my grandchildren. A reasonable hope that your lives
will be better than our lives have been, despite the fact
that you will have to consume less than our generation was able to do. How can this be achieved? One example, but an important one. We showed how all of us
have to live, in the future, more closely packed together in cities. As a result of that, it will be increasingly expensive
to live in cities. And the space,
the private space available, will shrink. Therefore it will become
more important than ever to have public spaces of high quality. And I looked around in other cities,
in Belgium and abroad, and I saw that many of them
had realized it, and they’re well on their way. And then I looked at my city
the city in which I live, and the city in which I have been born, and in particular
at this string of squares that had been built in the 19th century to connect the south station
to the north station, and I wasn’t pleased by what I saw. Just a flow of cars
in their urban motorways, and I wondered,
has it always been like that? How was it
when I grew up there as a child? And then it was no better:
we had trams in addition to cars. Since then we put the trams underground in order to make room
for more cars and faster cars. And before that? When these squares were built,
was it different? Yes, it was different. Then, the squares were doing
what they were there for. There were places
where people could meet, talk to each other and stroll, and let their kids play around them. And I thought,
is it possible to give squares, to give them back the role
that they played in the past? Then I remembered something
that happened in the early ’70s: then there was a small magazine, an English language magazine
catering mainly for expats that got outraged, scandalized
at what was doing, what was being done
with our Grandplace, our medieval square
in the center of Brussels. And I said, this is not possible:
let’s do something! They organized a little picnic,
protest picnic, to express their outrage,
their disgust at the situation. And it had an impact: bit by bit, the Grandplace
was freed of car traffic. Génial, I thought. This is what we need for this even more important place,
for Brussels, which is the Place de la Bourse
and the boulevards around it. So on the 24th of May 2012 I published in French and in Dutch,
simultaneously, an opinion piece under the same title:
Picnic the streets! In that piece, I explained more or less
what I’ve just been explaining to you and then I invited people to join me in sitting down every Sunday lunchtime,
all through the summer, in the middle of Boulevard Anspach,
in front of the Place de la Bourse. I finished by saying, it’s not for me, an old philosopher,
to organize all that: the Facebook generation will be able to do that
far better than me. I’ve been in prison
only once in my life, before: but for such a good cause,
I’m ready to return. So, one hour, two hours
after the piece was published I got one mail and then another mail and then a third mail
and then a fourth mail, independently, of people who said, We’re going to set up
a Facebook event group. I didn’t know exactly what it was
but I said, “Fantastic. Just coordinate on the date and do it.” And the date was chosen,
the 10th of June. By midnight on the day
of the publication of the pieces they were already 400 people
who were saying on Facebook, I’m going. The mayor, bourgmestre,
was asked what he thought about it. He said, “This is not authorized,
I’m going to send the police.” And then 1,000 more people
said, “I’m going.” And then the mayor was asked
what he thought about it. And he said, “This is not authorized, I’m going to send the police
in order to block the streets.” And then 2,000 more people
said, “I’m going.” And then the mayor said, “This is a charming idea,
it’s completely in line with my policy.” (Laughter) And then the day came: one of the most magical moments
in my existence. Just before midday, on the 10th of June, there were hundreds of people
gathering on the pavement. And then sharp at twelve o’clock
they moved in the middle of the streets. The cars had to U-turn
and the coaches had to U-turn. The police didn’t stop
the people who came and sat down with their carpets,
their blankets, their napkins, their sandwiches, their children,
their barbecues, their ping-pong tables, they all came there and had a picnic. Among them, that’s not unimportant
for what follows, members of all political parties. Not unimportant
because four months later we had the municipal elections,
in October 2012. Two days later I get
a phone call from the mayor, calling me to his office
in the City Hall. I felt a bit like a naughty boy who is called to the director of a school
when he has misbehaved. And the mayor told me, “Look,
not good what you did there. But I’ll make a gesture,
and all through the summer, if you want to picnic on the floor
there on the street, I’ll let you do it. The police will keep it car-free.” I said, “Merci beaucoup,
monsieur le bourgmestre, I thank you very much, but I hope you realize,
this is not really what we are demanding. We want something really drastic
being done to the central squares. And throughout the summers we sent reminders, little emails,
to the various political parties. Beginning of September, we had another big picnic
in order to remind it. And as we were getting closer
to the elections, throughout September,
one after the other, the political parties
took a stance on the issue, all favorable to doing something, some firmer, some bolder, some more precise: for example,
the party of the Mayor published their own vision,
quite ambitious, of what the Place de la Bourse could be in one of the local newspapers. And then the election happened,
October 2012. As usual, it takes a little while
to form a coalition and then for the coalition
to publish its program. Program came in December, 77 pages. But I looked at it: only one little sentence
really interested me, but it involved a clear commitment to making these three squares
along the boulevards car-free. We were, it seemed,
well on our way, but nothing happened
in the following few months. So one year after the first picnic we had another giant picnic
as a reminder. And then again nothing happened
until December. Then the mayor who had been in charge
for about 13 years at the time was tired. And he retired, he was replaced
by a younger member of his own party. And then things accelerated:
at the end of the following month, then in January 2013, plans were published
by the local authorities for the future. Frankly, they were ambitious. They were more than I expected,
more than I had hoped. A number of studies were then made
in the following month, mobility studies, and consultation started. And also a test, real-life test,
starting in June 2015. Consultation with all the stakeholders: people were heard,
those who found that there was still too much room left
for cars in the city center; those who complained because not enough room was left
for cars in the city centre; the residents and shopkeepers, who were legitimately,
understandably concerned about the impact it would have
on their way of living, and on their business. The Commission met
in October 2015 and said, “This is fine, you have the go ahead,
the work can start.” And pictures were published of how the central lanes
of Boulevard Anspach would look like in the future. October 2015,
all had happened as expected, even better than expected
in a predictable way. But then something happened that was not expected,
that was not predictable. It didn’t happen in Brussels,
it happened in Paris: the Bataclan killings. And it had a massive local impact: schools in the whole of Brussels
were shut down for two full days. The metro was shut down
for five full days. The metro in Brussels, not in Paris,
were shut down for five full days. The soldiers moved in, the pedestrian area was turned
into a car park for military trucks. Some people apparently
must have been thinking that this was a clever way
of catching terrorists, rather than just exciting them. A few weeks later we had worse: it was Brussels Airport that was hit,
and the European Quarter. All this had a massive disastrous impact on Brussels in general,
on the image of Brussels and in particular on the city center. This creates a huge challenge, which will have to be met
in all sorts of ways. Only one of them, among many,
is the quality of our public spaces. But it’s not an unimportant one. We must realize that having squares
like the Place De La Bourse car-free is not just a small contribution
to a short-term problem. It is also a component
of a long-term solution. Because we, the people of Brussels,
must have places where we can meet, come together in thousands,
day after day, as we did in Place de la Bourse
in the last weeks, in order to share our sadness, in order to express our solidarity, in order to manifest our unity, in order to regain our confidence
in our common future. And had the Place de la Bourse
still been a place in the middle of an urban motorway, we could not have used it
in this important way. So the answer
to my initial question is yes, an unauthorized picnic
can change the city for the better. But far more is needed than that. Political courage,
a lot of political courage in the face of lobbying
and vociferations in the service of short-term interests. Political courage, also patience,
perseverance. And if you have all that,
you can succeed. So I started with a conviction,
and I’ll end with a call, which is simply: Do it. Do it. And if it doesn’t work
the first time, do it again, and again,
and again. Go for it! (Applause)


  • Emmanuel Delay

    I was there, at both picnics. It was great.
    It is still very surreal to stand in the middle of the boulevard, look north, look south, no cars.

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