by - Fabrice Serodes
Blog revisiting the relatively little-known European Foodmet sustainable development project at the Abattoirs of Anderlecht in Brussels. This is a new meat market, but also an urban farm. We took advantage of an unannounced visit and an exceptional meeting with the site's director of communications to review the project's progress, the problems encountered, specific successes to date, limitations and future projects.
I F.O.O.D.M.E.T., the new belly of Brussels
'Abattoir': it's hardly an appealing term.
Since industrialisation in the 19th century, Brussels has had its own belly, just like Zola's Paris (1873): the fish market right in the heart of Brussels, in Place Sainte-Catherine.
The abattoirs, in contrast, remained outside the city for practical reasons, wedged between the Charleroi Canal (1832) and a merchant rail link (1890). After the post-war boom, this part of Anderlecht experienced a major downturn. It was inexpensive and became home to many immigrants, particularly Moroccans.
A brightly coloured, shimmering group shopping at the Abattoirs (Photo F.S.)
Since the 1990s, the canal has demonstrated a new desire for development, so for me, the Abattoirs of Anderlecht are mainly about the distinctive 'Antitapas' nights, which bring together the Italians and Erasmus students of Brussels. They're also about the crazy and slightly wild Boeremet nights, where people over the age of eighty take the mic to belt out 80s tunes. It's as strange and comical a sight as you'll ever witness, if somewhat outdated. The Abattoirs have become a cool place to be, symbolic of a kind of Belgian attitude.
And that's surely the explanation for the use of an Anglicism (just this once won't hurt), to perhaps avoid stirring up tensions between French and Dutch speakers, in the new name for the Abattoirs and food market: Foodmet. Hosting a few events, however, is not enough. We are yet to find a way to recreate a sustainable social link... and there are still plenty of obstacles in the way!
II An impromptu meeting with Mr Paul
I push open the door to this new meaty paradise and take a seat in a pleasant, spacious café. I wait a few moments...
A lively bar this Saturday morning (Source F.S.)
A waiter tells me that 'Mr Paul' is here. Paul Thielemans is the PR manager at SA des Abattoirs. He offers to tell me about the project over a few delicious Thai spring rolls, before giving me a guided tour of the complex.
Mr Paul poses in front of the FEDER EFRO (ERDF) sign upstairs at Foodmet (Source F.S.)
Of course, he promotes his own cause – and what a cause! – but he doesn't make any secret of the problems he has encountered in this new project, either.
III A challenge with plenty of obstacles to overcome
You really would struggle to imagine the number of obstacles the project faced:
1) A difficult geographical environment (fighting in Delacroix).
As one academic puts it: 'The canal area has (…) always had a deplorable image. With the working-class population being joined by a wave of immigrants after World War II, the neighbourhoods along the canal in Cureghem, Molenbeek and Laeken were discredited or at best ignored, and were therefore abandoned by the dominant classes, who mainly lived "on the other side of the canal", in the municipalities to the south and east of the region.' (Y.Rouyet) Rock the Canal! A history of cultural life in the canal area of Brussels, Brussels Studies no. 75, 31 March 2014).
The area likes to think of itself as very open, to combat the social and cultural isolation in the district frequently described in the press.
In Cureghem, in the municipality of Anderlecht, one kilometre from the Grand-Place, young people see the cosmopolitan capital from a (very long) distance. The everyday life of Abdel, 16, is confined within the district's borders. 'I go to school, I come home. I leave at 8.00 a.m. and I finish at 4.00 p.m. I come straight back, I eat and I go out again, and [my friends] are outside (...). I see them and that's it.' What about the rest of Brussels? Do you look for nice spots, visit the Bois de la Cambre park? 'Rarely. We stay in Anderlecht. That's how it is for everyone in the district.' (O. Bailly, M. Guyot, A. Mihaly, 'Brussels, city of strangers', Le Monde diplomatique, August 2008)
2) Vegan activism
Forty activists chained themselves up at 5.00 a.m., making it difficult for the police to intervene. On the same day, a vegan festival was held in Place Sainte-Catherine. Meat does not get a good press: activists regularly share videos of abattoirs.
3) Food-safety scandals such as the one involving Veviba.
4) A difficult political and social climate.
Foodmet was opened barely two years ago, on 29 May 2015, by the Burgomaster of Anderlecht, Eric Thomas, and the Minister-President of the Government of the Brussels-Capital Region, Mr Rudi Vervoort.
But the opening took place at the worst possible time: the wave of terrorist attacks, followed by a lockdown (closures and a state of emergency in the city in November 2015), put the brakes on the project as visitors, who sometimes come from far away, avoided the area.
5) A lack of coordination with some neighbours hoping to develop their own projects.
6) A centralist tendency on the part of the local public authorities in Brussels.
It is with some regret here that we recall the Pompidou centre project: it could have occupied the Belvue brasserie, alongside the canal, strengthening the development of the area below.
The hotel in the Belvue complex, also co-financed by the ERDF, alongside the Canal. (photo)
7) The absence of tourists outside the city centre.
In contrast to other cities, Brussels is not considered a city where the market is a point of interest. The market does not appear in tourist guides.
Foodmet had to respond to these seven huge challenges.
IV Key funding from Europe
With this in mind, the ERDF (European Regional Development Fund), the main European funding programme, intervened. In this case, the investment covered at least three objectives:
Encouraging innovation and research, particularly in engineering for the recovery of energy produced by the building's various activities.
Supporting food-industry SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) housed in the structure.
Development of the low-carbon economy, given that the building does not require air conditioning, despite the heat emitted by the cold rooms and freezers at the site.
The European contribution to the Foodmet project was particularly large. It covered over one third of the budget, providing almost 7.5 of the EUR 18 million required. On top of that, a reallocated fund of EUR 1.4 million was provided. The municipality of Anderlecht retains primary control of the land, even though the Brussels-Capital region also contributed. The whole operation is run by a société anonyme (S.A. - public limited company).
This video shows the construction work and how the whole thing took shape:
This represents between 5 and 10 % of European regional projects. Under the previous programme, from 2007 to 2013, EUR 108 million was invested in 32 regional projects.
Initial results show that these budgets made it possible to create more than 1 300 jobs, 237 childcare places for young children and 24 infrastructure projects. The 2014-2020 programme includes 46 projects. Let's hope that Foodmet experiences the same success!
This particular project could be considered a surprising choice in view of the current debates about animal food products, carbon consumption and traffic. But the project actually responds to a global sustainable development objective: far from focusing solely on the animal food chain, it promotes economic development and social cohesion.
V A modern market
When you enter the market, it's a shock. What a contrast! From the antiquated old market, you enter a modern, bright and lively market, like you might find in Barcelona. Once you have negotiated this temple's horde of traders' stalls, then order and cleanliness reign.
A bright, temperate patio with a high ceiling...
Open three days a week, the market welcomes up to 120 000 people each weekend. Today, it is calmer, with a fairly mixed clientele. Alongside a few curious browsers, the Anderlecht locals seem to have settled into their habits, attracted by high-quality goods at reasonable prices. The traders had to be convinced to set up inside, in the 45 spaces provided. While the greengrocers remain outside, 17 butchers have moved indoors.
To convince them, some innovation was also required. Set out over 2 levels, the project was redesigned by architects ORG. The result is impressive in terms of its circularity. One striking thing is that the temperature remains very pleasant throughout, even on a day like today with a forecast of 28°C. It is not hot inside and the use of heating in winter is limited. The heat is produced by the fridges and transmitted via water circuits, not air. The sawtooth roof is optimally oriented to let in light and shelter from heat.
VI The largest urban farm in Europe
Upstairs, on the second floor, I find myself in another world — very compartmentalised, brand new, and just opened to the public.
This urban farm project was driven by the environment minister for the Brussels-Capital region to serve as an example for Europe in all aspects of sustainable development.
It is run by BIGH sca, the company created by Lateral Thinking Factory Development, which consists of ECF (2 aquaponic urban farms of similar sizes in operation in Berlin and Bad Ragaz) and TZervice (an expert in food production and agricultural innovation). This choice really adds an innovative touch to the space.
A glass cathedral. Foodmet's greenhouses (Photo F.S.)
The ECF complex in Berlin (ECF Farmsystems)
Did you say 'aquaponics'? That's the kind of term you only hear in Brussels if you're taking the EPSO recruitment test for European institutions. It's a very simple principle: creating a closed loop between fish and plants.
The aquaponics principle (according to grainesetvie.com)
Again, it's a pleasant surprise. It isn't as hot as in Laeken, despite measuring almost 2 000 m². In the ponds, the striped bass have fattened up nicely and are eating their fill.
Thanks to them, the tomatoes are getting noticeably bigger; the basil is sprouting like a forest. Some of this produce is sold on in supermarkets' local produce aisles.
The waste from the striped bass in the ponds feeds the tomato plants in the background (Photo F.S.)
Furthermore, the roof collects rainwater and solar energy. And the icing on the cake: a view of Brussels that is not at all unpleasant in this sunny weather!
Numerous solar panels work at full capacity on this sunny day.
In the background: the Gare du Midi station and Brussels law courts (Source: F.S.)
VII Non-stop projects
Numerous projects are still ongoing:
A charming terrace... all that's missing is you (Photo F.S.)
1) A space with a terrace is awaiting an operator, as are spaces for faster food outlets at the entrance.
2) Supply of delicatessens, the Rob gourmet market and local restaurants.
3) Construction of council housing and student accommodation on the site is planned from 2019.
4) Creation of a pedestrian walkway to the canal and a better river transport service. Security issues continue to make this project difficult, however.
5) Dissemination of an urban model, so that it can find a following among 6 million Brussels households...
So there are plenty of ways for you to get involved in the project. Tempted?