Brussels boasts of being one of Europe's greener cities, even though many of its parks are far from inner-city residents. In response, some people have created their own pop-up parks out of vacant lots.
It's just before 7am in the Brussels inner-city neighborhood of The Marolles. The streets are mostly empty, except for a group of about 25 men and women occupying a small garden surrounded by steel construction fences.
Two police officers stand nearby as contractors unload more fencing from an idling truck. Flashing lights cast an orange glow over the numerous protest signs along the fence, some drawn by children, and a flickering white candle dedicated to St. Rita, the patron saint of lost causes.
The group has gathered here to defend their community garden and the five large trees it encompasses - some of the last trees in the neighborhood. A social housing project will be built here, and the city says the impromptu garden has to go.
'A much loved spot'
Léonard Clarys, who lives across the street, started the garden in March. He says the vacant lot was neglected for more than 30 years, and had mostly been used to dump trash. Not long after he began clearing the site, some of the local children came to help out - by planting vegetables and decorating the gray walls, eventually adopting the garden as their very own.
"I've heard from mothers that children are crying now. It's really destroying me," Clarys explains. "They're going to allow four families to have a roof, but they're going to destroy a green space for more than 400 families and that's something that we can't accept. The balance is not correct, the loss is too heavy."
Fatima, a middle-aged woman dressed in a yellow cardigan, lives in the aging social housing block next door. She says spaces like this are missing in The Marolles, a "neighborhood that is completely walled in, [surrounded] by noise and dust."
"This has really become a meeting place for the residents, but also for the people passing by," she says. "People shopping at the organic market, tourists - they stop, they talk with us. All the children in the neighborhood, everyone appreciates this space. It's really become a much loved spot."
Clarys says the protest is a last-ditch effort to prevent the garden's destruction before a judge hands down the final decision.
"It's really the last chance - after this it's over," he says.
Housing 'a priority'
Standing away from the protesters, near another block of apartments surrounded by dust and construction equipment, is Michel Guillaume, the general manager of public housing developer Le Foyer Bruxellois. He sympathizes with the residents over the loss of their community space, but points out they have known about the housing project since 2011.
"We're in favor of the community garden - we already support several others in different locations - but here, on this site, we need to build housing," says Guillaume. "In the Brussels region we have almost 40,000 families…waiting for social housing, so for us it's a priority to start construction."
Rebecca Overloop, president of Le Foyer Bruxellois, adds that the city has even provided a substitute for the garden: five planter boxes just down the street. She adds that the housing project isn't simply four apartments, but part of much greater plan.
"This project is part of a renovation plan worth more than 36 million euros ($45 million)," says Overloop. "It's a comprehensive renovation project, with other green spaces and a reconsideration of the public space. It's not just that building, it's not just that space - there's an overall plan for the entire neighborhood."
A short walk away from The Marolles, in the borough of Molenbeek-Saint-Jean alongside the canal, is another unofficial park. It's about the size of a football pitch, for the most part overgrown and neglected. But in recent years a citizen's group has taken over the space, adding wooden planter boxes and a small playground with a seesaw, balance beam and climbing wall.
Gerben Van den Abbeele, one of the men behind Canal Park Bxl, says the city government has planned a park for the site for more than 20 years, but so far not much has happened. Faced with inaction, they decided to do it themselves with the help of an urban crowdfunding initiative, Growfunding/BXL.
"It's one of the poorest neighborhoods in the region of Brussels…and it's clear that governments don't invest a lot in the poorer neighborhoods," he says.
Brussels likes to boast being one of Europe's greenest capitals, with at least 25 square meters of green space per person; some official figures go as high as 40 square meters. But with a population density of more than 5,000 inhabitants per square kilometer in the city center, and most of the large parks in the outer boroughs, "in this area, it's less than half a square meter [per person]," says Van den Abbeele.
Wouter, a young father that lives near the park, often stops by with his 18-month-old daughter Rosaline.
"It's one of the most densely populated areas in Brussels: large families, small houses, no gardens or small terraces. If it's needed somewhere, it's here," he says. Today, 17 percent of Brussels' total population lives in the canal district, with up to 220,000 people expected by 2020.
"Public space should be the living room of the city, not like nowadays where it's 80 percent for cars and for the rest, some small benches and one tree. We really have to think about the most important space in the city, not just the housing and office buildings," says Van den Abbeele.
The local administration recently proposed new plans for the site, including social housing and a park four times the current size. But until residents see shovels in the ground, they'll carry on with their own park project.
'People need green spaces'
Back in The Marolles, it's mid-morning and the standoff continues. One determined protester has even occupied the tallest tree on the lot.
But suddenly, it's all over. Clarys receives a call: the judge has ruled that construction can proceed, and the fate of their garden has been decided.
As the chainsaw comes out and the trees fall one-by-one, the crowd watches, some with tears in their eyes. Gaspard, another neighbor, says that this will "set a precedent."
"There is plenty of green space in Brussels that could suffer the same fate, and we need to mobilize people," he says.
"People don't need only a roof, they need places to meet with the neighbors, they need green, they need open spaces," adds Clarys. "We're not made to live in a box. It's not enough to have a decent life."