Sophie Ghyselen from Commons Josaphat talked to us about the origins, development, aims and future prospects of this common initiative on an urban wasteland site with a size of 32 football pitches. It is situated in Brussels, on the border between Schaerbeek and Evere. As mentioned on their website, they “emphasise common ownership and sharing rather than individual property”, “handle the limited resources of our planet with care rather than assuming unlimited growth” and “favour more solidarity to further polarisation.” Thus, Commons Josaphat wants to “draw a blueprint for the city of tomorrow”, which is “a more sustainable, just and communal city.”
“At some point we started thinking: here we have a lot of theory [on] and many specific examples [of commons], but how can we organise ourselves and bring them together?”
“Four years ago we started meeting with a group of people from different backgrounds and organisations. What brought us together was the desire to achieve something together that had to do with commons and common space. We began organising evening meetings on topics such as property and the agricultural land held within the community. Someone from the Community Land Trust of Brussels came to talk to us about how they create housing for low-income people on a community basis. A member of the community occupancy La Poissonnerie also came to speak. La Poissonnerie is a good example of the way buildings can be temporarily used and how to think about the way in which they are managed. For it is not enough to live there, you must also see that they can be co-inhabited. We also organised a thematic evening around water issues. Another evening was about digital commons, where hackers came to explain that they had constructed all kinds of devices, from scanners to tractors. At some point we started thinking: here we have a lot of theory and many specific examples, but how can we organise ourselves and bring them together? After that we made two mental exercises. One: inside the existing urban fabric we registered all the possible places that could serve as commons. Buildings and vacant sites were mapped. The second reflection was about the Josaphat site, on the border between Schaerbeek and Evere. This is one of the last large land reserves in Brussels, one that is still owned by the Brussels Region. What could we do on this site? Since that moment on, we are focusing on the future of this site and how we can make it accessible to everyone. How can we make sure – if a new area is developed – that it is open to all of Brussels and not just for a particular social category of people? We asked ourselves what we should do if we want to develop this site as a commons. What this meant for the ownership of the land, the principles of management, nature, conservation, and mobility.
“The concept of commons is not always accessible to everyone. We try to work around it with the resources we have.”
I live five minutes from here by bike and got to know commons Josaphat as a real urbanite, not only because of interest in the subject, but also because of how this city where I love to live will look like in the future. I am an urban architect by training, so such a large land reserve, what will happen to it, and how it is developed, interests me enormously. Therefore I became really militant in the commons Josaphat. We are a group of twenty people. We see each other at least once a month to prepare everything and keep the ball rolling. Overall, I think we brought together at least 100 people on days like today (Josaph’aire Day) and other workshops. We try to work as openly as possible within the limited resources we have. Almost all of us are volunteers. We do this in our spare time, evenings or weekends. It would be nice to involve more people and different socio-economic groups, but that’s not always so easy. This also takes time. The concept of commons is not always accessible to everyone. We try to work around it with the resources we have. For example, I went to introduce the idea of commons to a community centre in the Anneessens quarter. That was actually quite nice because we had a very diverse group from many different cultures, from all sorts of professions and talents coming together. When I explained about commons, using all kinds of examples, an African man told us that in his village people look after each other’s children, that they have one large room where all the neighbourhood children come to play as well as a common playground. We realised that they manage much larger spaces as commons than we do. They never use the word, but they understand the concept.
“It is essential that we involve the whole neighbourhood in our project.”
It is essential that we involve the whole neighbourhood in our project. That’s a long and time-consuming process, but we gradually succeed, to my feeling. The site is about the size of 32 football fields, but it is an enclave which is visible only from very few places. It’s hard to visualise how big it is. The entrance is hidden behind a parking lot. Once, we did street interviews and noticed that many people did not realise the site was there. This visual obscurity is a major difficulty. The council of Brussels wanted to develop its own project here and we proposed a number of recommendations, but it is a project that will only be realised within ten to twenty years. It is not easy to engage people in an event that takes so long. Therefore, it is important to develop temporary initiatives, such as the community garden and the kitchen, immediately. These tangible things will ensure that we keep people involved.
“We think that, by means of the community garden and the kitchen, we can lay the foundation for some kind of local parliament.”
We are convinced that joint management is the key to our story of Commons Josaphat. We agreed on some very simple rules to ensure that we can manage this space together. We think that, by means of the community garden and the kitchen, we can lay the foundation for some kind of local parliament. Eventually, when a sports hall or a public place are developed, we can decide and manage with the users of this site according to the same principles. We hope to demonstrate it is possible to govern sites and to live together in a new way. A way that might be more effective than the usual things that comes from above.
Our relationship with politics, for example the Brussels Region, did shift, for sure. Otherwise we would not been sitting here after four years, we would not find the energy to continue. But it is slow. Urban development projects are often projects that can take ten years before the first bulldozer comes within view. So you’ve got to have patience.
In the beginning we held brainstorming sessions, where everyone could make proposals for the site. We did this deliberately before the regional elections. At that time the politicians were very much afraid of us because they feared we would try to hinder them. We really had to build a relationship with the politicians. We had to prove that we are not against development of the district , but we want to try it in a different way. Little by little our relationship with the council became much better. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but we have already met people from the Society for Urban Planning seven or eight times and the dialogue is often quite constructive, much more constructive than in the beginning. The fact remains that the master plan has evolved over the three years: a lower population density and more attention for the needs of the residents.
“I am convinced that we – among others – have contributed to these changes and that a least gives us the courage to continue.”
Temporary use of the site is something the council considers more and more of an interesting way to make the district come alive. We must nevertheless be careful because they could just be pulling the wool over our eyes. In any case there is an opening. Whatever improves the links with the community seems interesting for them. For example, they thought that vegetable gardens could find a place in the final project. This does not mean that we should leave it at that. It is of course easy to say that they will install some allotments. However, we see that things are changing. I am convinced that we – among others – have contributed to these changes and that at least gives us the courage to continue.”
Interview and photos by Victoria Deluxe