Where water infrastructure is unseen: The uncovering of the Senne river in Brussels

By Loukia Batsi

In the case of Brussels, where the Senne River has been vaulted since 1871, few are the citizens who are aware of the presence of the river under the asphalt, and even fewer those who are actively engaged with the plans of its forthcoming uncovering. Brussels is following the example of other cities worldwide that are opening up culverted rivers in response to global warming and the high costs of wastewater treatment. The uncovering of the Senne River will take place by 2025 at the south part of the park Maximilian in Northern Brussels. The ‘Max-Sur-Zenne’ project is piloted by the Brussels-Capital Region and the City of Brussels and is part of the Urban Renovation Contract (CRU) nr. 1 Citroën - Vergote. The French firm OLM Paysagistes et Urbanistes is the project leader.

Discussion with mr Abdel Hajji , head of plantation at Maximilian park. Video. 2022. Source: Author

The above video from November 2022 shows mr Abdel Hajji , head of plantation at Maximilian park, walking with us to the park where the uncovering of the Senne will take place. He revealed some of the controversies of the future plans, highlighting the complexity of the case.

The covering of the Senne River (1866-1871) has determined the relationship between the city of Brussels and its water. This urbanistic operation “buried” the river in underground waterways, and used it as the spin of the sewage network (Mahaut, De Bondt, Deligne, 2011)4. Now that plans are underway to uncover a part of the river by 2025, it is important to regard this undertaking as a way of challenging urban policies of the past rather than projecting these policies towards the future. The uncovering of the Senne brings to the surface the agency of the old river and requires the establishment of a non-exploitative coexistence between the city and its water. Running under the city’s streets, silent and unseen, the Senne is not free from sewage water discharges, despite the best intentions of the Region and the construction of the two sewage water treatment facilities realized in 2000 and 2007. In case of heavy rain, the sewage water is always discharged in the river and the canal. (Read the “Sewage water discharged in the Senne and the canal”1). The City’s investments target change to the image of water and inverse the inherited memory that associates the buried river with waste, pollution and diseases.

Black and white Image - covering of the Senne
Covering of the river Senne, found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vo%C3%BBtement_de_la_Senneb.png

Since 2014, when the City of Brussels announced the Canal Plan, the lower town is under urban transformation. The revitalization plans aim to transform the city's waterfront into a high-income, recreational area for the various investors of tourism, real estate, and businesses. These developments are using a big part of the state funds and threaten the development of infrastructure, important for the logistic activities of the Port, for which the canal is used for the transportation of materials. The urban policies of the past had long separated the interests of the city from the interest of the port, thus creating economic conflicts.

Picture of brusselsQuai des Péniches under urban transformation. Photograph. 2022. Source: Author

The uncovering of the Senne is the core part of a project known as Max-sur-Zenne that includes redeveloping nearly 10 hectares of public space at Maximilian park in the Northern district. The plans, designed by the French office OLM Paysagistes, propose a future scenario for the ecological resilience of the park in which people, animals, buildings and water respectfully coexist. The Brussels-Capital Region announced: “In order to accommodate and guarantee living spaces for the fauna and flora that will be able to settle in, some parts of the park will be inaccessible to humans, especially around the areas with a high biodiversity potential. These inaccessible places will be of great benefit to the users of the park: they are places that can be observed from a distance and the coolness brought by the presence of water and vegetation will be major assets for the improvement of the living environment in the neighborhood.” (Read the “Notice explicative” explicative note2). More than 200 trees will be felled and compensated by other types of landscape and biotopes that will contribute to the restoration of the river to more natural conditions.

The uncovering of the Senne aims to support diverse ecologies, but fails to encompass the local social dynamics. The North Quarter is facing high territorial tensions that derive from previous grandiose deconstruction - construction plans that marked the passage from industrialization to de-industrialization and ultimately damaged the local social fabric. The covering of the Senne (1866-1871) was only the beginning of a row of urbanistic operations that aimed to modernize the lower city through demolishing a massive number of households and commerce. It followed the ‘Manhattan Plan’ (1965-1975), the ambitious project that was first developed during 1958, the year that marked the zenith of Americanism in Europe, and aimed to replace the former working-class neighborhood of the North Quarter with a World Trade Center of 78 office towers. The oil crisis in 1973 put plans on hold. Only three WTC towers were completed and the rest of the site stayed abandoned until 1992. The 10,000 residents of the North District, who had been promised residential facilities as substitution for their demolished houses, would see the first housing project completed in 1975. (Demeulemeester, 2006)3. The North Quarter today is occupied with 1 million m² of office space and workers who do not inhabit the space. After office hours, the neighborhood is more or less desolate.  In an aerial view of the Gare du Nord and the WTC site, shot in 1982, we can clearly see the scale of the intervention of the ‘Manhattan Plan’ to the North District.

The gentrification attributed to the Canal Plan (2014-now) in combination with the global refugee crisis intensified territorial tensions and left the few open spaces stigmatized as zones of insecurity. The Maximilian park is known as the place where refugees come. In the south part of the park in particular, people who face extreme poverty and addictions find shelter. Yet the concerns about the forthcoming expulsion of these people from the park by Max-sur-Zenne, found reassuring, but unconvincing responses from the City of Brussels. (Read the “Compte-Rendu de la réunion publique du 10/06/21” report5).

The Maximilian park, as also seen from the interaction with mr Abdel Hajji, includes a small urban farm. The urban farm, active since 1985, is planned to be demolished and the animals, plants and compost areas will be relocated. The land is sold to the Region and will be used for private purposes. The Senne’s daylighting is an attribute that increases the property value of the land, attracting real estate investors that will bring money to the Region. That money will balance the costs of the Max-Sur-Zenne investment that are estimated at 22 million euros. The first proposal for the construction of a high rise residential building from CRU had been already presented, but it seems that it is temporarily declined, due to considerable opposition to it during the public inquiry of 2022: “It seems that the inhabitants of the neighborhood have no say in what is really important. What decisions can we still make? Are you not forgetting the many children in the neighborhood or the inhabitants of social housing?” (Read the “Compte-Rendu de la réunion publique du 10/06/21” report5). The privatization of once-public land is a common example of spatial injustice and results in the displacement of local and learning communities who gather there for composting and further educational activities.

Picture of the Maximilian parkThe urban farm of Maximilian park. Photograph. 2022. Source: Author

The decision to isolate the Senne River compromises the physical space of sociality around water where the human and non-human associations are built. The issue remains, how can we naturalize the river while preserving the inclusiveness of water areas? Now that efforts are made to reconnect the city with water, we have to think about the learning processes that will enable citizens to respond to and to create positive change. How could the natural water cutting through the city be visible in ways that render it to the advantage of the city’s political struggles for a more just distribution of spatial resources? For this, it is needed to broaden out the range of actors playing a role in the swift to visible and lively water infrastructures.

- Canal It Up
- Mr. Abdel Hajji 
- Inter-Environnement Bruxelles
This blog has been written in the context of discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures research community. It reflects the evolving thoughts of the authors and expresses the discussions between researchers on the socio-economic, spatial and cultural questions surrounding port city relationships. Special thanks for comments and reviews to professor Carola Hein, Hilde Sennema and Foteini Tsigoni.


1 Canal It Up. 2022. “Sewage water discharged in the Senne and the canal”. https://www.canalitup.org/en/sainctelette-sewage-overflow/

 2 Inter-Environnement Bruxelles. 2022. “Notice explicative”. https://www.ieb.be/IMG/pdf/max-pu_02_notice_explicative_fr.pdf

3 Demeulemeester, Kasper. 2006. “Manhattan New York – Manhattan Brussels: Postwar Urban Planning in the Grip of an Island”, MA of American Studies, Universiteit Antwerpen. https://www.scriptiebank.be/sites/default/files/28fa3fdcda474a2cb6046ed092e71ec4.pdf

4 Mahaut, Valérie, De Bondt, Kevin, and Deligne, Chloé. 2011. “Interdisciplinary methodological approach for urban water management in densely urbanized areas within Brussels Geology, history and architectural engineering.” 27th International conference on Passive and Low Energy Architecture.

5 Max-Sur-Zenne. 2021. “Compte-Rendu de la réunion publique du 10/06/21”. https://www.maxsurzenne.brussels/_files/ugd/ef2b6f_71f4d45de6aa4e56a04260cb44d12f4e.pdf