Pathways to a Competitive Future

for Brussels and Antwerp

Our two largest cities, Brussels and Antwerp, are the only two Belgian cities to feature among Europe’s top 50 economic centres. Brussels is our major gateway for international finance, investment and institutions, while Antwerp is our major port city with specialisms in logistics, manufacturing, diamonds, retail and business services. Each has its own unique strengths, but how do they compete on a global scale? And what exactly is it that is it that makes a city competitive?

ANTWERPEN, BELGIUM – June 02, 2017: Night view on the illuminated Port House building designed by Zaha Hadid architect in 2009 in Antwerpen city, Belgium

Part of the problem is that Brussels and Antwerp are located in Belgium, and, great as Belgium may be, it is not a country that enjoys a clear institutional framework.

ReLocate spoke with professor Greg Clark, urbanist and Senior Fellow at the Urban Land Institute Europe, to find out more. He is a widely published author on city development and investment issues and advises a wide array of international organisations. In May 2016 he presented a new report analysing the competitiveness of Brussels and Antwerp. Where most analyses of a city’s competitiveness rely on economic performance, The Urban Land Institute report looks at a much wider range of issues. Ranging from liveability to geopolitical risk and sustainability, these are the things that influence a city’s attractiveness to residents and companies alike.

Brussels and Antwerp are very different in nature: how did you approach the comparison?
“We put together two benchmarking groups, ran workshops, visited the cities and conducted a ton of interviews before running this comparative analysis in which we measured Brussels and Antwerp against groups of peer cities to arrive at an assessment of their competitiveness,” explains Greg Clark. “We didn’t just look at economic performance, but at other issues that impact a city’s attractiveness to residents too. Matters such as liveability, governance, geopolitical risk and sustainability are just as important in urban life. Brussels was tested against well established capitals such as London and Paris, cities that provide tough competition. Antwerp on the other hand was held up against peer cities that are reinventing themselves – some of them port cities – like Hamburg and Amsterdam, and other (former) industry greats such as Manchester and Liverpool.”

Antwerp has a huge opportunity to build a central role for itself as part of a regional system of cities.

What are their main selling points?
“Both cities have very good fundamentals, and their own, unique attractions. Antwerp is compelling for its extraordinary DNA. It has always been one of the world’s greatest trading cities and has invented many ideas about the connection between trade, innovation and discovery. Antwerp knows how to build a city around a port. Located within a north-western European economy of roughly 100 million people with a huge GDP, it’s well connected with Belgian, Dutch, Northern French and German cities on all sides. Antwerp has a huge opportunity to build a central role for itself as part of a regional system of cities.”

“The Antwerp port is embracing innovation in terms of how goods are managed, how energy is used and what technology is applied. They’re building an innovative port and energy complex, with a big focus on the circular economy, which is important and fascinating. Of course, the city of Antwerp is synonymous with the craft and design of high-quality goods. From the diamond industry to its fashion sector, Antwerpians know how to make items of high value work in the market place. This mercantilist attitude means it is truly open for business.”

“Boasting a young and vibrant population that is committed to taking the city forward, Antwerp is further boosted by a government with big ambitions. From building a canopy over the ring road to creating more public spaces and developing the left bank, the city is redesigning its urban fabric to make a future-proof city. Smart citizen initiatives activate people to act as the eyes and ears of the city, giving feedback on the quality of bicycle lanes or roads and public facilities that might need maintenance. These distinctive edges of Antwerp amount to things that are quite exciting considering its small size. Thinking about the business opportunities that arise from disruption runs deep within the Antwerp DNA.”

Brussels’ youthful population and great cosmopolitan mixity give rise to a highly scientific, entrepreneurial labour force that is willing to work in all sorts of industries.

“Brussels on the other hand is distinctive in a completely different way,” Greg continues. “It is a major capital city, and as home to the various European institutions and NATO it has an influential presence on the global stage, although it is yet to leverage it to its full potential. It’s interesting when you compare Brussels with cities like Washington DC or Singapore, which play an influential role by hosting global institutions, international summits and other gatherings that really work for the city.”

“It has a youthful population and great cosmopolitan mixity giving rise to a highly scientific, entrepreneurial labour force that is willing to work in all sorts of industries. The high calibre of educational institutes in Brussels is somewhat obscured by the presence of international institutions such as the EU and NATO, but the educational cluster has enormous potential thanks to leadership in fields such as IT, life sciences, or medicine. Most obviously it has enormous potential to be a global school of government, public policy and management.”

“When you look at productivity progress in Brussels a lot of it is to do with the dynamism of the labour market and its liquidity. People want to spend time in Brussels, partly because of its influence, but then find they want to stay and do other things too. It’s important to remember that government institutions feed and support a huge cluster of other kinds of decision making and communication activities. There are very big, positive spill-overs and multipliers that you can leverage into other industries. If you thought a government town can only ever be a government town, you’d be wrong.”

All attractive qualities indeed, surely there must be some drawbacks?
“They also both suffer from a number of challenges,” agrees Greg. “Part of this is that they are located in Belgium, and, great as Belgium may be, it is not a country that enjoys a clear institutional framework. Both Brussels and Antwerp struggle to build their identity and present themselves in a way that cities in less confusing countries do not. Brussels has far greater assets than say Vienna or Zurich, yet these cities have fewer difficulties presenting and promoting themselves on an international stage. Similarly, whilst Antwerp has greater or equivalent assets to Liverpool, Lyon, Genoa, and Turin, it has difficulty articulating what it is, where it is, and why.”

“They’re also rather late to the urbanisation agenda compared to other European cities. Citizens in Brussels and Antwerp are highly dependent on their cars and prefer the suburbs to the city centre. The Belgians tend to sub optimise the use of land and real estate, which translates into low levels of densification and very few mixed-use development projects. It also means there has been very little focus on transport and connectivity as a way of embracing and spurring on urbanism. The third thing that seems to be true for both of them – although each city has a slightly different version of this – is that they have had some difficulty creating the right geographical and institutional space through which to apply leadership to the city.”

“Brussels Capital Region struggles due to the way it is defined; geographically it’s too small for the – much larger – Brussels metropolitan area and then of course there is the fragmentation of having 19 separate municipalities, which rather effectively prevents an integrated governance model. You need a leadership platform for the whole area, otherwise you end up with different policies being pursued in different parts of the region, which is not particularly helpful. For Antwerp it was more of a question of leadership appetite in the past, although I think this is now being addressed. The current leadership has the appetite to succeed and a vision for moving the city forward. It’s just been slow getting there.”

“The public sector almost has a monopoly on leadership control in Belgium. Other sectors, such as business, cultural and higher education, have not played active civic leadership roles like they do in other cities of comparable sizes. There’s been too much waiting around for city government to put things right, rather than civic leadership working hand in hand with city governments to create forward momentum. I suppose you could say both cities have become somewhat institutionalised. This is now being addressed in Antwerp where civil and trade movements are working together with the city towards creating a more sustainable future for the city.”

Both cities need to build a strong brand and identity. Getting together with organisations that will back the city and help create a new global story will help put them on the map.

How can Brussels and Antwerp improve on their competitiveness?
“We focused on three main areas for our recommendations on addressing these weaknesses,” Greg tells us. “First, Brussels and Antwerp need to start embracing urbanisation. This means being proactive in extending and developing public transport as a way of reducing car dependence. By strengthening the urban mix, you create excitement and vibrancy. Creating exciting city centres and sub centres, together with a more active transport mix, helps attract and retain corporate investment and the dynamic workforce needed by these companies.”

“Secondly, the institutional frameworks have to be right. This creates room for city leadership that is continuously thinking about their city as somewhere people will want to live and work, rather than getting stuck in Belgian politics. Thinking about public and private partnerships on a city level is a big part of this, just look at how Antwerp is involving its citizens in the maintenance of its city.”

“This in turn leads into our third point: the promotion of Brussels and Antwerp. Both cities need to build a strong brand and identity. Getting together an alliance of organisations that will back the city and help create a new global story will help put them on the map. This is certainly happening in Antwerp, and I believe efforts are underfoot in Brussels now too.”

“Finally, both cities have really creative industries which are part of the impact of the cosmopolitan diversity of the city. You should be able to really use that cosmopolitan diversity as a driver of creative endeavour. The idea isthat diversity creates competitive advantage through interaction. To realise that, you’ve got to address the challenges of social exclusion and segregation. Brussels has two cosmopolitan populations: one is the elite that services the global institutions, the other is the population of migrants who have come from a poorer set of countries in search of a better life. Somehow, you’ve got to make those two kinds of populations work together.”

To read the full report, visit the Urban Land Institute website:

Brussels and Antwerp: Pathways to a Competitive Future

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