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How to cite:
Halleux, J.-M.; Lacoere, P. (2023): Country Profile of Belgium. Hannover. = ARL Country Profiles. https://www.arl-international.com/knowledge/country-profiles/belgium/rev/4130. (date of access).


Some basic geographical characteristics

Belgium, officially the Kingdom of Belgium, is a country in Northwestern Europe that occupies a territory of 30,689 km2. The country is bordered by the Netherlands to the north, Germany to the east, Luxembourg to the southeast and France to the southwest. To the northwest, the country encompasses some 65 km of the North Sea coastline. In terms of physical geography, Belgium is typically divided into lower Belgium (up to 100 metres above sea level), central Belgium (between 100 and 200 metres above sea level) and upper Belgium (from 200 to over 500 metres above sea level).

Belgium has a population of 11.5 million and an average population density of 377 inhabitants / km². In spite of its reduced surface area, the population density of the country is heterogeneous. At the municipal scale, the density is usually higher than 400 or 500 inhabitants / km² in lower and central Belgium. Lower and central Belgium are in fact among the most densely populated areas in Europe. This area of high population density also encompasses most of the Netherlands, most of North-Rhine Westphalia in Germany and also the bordering regions in the north of France. By contrast, south of the Sambre and the Meuse rivers, upper Belgium is more sparsely populated, with a population density below 100 or in some places even below 50 inhabitants / km².

Languages spoken and introduction to the Belgian institutional system

Belgium has three official languages: Dutch, French and German. The country is called België in Dutch, Belgique in French and Belgien in German. Belgium is known for its linguistic divisions. For 2,000 years, its land has stretched across the cultural divide between the Latin world and the Germanic world.

According to its constitution, Belgium is currently a federal state made up of six federated entities, with three regions and three communities (see the ‘Regions and communities’ map in the appendices):

  • the Flemish Region (Vlaams Gewest in Dutch);
  • the Walloon Region (Région wallonne in French);
  • the Brussels Capital Region (Région de Bruxelles-Capitale in French and Brusselse Hoofdstedelijk Gewest in Dutch);
  • the Flemish Community (Vlaamse Gemeenschap in Dutch);
  • the French Community (Communauté française in French) (in practice, this federated entity is called the Wallonia-Brussels Federation (Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles in French));
  • the German-speaking Community (deutschsprachigen Gemeinschaft in German) (in practice, this federated entity is called Eastern Belgium (Ostbelgien in German)).

The determining characteristic of a community is its culture and language, while that of a region is its territory. It is in this perspective that the Brussels Capital Region, the Flemish Region and the Walloon Region are respectively competent for the territories of Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia.

Besides federal institutions, regions and communities also have their own legislative and executive bodies. The regions and the communities are responsible for a different set of government domains. The principal powers of the three communities comprise linguistic and societal matters (education, culture, etc.). Complementing this, the principal powers of the three regions comprise economic and territory-related matters, such as economic affairs, employment, public services, agriculture, the environment, housing and spatial planning. One of the exceptions to this general architecture is the recent transfer, in 2020, of the spatial planning competence from the Walloon Region to the German-speaking Community (see below).

Besides the federal level and the federated entities, the country also has ten provinces (provinces in French, provincies in Dutch and Provinz in German) and 581 municipalities (commune in French, gemeente in Dutch and Gemeinden in German) (see the ‘Administrative framework’ map in the appendices). There are five provinces in Flanders and five in Wallonia. The Brussels Capital Region directly exercises provincial responsibilities. The smallest political unit in Belgium is the municipality. There are currently 581 municipalities: 300 in Flanders, 262 in Wallonia and 19 in Brussels. At the local level, municipalities and provinces have been governed by regional legislation since the constitutional reform of 1988-1989. Their organisation, responsibilities and finances therefore differ from one region to another.

Overview of the three official regions

In the northern part of the country, the Flemish region is competent for the territory of Flanders, which is officially Dutch-speaking. It is the most populous official region of the country, with 6.7 million people (58% of the national population for 44% of the territory). In the south of the country, Wallonia has a population of 3.7 million (32% of the national population for 55% of the territory). Most of the population is French speaking but the Walloon Region also encompasses the nine municipalities of the German-speaking Community. Those nine municipalities, situated in the eastern part of the country, have approximately 78,000 inhabitants. In the German-speaking Community, German is predominant, and is the only official language.

Besides linguistic differences, there are also important economic differences between Flanders and Wallonia. In contrast to the Flemish economy, which is one of the most prosperous in Europe, the Walloon economy is lagging behind. As in many other territories historically marked by coal and steel, the large Walloon agglomerations – in particular Liege and Charleroi – have been hard hit by industrial crises (Halleux, 2011). Despite a gradual renewal of their economic base, the difficulties of those agglomerations of traditional industries still weigh on the overall economic performance of the region (Halleux et al., 2019).

The Brussels Capital Region is competent for the territory of Brussels, which is actually an enclave within Flanders (see the maps in the appendices). This territory has 19 municipalities and a population of 1.2 million (11% of the national population for 0.5% of the territory). Brussels is administratively a bilingual territory, with both French and Dutch as the official languages. Although Brussels is geographically part of Flanders, French is the most common language of its inhabitants. The use of languages is particularly complex in Brussels, due to the coexistence of the two main national languages, the impact of international immigration and also the international role of the city. Brussels is home to a large number of European and international institutions, in particular NATO and the European Union (EU). The Kingdom of Belgium is one of the six founding members of the EU.

The Brussels Capital Region should not be confused with the City of Brussels (Ville de Bruxelles or Bruxelles-Ville in French and Stad Brussel in Dutch), which is the central municipality of the region. The City of Brussels is the largest municipality and historical centre of the Brussels Capital Region. The City of Brussels is also the capital of Belgium and the seat of its federal government. Hereinafter, ‘Brussels’ shall refer to the Brussels Capital Region.

Brussels is a city region, and is therefore very different from the other two regions, which comprise dozens of cities. There is a striking difference between the limited territorial extent of the official Brussels region and its socio-economic impact on a large part of the country. According to the OECD (OECD, n.d.), the Brussels functional urban area covers an area of around 5000 km2 and has a population of approximately 3.2 million (population in 2015). Those figures can be compared to the 162 km2 and the 1.2 million people in the official Brussels Capital Region. Beyond its functional urban area, Brussels is also the heart of a polycentric metropolitan region whose population has been estimated as 6.6 million people (Halleux et al., 2021). This polycentric metropolitan region has been termed ‘Europolis’ by de Salle (2009).

General information

Name of country Kingdom of Belgium
Capital, population of the capital (2020) Brussels, 1,223,364 (Eurostat)
Surface area 30,530 km² (World Bank)
Total population (2020) 11,538,604 (World Bank)
Population growth rate (2010-2020) 5.90% (World Bank)
Population density (2020) 381.1 inhabitants/km² (World Bank)
Degree of urbanisation (2015) 32.45% densely populated areas (European Commission)
Human Development Index (2021) 0.937 (Human Development Reports)
GDP (2019) EUR 407,839 million (World Bank)
GDP per capita (2019) EUR 35,498 (World Bank)
GDP growth (2014-2019) 9.29% (World Bank)
Unemployment rate (2019) 5.36% (World Bank)
Land use (2018) 20.91% built-up land
56.93% agricultural land
20.52% forests and shrubland
0.60% nature
1.04% inland waters
(European Environment Agency)
Sectoral structure (2017) 77.2% services and administration
22.1% industry and construction
0.7% agriculture and forestry
(Central Intelligence Agency)

To ensure comparability between all country profiles, the tables were prepared by the ARL.

Administrative structure and system of governance

This section draws heavily on the country’s profile by the World Observatory on Subnational Government Finance and Investment (OECD/UCLG, 2019). It considers four levels of governance: the state level, the provincial level, the municipal level and the intermunicipal level.

The state level

The Belgian institutional system and its evolution

Belgium was established in 1831 as a unitary parliamentary monarchy. Since the 1970s, the Belgian institutional system has evolved from a unitary state to a federal state. In its initial structure, Belgium was organised into three levels of governance: national, provincial, and municipal. As a result of the successive constitutional reforms (1970, 1980, 1988–89, 1993, 2001 and 2011), significant decision-making power was devolved to six federated entities: the three regions and the three communities.

At the federal level, the legislative power is exercised by the Federal Parliament, composed of two assemblies: the Chamber of the Representatives (150 members) and the Senate (60 members). Exclusive competences are allocated to the regions and communities, with the residual competences allocated to the Federal Government. The latter particularly relate to foreign affairs, national defence, justice, finance, social security, aspects of national health and domestic affairs.

In 1962, before the first constitutional reform, language borders were officially defined. This explains why Brussels is officially bilingual, why Flanders is officially Dutch-speaking and why Wallonia officially contains a French-speaking area and a (small) German-speaking area. Along the language borders, we find municipalities with language ‘facilities’ (communes à facilités in French, faciliteitengemeenten in Dutch and Fazilitätengemeinden in German). In those municipalities, with the aim of supporting linguistic minorities, the local administrations are required to provide services in a language other than the language determined by the official language borders.

The structural evolution that has marked Belgium’s progressive evolution from a unitary to a federal state is explained by political movements related to both linguistic and economic concerns. At the Flemish level, the initial dynamic is linguistic and cultural. Even though Flanders was and still is predominantly Dutch-speaking, French was the only official language of Belgium until 1898. This illustrates the dominance of a French-speaking bourgeoise which long controlled the country in both political and economic terms. An important consequence of this dominance was the progressive ‘Frenchification’ of Brussels. At the Walloon level, the dynamic is more economic related. From the 1950s, when the industrial crises made the economic situation more and more worrying, a political movement emerged in Wallonia to acquire specific competences in the domain of economic development. It is this double dynamic that explains the evolution towards two types of federated entity, with language-related matters devolved to the communities and economy-related matters devolved to the regions.

Currently, for the six federated entities, there are five governments and five parliaments:

  • the Flemish Parliament and Government;
  • the Walloon Parliament and Government;
  • the French Community Parliament and Government;
  • the Brussels Capital Region Parliament and Government;
  • the German-speaking Community Parliament and Government.

The Flemish Parliament and Government represent both the Flemish Region and the Flemish Community. After their creation, the Flemish Region and the Flemish Community were immediately combined into one Flemish federated entity called Flemish authority (Vlaamse overheid in Dutch).

The federated entities have legislative power in the areas of their competence. Their legislation (ordinances for the Brussels-Capital Region and decrees for the three communities and for both the Flemish Region and the Walloon Region) has the same juridical power as the federal laws. The fact that there is no hierarchy of norms in favour of one level of power over another is called the ‘equipollence of norms’ by constitutional lawyers. In fact, Belgium appears to be the only nation in the world where such an equipollence of norms is in force between the federal state and the federated entities (regions and communities).

Another specificity of the Belgian institutional system is the fact that the territories covered by the regions and communities overlap each other (see the ‘Regions and communities’ map in the appendices). The Flemish Community comprises all the inhabitants of Flanders as well as Flemings residing in Brussels. The French Community comprises all the residents of Wallonia as well as French speakers residing in Brussels. The German-speaking Community comprises all the inhabitants of the nine German-speaking municipalities.

Spatial planning within the Belgian institutional system

As already mentioned, linguistic and societal matters are associated with the communities, while economic and territory-related matters are associated with the regions. Between the constitutional reforms of 1980 and 2020, spatial planning was exclusively the responsibility of the three regions. Since 2020, resulting from its desire to broaden its sphere of autonomy, the German-speaking Community has received spatial planning competence. Besides the transfer of spatial planning competence, in 2020 competences for housing and certain energy-related matters were also transferred from the Walloon Region to the German-speaking Community.

Since the constitutional reforms of 1980, no institution at the state level has officially had a direct impact on spatial planning. Thus, there is no national-federal legislative framework for spatial matters nor a strategic spatial plan for the country as a whole. Hence, the federated entities have developed specific legislation but also specific spatial ambitions and objectives. In this perspective, it can be considered that Belgium currently has four distinct planning systems, although their similar origins continue to structure both their planning instruments and concrete planning practice. Moreover, we should not overlook the fact that federal legislation and competences have strong impacts on land use and development. An example of this is the Civil Code, which regulates specific aspects of building activity (OECD, 2017, p. 61), but also competences in the domains of transportation or real estate taxation.

The fact that no institution at the federal level officially has a direct impact on spatial planning also raises the question of the coordination at the state level between the federal level and the federated entities, as well as coordination across the federated entities. Generally, Belgian federalism severely limits the scope for governments to interfere in each other’s areas of competence. It needs to be frankly acknowledged that this can create coherence and governance difficulties, as exemplified during the Covid crisis given that Belgium has nine ministers with responsibilities for healthcare. As a consequence, official inter-governmental coordination mechanisms had to be established, notably with a Concertation Committee which includes the prime minister and the minister presidents of the federated entities. In relation to spatial planning, we cannot but notice that little coordination occurs between the federated entities. As elaborated below in Box 1, this lack of coordination is particularly problematic for the spatial governance of the Brussels metropolitan region.

The provincial level

Provinces have existed for a long time with their current boundaries, except for the province of Brabant which was split in 1995 as a direct consequence of the general evolution from a unitary to a federal state. The former province of Brabant was then split into the Brussels Capital Region and two new provinces: Flemish Brabant and Walloon Brabant. This explains why Brussels does not belong to any province and why the Brussels Capital Region exercises provincial responsibilities.

Besides implementing federal, community and regional regulations, provinces are usually responsible for maintaining infrastructure, and for initiatives in sport, education, culture and social policy. In Flanders, provinces also play an official role in the planning system, which is not the case in Wallonia (see below).

The provinces represent a legacy from the unitary Belgian state. As a consequence, in both Flanders and Wallonia, their role remains a matter of discussion. In both regions, the general trend is to reduce provincial responsibilities.

The municipal level

Municipal responsibilities are very extensive, covering large areas such as economic affairs and transport, education, the environment, housing and community amenities, culture, spatial planning, etc.

The average size of a muncipality in Belgium is twice the OECD average (approximately 20,000 inhabitants). There are very few small municipalities in terms of population (1% have fewer than 2,000 inhabitants), while the majority (62%) have between 5,000 and 19,999 inhabitants. On average, Flemish municipalities are more populous (approx. 22,000 inhabitants) than the Walloon municipalities (approx. 14,000 inhabitants). Despite their limited size in terms of surface area, the municipalities of Brussels are the most populous, with an average of approx. 64,000 inhabitants.

Between 1983 and 2019, the number of municipalities was stable, following a process of compulsory mergers between 1975 and 1983. This process reduced the number of municipalities from 2,359 in 1975 to 589 in 1983. This compulsory merger process took place in Flanders and Wallonia, but not in Brussels. This explains why the Brussels municipalities are small in surface area.

Over the last few years, the regions of Flanders and Wallonia have started reforming the municipal level in their respective territories. In Flanders, 15 municipalities have merged into seven new municipalities since January 2019, reducing the number of Flemish municipalities from 308 to 300. In its 2017 regional policy statement, the new Walloon Government also announced its willingness to encourage municipal mergers. To date, this announcement has not yet had any concrete impact.

The intermunicipal levels

In Belgium, intermunicipal cooperation is widespread in sectors such as drinking water provision, wastewater management, waste management, the management of crematoria, the distribution of gas and electricity, communications (internet, television), economic development, etc. One common form of inter-municipal cooperation is inter-municipal companies (intercommunales in both French and Dutch and interkommunale in German). In 2015, there were around 320 such intercommunales in Belgium (OECD/UCLG, 2019, p. 2).

In the field of spatial planning, inter-municipal companies dedicated to economic development play a significant role in terms of technical support. This is true for both Flanders and Wallonia. Those organisations were created in the 1960s, with the central objective to help in the development of economic estates. Since their creation, they have been the key stakeholders in relation to industrial land. With the exception of Hainaut, they are active at the provincial level. Since their creation, inter-municipal companies active in economic development have developed a variety of activities other than the development of economic estates, including supporting municipalities in areas such as urban regeneration or rural development.

Besides the public development of economic estates, inter-municipal companies also conduct other forms of public development: residential developments, construction for public services (schools, kindergartens, etc.), PPP projects together with developers (on public-owned land), or the conversion of heritage sites (churches, cloisters, etc.). In Flanders, inter-municipal companies have been involved in greenfield residential developments for decades. Nowadays, Flemish inter-municipal companies are focusing more and more on infill, inner development and brownfield regeneration, in line with the current vision of a more compact and sustainable city.

Beyond the significant role of inter-municipal companies dedicated to economic development, intermunicipal cooperation in spatial planning is rare in Belgium. However, Belgian municipalities are usually too small to manage important spatial challenges such as controlling urban expansion and the related consequences for transport and mobility. This concerns all large urban areas and, in particular, the Brussels metropolitan region (see the following box).

In order to find solutions to this fragmentation of spatial governance, the Flemish government has recently decided to create 17 reference regions. In Flanders, those reference regions must become the level of coordination for all forms of intermunicipal and supra-local cooperation, including spatial planning and public development. By 2025, existing partnerships will have to be aligned with the reference regions.

Box 1: The issue of the spatial governance of the Brussels metropolitan region

The institutional evolution described above did not occur without creating problems of spatial governance. This concerns in particular the Brussels metropolitan region. Due to the fragmentation into different regional planning systems, Belgium lacks an overarching vision at this spatial level. As several researchers see it, the specific interests of the various regions and language groups in the Brussels metropolitan region interfere in a negative way with key spatial planning objectives (Vandermotten et al., 2006; Boussauw et al., 2013; van Meeteren el al., 2016).

As shown, for instance, by Thisse and Thomas (2010), beyond the economic north-south divide between Flanders and Wallonia, Belgium looks very much like a monocentric economy dominated by Brussels. In their analyses, those researchers conclude that both Flanders and Wallonia greatly benefit from the dynamics of the Brussels metropolitan region (whatever its definition). In this perspective, the Brussels metropolitan region’s lack of an overarching vision means that there is no overarching vision for what is probably the main economic asset of Belgium in the context of global competition. In this respect, it is worth citing Thisse and Thomas (2010, p. 15), for whom:

It should be clear that better governance of Greater Brussels (e.g. mobility, environment, fiscal policy, land use) would be beneficial to the whole country and its regions. In contrast, a deeper political fragmentation of the metropolitan area is likely to be detrimental to all.

This statement can be illustrated by the issue of Brussels Airport (Dobruszkes and Efthymiou, 2020). Brussels Airport is located in the northeastern suburbs. Despite the location of the airport in Flanders, the Federal Government plays a major role in this issue as it is in charge of aeronautical procedures. This has created a long history of debates and political conflicts on whether and how take-offs should avoid densely populated districts. Moreover, local and regional authorities have not effectively restricted the building of new residential developments in areas affected by aircraft noise.

Another illustration of the spatial planning fragmentation is the local and regional policies aiming to limit the ‘Frenchification’ of the Flemish suburbs of Brussels. According to Boussauw et al. (2013), those policies, inspired by the Flemish cultural movement mentioned above, have ultimately and inefficiently limited urban development inside the first-ring suburbs. This inefficiency in the use of urban space is related to an excessive compaction within the institutional boundaries of Brussels and, in parallel, to an excessive growth of commuter municipalities that are some distance from the major metropolitan centres where the jobs are.

Beyond the two examples just mentioned, better cooperation between Brussels and its surrounding areas is also necessary for various transport issues, starting with the difference in approach between the Flanders Region and the Brussels Capital Region to the expansion of the Brussels ring road. In terms of transport, other issues can be mentioned, such as the railway project for a regional express network still not completed after 30 years, the creation of park and ride facilities or the extension of the subway system beyond the administrative borders of the 19 municipalities of Brussels.

It was in order to explore collaborative solutions to these types of problem that the sixth constitutional reform in 2011 enshrined the creation of a metropolitan community of Brussels, with the aim of enhancing dialogue between Brussels and its surrounding areas (Van Wynsberghe, 2013). The territory of the metropolitan community includes the territory of the former province of Brabant. It therefore corresponds to the Brussels Capital Region and to the current two provinces of Walloon Brabant and Flemish Brabant. Yet, more than ten years after this decision, the metropolitan community has still not been established and no concrete progress has been made.


Figure 1: Administrative structure of Belgium

Figure 1: Administrative structure of Belgium

Figure 2: System of powers of Belgium

Figure 2: System of powers of Belgium

Spatial planning system


Two main characteristics of the national context must be appreciated in order to properly understand the Belgian planning system(s). The first is that, as detailed above, Belgium is now a federal state where spatial planning is exclusively the official responsibility of four federated entities: the Brussels Capital Region, the Flemish Region, the Walloon Region and the German-speaking Community. In view of this, it can be considered that four distinct planning systems (co)exist in Belgium.

The second characteristic of the Belgian national context relates to a cultural and political context where the planning tradition is weak, in particular compared to the main neighbouring countries (The Netherlands, Germany and France). This particular situation has deep historical roots and lock-in effects that relate, on the one hand, to the strength of private property rights and the related limitation of active land policies (Halleux et al., 2012) and, on the other hand, to the fact that, since the nineteenth century, the detached single family house and the owner-occupant status have been the cornerstone of Belgian housing policy (Mougenot, 1988; De Decker, 2008; De Decker et al., 2005). This specific context must also be related to the fact that it was only after 1962 that Belgium developed proper planning legislation at the state level. Before the 1962 Planning Act, spatial planning policy in Belgium was only developed at local level. For decades, it mostly concerned the bourgeois areas of the main cities.

It is impossible to speak of the weakness of spatial planning traditions and active land policies in Belgium without referring to the issue of urban sprawl. In Belgium, urban sprawl dominates the landscape, even though, for decades, spatial planners have tried to convey the need to better contain urban expansion (Albrechts, 1992). This observation can be related to studies comparing the relative extent of artificial surfaces between European nations. Those studies clearly show that, when the extent of artificial surfaces is compared to population size or to the GDP, the consumption of space in Belgium is clearly above average (Bengs and Schmidt-Thomé, 2006).

The rest of this section is structured into four sub-sections. The first section describes the historical development of the Belgian planning system(s). The three following sections are then organised on the basis of three different types of planning instrument: strategic plans, land-use instruments and perimeters in area-based policy.

Historical development of the Belgian planning system(s)

The 1962 Planning Act

The 1962 Planning Act was called Loi organique de l'aménagement du territoire et de l'urbanisme in French and Wet houdende organisatie van de ruimtelijke ordening en van de stedebouw in Dutch. This can be translated literally into English as the ‘Organic Law on Spatial Planning and Urbanism’. The term ‘organic’ refers to legislation that set out broad principles intended to be applied by implementing orders.

The 1962 Planning Act laid out the legal instruments for the physical planning of the whole national territory. It envisaged drawing up plans on four levels:

  • regional plans (plans régionaux in French and streekplannen in Dutch);
  • sub-regional plans (plans de secteur in French, gewestplannen in Dutch and Sektorenplan in German);
  • municipal plans (plans généraux d’aménagement in French and algemenene plannen van aanleg in Dutch);
  • sub-municipal plans (plans particuliers d’aménagement in French and bijzondere plannen van aanleg in Dutch).

A main principle of the 1962 Planning Act is that the different plans are hierarchically and spatially nested: higher-level plans impose guidelines on lower-level plans. This is the principle of ‘hierarchy’, which remains pertinent today as a fundamental principle in the organisation of spatial planning. According to this legislation, the first two levels of plan were to be carried out by the state (regional plans and sub-regional plans) and the two lower levels by the municipalities (municipal plans and sub-municipal plans).

In relation to regional plans, the 1962 Planning Act contained provisions for several planning regions. Extensive studies were prepared for each of them, but no regional plan was ever drafted. In parallel, due to the very low planning enthusiasm of most municipalities, municipal land-use plans had little success. It is in this context that, in 1964, a clear impetus was given by the national government to launch the preparation of the sub-regional plans. According to legislators, the sub-regional plan was envisaged merely as a coordination document between the regional plan and the municipal plan. Despite this initial conception, sub-regional plans have in fact become the most influential type of plan (see below).

Compared to regional plans and municipal plans, sub-municipal plans were more successful. Today, while their designations may have changed, equivalent instruments to the initial sub-municipal plans still exist in the different Belgian planning systems (see below). For the sake of clarity, we will describe them using the generic term ‘local plan’. Local plans are primarily land-use plans and their major aim is to detail the more general designations laid out in the sub-regional plans. The typical scale of the local plans (from 1/2500 to 1/500) therefore complements the typical scale of the sub-regional plans (from 1/10,000 to 1/20,000).

The historical success of the sub-regional plans

Between 1976 and 1987, 48 sub-regional plans were approved: 25 for Flanders, 22 for Wallonia and 1 for Brussels. A sub-region (secteur in French and gewest in Dutch) is a planning entity which does not correspond to a political-administrative entity. A sub-region covers an area of between 500 and 600 km2. They are larger than a municipality but smaller than a province and also smaller than the territories that were intended for the regional plans. The preparation of sub-regional plans was directly inspired by functionalist urbanism, and their essence is regulatory zoning. By applying the principles of the Athens Charter fairly strictly, a key aim of the sub-regional plans was to prevent problems linked to close proximity between heavy industry and other functions.

In both Flanders and Wallonia, sub-regional plans still exist and are still very influential. In accordance with the 1962 Planning Act, the regions and the German-speaking Community have competence for this instrument. In Wallonia, the sub-regional plans still cover the whole region. In Flanders, the 25 sub-regional plans are still the framework for building permit policy in about 80% of the territory (Pisman et al., 2018). The remaining 20% of the territory was rezoned by local plans called Ruimtelijke uitvoeringsplannen RUP (see below).

For Brussels, a specific sub-regional plan was approved in 1979 for the territory of the 19 municipalities. In 2001, this plan was replaced by the Regional Land Use Plan (Plan régional d’affectation du sol PRAS in French and Gewestelijk bestemmingsplan GBP in Dutch), which made it possible for Brussels to benefit from a more detailed and more accurate instrument. The main features of the initial sub-regional plan can still be seen in the Regional Land Use Plan. Firstly, this instrument is also a binding land-use plan that provides much legal certainty. Indeed, planning permission cannot be granted for applications at odds with the plan. Secondly, as its name indicates, responsibility for this instrument is exercised by the regional level and not by the municipal level.

The transfer of spatial planning competence

As with 1962, 1980 was also a pivotal year for the Belgian planning system(s), as this marks the year planning was transferred from the national to the regional level. As a result of this transfer, the three regional parliaments received legislative power for spatial planning. Once in possession of spatial planning competence, the regions gradually adopted their own legislation (see Box 2 below). As mentioned above, since 2020, the Parliament of the German-speaking Community also has also possessed this prerogative. As a result, since the transfer of this competence from the national level, the competent federated entities have benefitted from both a dedicated spatial planning administration and a dedicated spatial planning minister.

In parallel with the development of the regional legislations, there has been growing participation opportunities for civil society. In the different Belgian legislations and planning systems, it concerns planning permissions related to important projects. Moreover, following the European legislation related to the environmental impact of certain plans and programmes, it also concerns the preparation of most planning instruments (strategic plans, land-use instruments and perimeters in area-based policy to follow the typology used in this document).

Box 2: The development of the regional legislations

In Flanders, during the 1980s and 1990s, several draft decrees on spatial planning were not adopted due to the absence of a sufficient political consensus. As a consequence, the Flemish Region used the 1962 Planning Act until 1999. In 1996 a decree introduced strategic planning legally (Decreet ruimtelijke planning). This decree was focused on strategic plans and established the formal framework for the first strategic plan at the regional level. This document was called Ruimtelijk Structuurplan Vlaanderen RSV or the Flanders Spatial Structure Plan (see below). Later, in 1999, a more comprehensive decree on spatial planning (Decreet houdende de organisatie van de ruimtelijke ordening) introduced a three-tier planning system granting planning competence to the regional, provincial and municipal levels. By contrast, the legislation in Brussels and Wallonia introduced a two-tier system based on the regional and municipal levels only.

In Wallonia, a specific code was published in 1984: Code wallon de l’aménagement du territoire et de l’urbanisme (CWATU). This can be literally translated into English as the Walloon Act on Spatial Planning and Urbanism. In 2017, this legislation was replaced by the Code du développement territorial (Territorial Development Act). The need to fully replace the initial regional act can be explained by the political will to simplify legislation that had to be completely redrafted after dozens of changes.

In Brussels, the region became fully operational only in 1989, compared to 1980 for Wallonia and Flanders. Specific legislation was then published in 1991: the Organic Ordinance on Planning and Urbanism (Ordonnance organique de la planification et de l’urbanisme in French and Ordonnantie houdende organisatie van de planning en de stedenbouw in Dutch). In 2004, this legislation became the Brussels Spatial Planning Code (Code bruxellois de l'aménagement du territoire – CoBAT in French and Brussels wetboek van ruimtelijke ordening – BWRO in Dutch).

In the German-speaking Community, owing to how recently it received spatial planning competence, the Walloon Territorial Development Act is still in use – although, since 2020, some specific changes have been introduced. In the German-speaking Community, the medium-term objective is to develop specific legislation which will better meet the specificities of Ostbelgien.


The 1962 Planning Act as the background and matrix of the four current planning systems

More than 40 years after the transfer of planning competence to the regions, the 1962 Planning Act can still be considered the background and matrix of the four Belgian planning systems. This can be analysed through the four levels of plans that were conceived by the 1962 legislator (see the figure ‘Main instruments of the Belgian planning systems’).

In 1962, two levels of plans were expected for the national level: the regional plans and the sub-regional plans. In relation to the unrealised regional plans, we have seen an evolution from what was conceived as regulatory land-use plans to strategic plans (or policy plans) aiming to outline the framework for the desired regional spatial structures. In the current legislation, the following can be considered the descendants of the unrealised regional plans:

  • for Flanders, the Spatial Policy Plan for Flanders (Beleidsplan Ruimte Vlaanderen BRV);
  • for Wallonia, the Territorial Development Perspective (Schéma de développement du territoire – SDT);
  • for Brussels, the Regional Plan for Sustainable Development (Plan Régional de Développement Durable PRDD in French and Gewestelijk Plan voor Duurzame Ontwikkeling GPDO in Dutch)

It is important to acknowledge that the sub-regional plans remain strongly influential in both Flanders and Wallonia (including in the German-speaking Community). In Brussels, as mentioned above, this instrument was replaced in 1991 by the Regional Land Use Plan, another instrument with very similar characteristics. In relation to the sub-regional plans, the Brussels Regional Land Use Plan depends on the regional level rather than the municipal level. The fact that federated entities are responsible for binding land-use plans appears to be quite specific to the Belgian national context. Indeed, in most countries, binding land-use plans are drawn up by local authorities and not by national or regional authorities (ESPON, 2018).

In 1962, two levels of plans were also expected for the municipal level: a municipal land-use plan covering the whole municipal territory and sub-municipal land-use plans covering particular areas of the municipality. The evolution of the municipal plan is similar to that of the regional plans. In the three regions, the instruments that must cover the whole municipal territory are now flexible strategic plans (or policy plans) rather than regulatory land-use plans:

  • for Flanders, the Municipal Spatial Policy Plan (Gemeentelijk beleidsplan ruimte);
  • for Wallonia, the Municipal Development Perspective (Schéma de développement communal – SDC).
  • for Brussels, the Municipal Development Plan (Plan communal de développement – PCD in French and Gemeentelijk ontwikkelingsplan – GemOP in Dutch).

The last level envisaged by the 1962 legislator was the sub-municipal plans. As mentioned above, the legislation of three regions still provides for local plans:

  • for Flanders, the Spatial Implementation Plan (Ruimtelijk uitvoeringsplan RUP);
  • for Wallonia, the Local Guidance Perspective (Schéma d’orientation locale SOL)
  • for Brussels, the Special Land Use Plan (Plan particulier d’affectation du sol PPAS in French and Bijzondere bestemmingsplan BBP in Dutch) (municipal competence) and the Specific Master Plan (Plan d’aménagement directeur PAD in French and Richtplan van aanleg RPA in Dutch) (regional competence).

Complementing the four levels of plans, the 1962 Planning Act also contained regulations on construction. Such regulations (called règlements d’urbanisme in French, stedenbouwkundige verordeningen in Dutch and Städtebauordnungen in German) still exist today in the legislation of the different regions. Planning permission must be granted in compliance with them but, in contrast to land-use plans, they do not outline zoning. Construction regulations can relate to specific architectural requirements, to the arrangement of water management and canals, to green spaces, to parking capacity, to accessibility for persons with reduced mobility, etc.

The 1962 Planning Act can also be considered the matrix of the current legislation in relation to planning permission. In the 1962 Planning Act, as well as in the current legislation, there are two main types of permission: building permission and permission to subdivide plots of land. The former relates to activities and works on a single plot of land, while the latter must be sought in order to subdivide a given parcel of land into several smaller plots. In relation to the particularly extensive urban sprawl in Belgium, it is important to note that residential sprawl during the last decades has largely occurred through the use of subdivision permits on greenfield land. For decades, the classic way to urbanise in Belgium was to grant subdivision permits and then building permits inside the residential zones of the sub-regional plans.

Strategic planning and strategic plans: an ineffective, weak tradition

Strategic spatial planning is future oriented. It aims to define policy objectives and choices to guide future decisions and measures related to the organisation of space. In Belgium, as will be detailed below, the preparation of strategic plans at different governmental levels is relatively recent. It must therefore be acknowledged that Belgium has a weak tradition in strategic spatial planning.

As noted above, the 1962 Planning Act belatedly organised spatial planning in Belgium with a focus on land-use plans rather than on policy plans (or strategic plans). The dynamic behind the 1962 Planning Act did not allow for instruments which would aim to develop the spatial objectives that should be pursued. It was only in the 1990s, following the federalisation process, that strategic plans at the regional level were developed with the aim to define (regional) spatial visions for the future.

Moreover, it must also be frankly acknowledged that, despite the gradual implementation of strategic plans, Belgian planners continue to face difficulties in concretely influencing the evolution of spatial structures:

Regulations established by the planning system [in Belgium] are mainly restrictive. Theoretically the land-use plans ensure that undesirable development does not occur. But on the other hand the planning system is not able to ensure that desirable development actually happens at the right place and at the right time (Larsson, 2006, p. 118).

It is in this sense that we assess that the effectiveness of planning in Belgium is weak.

Two major difficulties explain why Belgian planners face difficulties in implementing the objectives defined in their strategic plans. The first reason relates to the political balance between individual property rights and collectively desired uses of land. As will be detailed below, this has historically been weighted toward individual property rights (see ‘Sub-regional plans’ below).

The second reason for the failure of planners to effectively pursue their spatial objectives lies in their lacking the ability to influence other public policies, as clearly illustrated by the problem of urban sprawl. Indeed, one central explanation for the high degree of urban sprawl in Belgium lies in the fact that the planning system(s) has proven unable to influence sectoral policies in relation to housing, taxation, transport or economic development (Halleux, 2012; Buitelaar and Leinfelder, 2020). We attribute this to a lack of coordination, both horizontally and vertically. This can be partly explained by the complexity of the governance system at the state level (see the second section), but the main explanation probably lies in the fact that historically urban planners and related stakeholders have lacked the societal weight and political influence.

For interested readers, the specifics of strategic planning at the regional level are detailed in Box 3.

Box 3: Strategic planning at the regional level

Strategic planning in Flanders

As already mentioned, it was not until 1999 that Flanders finally adopted a new, comprehensive Planning Act that replaced the first Belgian Act of 1962. Before that, in 1996, the Flemish Parliament had adopted a specific decree concerning strategic plans. This decree provided for spatial structure plans for the region but also for the provinces and municipalities.

During the 1991–1995 parliamentary term, the Flemish Government entrusted two universities with developing a regional strategic plan, with the objective to renew the classical planning approach and produce a first version of a structural plan for the region (Albrechts, 1999). The Ruimtelijk Structuurplan Vlaanderen (RSV), a spatial structure plan for Flanders, was then adopted by the Flemish Government Decree of 23 September 1997.

Following the adoption of the RSV, spatial structure plans at the two other planning levels (provinces and municipalities) were prepared (Departement Omgeving - Vlaamse overheid homepagina, n.d.) and then approved in all provinces and in almost all municipalities (Van Butsele et al., 2017). At the municipal level, the preparation of the plans took many years because the regional level demanded comprehensive documents. Also, the municipalities rarely worked together to make the planning process more efficient. Here the question can be raised whether a strategic structure plan at the scale of a single municipality is even a suitable instrument for what is in many cases a small territory. In any event, the process of drawing up these plans provided an opportunity for planners to think more deeply about spatial development on a local level for the first time. That said, in many cases, the resulting planning document was merely the means for the local authority to obtain full competence for overseeing planning permissions.

At the municipal level, the structure plans provided for by the 1996 decree can be seen as the descendants of the municipal plans of the 1962 Planning Act, even though their key principles greatly differ from the 1962 version of the municipal plans. In the initial version, the municipal plans were envisaged as legally binding land-use plans. By contrast, the municipal structure plans were envisaged as flexible master plans principally aiming to articulate a vision for the desired spatial structure.

Today, according to its legislation, Flanders must replace the Ruimtelijk Structuurplan Vlaanderen (RSV) with a Beleidsplan Ruimte Vlaanderen (BRV) (Flanders Spatial Policy Plan). In July 2018, the Flemish Government approved the strategic vision of the Flanders Spatial Policy Plan. This is the first step toward a new strategic plan at the regional level. Compared to the RSV, the emphasis is more on a general regional vision and support for the local authorities that are to implement the policy, and rather less on concrete tasks and commitments on the part of the Flemish planning level. A key aspect of the Flanders Spatial Policy Plan is the implementation of a ‘no net land take’ strategy, as put forward by the European level in 2011 (European Commission, 2011). In Flanders, this is known as the ‘Bouwshift’ (Bouckaert et al., 2021).

Besides a spatial policy plan for the regional level, the current Flemish legislation also provides that provincial as well as municipal authorities must prepare their own spatial policy plans (Provinciaal beleidsplan ruimte (Provincial Spatial Policy Plan) and Gemeentelijk beleidsplan ruimte (Municipal Spatial Policy Plan)) to replace the structure plans. Similar to the Regional Spatial Policy Plan, the provincial spatial policy plans are rather general and do not specify a clear role or commitment from the provincial level. This evolution shows an increasing delegation of tasks toward the local level, which, however, has the least capacity and financial means of the three planning levels.

Strategic planning in Wallonia

In 1997, the Walloon legislation was modified to integrate a strategic plan at the regional level. This modification was prompted by the evolution of both Flemish and European policy. The Walloon plan was then called SDER (Schéma de développement de l’espace régional – Regional Spatial Development Perspective / RSDP) to align with the ESDP (European Spatial Development Perspective) prepared at the European level between 1993 and 1999.

The SDER was finally adopted in 1999. To date, after more than two decades, it remains the official regional master plan for Wallonia, just as the 1997 Ruimtelijk Structuurplan Vlaanderen (RSV) remains the official regional master plan for Flanders. There is no doubt that the difficulties faced by the two main Belgian regions in revising their strategic master plans is illustrative of the above mentioned weak tradition of strategic planning and likewise the weakness of planning effectiveness and efficiency in Belgium.

The first attempts to revise the SDER started under the 2009-2014 parliamentary term. As mentioned above, in 2017, the initial regional legislation (Code wallon de l’aménagement du territoire et de l’urbanisme CWATU) was replaced with new legislation (the CoDT Code du développement territorial or Territorial Development Act in English). In the CoDT, the SDER was replaced by the SDT (Schéma de développement du territoire or Territorial Development Perspective in English).

In May 2019, a version of the SDT was approved by the regional government, although for political reasons which remain unclear, the government has not set a date for its official entry into force. This 2019 version notably aspires to follow the European ‘no net land take’ strategy. This goal is another common point between Wallonia and Flanders.

In Wallonia, official strategic plans also exist at the municipal level. Such plans were introduced into regional legislation back in 1989 under the designation Schéma de structure communal (SSC). In the current legislation, official strategic plans at the municipal level are called Schéma de développement communal (SDC) or Municipal Development Perspective in English.

As in Flanders with the municipal spatial policy plans, the SSC and now SDC can be considered descendants of the municipal plans of the 1962 Planning Act. However, as in Flanders, the current instrument is a flexible policy plan and not a legally binding land-use plan as conceived by the 1962 legislator.

Despite the fact that Walloon legislation has provided for municipal strategic plans for a very long time (since 1989), this instrument is used only by a minority of municipalities (103 out of 262 municipalities in 2020). This situation can be explained by the weakness of the Belgian tradition of strategic planning, but also by the fact that several municipalities have chosen to develop unofficial master plans that are less costly to produce and require less administrative effort and input.

In the German-speaking Community, besides the recent drive to develop specific legislation, there is also a new ambition to develop a strategic master plan at the scale of its nine municipalities. At this stage, this project is called Ostbelgien leben 2040 (Living East Belgium 2040).

Strategic planning in Brussels

Compared to both Flanders and Wallonia, strategic planning at the regional level appears to be more active and also more effective in Brussels. By ‘more effective’, we mean that regional strategic planning has a more concrete influence on spatial development. This greater activity and effectiveness cannot be fully explained by the limited size of the region (as a reminder, Brussels is a city-region). Another explanation is that having spatial planning competence has helped to ensure the credibility of the Brussels regional institutions in a context where most Brussels stakeholders consider that, for decades, the city has suffered dramatically from national policies that have instrumentalised it purely for its economic its economic role at the national level (de Beule et al., 2017).

As a reminder, the Brussels Capital Region became fully operational in 1989 and the first specific spatial planning legislation was published in 1991 (the Organic Ordinance on Planning and Urbanism). In 1995, the first regional strategic plan was issued in the form of the Regional Development Plan (Plan régional de développement PRD in French and Gewestelijk ontwikkelingsplan GewOP in Dutch). This strategic plan notably sought to improve both the urban quality of life and urban renewal in the city centre, to limit the overspecialisation of the Brussels economy in administrative functions, and also to protect residential neighbourhoods from an invasion of offices. The Regional Land Use Plan, which was issued in 2001, is based on those objectives in a very logical and coherent way.

Compared to Flanders and Wallonia, Brussels quickly revised its first strategic regional plan in 2002. A major evolution between the 1995 PRD and the 2002 PRD was the identification of strategic lever areas (zones-leviers in French or hefboomgebieden in Dutch) subject to the development of major urban projects. In parallel, the 2002 PRD specified that each lever area should be subject to a specific spatial scheme (instrument called Schéma directeur in French and Richtschema in Dutch) (see the section dedicated to local plans below).

In 2009, the Brussels Capital Region started to revise the 2002 version of its PRD. This led to ‘sustainable’ being added to the plan name. In 2018, the Regional Plan for Sustainable Development (Plan régional de développement durable PRDD in French and Gewestelijk plan voor duurzame ontwikkeling GPDO in Dutch) was then issued. This strategic plan provides a framework for the development of Brussels for the period up to 2040.

As in Flanders and Wallonia, the Brussels legislation also provides an instrument for strategic planning at the municipal level: the Municipal Development Plan (Plan communal de développement PCD in French and Gemeentelijk ontwikkelingsplan GemOP in Dutch). It can be considered that this instrument replaces the municipal plan of the 1962 legislation. To date, ten Brussels municipalities have finalised their PCD GemOP.


Land-use plans

This section has two parts: the first is on sub-regional plans, while the second discusses local plans.

Sub-regional plans

Several key characteristics of the sub-regional plans have already been given:

  • sub-regional plans are plans de secteur in French, gewestplannen in Dutch and Sektorenplan in German;
  • between 1976 and 1987, 48 sub-regional plans were approved: 25 for Flanders, 22 for Wallonia and 1 for Brussels;
  • although located on the second level in the hierarchy of plans as conceived in the 1962 Planning Act, sub-regional plans have in fact become the most influential plans;
  • sub-regional plans are binding land-use plans and granting planning permission in deviation from them requires a derogation;
  • sub-regional plans initially covered the whole country and they still exist in both Flanders and Wallonia (including in the German-speaking Community);
  • in Wallonia, sub-regional plans still cover the whole region while, in Flanders, they have been replaced by local plans (Ruimtelijk uitvoeringsplannen RUP) in about 20% of the regional territory;
  • in Brussels, the sub-regional plan was replaced in 2001 by the Regional Land Use Plan (PRAS Plan régional d’affectation du sol in French and GBP Gewestelijk bestemmingsplan in Dutch);
  • following the 1962 Planning Act, the sub-regional plans were initially drawn by the national authority;
  • following the federalisation process, federated entities now have competence for sub-regional plans (and the Brussels Capital Region also has competence for the Regional Land Use Plan);
  • the competence of national or regional authorities for binding land-use plans is particular to the Belgian planning systems as, in most countries, land-use plans are drawn up by local authorities.

As previously mentioned, the essence of the sub-regional plans is a strict regulatory zoning inspired by the principles of the Athens Charter. This zoning differentiates areas intended for urbanisation (ædificandi areas) from areas not intended for urbanisation (non ædificandi areas). A major characteristic of the sub-regional plans is that ædificandi areas where residential developments are possible are largely oversized. Those areas are called zones d’habitat in French, woongebied in Dutch and Wohngebiet in German (residential zones). Incontestably, the oversizing of the residential zones is a major explanatory factor of the extensive urban sprawl so typical of Belgium. Even today, greenfield residential zones approved for housing developments remain overabundant in most areas of the country.

There are various reasons for the oversizing of residential zones in the sub-regional plans. Cultural background and attitudes in Belgium play a major role. The Belgian population, and consequently their political representatives, usually do not consider land to be an asset that must be protected or used sparingly (Acosta, 1994). It is likely that this attitude has its roots in the characteristics of the natural environment in Belgium (Halleux et al., 2002). Compared to many other countries (e.g. The Netherlands, Denmark or Switzerland), Belgians tend not to view nature as something fragile which requires protection; according to this mindset, much of the country’s land can easily be allocated to urban use.

The oversizing of residential zones is also due to landowners’ right to compensation. In Belgium, planners were ‘generous’ in allocating greenfield locations for residential development prior to the implementation of the sub-regional plan in case the plan effectively banned building development on those sites (Haumont, 1990; Lacoere, 2020). The invocation of landowners’ right to compensation during the preparation of the sub-regional plans was essentially the result of lobbying by those with property interests and, in more general terms, the result of a cultural context of deep respect for property rights. As mentioned above, in Belgium, the balance between individual property rights and collectively desired land uses has never been favourable to spatial planners (Halleux et al., 2012).

In Belgium, the right to compensation is not time-limited. Several decades after the sub-regional plans came into force, the issue of the right to compensation and the related oversupply of building land continue to be problematic. Today, this situation tends to block the concrete initiatives that could be taken to meet the objective of ‘no net land take’, even though this objective has been adopted by both the Flemish and the Walloon planning authorities.

Local plans

The three current sets of planning legislation feature the equivalent of the sub-municipal plans conceived by the 1962 legislator. In the initial Walloon legislation, local plans were called PCA – Plan communal d’aménagement (or Municipal Design Plan). The very name highlighted the fact that, in contrast to the sub-regional plans, the municipalities were responsible for this type of plan.

In 2017, with the new regional legislation (CoDT), the designation of the Walloon local plans was changed to SOL – Schéma d’orientation locale (Local Guidance Perspective). The change of name reflects a major evolution in the sense that the new instrument is no longer a legally binding instrument. As the initial sub-municipal plan, the PCA was a legally binding land-use plan. In concrete terms, this meant that planning permission (building permit or plot subdivision permit) could not be granted if the application was at odds with the plan without a derogation. By contrast, if they consider that the application is justified, local authorities can now grant planning permission even if the application is at odds with a SOL.

In Flanders, local plans are now called Ruimtelijk uitvoeringsplannen RUP (Spatial Implementation Plans). In contrast to Wallonia, the Flemish implementation plans are still binding zoning plans. A specificity of the Flemish implementation plans is that they can be drawn up by the municipal level but also by both the regional and the provincial level. The three official denominations are: gemeentelijk RUP, provincial RUP and gewestelijk RUP (respectively, municipal RUP, provincial RUP and regional RUP). In this way, the three tiers of planning can develop land-use plans in the implementation of their structure plans.

Most RUPs are drafted by the municipalities, but which level approves a RUP for which area depends on the strategic importance of the location or project. For instance, a RUP near a train station of regional importance will be drafted by the region. In addition, the municipality can make small tweaks to the zoning or design specifications. To avoid ambiguity, agreements are made on a case by case basis between the three levels of government as to who is competent for what. The guiding principles for this division of planning competences are the principles of the RSV strategic plan. The planning role of the middle, provincial level is rather unclear and regularly debated. A common practice is that the Flemish planning level delegates the development of a land-use plan to the province or to the municipality/city.

Another specificity of the Flemish RUP is that it can replace, rather than merely detail, the sub-regional plans. As previously mentioned, ruimtelijk uitvoeringsplannen have replaced the sub-regional plans for about 20% of the Flemish territory. The 25 sub-regional plans covering Flanders are not revised in a systematic way, nor do they have an expiry date. Thus, the thousands of fragmentary zoning changes that have been made (mainly local changes) relate to the rezoning of the initial zoning type of the sub-regional plan or the detailing of the existing sub-regional zoning. As no expansion of the vast number of designated residential zones has been required since 1980, the majority of the zoning revisions were made for economic purposes or for the protection of natural areas. In addition, several new land-use plans were made to detail the general zoning or to replace outdated zones like mining and public service sites.

In Brussels, we still find the direct descendants of the 1962 sub-municipal plans. They must be prepared by municipalities and are called special land-use plans (Plans particuliers d’affectation du sol PPAS in French and Bijzondere bestemmingsplan BBP in Dutch). Brussels also has a new regional instrument, the Specific Master Plan (Plan d’aménagement directeur PAD in French and Richtplan van aanleg RPA in Dutch). In 2018, this instrument replaced the Specific Spatial Perspective (schéma directeur in French and richtschema in Dutch) created in the context of the 2002 PRD to support the development of major urban projects. The Specific Spatial Perspectives are drawn up by the regional level and include both a non-regulatory and a regulatory part. Like the Specific Master Plans, their non-regulatory part indicates the main guidelines for the development of urban projects. In addition, this instrument can also be used to specify regulations that will apply to all applications for building permission, and these can deviate from all existing plans and regulations because they are made at the regional level. Thanks to this regulatory part, developments can take place without the need to draw up a special land-use plan.

Perimeters and area-based policy

This last section briefly presents the instruments used in the three Belgian regions to develop area-based policies. Those instruments are based on the definition of spatial perimeters where developments are encouraged in one way or another, usually with the aim of stimulating urban regeneration.

In Belgium, the policy of urban regeneration dates back to the mid-1970s. In the field of spatial planning, this crisis period (oil shock, economic crisis, etc.) was a pivotal period when functionalist urbanism was called into question. After several decades marked by the modernist post-war project, heritage issues as well as urban renewal issues and participation procedures started to influence spatial planning more significantly.

Perimeters for renovation areas were created as early as the 1970s. Such perimeters no longer exist in Flanders, but they do in Wallonia (under the name Rénovation urbaine) as well as in Brussels (under Contrat de quartier durable in French and Duurzame wijkcontract in Dutch). Within the perimeters of renovation areas, municipalities define urban regeneration options in consultation with residents and with the regional level. The planned measures usually involve the redesign of public space, social housing, public facilities, green areas, the reuse of monuments, private subsidies for renovation, etc. In this way, public resources can be concentrated on a neighbourhood that is lagging behind the rest of the municipal territory.

In Wallonia, since the beginning of the 1990s, the revitalisation urbaine instrument has complemented the rénovation urbaine instrument. This PPP instrument aims to increase the financial profitability of urban property developments carried out by private developers in urban neighbourhoods. Through this instrument, the municipality can obtain a regional subsidy to finance the development of public space within an urban perimeter around the private project. Revitalisation urbaine can therefore be seen as the opposite of a planning obligation that would be imposed on a developer. The philosophy behind the revitalisation urbaine instrument is to attract private investment in initially unprofitable neighbourhoods, through a logic of financial gap funding.

Besides perimeters aiming to sustain urban regeneration at the neighbourhood scale, Belgium also has a tradition of perimeters to support the regeneration of former industrial sites. In Wallonia, the specific instrument aiming to support the regeneration of former industrial sites is called sites à réaménager SAR, or ‘site to redevelop’ in English. Once a SAR perimeter is delimited, financial support through public subsidies is available. The delimitation of a SAR perimeter also helps the development process through simplified procedures for zoning revisions as well as for granting planning permission.

In Flanders, since 2007, the regeneration of former industrial sites has been supported by the instrument of brownfield covenants (brownfieldconvenanten in Dutch). With a brownfield covenant, the Flemish government contracts both private and public partners involved in a brownfield project. Private project developers and investors receive a number of legal/administrative and financial benefits for the redevelopment of old and vacant industrial sites, provided that the project is realised. Incentives include tax exemptions on planning gains in the case of rezoning, exemption from the requirement to provide a financial guarantee for soil sanitation works, exemption from pre-emption rights and from vacancy tax. In order to provide an impetus for new projects, the Flemish government regularly publishes calls for tender. With these incentives, the Flemish government has successfully supported dozens of conversion projects.

Besides perimeters aiming to stimulate urban regeneration in general or to facilitate the regeneration of former industrial sites, the Belgian planning systems have also developed a specific type of perimeter aiming to limit the costs associated with planning procedures (transaction costs). In Flanders, since 2014, perimeters for complex projects (complexe projecten in Dutch) can be designated on sites of high strategic importance where the developments require support. Within the perimeters of those complex projects, planning decisions can be expedited thanks to a unique type of decision that can combine both the zoning process and the granting of planning permission.

A specific instrument aiming to limit the costs associated with the planning process was created in Wallonia in 2006: the périmètre de remembrement urbain – PRU. The French word remembrement means ‘land readjustment’, but in this context, the PRU is not actually related to any reallocation of land. The PRU is in fact a location-specific way to streamline planning procedures by overriding all the former location-specific regulations, in particular the regulations in the sub-regional land-use plans (Halleux et al., 2011).

Figure 3: Planning system of Belgium

Figure 3: Planning system of Belgium

Important stakeholders

Institution / stakeholders / authorities Special interest / competence / administrative area
Association de la Ville et des Communes de la Région de Bruxelles-Capitale – Brulocalis Represents the interests of the 19 Brussels municipalities, including the City of Brussels.
Vereniging van de Stad en de Gemeenten van het Brussels Hoofdstedelijk Gewest – Brulocalis
Chambre des urbanistes de Belgique – CUB French-speaking association of professional planners
Conférence Permanente du Développement territorial – CPDT The Permanent Conference on Territorial Development is a multidisciplinary platform for research, training and discussion on spatial planning created by the Walloon Government.
Departement Omgeving - Vlaamse overheid Flemish government administration in charge of planning
perspective.brussels perspective.brussels is a public interest body that was created by the Parliament of the Brussels Capital Region. It is a multidisciplinary centre of expertise that provides the Brussels Region with advice on spatial planning and territorial development.
SPW Territoire, Logement, Patrimoine, Énergie Walloon administration in charge of planning
Union des Villes et Communes de Wallonie – UVCW Represents the interests of the 262 Walloon municipalities, including the cities
urban.brussels Brussels administration in charge of urban affairs (building permits, cultural heritage and urban renewal)
VRP – Vlaamse vereniging voor Ruimte en Planning Dutch-speaking association of professional planners
VVSG – Vereniging van Vlaamse Steden en Gemeenten Represents the interests of the 300 Flemish municipalities, including the cities

Fact sheets


  • Attachment 1: Regions and Communities of Belgium

  • Attachment 2: Administrative Framework of Belgium

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