Belgians demand royal park to be open for public during pandemic

Brussels, Mar 04 (AP):
The people of Brussels are craving open spaces in this time of pandemic restrictions, often ending up in overcrowded city parks where social distancing is impossible. Yet one family stands above the fray.
The royal family has an extensive, lush garden right in the center of town, nearly the size of Monaco and replete with a massive palace and its own rare heron colony.
So, is there any wonder that more and more voices are clamoring for King Philippe to loosen up and open at least part of his palace garden to the public during the world’s worst health crisis in a century?
So far, though, no walls have been torn down, no iron gates swung open.
‘They hardly ever get in there. Come on! Those gardens are simply empty,’ sighed an exasperated Brussels historian and former member of the European Parliament, Luckas Vander Taelen.
Furthermore, the gardens in the Brussels municipality of Laeken are surrounded by some of the nation’s most densely populated, run-down and impoverished neighborhoods, filled with many families who lack the funds to travel to more verdant surroundings.
‘Greenery gives a lust for life, especially when you are squeezed into a little apartment with an extended family,’ said Laeken social worker Saliha Mahdi. ‘So the local people want a park right here because they don’t have the means to pay for transport.’
The palace gardens are turning into a parable of royal privilege in times of intense need and change.
The monarchy has been tone-deaf before. Last year, early in the pandemic, King Philippe, in an ill-fated attempt at the common touch, allowed a drone to fly over the vast domain to show that his family, like all Belgian families, was in lockdown at home.
On a vast expanse of green, with the shadows of age-old trees and shrubbery lapping at the perfectly mowed grass, the family had written in huge letters, ‘Courage Strong Together.’ Together? Not really.
A rumble in the political background for some years, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the issue to the forefront this spring, with the governing parties in Brussels and even some of the opposition behind a proposal to open the gardens to the public.
‘People really need spaces, public spaces to unwind, to catch some oxygen, to play, to meet,’ said Brussels lawmaker Hilde Sabbe.
And even if the south of the capital has plenty of green open spaces for its resident diplomats, Eurocrats and the very well off, parts of the center and north of Brussels, where the king has his garden, are very different, with grit lining the streets, not stately trees.

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