BRUSSELS – 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.
“In Brussels, most people don’t have a garden. They don’t have a terrace. They don’t have a balcony. So they have to go to the park, if there is one to to find," Sabbe said.
In that sense, making part of the royal park available to the public would make a world of difference. “Couldn't you just let them in?" Sabbe pleaded with the king.
As with all seemingly simple things, though, it is much more complicated.
When it comes to royal ownership, there is a warren of legal intricacies with links to both the state and the royal family. Belgium's Byzantine institutional structure, with sometimes overlapping authority between city, region and nation, would make management of any open park even more complex.
In a more practical sense, the palace needs to remain secure, not only because the head of state resides there, but also because heads of state and government visit when they come through Brussels for trips to NATO or the European Union.
And a century-plus seclusion from the world outside has turned the park into a fragile biotope with unique plants and animals that need protection.
That remains an argument for some — even if Celine Vandeuren, who lives nearby, has to walk her cat Hector on a leash just outside the park's red-brick wall, unable to enjoy the beauty and tranquility inside.
“My fear is that if we open this space, our presence, perhaps a bit too untimely, would perturb nature," Vandeuren said.
Sabbe disagrees, saying there could be an easy fix to open up part of the 460-acre park. And she has faith in 60-year-old King Philippe, who is steadily making a name for himself as one of the most progressive in a line of monarchs stretching back to 1830.
The Royal Palace has remained mum on the issue and declined to respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.
For historian Vander Taelen, however, the solution is a no-brainer for the king.
“It would be so positive for the Royal House to show that there is a bond with the city," he said. “Perhaps the most important is if they would show solidarity with the needs of their people, of their city."
AP video journalist Mark Carlson contributed.