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Protected semi-natural sites and green spaces

The protection of semi-natural sites and green spaces represents a vital tool for the preservation of biodiversity. The Brussels-Capital Region has 14 natural reserves and 2 forest reserves extending over 127 ha and 111 ha respectively, and covering 1.5% of the territory. The special areas of conservation established in the context of the European Natura 2000 network cover an area of 2,316 ha, or nearly 14.4% of the territory; they include most of the reserves. Consequently, more than 14.6% of the territory benefits from active protection status, meaning that the conservation objectives need to be defined for all of the sites concerned and implemented using appropriate management plans.
Confronted by various human pressures on the environment - and, in particular, on biodiversity - the public authorities have put in place various protective tools which are applicable to certain sites.

In the Brussels Region, different statutes of protection, which are more or less binding in terms of nature conservation, co-exist and often apply to one and the same site. In this respect, the "draft regional plan for nature in the Brussels-Capital Region", which is in the process of being adopted, distinguishes between the concepts of active and passive nature protection.

Green spaces benefiting from active protection status

The sites benefiting from active protection are those for which the management plans must be implemented to ensure that the pre-defined conservation objectives are achieved.  It is applicable to sites of high biological value which require strict protection.

Natural reserves and forest reserves

The natural reserves and forest reserves are areas which are protected for their exceptional or specific biological value, and which benefit from the strictest protection provision.

They can either be integral or controlled, depending on whether natural phenomena are left to evolve at their own pace, or whether management is incorporated to preserve or re-establish species or natural habitats in a favourable conservation status, for which the site has been designated as a natural reserve or, in the case of a forest reserve, in order to safeguard stands of indigenous timber species or characteristic or remarkable facies.

The Brussels-Capital Region has 14 natural reserves and 2 forest reserves extending over 127 ha and 111 ha respectively. In total, these reserves cover 1.5% of the Brussels territory.

The charts below illustrate the evolution of the number of reserves and their total surface area since the creation of the Brussels Region.

Evolution of the number of natural reserves and forest reserves in the Brussels-Capital Region
Source: Brussels Environment, Dpt. Biodiversity, 2015

Evolution of the surface area of natural reserves and forest reserves in the Brussels-Capital Region
Source: Brussels Environment, Dpt. Biodiversity, 2015

More ample information concerning these reserves is available in the documented sheet devoted to the semi-natural sites and green spaces benefiting from protection status.

Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) for nature and habitats of community interest

The Natura 2000 network is a European network of natural or semi-natural sites which have special protection status due to the habitats or species they contain. It is made up of sites designated by Member States pursuant to 2 European directives concerning respectively the preservation of wild birds, referred to as the "Birds directive" (directive 2009/147/EC) and the conservation of natural habitats, and wild flora and fauna, referred to as the "Habitats directive" (directive 92/43/EEC). The latter directive targets both the conservation of natural habitats and the habitats of species, and the conservation of wild animal and plant species. It includes, in its annex I, a list of the natural or semi-natural habitats considered as being of community interest (in other words, in short, rare and/or typical or remarkable habitats at the European Union level) and, in its annex II, a list of the species of flora and fauna of community interest.

Although certain sites are interesting for a large number of bird species, the Region does not include "special protection areas" designated in the context of the "Birds directive". However, despite its urban character, the regional territory has 10 types of habitat included in annex I of the "Habitats" directive (forest habitats in particular) and 8 species of the fauna listed in annex II (4 species of bats, an insect, a fish, an amphibian and a small mollusc).

The presence of these natural habitats and species has made it possible to draw up a list of the sites where they are found and propose them as "Special Areas of Conservation" (SAC) to the European Commission, which approved them in December 2004. Given the Region's high degree of urbanisation, it is not one big homogenous site but 3 sites including a patchwork of 48 stations.

In order to be conclusively designated, the 3 SAC must all be the subject of a decree - which will be adopted after a public hearing - including in particular the conservation objectives of the site, the management methods proposed and the specific prohibitions which are applicable within or outside the site to guarantee its preservation. The draft decrees pertaining to the designation of the SAC I, II and III were submitted to a public enquiry in 2015. Once the designation decrees have been adopted, Brussels Environment will need to draw up a draft management plan for the 48 Natura 2000 stations in the Brussels Region, in consultation with any possible owners or occupants. The designation decree of the SAC II - the first of the areas to have been submitted to a public enquiry - was officially adopted in September 2015.

The 3 future SAC cover a total surface area of 2,316 hectares (or nearly 14.4% of the Brussels territory):

  • The Sonian forest with boundaries and neighbouring wooded areas and the Woluwe valley (2066 ha) – SAC I;
  • The wooded and open areas in the south of the Brussels-Capital Region - Verrewinkel complex - Kinsendael (134 ha) – SAC II;
  • The wooded areas and wetlands of the Molenbeek valley in the north west of the Brussels-Capital Region (116 ha) – SAC III.

With a surface area of 1,657 ha, the Brussels section of the Sonian forest represents a major part of these SAC. The habitats of community interest cover a surface area of approximately 1,987 ha.

Natural habitats of regional interest

The nature ordinance introduces the concept of "natural habitats of regional interest" (HRI) which are defined as "natural habitats occurring in the regional territory, for the conservation of which the Region has a particular responsibility due to their importance for the natural regional patrimony and/or their negative conservation status". These HRI can be situated within Natura 2000 sites but also outside them, where they primarily relate to open habitats. The HRI included in Natura 2000 areas or in natural reserves must be the subject of conservation objectives and the related management measures. Their precise demarcation and the defining of their conservation objectives are carried out in the context of the development and adoption procedures of the designation decrees of the Natura 2000 sites (currently in progress, see previously) or, for the HRI included in natural reserves, in the context of future revisions of the designation decrees of these habitats.

Green spaces benefiting from passive protection status

The passive protection status does not imply any obligation in terms of preserving the biological value of the site. It concerns green spaces which are protected via legislation pertaining to the development of the territory, the protection of its patrimony or the protection of water resources.

Protected sites as part of the development of the territory:

The planning tools play an essential role in the conservation of green areas in the city. The regional land use plan (PRAS) and the accompanying land use map organise the territory into different areas of use, of which 8 pertain to green or agricultural spaces.

The PRAS also establishes easement areas around woods and forests (except if a specific land use plan already exists in the PRAS adopted in 2001). These equate to a non aedificandi area extending to a range of 60 metres (30 metres in certain conditions) from the boundary of forest areas.

The regulations of the PRAS which are applicable to the green spaces only impart a relative protection status to the sites with ecological interest: certain actions and works are prohibited there but nothing is required in terms of preserving the biological value of the site. For the "green area" uses, "green areas of high biological value", "forest areas" and "park areas", the ecological aspects of the area are taken into account, to varying degrees. The strictest conditions with regards to nature apply to the "green areas of high biological value", which are intended for the conservation and the regeneration of natural habitats which are home to rare animal or plant species, or which display considerable biological diversity. In these areas, only actions and works which are necessary for the active or passive protection of the natural environment or species are authorised, as well as the realisation of the green network (on condition, for this last case, that the actions and works are compatible with the destination of the area). In terms of the legal aspect, the status in no way guarantees the proper management of the site.

Protected sites as part of the protection of the patrimony:
The concept of patrimony applies to the architectural heritage and archaeological sites but also the "living patrimony", which includes remarkable sites and trees.

At the start of 2015, 138 sites with a total surface area of 2,651 ha benefited from the status of "classified site", meaning specifically that they cannot be demolished. These sites encompass parks (Brussels park, Bois de la Cambre, etc.), gardens, remarkable trees (4) as well as non-built or partially built semi-natural sites (Sonian forest, Wilder woods, Vogelzang, etc.). This status ensures the highly effective protection of the heritage value of the site, although its rather rigid character sometimes prevents management adapted to the preservation or increase of biodiversity. 164 sites (including 126 remarkable trees), covering 82 ha, were moreover included in the safeguard list (status whose restrictions are slightly lower than those of the rating, see documented sheet "Semi-natural sites and green spaces benefiting from protection status"). The Sonian forest also includes two classified archaeological sites (neolithics fortified camp and burial mounds).

Protected sites as part of the water regulation:

Certain areas benefit from a protection status aiming above all to protect surface water, groundwater, or the habitats and species which directly depend on water. By regulating the activities authorised in these areas, this protection also ensures a certain level of protection of the natural environments situated there.

The Brussels Region has 4 types of areas for the protection of water resources, including in particular a protection area for groundwater catchment intended to supply the public drinking water distribution network. This protection area, with a surface area of around 770 ha, is situated in the Bois de la Cambre and the Sonian forest (Drève de Lorraine). The other areas relate to the obligations and modalities for treating waste water (this area covers the entirety of the Region), to the protection of water against pollution by nitrates from agricultural sources (a similar area to the catchment protection area) and finally, to areas where the use of pesticides is prohibited (places or establishments frequented by vulnerable groups, catchment protection area, Natura 2000 sites and natural reserves and forest reserves).

We can also highlight the existence of Special Protection Areas (SPA), a status which was defined in the ordinance of 30 March 1995 on the frequenting of the woods and forests in the Brussels-Capital Region. This status, which has no implications for the ecological management, is intended to create buffering areas around the protection areas or limit the impact of overcrowding in certain areas by imposing restrictions of use (dogs must be kept on a lead and public accessibility is limited to footpaths and trails). The Sonian forest has 4 SPAs occupying an area of 587 ha (Governmental Decree of the Brussels-Capital Region of 27 September 2007 giving certain parts of the Sonian forest the status of Special Protection Area).

Areas conserved by means of ecologically representative and well connected networks of protected areas which are managed efficiently

One of the main objectives established as part of the strategic plan 2011-2020 of the UN Convention on biological diversity is to conserve a minimum of 17% of domestic land and water areas by means of effective conservation measures. To evaluate this objective, which is included in Belgium's national strategy for biodiversity, regional experts have proposed 4 categories, namely:

  • Category 1: areas with active protection status under nature conservation legislation (NCL) (reserves and Natura 2000);
  • Category 2: areas with active protection status under NCL which are managed efficiently and covered by an officially approved management plan;
  • Category 3: areas with active protection status under NCL which are managed efficiently with nature conservation as their objective, but without any management plan;
  • Category 4: areas with another protection status, or no status, but which are managed efficiently with nature conservation as their objective (agro-environmental measures, late mowing, etc.).

Only categories 2, 3 and 4 are taken into consideration for the calculation of reference values, which enable the monitoring of this objective.

In 2014, 16% of the surface area of the Brussels-Capital Region fell into one or more of these categories, of which:

  • 10.3% in category 2 (Sonian forest in a Natura 2000 area, managed with an officially approved management plan);
  • 3.0% in category 3 (Natura 2000 stations, excluding the Sonian forest, managed by Brussels Environment or by municipalities or the private sector, with monitoring provided by Brussels Environment, as well as natural reserves excluding Natura 2000);
  • Around 2.7% in category 4 (roadsides, railway embankments and military terrain which are subject to ecological management through agreements between Brussels Environment and their owners, and areas of regional and municipal parks in differentiated management, excluding Natura 2000).

For the Walloon and Flemish Regions, these percentages were 8.9% and 10.7% respectively. On this basis, given the percentages achieved for the 3 regions, 9.8% of the Belgian land territory can be considered as managed efficiently, with the objective of nature conservation.

Datum van de update: 06/08/2021