The Wrong Side of my Car

A blog about Auckland City, its streets, and culture shock

14 Jun 2016

Let’s explore aerial photography: Belgium

Lots of people think I’m weird. I’m interested in weird things. I can spend way too much time on silly things. Like writing a blog nobody reads. “Normal” is overrated. It is often just a fancy synonym for “boring” anyway.

One of the particular things which can mesmerise me for hours are maps. New maps. Old maps. Old aerial photographs. Relief maps. Following how the streets and railways find the best way through areas with a lot of relief. And so on.

Today we have aerial photos, more specifically stills from Google Earth. Let’s have a look at what cities look like from above.

Brussels, centred around the Grand Place

A note about the scale of the pictures, all of them cover (to close approximation) a rectangle of 1 km by 750 m. At original size (1000 px wide) every pixel is 1 m².


Let’s first look at where I came from. I’ll start at the capital of Belgium, Brussels. Depending on your definition of what constitutes Brussels city (and ignoring all the political contraptions), it has between 1.45 and 2.5 million inhabitants, so it is a bit larger than Auckland.

As with many cities in the Old World, the city centre was already there in the Middle Ages. The picture above is the city centre, with the Grand Place in the middle. Around the square you can see the typical tiny houses and small streets. There was one way people got around in those days, and that was walking. Everything can be really small if you only have to fit in people.

So, what about the areas around the city centre?


That’s Cureghem, about 2 km to the south-west. The big station in the lower right corner is Brussels South, one of the busiest in Belgium, and the station where the international high-speed trains stop. But despite the favourable location it is a quite deprived part of the city.


We’re now about 4 km east from the Grand Place. This is a richer area, with a bit more green, both on the streets and in the backyards. And look at those avenues criss-crossing the area. It is still mostly terraced houses here, you will not find a lot of free-standing houses this close to a big city centre.

Residential area in Woluwe-Saint-Pierre

About 7 km out we find Belgium’s version of lush green suburbia. This is some of the most expensive real estate in Belgium.

In most directions, at 10 km you’re well outside the city in the countryside. Or at least what we Belgians call countryside. There’s a lot of dispersed houses out there, which makes it hard to define how large the urban agglomeration is. 20 km away you may still find a lot of people commuting to Brussels.


So what about smaller cities? Let’s have a look at Leuven, the city where I studied. With about 100,000 inhabitants it’s much smaller than Brussels.

centre of Leuven

That looks quite similar to the centre of Brussels. Both cities have been there since the Middle Ages, and actually for a part of their history, Leuven has been the larger of the two.

Go away from the centre a bit, and it doesn’t look too different from Brussels:

Kessel-Lo: old…

One easily recognisable feature is again the prevalence of terraced houses, and also the narrow right of way between the houses.

…and new

This is a newer subdivision slightly to the north. The street grid is a bit more fine-grained, so the houses can be a bit wider and larger without making the lots too large—square metres are expensive in cities. There is a bit more space between the houses, which gives cars some extra breathing space.

The villas of Knokke-le-Zoute

If you say ‘expensive real estate’, a lot of people in Belgium will think about Knokke, more specifically le Zoute, the easternmost tip of this long conurbation at the Belgian coast.


Note also the strip of medium-rise apartments lining the coast. There’s a lot of these strips at the coast, and they’re every bit as ugly as it sounds. The Dutch sometimes talk about how they don’t want their coast to end up “as ugly as the Belgian coast”. But the rich still like their villas in the quiet area behind that strip.

The countryside

I mentioned the countryside before, let’s have a look at the same scale:

Lubbeek village

And here we have a village on the countryside. Note how even here you can make out some terraced houses in the centre.

The uniquely Belgian feature in this image are the long ribbons of houses emanating in all directions. That’s how Belgium ruined most of its countryside in the northern half. There’s a lot of green in this satellite image but all the streets are fully built up. For people on these streets this has the odd effect of making it look like this entire area has been built up.

And that’s it for today

Coming up next is Auckland, the city where I live now.

No comments

Post a Comment