1. Policy Setting
In Belgium, environmental policy including nature conservation is essentially of Regional competence. The Federal level is competent for the marine areas under Belgian jurisdiction, military domains and railway embankments. It also has specific environmental competences at international level (CITES, trade of non-indigenous species, product standards), other competences related to the environment and biodiversity (development cooperation, finance, economy, etc.), as well as competence over instruments such as public procurement and taxation (Belgian National Focal Point to the Convention on Biological Diversity (ed.), 2013). The Flemish and the Brussels Regions have their own strategies and action plans in relation to biodiversity.
Belgium’s National Biodiversity Strategy 2006-2016 was adopted in 2006 by the Interministerial Conference for the Environment – composed of the competent ministers of the Federal Government, the three Regions of Belgium (Flanders, Brussels, Wallonia) and the three Communities (Flemish, French, German) – and updated in 2013 to cover the period until 2020 (Belgian National Focal Point to the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2013). The National Biodiversity Strategy (2013-2020) is a framework document that mainly builds on the existing plans, giving political orientation in order to improve the implementation of biodiversity commitments, strengthen coherence, fill gaps and integrate biodiversity concerns into the national and international levels (European Commission, 2017). The operational objectives of the updated National Biodiversity Strategy include protecting and restoring biodiversity and associated ecosystem services through protected areas, green infrastructure, and no net loss, as well as mapping ecosystems and their services in Belgium and assessing their values (Belgian National Focal Point to the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2013).
While there is no dedicated overarching GI strategy, references to GI or ecological network can be found in several policy documents, in particular:
a) The Flemish Ecological Network (Vlaams Ecologisch Netwerk, VEN) is based on the Spatial Structural Plan Flanders (Ruimtelijk Structuurplan Vlaanderen), while the Nature Decree (Natuurdecreet) deals with the regulation of the VEN. The VEN comprises large natural units and large natural units in development and will comprise 125,000 ha. It partly overlaps with Natura 2000. An Integral Connecting and Supporting Network (Integraal Verwevend en Ondersteunden Netwerk, IVON) buffers, supports and connects these core natural areas. The government of Flanders uses positive incentives to promote ecological quality of these supporting areas (Agentschap Natuur en Bos, n.d.).
The Agency for Nature and Forest and the Department for Spatial Planning (“Omgeving”) Flanders issued guidelines for the design of a local green vision, to support municipalities in integrating green space into urban structures in order to take advantage of the multiple benefits (Agentschap Natuur en Bos, 2016a).
Other planning processes contributing to restoration and development of GI include the designation of Natura 2000 sites with the establishment of conservation objectives and priority measures, species protection programmes identifying specific habitats within and outside Nature 2000 sites. Natura 2000, and nature areas (reserves and domains of the regional and local authorities) form core areas of the ecological network.
Spatial planning policy includes development of green-blue network systems between and within rural and urbanised areas and their city parks. A new long-term vision on Urban Greenery and Urban Forestry is currently under development by the Agency for Nature and Forests. The vision should inspire the many stakeholders involved and lead to a strategy which seeks to drastically increase the amount, quality and linkages of nature and greenery in the built environment (urban and peri-urban). The strategy should change business-as-usual mind-sets and improve mainstreaming of GI in many other policy areas. Ultimately, it should lead to choosing the GI options and variants in urban and spatial planning, transport infrastructure, etc.
Flanders published a Restoration Prioritisation Framework in 2016 (Prioriteitenkader voor ecosysteemherstel in Vlaanderen), as required under the EU Biodiversity Strategy Target 2 (Action 6a) (Agentschap Natuur en Bos, 2016b).
b) The Regional Nature Plan (2016-2020) of the Brussels Capital Region is structured around seven main objectives:
1) ensure access to green space for all inhabitants;
2) strengthen the regional network of green space, by connecting natural areas to improve ecosystem resilience;
3) integrate nature considerations in all plans and projects;
4) improve ecological management of green spaces;
5) reconcile wildlife and urban development;
6) raise awareness among inhabitants; and
7) improve nature governance.
Green infrastructure or 'maillage vert et bleu' has been established since the years 2000 and has benefited from a Life-Nature programme (life/nat /B/5167 1998-2001) (Bruxelles Environnement, undated; IBGE, 2000). It is aiming at connecting Natura 2000 sites, forest, nature reserves, parks, ponds to create green and blue corridors and allow wildlife species (e.g. bats, amphibians) to find wintering, nesting and feeding areas they need to maintain. A green pedestrian and cycle path 'Promenade Verte' based on the rehabilitation of an old railway is connecting urban parks, semi-natural sites, nature reserves, woodlands in a circle of about 60 km around Brussels. In addition, an inner city network connecting the different green areas (‘continuités vertes’) was defined and included in the regional sustainable development plan (PRDD) to strengthen the pedestrian and cycle traffic beside the main roads. Additional measures to promote the greening of Brussels are promoted, for example: developing a strategy on public access to green space; greening old railways - 'promenade verte'; strengthening the presence of nature in public spaces buildings and their surroundings; allowing public access to green roofs; ensuring protection and appropriate management of sites of high biological value and development of the ecological network; developing and implementing plans for the multifunctional management of green spaces, and for the ecological management of areas linked to transport infrastructure; improve connectivity for fauna (in relation to transport infrastructure). Parks, gardens, and woodlands accessible to the public cover 2 779 ha, about 18% of the total area of the Brussels Region.
Furthermore, the Brussels Region defined a regional ecological network in order to connect the main green areas in the city. The network is composed of three different categories: central area, development area and link area. The central and development areas include high and medium biological value areas (e.g. Natura 2000 sites) to maintain. The link area defines the potential connection between the central and development areas in order to stimulate fauna and flora migration and distribution.
c) The Walloon region: The ‘Walloon Nature Network’ (Réseau Wallonie Nature) is an initiative of the Walloon administration which aims to strengthen nature conservation efforts in the region, based on an updatable catalogue of voluntary actions to be implemented in the next years, many of them building on existing initiatives (Service Public de Wallonie, 2014; 2015). Specific objectives and monitoring indicators are associated with each action. Examples of actions include: encouraging nature on public buildings; restoring riparian habitats; restoring wetland biodiversity; promoting the greening of cemeteries; further implementing the Natura 2000 network in the Walloon Region; creating municipal nature reserves (‘réserves naturelles communales’); restoring natural conditions of rivers; raising awareness about environment and nature among inhabitants through the 11 environment education centres (‘Centre régional d’initiation à l’environnement’).
Although there is no clear reference to GI and ecological network in its 2014-2019 Regional Policy Statement, the Walloon Government commits to implementing the Walloon Nature Network, focusing on partnerships with stakeholders and on the most efficient measures. The Government also commits to encouraging the development of nature reserves, Natura 2000, and LIFE nature projects, and to facilitate people’s access to nature (Walloon Government, 2014).
2. Implementation of Green Infrastructure
- The Hoge Kempen National Park is Belgium’s only national park. It contributes to the social cohesion and regeneration of a former coal mining region that was at risk of economic decline. Innovative approaches to developing the park’s infrastructure have helped balance economic and biodiversity objectives, providing 400 jobs and direct annual economic benefits of EUR 20 million (European Commission, 2017).
- The ‘Nature in your neighbourhood’ programme in Flanders promotes greening elements in urban and residential areas, as well as research on improvement of local life through public and private green space (European Commission, 2017). The project call for local authorities to invest in innovative greening projects is available at: https://www.natuurenbos.be/projectoproep-groen
- Yearly project call for co-financing of nature management and restoration measures to contribute to the realisation of the Natura 2000 conservation objectives: https://www.natuurenbos.be/beleid-wetgeving/subsidies/natuurprojectovereenkomst
3. Mainstreaming Green Infrastructure
The EU Natura 2000 network is at the core of the EU's Green Infrastructure. By late 2016, the Belgian Natura 2000 terrestrial network was considered to be largely complete: 12.7 % of the national land area of Belgium was covered by Natura 2000 sites (EU average 18.1 %), with Birds Directive SPAs covering 10.4 % of the national territory (EU average 12.3 %) and Habitats Directive SCIs covering 10.7% (EU average 13.8 %). In Flanders, all 38 Sites of Community Importance (SCIs) have been designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), with quantified conservation objectives being set both at regional level and at the level of each individual SAC. Natura 2000 covers 12.3% of the land surface of Flanders. Wallonia’s 240 SCIs (13% of the territory covered) and the 3 SCIs in the Brussels Capital Region have also been designated as SACs. The Belgian authorities have informed the Commission that a Federal decree will be issued in early 2017 for designating the marine SCI "Vlaamse Banken" as a SAC, covering around 30% of the Belgian part of the North Sea (European Commission, 2017).
Flanders: In 2009 the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Department of Environment, Nature and Energy started an initiative concerning the themes agricultural nature management and agrobiodiversity, called AGNABIO. The aims are threefold: to create support, to coordinate policies, and to collect, develop, exchange and spread knowledge. Several agencies and institutes are involved in the cooperation. Among the actions taken was the development of a practical guideline on ‘Agriculture and Nature’ (Departement Landbouw en Visserij, n.d.). Several measures under the Rural Develeopment Programme include nature development and restoration in Nature 2000 sites, re-afforestation and forest management measures, agri-environment schemes for species protection measures and nature oriented management of grasslands, hedges and borders.
Wallonia: There is no plan as such, but some relevant financing measures exist under the Rural Development Programme, such as the ones for restoration/management/purchase (measure 7), investments in forests (measure 8), agri-environmental measures (measure 10), and compensation in Natura 2000 sites (measure 12). Moreover, a project of agroforestry promotion is about to be implemented by the Walloon Region and the new agricultural land consolidation plan is now tending to maintain and even reinforce the ecological network.
The new integrated nature management plan for Flanders incorporates forest, nature and park management (Agentschap Natuur en Bos, n.d.). A management plan for a nature area will have to take into account the three pillars of sustainability that in 2012 formed the basis for the new policy planning and operational programme of the Agency: people, planet, profit. The multifunctionality of nature areas, by delivering ecosystem services, is emphasised (Ecopedia, n.d.). Almost 25,000 ha of forest have a FSC certification.
- The Forestry Code aims to safeguard the regeneration and sustainability of forests, as well as to ensure an optimum dynamic balance between its economic, ecological and social roles. One of the objectives of the Forestry Code is to combat climate change and to preserve biodiversity.
- In the Walloon Region, PEFC certified forests cover nearly 54% of the Region’s forest areas. The owners engage themselves voluntarily to diversify their forest, to maintain dead wood, to maintain patches where trees can grow old, etc. This means that 17.7% of the Walloon territory is developed sustainably, even though the primary objective is not the conservation of biodiversity. Nearly 91% of certified forest land belongs to public landowners.
- Pro Silva: Currently, about 25 000 ha (5%) of the Walloon forest area are managed through Pro Silva forestry. This mode of forestry meets a lot of enthusiasm and it is hoped that by 2018, 6% of the Walloon forest (at least 80% in government forest) will be managed in this way. This is one of the objectives of the actions of the Wallonia Nature Network – catalogue of actions.
Spatial and urban planning
The new policy concept (so called ‘white book’) for ‘Spatial planning of Flanders’ mentions that regional spatial planning has an important task to implement GI. The multiple benefits, e.g. for climate adaptation, biodiversity and recreation, are recognised. Operational goals should include norms for including GI (Ruimte Vlaanderen, 2016). On 1 April 2017, the Department of Environment, Nature and Energy and the Department of Spatial Planning merged under the name of the Department of Environment (Omgeving) in order to better integrate spatial planning and environmental policy (Departement Omgeving, 2017).
Wallonia: the new spatial planning tool, the code for territorial development (Art. R.II.21-6) includes ecological liaison areas to ensure the circulation of species between their biotopes. In addition, for most licences or authorisations about spatial and urban planning, mitigation and/or offset measures are imposed within the permits. In some cases, spatial planning can lead to an improvement of the ecological network (extension of economic activities with green areas, trees, ponds etc. instead of intensive chemical agricultural land).
Disaster risk reduction, water management, marine and coastal policy
Little information could be found on the application of GI within disaster risk reduction, water management and marine and coastal policy, except for measures to prevent floods such as floodplains management. The SIGMA II plan for flood protection and nature restoration of the Scheldt Estuary is a good example (Agentschap Natuur en Bos, 2016a).
The Giser cel is a Walloon structure which aims to balance all projects with flood or erosion risks by considering (among others) green structures for soil protection.
4. Financing Green Infrastructure
Existing instruments can be used for financing nature development and management projects supporting Green Infrastructure, such as funding instruments under the Nature Decree (Decreet Natuurbehoud) and the Land planning decree (Decreet landinrichting), in combination with EU funds (Instituut Natuur- en Bosonderzoek, 2016).
‘Green Deals’ are agreements between (private) partners and the Government of Flanders. They support companies, NGOs, knowledge institutions and other organisations in green initiatives and include clear agreements to tackle obstacles (Department Omgeving, n.d.). The government does not provide funds, but possible benefits are the joint search for funding and breakthroughs in legislative bottlenecks.
The specific budget for nature managed by the Nature and Forest Department (Walloon Region) is around EUR 11 billion, which does not take into account agri-environmental measures, river contracts, environmental education, Natura 2000 subsidies, etc.
5. Challenges and Opportunities for GI Development
5.1 Best practice/points of excellence
The University of Namur conducted an assessment of the services provided by ecosystems in the Walloon Region (Dendoncker, 2013), including a case study on the monetary value of forest ecosystem services. Three services (wood, big game and carbon sequestration) provide benefits of more than EUR 6.5 billion. When 14 different ecosystem services were taken into account, forests were shown to have a value of EUR 1,455 per hectare and per year (Belgian National Focal Point to the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2014).
The Flemish Institute for Technological Research and the universities of Antwerp and Ghent assessed the value of the Natura 2000 network in Flanders. The 166,000 hectares of protected areas in Flanders were shown to provide, among others, the following benefits: more than 34 million tons of CO2 stored each year, 4,000 to 8,000 tons of fine dust eliminated from the air each year, 16 million m³ of water purified each year, a gain of 2100 healthy life years (for about 1.8 million people), and 26 to 43 million visitors annually. The authors concluded that the Natura 2000 areas in Flanders have a total value for society of EUR 800 million to 1.2 billion. This is considered an underestimate given the fact that only 11 of the known 36 ecosystem services were taken into account (Belgian National Focal Point to the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2014).
6. Knowledge Base
Flanders' Nature Report, a regional ecosystem assessment (REA), including an interactive mapping tool with GIS data, was presented to the Government of Flanders in February 2015. The first phase describes the state and trends of ecosystems and their services in Flanders (INBO, 2014). Stage II of the REA has been completed at the beginning of 2017 under the theme ‘Co-operating with Landscapes'. Stage III will develop a map and evaluate alternative scenarios for Green Infrastructure by 2018 (BISE, 2016; European Commission, 2017). The Nature Value Explorer is a web tool designed to help estimate change in ecosystem service delivery caused by land use change in rural and urban areas (European Commission, 2017). The Belgian MAES working group is networking and collaborating within a BENELUX MAES initiative (BISE, 2016).
The Walloon ecosystem services platform has developed an integrated assessment framework, typologies for ecosystems and ecosystem services and a common shared information system including a database for ecosystem mapping and biophysical valuation (European Commission, 2017), but this platform is no longer active.
The Brussels Nature Plan 2016-20 foresees that the Brussels Capital Region will continue to sustain research on urban nature and more particularly work on the mapping and assessment of urban ecosystem services (European Commission, 2017).
A Belgian community of practice on ecosystem services was launched in 2012. The Belgium Ecosystem Services (BEES) Community (http://www.beescommunity.be/en/) is a network that interfaces between different societal actors. The BEES community is open to all potentially interested organisations from a range of stakeholder groups (policy, business, science, consultancy, civil society, etc.).
Antwerp is one of the cities participating in the EnRoute project (Enhancing Resilience of Urban Ecosystems through Green Infrastructure) implemented in the framework of EU MAES, which runs from 2017 until 2018. The project aims to introduce the MAES approach into the local policy arena, connecting the governance levels horizontally and vertically, with a view to contributing to the further deployment of GI in cities and in urban contexts. In the “city labs”, the URBAN-MAES framework will be implemented using local data, involving local stakeholders in the process and focusing on specific issues (Maes et al. 2017).
7. Further Resources and Publications
Instituut Natuur- en Bosonderzoek (2016). 50 Tinten Groen. Naar een gemeenschappelijke beleidsstrategie voor groene infrastructuur.
Belgian National Focal Point to the Convention on Biological Diversity (ed.) (2013). Biodiversity 2020, Update of Belgium’s National Strategy.
Agentschap Natuur en Bos (n.d.). Vlaams Ecologisch Netwerk an het Integraal Verwevings- en Ondersteundend Netwerk.
Agentschap Natuur en Bos (2016). Guidelines for designing a local green vision.
Nature Value Explorer (tool for the calculation of ecosystem service values):
8. List of Consulted References
Agentschap Natuur en Bos (2016a). Draaiboek Groenplan. Richtlijnen bij het opmaken van een lokale groenvisie.
Agentschap Natuur en Bos (2016b). Prioriteitenkader voor ecosysteemherstel in Vlaanderen. RPF Vlaanderen. Unpublished manuscript.
Agentschap Natuur en Bos (n.d.). Doelstellingen van het Natuurverwevingsgebied. Accessed 4 April 2017.
Agentschap Natuur en Bos (n.d.). Het nieuwe Natuurbeheerplan. Accessed 4 April 2017:
Belgian National Focal Point to the Convention on Biological Diversity (2006). Biodiversity 2020, Update of Belgium’s National Strategy.
Belgian National Focal Point to the Convention on Biological Diversity (2014) Fifth National Report of Belgium to the Convention on Biological Diversity:
BISE (2015) Belgium - Contribution to the mid-term review of the EU biodiversity strategy to 2020 based on the 5th national report to CBD.
BISE (2016) MAES-related developments in Belgium.
Brussels Environment-Division Nature, Water and Forest (2010). Biodiversity – our lifeline. Local Action for Biodiversity in the Brussels Capital Region. Powerpoint for the Green Week.
Bruxelles Environnement (2016). Plan Nature : Plan régional nature 2016-2020 en Région de Bruxelles-Capitale.
Bruxelles Environnement (undated). Le maillage vert.
Dendoncker, N. (2013). Dossier scientifique sur les services rendus par les écosystèmes en Wallonie, en vue de la préparation du rapport analytique 2012-2013 sur l’état de l’environnement wallon. Rapport final.
Departement Landbouw en Visserij (n.d.). AGNABIO en FAB. Accessed 4 April 2017
Departement Omgeving (2017). Departement Omgeving binnen het domein Omgeving. Opdrachten basis voro de organisatiestructuur.
Departement Omgeving (n.d.). Wat is een Green Deal? Accessed 4 April 2017.
Ecopedia (n.d.). Uitgangspunt: multifunctioneel natuurbeheer in Vlaanderen. Accessed 4 April 2017.
European Commission (2013). Green Infrastructure (GI) – Enhancing Europe’s Natural Capital. COM(2013) 249 final.
European Commission (2017). The EU Environmental Implementation Review Country Report – Belgium. European Commission (2017).
Institut Bruxellois pour la Gestion de l’Environnement (IBGE) (2000). Maillage vert et bleu.
INBO (2014). Flanders Regional Ecosystem Assessment - State and Trends Synthesis Report. Research Institute Nature and Forests (INBO).
Leefmilieu Brussel (2016). Gewestelijk Natuurplan 2016-2020 voor het Brussels Gewest.
LIFE Project Database (n.d.). “LIFE Oostkustpolders - Grassland restoration in the East Coast polders”. Accessed 5 December 2016.
Maes, J., Zulian, G. and Thijssen, M. (2017). Inception report: EnROUTE. Final draft version (10 February 2017). Unpublished manuscript.
Natuurpunt (n.d.). Oostkustpolders. Accessed 4 April 2017.
Ruimte Vlaanderen (2016). Witboek Beleidsplan Ruimte Vlaanderen.
Service Public de Wallonie (2014). Environmental Outlook for Wallonia. Digest 2014.
Service Public de Wallonie (2015). Réseau Wallonie Nature: Catalogue d’Actions.
Walloon Government (2014). Déclaration de politique régionale 2014-2019.
Waterwegen en Zeekanaal NV and Agentschap Natuur en Bos (n.d.). Over het Sigmaplan. Accessed 4 April 2017. +