Metrolab Brussels (MLB) is a trans-disciplinary and inter-university laboratory for applied and critical urban research, funded by the Brussels Capital Region through its ERDF program (2014-2020).

Atelier CityLabs

To bridge academic, theoretical critique with more involved, applied and experimental forms of knowledge is an important challenge today for universities.

The complexity of urban problems and of urban policies is such nowadays, that it does not make sense anymore in the domain of urban research to oppose “academic excellence”, “fundamental research”, on one hand, and “action research”, “policy research”, on the other. In the opinion of Metrolab Brussels' promoters, what cities need today is a new kind of urban research that would be both elaborated on a theoretical level and realistic on a pragmatic level.

The action of MLB consists in the design, implementation and coordination of a dozen of projects of applied and critical urban research, directed towards a single public policy, the ERDF-Brussels program.

These researches focus on a range of 10 to 20 concrete urban projects among the 46 actions/operations funded by ERDF for the period 2014-2020.

Through the scientific support to the ERDF urban policy, the overall objective is twofold :

  • It is practical: we want to test the capacity of university researchers to bring improvements to an urban policy such as ERDF.

  • It is scientific, epistemological: we want to test new forms of involvements and positioning for urban research in order to improve its scientific quality.

This twofold objective can be crossed with three challenges:

  • A first challenge relates to the need for more dialogical processes of knowledge building in the domain of urban politics/policies. We need to bring university knowledge to the urban actors, in a way that allows the latter to question and improve their action. Inversely, we need to bring the urban actors’ knowledge to the university, to the « lab ». The Brussels Studies Institute started an important work these last years on this first challenge. We want to complete this effort from an experimental stance and with a focus on specific policy and territory - the ERDF program.

  • A second challenge has to do with the academic critique and its relation to practice. Too often, urban research is either critical or practical. We would like to encourage more reflexive and critical practices among urban policy actors, and to help the urban research professionals to engage in more practical critiques.

  • Thirdly, both the urban policy and the urban research need to find a stronger embeddedness in Brussels territorial situations and realities. The territorial knowledge mobilized by MLB researchers is likely to improve the relevance and the factors of success of the program as a whole. The strong territorial embeddedness of MLB's scientific productions is also seen as an asset for qualitative urban research. Our goal is not to stick to this limited territorial level, but to use it to develop a more grounded urban theory. We would like to sensitize a more general public of urban researchers to the problematics encountered in Brussels. We believe that it is possible, for colleagues from other parts of Europe, other parts of the world, to « learn from Brussels ».

Axes and research topics

Metrolab Brussels' scientifc program is structured by three main axes of research - urban inclusion, urban ecology, urban production - which correspond roughly to the social, environmental and economic dimensions of sustainable urban development.

On a temporal level, these axes of research form also three successive cycles of work. In 2016-2017, MLB researchers are focused on issues and events related to urban inclusion. 2017-2018 is centered on urban ecology. 2019-2020 will be all about urban production.

Throughout these three cycles, the main dimensions of the ERDF-program and a wide variety of ERDF projects will have been addressed. On a scientific level, this collective work carried out on three thematic cycles is an opportunity for our researchers to educate thenselves as polyvalent observers/actors of sustainable urban development.

Master classes

Metrolab Brussels' collaborative research work is not limited to interactions with local/regional urban actors ; it extends to a process of collective experimentation involving university students : the MasterClass.

Every 18 months (roughly), MLB organizes a MasterClass on the topics related to its main axes of work : Urban inclusion, Urban ecology, Urban production. The MasterClass is conceived as an intensive pedagogical and practical experimentation on urban situations. 

Lead by international master tutors, the MasterClass brings students, researchers, professors, local actors and professionals from different fields of knowledge to reflect together on a specific theoretical issue, on the basis of selected empirical cases.

The observation is conducted according to methods and objectives proposed by the master tutors and it implies the direct interplay with the projects chosen as cases. The MasterClass includes lectures, fieldwork as well as group work in an international and interdisciplinary environment.


Metrolab Brussels' specific approach to urban problems and urban policies is conceived as "applied and critical urban research". The applied dimension requires from our researchers to get involved with the ERDF urban actors in a concrete collaboration that aims at the improvement of the social, environmental and economic qualities of their project.

However, these MLB research works cannot be seen as a service of "consulting" nor of "facilitation". Indeed, MLB's mission within the ERDF policy program is also to enhance the reflexive capacities and the critical skills of both local project leaders and regional representatives. At some occasions, the MLB researcher's contribution will consists in helping these urban actors to "think outside the box" and to reflect on the meaning of their action.

The independance of MLB's research work is an fundamental condition of success for this new, experimental form of policy research.

Metrolab studio

The Metrolab studio is located at 48 Quai du Commerce 1000 Brussels. This work space is conceived as a hub, a place of convergence and collaboration. It has been imagined as a lab, where two universities and four disciplines have the possibility to practice interdisciplinarity, by sharing topics and axes of work, by experimenting on common research methods and tools, and by discussing frequently the hardships of applied and critical urban research.

The Metrolab studio, which accommodates most of the MLB activities, is set in the Brussels' port district.

The area, which conserved the ancient street names referred to trading domain, is still of a great strategic importance because at the geographical, economical and social core of the ERDF PO 2014-2020.

Partners and 4 centres

The Metrolab Brussels project is conducted by UCL (University of Louvain) in partnership with ULB (University of Brussels) and federates four research centers:

Besides key regional institutions (Bureau Bruxellois de la Planification, Bruxelles Environnement, CityDev, Innoviris), MLB actively collaborates with a large set of worldwide scientific partners.


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