Author Johan Op de Beeck interviewed Mohamed Ridouani, mayor of Leuven, and Johan Van Reeth, Operational Manager, BUUR Part of Sweco (Sweco Belgium), about the societal challenges concerning the quality of life. Listen to the interview on Sweco’s podcast channel.
Our cities are hotbeds of diversity, creativity, and gathering. Living, working, shopping, relaxing ... everything is possible here. The attraction of the city is both a blessing and a challenge for the climate. How do we keep it liveable? And what role can local authorities and companies play in this regard? Mohamed Ridouani, mayor of Leuven, believes in a collaborative approach where cities settle into coalitions, while also facilitating them with knowledge institutions, companies and inhabitants. For Johan Van Reeth, Operational Manager, BUUR Part of Sweco (Sweco Belgium), the future solution lies in combining social and economic interests, but also vice versa!
What makes metropolises like London, Paris and Lisbon so attractive? They have made daring choices to make the city more liveable, for example by investing in fully-fledged alternatives to the car. If it were up to Leuven's mayor Mohamed Ridouani, we would all have to raise the bar when it comes to climate, care policy and liveability. Comfortable and reliable public transport plays an important part in this. But the image of liveability must above all be viewed in a broader perspective. "What kind of city or neighbourhood do we want to live in?" For Johan Van Reeth, who has guided dozens of urbanisation projects, talking about the values of their living environment is essential. "It gives people insight into decisions that go beyond the number of parking spaces they want. These are interventions that guarantee the quality of life in the long term. Indeed, we prefer to speak of quality of life rather than liveability, which is a weakness."
Both of them agree that the quality of life in our cities has never been better. There is a huge innovation dynamic with a focus on the climate challenge. Migration to the city continues, which in itself is a good evolution because densification is one of the solutions in the climate challenge. However, the villages are not following this trend. It is a concern for many local authorities and it has to do with several factors. The so-called 'peripheralization', which has been so prevalent since the 1960s, is now putting pressure on smaller villages. The inhabitants are too dependent on their cars and, unlike the cities, there is not enough critical mass to turn the tide. Therefore, in addition to a policy on cities, a good policy on villages is also needed.
In the face of the multitude of challenges ahead, regional and local authorities need support on several aspects. Johan Van Reeth: "The complexity of urban development has evolved greatly and, as a multidisciplinary consultancy firm, we ensure that both the energy and mobility narrative are correct, that the facilities are properly developed, etc. We design a long-term vision and we do this in co-creation with stakeholders, administrations and inhabitants. The days when urban planners drew plans unilaterally are long gone." Mayor Ridouani agrees from experience on the importance of participation and transparency: "Especially when it comes to difficult decisions, you have to involve people and take them seriously. This is the only way to create support for the required transition."
When it comes to funding, private-public collaboration is involved. Sweco is experiencing an increase in awareness in the private market of not only achieving commercial objectives, but also linking these to a number of social objectives. "Those are the best developments," says Johan Van Reeth, "Where the private sector takes social needs, such as green space, mobility and food production into account, while building for private purposes."
In Flanders, cities account for only 7% of the government budget. By comparison, in Scandinavia it is about a quarter. Mohamed Ridouani argues in favour of more power and autonomy for the cities. "Things are progressing in small steps, including at the European level. The need is known and the resources are there. The Coronavirus crisis has made that clear. What was not possible before, now appeared to be possible after all. The European Commission was able to release EUR 750 million through loans and investments, and relaunch plans are allocated to the Member States. Apparently, it can be done if the need is high. I continue to believe positively and constructively in a new renaissance of the European continent."