The role of the cities tackling today’s challenges

The city of Ghent, a municipality in the Flemish Region of Belgium, has great tradition and philosophy of integration and believes that getting different ethnic groups in Belgium to talk to one another can help assuage tensions and improve relations between communities. We speak with Daniël Termont, who has been governing the city since 2007.

European Alternatives: In times of political disengagement and increased distrust in the institutions, what is the main challenge when trying to engage people to take part in public life?

Mayor Termont: Ghent has 257,500 citizens plus about 70,000 students and 95,000 Ghent-users (e.g. people working, but not living, in Ghent) which we all want to include in the local life. This means inclusion both at neighbourhood level (e.g. co-creation) and at service level (guaranteeing access to fundamental rights for all). The City of Ghent aims to be a City of People, whereby everybody (citizens, businesses and SMEs, institutions and NGOs) is involved and included in the city’s life and the city’s policy-making process. The main challenge in this regard is to ensure that the ownership of neighbourhood initiatives lies with all residents. This means that city staff needs to balance between facilitating, supporting and directing citizens.

European Alternatives: What other policies, trainings, or tools for engaging citizens in public participatory life is Ghent developing?

Mayor Termont: Ghent undertakes numerous activities with respect to housing, education, healthcare, labour, social cohesion, culture…  As a city of people, Ghent is firmly convinced that citizens’ participation is necessary to successfully deal with today’s and tomorrow’s city challenges and to retain the prosperity and wellbeing of all residents. Therefore Ghent strongly supports bottom-up initiatives throughout the city. For example, citizens are encouraged to be co-responsible and co-owner of city renewal projects. Hereby, the city guards that the diversity of the population is reflected in the co-creation process; that the content focuses on at least spatial, social and economic policy; and that there is openness towards experimentation. For instance, the city has a long tradition of consultation, participation and facilitating local bottom-up experiments, through the Policy Participation Unit which consists of 14 neighbourhood managers. Every neighbourhood manager operates within a neighbourhood-specific network and facilitates contact between the city council, city departments, other governments, citizen and different (social, economic, cultural,…) organisations in the field. The neighbourhood managers take up a clear ‘broker’-role being part of the city administration. Every neighbourhood manager is engaged in 1 or 2 neighbourhoods by being the eyes and ears of the city, by making coalitions with citizens, NGOs and citizen initiatives and by moving ‘in-between’. Concrete tools used by the neighbourhood managers are: capability of operating in the space ‘in-between’, connecting partners, facilitating citizen initiatives, ‘Neighbourhood of the Month’(debate-tour of political representatives during 1 month in 1 neighbourhood), crowd-funding platform, supporting the use of temporary empty/unused public spaces… A complete new initiative is a ‘citizens budget’. The City made 1,35 million euros available for citizens to propose and select projects that address local needs and opportunities. By handing over the responsibility and ownership of the neighbourhoods, all Ghent citizens can actively contribute while the local government continues to take its responsibility regarding its competences and resources.

Ghent is firmly convinced that citizens’ participation is necessary to successfully deal with today’s and tomorrow’s city challenges and to retain the prosperity and wellbeing of all residents. Therefore Ghent strongly supports bottom-up initiatives throughout the city. For example, citizens are encouraged to be co-responsible and co-owner of city renewal projects.

City of Ghent – CC0 Public Domain use

European Alternatives: In 2011, the “Ambassador project” became part of the Integration Department of the City of Ghent, a sign of the commitment of the city to the project. Can you explain what was this project and why did the city adopt this initiative?

Mayor Termont: In the Youth Ambassadors young adults with a foreign origin share their stories about their school and (often rocky) carried path with as well pupils/teachers as employers. The genesis of the project is rooted in teachers signalling the lack of study motivation among many youngsters (especially boys with a foreign background) and cases of (intended and not-intended) discrimination at the labour market. As a city we want equal opportunities for all and all youngsters to attain at least a high school diploma. So, ambassadors were trained to present their personal story and to dialogue with teachers, parents, employers and other organisations in the city. So far, they have targeted over 3,500 people. For the ambassadors it is an enriching experience that enhances their social skills. They also get to know a lot of interesting people and partners, which leads to extended social networks. The method of role models proved to be successful. When employers/recruiters hear the ambassador’s story they mostly start to see the individual instead of the ‘migrant.’ Their image of the youngsters improves, which enhances their willingness to recruit migrants. At the same time the project is a strong motivator for youngsters who are all too often de-motivated. When youngsters dialogue with the ambassadors they feel understood, supported and become aware that their situation is neither unique nor hopeless.

European Alternatives: What has changed in the city since 2011 in terms of migrants’ integration?

Mayor Termont: The rationale of integrating migrants is still the same: including new residents in the city’s life. However, migrant flows (e.g. migrants’ nationalities) and reasons (e.g. fleeing from wars) as well as societal demands and restraints (e.g. economic crisis) constantly change or evolve. Therefore, our city services keep on developing activities that match the needs. For example, a couple of year ago the project Civic integration Coaches was introduced to enhancing social inclusion. This project is grounded in two findings: many newcomers follow a civic integration course (comprising a course on civic orientation and a language course), but feel they do not get enough opportunities to exercise Dutch in a safe environment; and many active citizens and NGOs want to support newcomers’ integration. Therefore, the project of Civic integration Coaches partners up newcomers with ‘old’ local citizens who facilitate integration, which is in Ghent a real two-way process. During six months, about every two weeks, the newcomer and ‘old’ Ghent citizen meet one another: they talk about common interests, about what goes on in Ghent, enjoy cultural activities together, etc. Many friendships between the duo’s have developed and persist. Another example is related to the growing number of refugees, which brings about additional challenges. To counter these challenges a Task Force on Refugees was established in September 2015. This structure enables the cooperation between several city services and departments (e.g. Service on Asylum and Refugee Policy, Service of Welfare and Equal Opportunities), the Public Service for Social Welfare (PSSW/OCMW), local NGOs and independent volunteers. The arrival of these new migrants led to an enormous increase in solidarity. Citizens and organisations offered their assistance, donated materials… Now volunteer events are hosted in which volunteers and NGO’s could get to know each other and see how they could be of best help. To coordinate this solidarity an online platform was set up (https://solidair.stad.gent/) to align supply and demand, exchange information, announce activities, etc 

 

European Alternatives: The Mayors of some European cities like Barcelona, Madrid or Paris are fighting for a better recognition of the role that cities can play at the international level. They demand, for example, a higher responsibility in the decision-making process in the refugee crisis. What is Ghent’s position in this regard? Is Ghent interested in establishing a network of collaboration with other European cities? And if yes, what would you need to implement the process (also from organisations like European Alternatives)?

Mayor Termont: Since the first of January, 2017, I have spent an uninterrupted period of 40 years on the Ghent city council – first as a council member, then as group leader, from 1995 for 12 years as an alderman, and as mayor since 2006. I have always been convinced that the future will be created in and by cities. Hereto I have always listened to all kinds of people: I made myself available to people who wanted to discuss things with me, to people who wanted to tell me their ideas, but also to people who criticised what I thought and did. Connecting people forms the basis of everything we do in Ghent. This also means that, for many years, Ghent has been particularly active in various city networks, both on a regional and international basis. I have always found it remarkably how cities constructively co-operated. Despite often institutional and political differences at different tiers of government, all the cities try to make the best of it together. Since Mid-November 2016 Ghent is Eurocities its president for the upcoming two years. As a mayor, I want to use this opportunity to continue writing the joint story between cities all over Europe. Together, cities must take responsibility and help to tackle today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. Today we are in need of co-operation more than ever, including across borders.

Would you like to help us build another Europe?