Emotion, sensitivity and color arise if you listen to citizens”

Paul Vermeylen is a Belgian urban planner and a specialist in European cities and citizen devices. It is in this capacity that he agreed to be a member of the scientific committee of our project the on the Future of intermediate cities. He explains to us the challenges of the city of tomorrow, and imagines a city that reconnects with the senses, collective life, the memory of time and nature.

Missions Publiques: You are interested in consultation with a broad focus on the whole of Europe. How did this question of consultation come up in your career?

Paul Vermeylen. I began my career by working for 12 years – initially as a conscientious objector – for the Inter-Environment association, a federation that brought together a hundred or so neighborhood committees. At that time, Brussels was known as a city of protest and urban struggles. These committees, made up of residents, made a whole series of demands, the main one being to get urban planning out of the clandestine corridors, i.e. the meeting rooms to which the residents did not have access. Our main victory was to force the Brussels authorities to create a process (public inquiries and consultation commissions) that would allow every citizen to express his or her opinion. Still today, more than a thousand files go through public inquiries in Brussels. Let’s take a recent and important example: the future of the European district around the Schuman traffic circle. The projects drawn up by the administrations and major architects provided for the creation of new high-rise buildings and offices. However, this project, which has been very much contested through public inquiries, will only be partially implemented in the face of the strength of the citizens’ arguments.

It is in this context that I continued my career by joining the public sector as deputy director of cabinet of the president of the Brussels region. I went from working with outlaws to lords if I dare say, but with the same ideas. This experience allowed me to reinforce this citizen approach, to rely on more open and involving procedures, allowing a tangible participation of citizens in public life.


Missions Publiques. Why is it crucial for you to invite citizens to the table to think about the city of tomorrow?

Paul Vermeylen. For the past two or three decades, we have been switching from a formalist and functionalist urbanism (of the “Le Corbusier” type) to an urbanism of co-construction. We are leaving the city based on the division into zones of offices, housing and leisure, between which we are obliged to circulate via roads, subways, etc., in favor of another approach to governance. A governance that is no longer reserved to a closed circle of decision-makers, technocrats or real estate investors, but that involves citizens.

These citizens are organized in “concentric” circles. In the first circle, citizens give their opinion. In the second circle, they formulate aspirations and desires. And finally, the third circle is that of involvement: that is to say, they devote time, part of their leisure time, or even their professional life, to collaborating with others to “make the city”. And here we are in the heart of the subject of the role of citizens in acting on the city of tomorrow.

This is a rather different way of doing things than the one carried out in France. I see it more in Belgium, in the Netherlands, in Germany or in Denmark which are countries where there is co-production and involvement. In Amsterdam, the municipality launches on average 30 times a year calls for projects where citizens are asked to make proposals, concerning the port area for example. For this, three information and exchange sessions are organized: each citizen, each group of citizens presents its project, you discuss with the others and you form alliances between similar or compatible projects. Mediators are present to create links and facilitate the coherence of the projects. Let’s suppose that on a wasteland, there is a project of participative school, the mediator is there to tell you that there is also a proposal of intergenerational housing and that it could be interesting to group the two projects. The groups then get together and develop a common project. This type of project has also existed in Brussels for the past ten years: calls for projects called “Sustainable Neighborhoods” that involve groups of at least three people and are granted between 3,000 and 10,000 euros.

Participation is essential, but involvement is just as important in my opinion. I find the term “citizen participation” a bit of a gap. That is why in my work I constantly put forward these three circles: claim, aspiration/participation and involvement. In countries with a Protestant culture, there is a strong tradition of cooperation. In Germany, for example, 30% of the energy for domestic use is produced by citizen cooperatives. The organic distribution channels are mainly run by cooperatives. And in cities like Zurich, 20% of the housing is cooperative housing. In Sweden, 17% of housing is participatory! In France, developments are possible and there are some collaborative housing projects in Hauts-de-France, Grenoble and Besançon.

“I find the expression ‘citizen participation’ a little incomplete. That’s why in my work, I constantly put forward these three circles: claim, aspiration/participation and involvement.

Paul Vermeylen

Urban planner and specialist in European cities and citizen systems

Missions Publiques. When you were in the cabinet of the President of the Brussels region, you created the “neighborhood contracts”. What are these contracts?

Paul Vermeylen. Brussels is marked by a city center that, apart from the Grand-Place and the Schuman traffic circle, is becoming increasingly impoverished. Faced with this duality, we had to create new mechanisms to act in a transversal and integrated way. The idea: to act to revitalize these neighborhoods (between 3000 and 6000 inhabitants). A neighborhood contract is therefore a contract between the region and the municipality concerned (Brussels has 19 districts/municipalities). This contract generated a contract with a series of actors: shopkeepers, schools, residents’ associations, etc. The action program must be completed in just four years. It covers several areas: real estate, but also the improvement or embellishment of public spaces and socio-cultural/professional activities. The financial envelope (20 million euros) can therefore be used to develop a first floor of a building, to create local missions in charge of professional integration, an association for women or even homework school devices. The program must be validated by a local committee. This committee, chaired by the municipality, is made up of residents, shopkeepers and representatives of service institutions. Together, they validate this program, and it cannot be modified during the four years if and only if the committee decides to do so. Why only four years?  Because we wanted to give a boost to investments that tended to drag on. This revolution was the most difficult aspect to get across to the public players in particular. These contracts have been a success from the start. Since 1993, we have had about a hundred neighborhood contracts in Brussels, which I believe have helped to ease social tensions in the city.


Missions Publiques: If you were to invent a new form of participatory mechanism, what would you focus on?

Paul Vermeylen. For the past five years, I have chaired a Brussels-based think tank called “For Urban Passion”, which brings together urban planners from the public and private sectors, as well as sociologists, investors, etc. We think a lot about “how to make the city a better place to live. Our thinking is very much about “how to govern the city differently? “. Our last Forum was on the theme of “Cool planning”, i.e. how to react to climate change and in particular global warming? What we noticed is that the initiatives that succeed in Europe are those that involve a multitude of actors. A solution will never be technical and one-dimensional. It will always be complex, sometimes redundant, hybrid and integrating different aspects. If I were to launch a new participatory mechanism, it would be around the theme of “how to rewild the city”, how to reconcile the city with nature, a nature that is not that of the countryside.

The other central theme is the social question. The Covid crisis has created mistrust towards the other through the imperative of distancing, and has further accentuated social segregation. In what way can we reinvent local solidarities? With the welfare state, you have a mechanism of procedural solidarity: you contribute to social security, you are covered for illnesses. You are a number. With proximity solidarities, we create multiple mechanisms at the local level that offer assistance and a guarantee to ensure the principle of equity.

From the moment you give voice to the citizens concerned, emotion, sensitivity, color arise. And therefore a completely different expression of demand.

Missions Publiques. You called your latest book, “The Sensitive City ” you said you wanted to “propose concrete solutions without naivety or self-delusion”. Which of these approaches seems particularly interesting to you if it were to be deployed in medium-sized French cities?

Paul Vermeylen. The sensitive city is guided by parameters other than quantitative ones. From the moment you give a voice to the citizens concerned, emotion, sensitivity and color emerge. And therefore a completely different expression of the demand. A young urban planner from Haiti, who studied in Brussels, practices therapeutic urbanism, that is to say the “management” of neighborhoods or spaces (and not the development). Let’s take the example of a large park in Rotterdam where a series of problems have appeared. Their work will start with field investigations on the spot, she practices a kind of “conversation table”, like under Schuiten’s palaver tree, where each of the questions raised is studied in a very concrete way. An area of the park is too mineralized, it is very hot in summer. The solution? Plantations that will gradually recreate a canopy and shaded areas. In another place, an area is too humid and full of puddles when it rains. There, an ecological pond will be created. We are going to spare the park, we will not develop it anymore. We are abandoning this idea, very present in the city, of demolition/construction, which does not correspond to the citizens’ demand but rather to the will of urban planners and architects who want to leave their mark. This approach is not theoretical and does not require a lot of means except for soft power and collective intelligence.

The second important element of this sensitive city is the capacity of the inhabitants to act on their territory. In Barcelona – it is a big metropolis but the example is totally transposable to a medium-sized city – concrete action is taken to reduce the fear of expressing oneself in and about the city. Of course, there are the police, the lighting; but in the end, the inhabitants feel deprived of their power to act. Josep Bohigas, director general of the Barcelona metropolitan region, is setting up a multidimensional neighborhood management system. For example, teams with a police officer and a resident are responsible for making visits to detect possible problems. The idea here is to value the encounter. Another example.  Rather than moving a market that poses problems of cohabitation, we are looking for new ways to manage this market so that it fits in the best way possible with the neighborhood. The citizens’ demand is to feel safe but also to be recognized as actors by administrations that are too often dehumanized. We give priority to “Smart citizens” rather than to the technological “Smart city”. These types of devices can be deployed on any scale. What is interesting with medium-sized cities, between 30,000 and 100,000 inhabitants, is that they have a greater capacity to act. The mayor of Mechelen, a Belgian city with a population of 80,000, has set up initiatives of this type. Eight years ago, the city voted 30% for the extreme right. Today, the extreme right represents less than 10%. In the area of security, remarkable results are obtained by listening to the residents and valuing their presence.


Missions Publiques: What will be the development model for the cities of tomorrow?

Paul Vermeylen. We are currently experiencing a decline in the myth of metropolization, which is the spatial expression of globalization. Ten years ago, we were banking on the metropolis as the engine of development to drive the economy. Today, under the effect of the climate and social crisis, the territories are taking shape differently. More and more, co-development models are emerging, within cities of various sizes in which cooperation brings significant added value. At the regional level, and in order to make their territory attractive, it is much more interesting to work on the complementarity of cities rather than letting each one of them take the lead. This is the case of Munich, for example, and its constellation of cities: each one contributes to the regional prosperity. The “specialization” of territories is therefore crucial for medium-sized cities. On the other hand, “Made in” or “produced locally” does not only concern salads, but also industrial production. More and more cities are acting in this direction.

Finally, I observe that the theme of “the European city” is coming back very strongly on the scene. I am thinking in particular of the European Commission’s “New European Bauhaus” initiative (4). To put it briefly, metropolization used to be based on the model of American-style capitalism – like Manhattan, with a very high concentration of decision-making in a few districts. Today, there is a vast interest in the city of proximity, of a dispersion of the density of functions, of mixed and resilient districts. Tomorrow, I see smaller and more intense cities, which are nourished by their relationship with nature and which cooperate with each other. For us Europeans, rediscovering or reinventing our city culture is an opportunity.

To go further:

  • Read Aziza Ackmouche’s interview here