‘World’s best mayor’ on turning around Mechelen’s fortunes


Bart Somers recently won the World Mayor Prize for transforming the struggling city into a success story of integration and a proud home for its diverse inhabitants

City on the rise

For someone who’s just been laurelled the world’s best mayor, Bart Somers strikes a rather apologetic tone. His competitors were probably just as, if not more, qualified than him, the Mechelen mayor says with a shrug in his wood-panelled office on a recent Wednesday afternoon. And no, he’s not really sure why he won.

He is certain of one thing though – the World Mayor Prize will boost the morale of this small city on the Dijle river, tucked between Brussels and Antwerp. “People are proud of this prize,” he says, referring to local residents. “This is good for the ‘us’ feeling, for making us feel like we’re doing all right.”

Awarded every two years by the London-based City Mayors Foundation, the World Mayor Prize seeks to spotlight mayors and models for urban living that can serve as examples for politicians around the world.

This time around – on the heels of a year in which the world saw the largest-ever refugee crisis – the foundation aimed to celebrate mayors and cities that showed excellence in the integration and acceptance of refugees and newcomers into their communities. Mechelen – the city of 86,000 that Somers has steered since 2001 – did just that.

Welcome home

At the height of the refugee crisis, Mechelen asked the federal government to send refugees its way – the only Belgian city to do so. It went on to house 200 refugees in an emergency aid shelter over a nine-month period.

The men, women and children received Dutch classes as well as lessons focused on basic social skills, while approximately half of them were also involved in volunteer activities.

“Human rights and justice are part of the DNA of this city,” says Somers, whose own grandfather spent time in a refugee camp in the Netherlands during the First World War. “We had to take up our responsibility.”

I think there’s only one community in Mechelen, and that’s Mechelaars. And there are 86,000 of them, and they’re all different

- Mayor Bart Somers

Housing the refugees, who have since been transferred to regular shelters across Flanders, has made the city stronger and better, claims Somers. “They gave us the opportunity to realise a central Western value: that you have to give shelter to people in need, people fleeing war and violence. This is one of the basic principles of our society, and if we abandon this, we aren’t protecting our Western society, but destroying it.”

The number of refugees housed by Mechelen, however, pales in comparison to the efforts of several of the other cities shortlisted for the World Mayor Prize, like Lesbos and Athens in Greece, and Lampedusa in Italy. These places, strapped for resources and in the throes of their own protracted economic crises, nonetheless assisted tens of thousands of refugees fleeing conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and poverty in African nations like Eritrea and Somalia.

More likely then, Somers was awarded the prize for the way in which the city has succeeded in making Mechelaars feel like Mechelaars, no matter where they, their parents or their grandparents are from.

“I think there’s only one community in Mechelen, and that’s Mechelaars,” he says. “And there are 86,000 of them, and they’re all different.”

Example for Europe

Indeed. Mechelen classrooms, offices and bars today look a lot like Benetton ads. The city has residents of 138 nationalities, and one in two children born there today has an immigrant background.  

In Somers’ view, too many people see the conversation about the rights and duties of minority groups as a zero-sum game, and he likens the emancipation of second- and third-generation migrants to the battle of the women’s right movement and the fight of LGBT activists for gay marriage.

“Now children born from migration,” he says, “are simply asking for their full place in society, not in opposition to, but precisely on the basis of our rights.”

At a time when forces like globalisation and migration are portrayed as something of a threat to traditional values and ways of living by far-right lawmakers like Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, the London jury appears to have wanted to direct an international spotlight onto the inclusive model Mechelaars have perfected with Somers at the wheel.

From the ground up

If Mechelen were able to inspire other mayors and communities by virtue of its own approach, the city would exceed itself, Somers says. “We would be maybe a beacon of hope and source of inspiration for people who say that living together and diversity can work. That it doesn’t necessarily always have to be a drama or something negative.”

We are living in an age of globalisation, he continues. “The question is simply: How do you organise this? How do you adequately support people? How do you organise this diversity in a good way? That’s the big challenge.”

We want to keep this a liveable city and heavily invest in making the neighbourhoods nice and making the city greener

- Bart Somers

Under Somers’ stewardship, not a single resident has left the town to fight in Syria, a surprising fact considering that Belgium has the highest ratio of foreign fighters per capita, and Mechelen is surrounded by cities such as Vilvoorde, Brussels and Antwerp, which have seen dozens and dozens of young men leave.

Together with Mechelen’s urban resurgence in less than two decades, Somers cites this as one of the two key reasons that Mechelen, where 20% of residents are Muslim, received the award.

When Somers was elected mayor in 2001, the first liberal politician to get the keys to the city in 100 years, he faced an unenviable job. The city had been voted the dirtiest town in Flanders by consumer organisation Test Aankoop a year earlier and crime was rampant.

Recipe for success

Even the Mechelaars didn’t like Mechelen. A 2004 large-scale Stadsmonitor (City Monitor) study by the Flemish government revealed that out of Flanders’ 13 central cities, no-one felt less proud of their city than Mechelaars.

Today, 15 years later, Mechelen is the kind of city that wins Entente Florale, an international flower competition, and tops the Financial Times Cities of the Future ranking. Antwerp and Brussels’ bite-sized sister has become a desirable destination to move to for young people and families.

The worst thing you could say about it is that it’s a bit dull, lacking the anything-goes spirit of larger cities. But carefully managing the city’s growth is Somers’ key priority for the future.

“We want to keep this a liveable city and heavily invest in making the neighbourhoods nice and making the city greener,” he says. “We want to focus on cyclists and pedestrians as much as possible, and also attract many more companies,” he says.

Giant inroads

It may be impossible to extricate from a 15-year mix of policies a recipe for other lawmakers to follow and identify the decisive subsidy or stimulus that turned Mechelen around and allowed it to forge one community out of its many, very different residents. When pressed, Somers says his policies were distinguished by a three-pronged focus on safety, improving public space and fostering inclusion.

In the last 15 years, he has dramatically increased police spending and forces and installed more cameras than any other city in Flanders – which is saying something for a municipality of this size.

“Safety is a basic need; I knew I had to do something about the safety problem,” he says. “I knew that if I could get the middle class to return to the city, it would create the financial and social leverage to lift the city from this negative spiral of impoverishment.”

We did hundreds of things like that to write this new narrative, this new ‘us’ feeling

- Bart Somers

Under Somers’ administration, streets were also relaid and new parks and car parks constructed. Entire neighbourhoods got a fresh makeover.

Somers says he received many a heartfelt thank you from residents with migrant roots. Many of them had no choice but to buy homes in the city’s most downtrodden neighbourhoods, unable to rent on the private market due to rampant racism and discrimination. Those residents have seen their only investment double in value. 

At the same time, Somers says, he also invested in the more intangible social fabric of the city and its residents’ well-being, and created a narrative and story for Mechelen that everyone could feel part of. The city’s family of four historic giants, trotted out during processions and recognised by Unesco as intangible cultural heritage, received two new, 21st-century additions – Amir and Noa, north African and black African giants.

A lasting legacy

“We did hundreds of things like that to write this new narrative, this new ‘us’ feeling,” Somers says, “so that people would identify being a Mechelaar with openness, and so that they would see diversity as part of their own personality.”

Somers acknowledges that the decision-making process of the World Mayor Prize was not transparent. “Why we ultimately won, I really don’t know,” he says. Still, the prize didn’t come out of the blue, he adds, noting that Mechelen has long been on the radar of anyone working in the areas of urban policies and diversity.

Asked about his own performance criteria, Somers says a good mayor should be able to affect how people feel about their city. “I think that’s the most beautiful thing a mayor could aspire to. Not a town square, not a particular level of taxation, not the number of jobs.”

Somers, who also served as Flanders’ minister-president between 2003 and 2004, has no plans to step down (he’ll quit his post the day he no longer feels like doing it, he says), but he knows what he wants to have achieved by then.

“That would be the ultimate measure of success for me – the extent to which I was able to make people feel better about and prouder of the city,” he says. “If, through the city, I was able to lift them up a little, make them stronger, more empowered, more passionate.”

Photo: Wouter Van Vooren