Christos Doulkeridis, Source: TheMayor.EU

Christos Doulkeridis: The municipalities have an important role to play in the ecological transition

Christos Doulkeridis: The municipalities have an important role to play in the ecological transition

The Mayor of Ixelles on the difficult path of change in environmental thinking, the engagement of citizens and the social projects in the Brussels-Region municipality

In December 2018 Christos Doulkeridis has become the Mayor of Ixelles, a municipality within the Brussels Region. Member of the ECOLO party since 1988, he has worked as Secretary of State at the Government of the Brussels-Capital Region, Minister at Brussels French-speaking Government, Member of Parliaments of the Brussels-Capital Region and the Wallonia-Brussels Federation as a President of the ECOLO Group.

Mr. Doulkeridis, the environmental issues are rapidly gaining in popularity and the success of the Greens in the local elections in Belgium reflects this trend. Please comment on the planned changes that will transform Ixelles and stimulate its residents to live in a more responsible way.

You say that environmental issues progress very quickly, but if you were an environmental activist you would not say that. Because it is been for years that we are ringing the alarm and we are trying to come up with structural proposals to address this danger and also for the opportunities that the climate challenge presents. And we have been mocked, sometimes even ridiculed... So, we have suffered from the Cassandra Syndrome for a long time, in a way. Cassandra for the mythology was a woman who could foresee the future, but she had been casted a spell that made so that she was not believed. So, we had to go beyond this myth of Cassandra to become convincing. In Belgium we are lucky to have been able, as environmentalists, to participate in governments, who have begun to implement several measures already, not with the degree of urgency as we would have desired, but nevertheless measures that are moving forward.

I was Minister of Housing for five years between 2009 and 2014. For example, in housing, I made sure that all social housing was built respecting a passive standard, which greatly reduces the need of gas and oil for warming. It has already taken the first steps to change, but ecology was considered by the other parties as a priority second to other issues - the institutional, the employment or the economy. Or sometimes even after the social in opposition to things that normally should not be opposed.

However, it is true that in recent times, there is shared awareness that has become very important and very broad and therefore, it is an extraordinary opportunity to be able to implement some structural measures, to reverse the trend.

Hence, I am convinced that municipalities have an important role to play in this sense. Not alone, of course, because there is also the question of means, and then there is a question of coherence. Especially when you are in a region like Brussels, you cannot act alone. Policies need to be consistent with what is happening next to you, if we want to be effective. Here, we have put on the table the food issue, the issue of mobility, the issue of air quality, the question of what we drink or what we breathe, what we eat, which are all vital needs, and over which powers, especially local ones, have a possible course of action.

So, my role as Mayor is to set up participatory processes, with the population as well, that makes it possible to change the trend in a very clear way. For that, it must be done with the support of the administrations which themselves have to adapt. Coming in an administration like this one here, we discover that there are few staff members who deal with these matters, the issue of the environment, the issue of green spaces, the state of the air quality, the question of ecological transition, the issue of participation. There are very few people trained to advance these questions here. So, the first issue is to reverse the balance in the budget, but it takes time, because it is not as if the other functions were not important and that we could erase them. So, we must take care of that, while strengthening other things.

And so, it is only two and a half months that we have been installed and that I am present in this function, but I do not cease to meet actors who are already in the logic of the transition. Because what matters is that out there, there are a lot of actors, associations or sometimes companies that are in the ecological transition and that do interesting things, but who need a little push, a consistency in policies having the role of facilitators for them, allowing to really take all necessary measures.

So, that's what we're doing, to be able to make things meaningful, structural, with results that are measurable, but it takes a bit of time to get the transition in place, and that's normal.

My second question concerns the advantages and disadvantages of this proximity to Brussels, such as the high prices of housing, the traffic, a collision between very different lifestyles. What are the main points of your program in this regard?

Structural changes must be accepted by the greatest number. The administration must be with us to prepare these changes. It is necessary that the inhabitants, the users, are with us and accept them. And sometimes construct them with us, too. So, you have to take some time beforehand, to explain why we have to change things, why we have to change mobility, in relation to the objective of improving the quality of life and the quality of air, in order not to waste time in traffic jams, as is currently the case.

And one should not fail to take into account a range of specific situations that are all legitimate. There are people who need to keep owning a vehicle. Moreover, every change brings disruptions. We are currently renovating the Chaussee of Ixelles, it is blocked for months and for merchants, it's very difficult ... This creates a lot of problems and we must accept that the transition will also produce negative effects or issues for a while. But you must be determined to follow the objectives. The objective, we must always remember, is the quality of the air we breathe, that is the improved mobility. And so, our role is to pursue the goal, but also to consider the difficulties that people are experiencing in this transition period and to explain why we do things. That's what takes lots of time and lots of energy. We must be creative, and we must not have the impression that we alone, have all the answers at hand. We must also refer to people who have more experience in this field and who have other types of skills than can be found here in the administration in order to be effective.

In this line of thought, please explain what projects are previewed that aim at improving the representation and participation of citizens, including the homes of inhabitants in each neighbourhood and the amendment of Article 60 of the Reglamentation of the Municipal Council (ROI).

In fact, democracy and representativeness is not where the problem is felt the most. We are elected in a very representative way, compared to other systems that exist in other countries. The elections are proportional and therefore each party receives roughly the results of its representativeness in the elections. On the other hand, what needs to be strengthened are the mechanisms of participation, or sometimes co-construction of inhabitants in the decision-making process, regardless of the election. We work a lot with neighbourhood committees, which we consult on a regular basis, in relation to problems, our doors are always open to meet them, to listen to them, to be able to find solutions continuously.

There are major projects on which we will work and on which we want to consult them too, hear their proposals, be influenced by their ideas. This is a very important attitude, a one that we have been showing since the beginning of the legislature. The result is that we cannot always satisfy everyone, but this way we have the opportunity to explain why we want changes, to create cohesion on objectives, to strengthen and to receive as well the expertise of these inhabitants and those users who know a certain reality, that we cannot always be aware of. It is extremely important.

As for the progression of the houses of the inhabitants, it is a little different. They also serve to accommodate and provide places for locals to meet and possibly put forward projects. But also, to improve their living environment, the friendliness in the neighbourhood. I just came from a meeting where I went to visit what I consider a house of the inhabitants, but which has not yet been labelled as one. This is a new idea, which I advanced myself during the electoral campaign and which, I underline, works very well, everyone is talking about this concept of houses of the inhabitants.

This in particular, was a home that was made available to an association. And the inhabitants occupy it, they come to cook, they come to meet, to carry projects, to play. There are many different projects that are done in this house. This is the house of the inhabitants. This is a common place for the people of the neighbourhood. Because what is a commune, after all? It is the community of inhabitants of a geographical area and it is normal that they have places they can wind up and get to know each other better. It reinforces the security, it reinforces the conviviality and the fact to feel good in one’s district ...

Then, Article 60 is that in a democracy, a democracy that is always stronger when we respect the minorities, the rules we had to work at the level of the commissions, ultimately made so as small opposition groups were excluded from commissions. So I made the proposal to amend the Rules so that each political group, even if it is very small, can have a representative. It is important not to be afraid of opposition, of small groups, because democracy is enriched by its diversity.

You have, no doubt, a difficult task: to transform the district Matongé, which is experiencing difficulties with delinquency and the quality of life in general. To what extent is this change possible and what solutions does the Coalition intend to apply in the coming years?

Matongé is one of the most famous districts not only in Brussels but also in Belgium and abroad, in fact, because people from the African community are familiar with Matongé. Because it is a meeting point of the African community in Brussels and Belgium. This is not a neighbourhood where lives especially the African community, but it is a neighbourhood they frequent. Shops, restaurants, associations, cultural centres and all that.

I live near this neighbourhood and I really appreciate it. Simply, I realize that generally women and politicians have always presented it in a rather negative way, this place. I do not deny the problem. There are problems, as in other neighbourhoods. But, for me, it's not alright to present this neighbourhood systematically in a negative way. What is important, it is both to impose the controls that are required whenever there is a problem ... but also to bring the ambition in this area, to come up with positive projects that link the image of Matongé with more positive connotations culturally, gastronomically, artistically, economically. And it is in this sense that I want to work because it's an area that is somewhat stigmatized and I think it is not normal to do this. So, we will come up with proposals each time in collaboration with local actors, positively reinforce the image of this neighbourhood with the strengths and strong points that already exist.

Could you explain why is it important to have a platform such as TheMayor.EU, which seeks to connect European municipalities?

I think that worldwide, networks are important. Unfortunately as a politician, a former member of parliament, a former minister, I realized that something has been damaged: it is the importance of doing parliamentary missions, political missions abroad, to see what is going well or to meet other actors who try to pursue the same objectives as oneself and precisely to be reinforced by their experience, by their ideas. Unfortunately, some politicians have used it to travel for pleasure and not with political mission, which was very criticized and finally, we almost removed all these collaborations. Whereas I think it is absolutely essential to go and see what is happening elsewhere and to share oneself what one has succeeded with with others, to enrich oneself. So, all networks or all forms of networks, whether real or virtual, are positive because they simply allow one out of the hole, out of the impression that we're are familiar with all the realities and all the truths and that we are the only ones to have been confronted with certain problems ...

Finally, could you say a few words about the major projects and innovations in 2019?

I had previously said that as mayor, I will oppose any device that is anti-homeless people, anti-rough sleepers and I think this is very important. A mayor is here to find solutions for everyone. We cannot take solutions that are just designed to hide misery or to close our eyes before it. Our responsibility as mayors, is not to be creative in encouraging companies to create street devices that prevent one from lying on a bench or on a sidewalk, as people find themselves in a situation that has become impossible in their lives, but to try to find solutions for these people and support them so as they would be able to cope and pass this painful stage of their lives. So, an important point is that the mayors must also commit to not just close our eyes to the manifestation of misery but must face it and even the contrary - try to find concrete solutions, even when it is difficult.

February 20, 2019, Municipality of Ixelles

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