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Elke Decruynaere: Young people want fewer cars, more trees and space for expression

Elke Decruynaere: Young people want fewer cars, more trees and space for expression

An interview with Ghent’s Alderman for Education, Upbringing and Youth on European Youth Capital 2024 title

Elke Decruynaere has been active in building citizens engagement since secondary school where she played a part in the foundation of the Vlaamse Scholierenkoepel – an umbrella organisation of student councils, officially recognised as the voice of students in Flanders.

She has been a part of the Green Party since 2001 and a member of the City Council in Ghent since in 2007. She has also been the Alderman on Education, Upbringing and Youth since 2013.

Ms Decruynaere, you have been at the forefront of Ghent’s progressive youth policies for close to 10 years now. Could you describe what makes your city so special for kids and families? 

First of all: in our city there is a big ‘coalition of the willing', the whole City Council, all city services and important stakeholders work together to make our city child and youth-friendly. It is not a personal project but real teamwork.

Second: Our city is in transition and made some clear policy choices in 2012 towards sustainable mobility, city development and climate change. If we ask young people what they want for our city they answer fewer cars, more trees and space for expression. So there certainly is a match.

Recently, Ghent was awarded the title of European Youth Capital 2024 (EYC), so congratulations are in order. What would you say are some of the corner-stone initiatives that have brought this success?

Well, I think the extensive track record of broad youth policy in our city that has developed over the last 20 years certainly plays a part in our success.  Furthermore, we co-created an extensive preliminary program with youngsters and youth organisations, that focuses on all actual themes young people care about in our city. 

And of course let’s not forget that in 2024 some things are really well aligned: the opportunities that the Belgian Presidency of the EU in the first part of 2024 offers; and the fact that young people at the age of 16 will be allowed to vote in European Elections for the first time.

When talking about youth, we are talking about the future. What would you say the new title brings to the city and would that affect policy after 2024?

We pointed out in our candidacy for the title that we would like to create “a brighter future for young people and emerging adults by providing the means and the support they need to achieve it”. This is especially valuable concerning the position of youngsters during the ongoing pandemic.

In 2020, Belgium lowered the voting age in European Elections to 16. Has that had an impact on the effectiveness of the numerous government youth participation programmes in the city?

We already experimented with this unofficially in the 2018 elections. Young people were able to “vote” for the local elections through an online tool.  This experiment assured us that we were on the right track here, but an important lesson we learned was that it would be a  challenge for 2024 to involve all youngsters and not only the happy few. 

As a result of this, we already started up a trajectory with some local partners & the city’s youth council to involve as many youngsters as we can towards 2024.

Where would you say sustainability and youth-oriented policies intersect in Ghent?

An early but important initiative that set the tone,  was when the  City’s Youth Service invested in re-usable cups for youth organisations to eliminate the use of single-use plastic cups and pints at youth parties. In recent years, we have made sure to set the highest sustainability standards for ourselves if we renovate or invest in youth accommodation.

Today the transition to a climate-neutral city is on top of mind in all our policymaking. Young people in Ghent are very committed as they organise school strikes and climb trees to protect themselves.

Could you elaborate on what the city has planned for 2024? What can visitors and residents expect to change?

We planned our program around our 3 priorities: engage, empower and care. These priorities were chosen from years of participatory actions prior to our candidacy.  We hope to co-create as many initiatives as we can around these priorities. Of course, we want young people to have a great year and that also means putting in the fun during our EYC titleship but moreover, we want to create long-lasting initiatives that will leave their mark on the city past 2024 and that will inspire a generation of young people.

Finally, TheMayor.EU is a platform focused on spreading the best practices of local administrations from across the European Union. Could you share some of your achievements, that can be implemented across the EU to make cities a better place for kids and young people?

For other European cities, the experiment we did on a local level around 'vote at 16' and the experiences gained there are quite valuable already.  In 2024 we would like to host a conference on this topic with the experiences we gained in Ghent.  I think this could be a precious gift to the cities and countries.

Our policy towards the participation of youngsters and kids and the initiatives we structurally implemented can be an inspiration, too. We’ve also invested quite a bit in connecting youngsters and kids with the public spaces in the city.  From co-creating a local playground in a city borough or involving youngsters in how traffic circulation should work on a local level to dreaming big about the city of the future.

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