Is this Belgian town the medieval city of the future?

The breathtakingly picturesque Belgian city of Ghent is not just a pretty face. Behind the majestic facades of its large medieval quarter and its network of meandering rivers and canals lies a modern maverick city striving to become greener and cleaner.

This was recently recognised by the United Nations, which awarded Ghent a Global Climate Action Award for its sustainable food supply initiative Gent en Garde. Launched in 2013, this was one of the first cities in Europe to launch its own urban food policy.

Gent en Garde seeks to shorten food supply chains, by promoting local production, as well as to improve access to food by reducing waste and rolling out solidarity schemes. The city authorities have set up a series of suburban farmers’ markets and a logistical platform to link up local buyers in the supply chain.

Over a two-year period, Ghent, a city of some 250,000 inhabitants, managed to distribute 57,000 meals or food baskets of healthy and sustainable food to those in need through its Foodsavers programme.

After receiving the award, Ghent has indicated that it has no intention of resting on its laurels. “The big challenge now is to continue to fulfil our pioneering role. We can do that thanks to the effective co-operation of the many partners involved in the Ghent food strategy,” said Tine Heyse, Ghent city councillor for the environment.

In addition to employing a consultative approach with citizens and civil society locally, Ghent has also been providing other municipalities in Belgium, Europe and beyond with support and advice to establish similar initiatives.

“With more and more people living in cities, they are certainly places where new solutions to environmental crises can and need to be sought,” explains EEB President Jouni Nissinen. “This is best done through the genuine participation of citizens, with adequate funding for their proper involvement.”

Vegetarian trailblazer

In 2009, Ghent had the distinction of being the first city in the world to introduce a (voluntary) vegetarian day, ‘Thursday, Veggie Day’. The town estimates that if everyone in Ghent gave up meat for just one day a week, it would be the equivalent of taking 20,000 cars off the roads. And then there are all the savings in terms of land use.

Although four out of five people in Ghent are aware of the weekly veggie day, only a third of the inhabitants actively participate in the initiative, according to figures released by the city, which indicates that there is still some way to go.

That said, half of the city’s residents are prepared to reduce their meat consumption, for health and environmental reasons. With some 7% of the city’s population dedicated vegetarians and many others who enjoy vegetarian cuisine, Ghent now has the distinction of having the largest per-capita concentration of veggie restaurants in Europe.

Paved with green intentions

Ghent is not only striving to reduce the number of cars virtually through the implementation of veggie days, it is also working to reduce actual traffic. Although congestion and traffic jams remain major problems in many parts of the city, Ghent is actively promoting cycling, investing in public transport, widening the pedestrian zone in the town centre, rezoning numerous roads as ‘playing streets’, ‘communal spaces’ and ‘priority cycling’.

This may sound like a nightmare to devoted motorists, but it not only beats being stuck in traffic for hours, it is actually making Ghent a more pleasant city in which to live.

The author of this piece, who lives in Ghent, finds riding his bike without the need to dodge cars relaxing, and teaching his son to cycle on the streets a largely stress-free experience. Walking is also more pleasurable in the town centre and along the canals without the drone of traffic all around, and restricting traffic on some residential streets has helped build a greater sense of neighbourliness where it has occurred.

The SDG challenge

This is not the first time that Ghent has won a major UN award. In 2018, it received the SDG Action Award.

Despite their importance to pretty much everyone in the world and their connection to pretty much every aspect of society, the environment and the economy, knowledge of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in Europe is rather patchy, not just among the general public but also often among policymakers.

Through its SDG Voices campaign to raise awareness of the SDGs in Belgium, Ghent, in partnership with numerous organisations, set a series of five challenges for citizens in six Belgian cities. The five challenges were ‘Eat massively social’, ‘Days without meat’, ‘Everyone, on your bikes’, ‘Lesson marathon’ and ‘Everybody a feminist’.

Almost 6,000 citizens took part directly in the action, while many more expressed their support through social media. In addition, municipal authorities, civil society organisations, businesses and schools took part in the initiative.

Championing sustainability

At the EU level, two major initiatives in which the EEB is involved are also striving to raise knowledge of the SDGs, advocate for their effective implementation and monitor progress made.

Make Europe Sustainable for All (MESA), is an EU-backed project involving 25 partners from 15 countries which promotes the ambitious implementation of the SDG in and by Europe. SDG Watch Europe is an independent watchdog made up of an alliance of civil society organisations working on developmental, environmental, social, human rights and other issues. Its goal is to hold governments to account for the implementation of the SDGs and the associated 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

During the recent Global Climate Strike and Global Week of Action for Sustainable Development, MESA and SDG Watch Europe teamed up with other partners to promote the SDGs at the national and European levels.

The EEB, on behalf of SDG Watch Europe, teamed up with Fridays for Future to co-organise the Brussels march, which drew an estimated 15,000 protesters. “We need to put pressure on our politicians to do something about the climate crisis,” Anuna De Wever, the Belgian youth climate activist, told META. “They need to show ambition and they need to show courage. We need s ystem change.”

The march ended up on Schuman Square, at the very heart of the European quarter, to send a clear message to EU leaders. There, SDG Watch Europe rallied hundreds of protesters to form three words: ‘climate’, ‘equality’ and ‘voice’.

Sustainable heroics

Despite progress in some areas, Europe, like most of the world, is way behind on its implementation of the SDGs, both at home and abroad. To convince policymakers and politicians of the importance of pursuing a holistic approach to the environmental, economic and social challenges facing us represented by the SDGs, the EEB, on behalf of SDG Watch Europe, sent out a job ad for ‘Sustainability Heroes’ to members of the European Parliament.

The EEB also took to filmmaking. In a light-hearted animated film produced on behalf of SDG Watch Europe, a selection panel inspired by the pantheon of ancient gods interview prospective MEPs for the role of Sustainability Heroes. Needless to say, they selected the right candidate for the job.