“Cooperating with other cities will enhance positive change, creativity and innovation” Interview with the Mayor of Mechelen, Belgium

Mechelen, a city of 87,000 situated in the province of Antwerp in Flanders (Belgium), has recently joined Efus. We met with Mayor Alexander Vandersmissen. 

Why did you choose to join the European Forum for Urban Security?

Our city is very diverse, with 130 nationalities and 70 languages represented. Living together has not always been easy. Indeed, 20 years ago we were known as “Chicago on de Dijle” (the river that runs through our city). In 2001, we adopted a comprehensive, integrated and holistic urban security strategy, and I’m pleased to say that now the feeling of insecurity has dropped to 4.5%, below the national average of 6%. Moreover, some 80% of the population say they are proud to live in Mechelen.

By joining Efus, we aim to strengthen our knowledge on urban security and to do more networking: we want to learn from other cities and share our experience. Also, we have in the past taken part in Efus-led European projects and it’s always been a very positive experience. 

What is the added value for you of working with other local authorities?

Each city is different but we also have similarities and deal with similar challenges. We’re interested in what others are doing, what we can learn from their experience and whether we can work together. By bringing together knowledge and expertise, we can expand our own knowledge and improve our actions. Such cooperation will enhance positive change, creativity and innovation. 

What are your priorities regarding security?

Our urban security strategy is part of our broad strategy to make Mechelen a safe, dynamic,  ‘surprising’ and warm city. It is based on several fundamental axes: 

> Building a strong local community as a solid basis against polarisation 

Social disorganisation, a lack of solidarity among citizens or community engagement, poor housing, purely functional infrastructure, etc. do not give people a feeling of security nor encourage them to take care of their physical and social environment. On the other hand, social preventive programmes tend to reduce risk factors for youngsters in deprived neighbourhoods. The idea is to reconnect young people and their family with society’s institutions as a means to foster better informal social control and ‘self-regulating systems’. Mechelen chose to invest in a positive public narrative in order to establish a genuine social inclusion policy. 

> Safeguarding a clean, safe and attractive physical environment to create a positive mindset about the city

An aesthetic and well maintained urban environment is attractive for people and businesses alike. It means more people will use the public spaces, and more businesses will be willing to invest. This is conducive to a vibrant local economy, and it also enhances the feeling of security. 

When designing new public places, some basics on crime prevention principles can be kept in mind, such as visibility, accessibility, attractiveness… The city of Mechelen has developed an administrative flow-chart in order to systematically determine which investment projects require a Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) check. This process allows us to integrate specific crime prevention measures into urban planning projects. 

> Early intervention programmes for anti-social or risky behaviours

Prevention workers are coaching groups identified as being at risk. For example, substance use doesn’t have to be a problem and most of the time the users’ social environment will react and resolve the situation before it gets out of hand. But there is a gap between prevention and specialised drug treatment, which leaves parents, teachers, etc. on their own, without professional help. Secondary prevention workers try to fill this gap.

> Giving ex-offenders a real second chance

Offenders who have served a custodial sentence must be re-integrated into the local community. Although prison sentences are supposed to have a ‘specific deterrent’ effect, they are in fact not very effective in preventing re-offending. Ex-prisoners struggle to adapt to life outside of prison. To mitigate the consequences of imprisonment, a transition period in a small-scaled detention facility is a good alternative. Local authorities are interested parties because ex-offenders will at some point settle in the local community. This is why the city of Mechelen collaborates and invests in a small-scaled transition house, restorative justice programmes and a centre for juvenile delinquents.

> Clear and legitimate local regulations for public order that are effectively enforced

Since the late 18th century, municipalities have been responsible for public cleanliness, health, safety, public order in streets and (public) buildings, but these local regulations weren’t always enforced, which led to resentment and the feeling that petty crime, incivilities and public disturbances were going unpunished. This in turn fuelled an appetite for populist solutions. Since 1999, the law allows for replacing traditional police penalties with municipal administrative sanctions, known as GAS, which give municipalities new tools to effectively enforce their own rules.

Do you have a municipal crime prevention strategy? 

We’ve had a Strategic Safety and Prevention Plan since 1994, which includes a number of priorities fixed by the federal government such as cleanliness and liveability, the prevention of violence (including domestic violence and radicalisation), burglary and theft, feelings of insecurity, and drug consumption. 

To achieve these objectives, we work closely with various local partners, covering the entire prevention spectrum (from primary prevention to sanction). It would be too long to list them all here, but I’ll mention a few. 

The Regional Open Youth Centre Mechelen (ROJM according to the Flemish acronym) is an important partner that works with youngsters to help them, among other things, to enter the job market. 

J@m vzw is an association that organises leisure activities for youngsters from deprived backgrounds. 

The Family Justice Centre (FJC) Mechelen provides help to victims of domestic violence. It is a regional partnership that links victims with various institutional partners (social assistance services, the police, prosecution and the administration).

Of course we also work closely with the local police: we coordinate our actions and interventions, set up projects together and constantly inform each other on what goes on in the city. 

Other partners are the centre of mental health, schools, and the justice system.

What are the main issues in Mechelen that you would like to put forward to European authorities via Efus?

A major point of attention is polarisation, right wing extremism and the role of internet and social networks. This is a global phenomenon that has a major impact on the local level, and we as a local authority are looking at ways to deal with this. But we cannot do it alone and we need the support of European authorities.

We are also keen to work on new and digital methods for crime prevention. We believe that these kinds of solutions are only value for money if embedded in a larger rationale for urban security. Referring to [the Norwegian social anthropologist and expert on the extreme right] Tore Bjørgo’s ideas on holistic crime prevention, there is a difference between ‘mechanisms’ (the ‘active ingredients’ that reduce crime) and ‘measures’ (the way these mechanisms are activated). Both are equally important for an efficient local security policy. European authorities can play a role in the implementation of these new technologies, in line with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and at the same time workable at a local level.

A third priority for the medium term is incivilities, such as drivers who speed through residential neighbourhoods. We are looking at speeding up the sanctioning process. We are also planning to create a new enforcement team that will specialise in littering problems, petty crime and minor traffic violations (e.g. parking offences).

More information about Mechelen’s range of urban security practices and schemes here 

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