As mayor of Roeselare, a regional centre in Flanders known for its food production, entrepreneurship and, increasingly, its evolution into a “smart city”, Kris Declercq is dedicated to the task of refashioning his home town.
Accordingly, when he talks about Stellenbosch University, where he achieved a Masters specialising in commercial and constitutional law, he places it firmly within its urban context – the town as well as the gown.
“I notice that many of the evolutions in urban development in Roeselare, in Flanders, have coincided with changes in Stellenbosch. When I returned to Stellenbosch a few years ago, I saw how different it was from the quiet university town that I had known in the 1990s.
“Not only in the field of spatial development, but also in the balance between stronger urbanisation and rural policy; in relation to mobility, housing and climate challenges; and in the field of community formation, security aspects and integration.”
As an experienced politician who has operated at the highest levels in Belgium, Kris also views the benefits of his studies and time at Stellenbosch through a national lens.
“I was fascinated by the miraculous transformation of South Africa. As a specialist in human rights and constitutional law, I wanted to be in the front row to learn how this transition took shape, both legally and in a community context.
“Both Belgium and South Africa have a complex institutional architecture. And subsequently, as an advisor to various Belgian ministers and the prime ministers Yves Leterme and Herman Van Rompuy, the insights I gained from my time at Stellenbosch were useful in helping to shape the further development of state reforms in our country.”
Although 47-year-old Kris has narrowed his focus to the city level since 2016, when he became mayor of Roeselare, his overall vision of how best to foster place-making in a rapidly changing world entails, of necessity, not only a national, but a global perspective.
“Many young and old people are coming to live in our city, which has changed enormously over the past 10 years. This has raised important questions around space, including: How can we provide more green space in our urban environment?
“Accordingly, we follow the United Nations’ (UN’s) sustainable development goals. We provide our city with our energy through an underground ‘heat network’, we invest in forest planting, and we seek to ensure that high-rise buildings remain compatible with a city tailored to the needs of the people.
“In our mobility policy, too, we are seeking to realise a ‘climate switch’. Just as I used to cycle from my student apartment near Lobelia to the campus at Stellenbosch, as mayor of Roeselare, I set a good example by travelling by bike.”
Kris also places his policies in the social field, “where the cost of loneliness, assistance and the fight against poverty and inequality remain important themes”, within a modern, global economic context. He seeks to resolve the “uncertainty and conflict” that can arise from global immigration patterns by fostering an ethos of “mutual respect” and integration.
His social policies also have a strong economic bent. He sees the added value in “investing in people”. “By investing in smart people, the transition to a ‘smart city’ can also be realised.”
The need to keep up with the times extends to Kris’s vision of Roeselare’s identity as one of Flanders’s shopping cities. With the growth of home-working, automation and online shopping, which he describes as “a permanent challenge”, Kris has helped to develop a comprehensive plan to turn the “high street” back into a lively meeting place with libraries, cultural centres, shopping malls, space for children, and green squares instead of parking spaces.
Kris emphasises the fit between his approach as mayor of Roeselare and the virtues promoted by Stellenbosch University, which, he says, “combines great quality of knowledge with openness, social awareness and innovation”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Kris looks back on his time at the university with great fondness: “The beauty of the country, the many hiking trips, the delicious wine and the fine people made me both a full-time student and a full-time tourist, which is a wonderful combination.”
He still has many South African friends and is proud to be the first chairperson of the International Student Organisation of Stellenbosch (ISOS), which he helped to found in 1996. “Today, I still follow what’s happening. The Facebook group Maties Benelux, helps me with that – and recently we even organised a Matie-alumni reunion in Roeselare.”
- By Mark Paterson -