Mechelen, Belgium

World Mayor, Minister of Society

City of Mechelen

June 23, 2017

A Mayor’s recipe for urban citizenship is built on safety, security and social inclusion.

Migration and diversity is the new normal in the 21st century. One city is making sure inclusion is also the new normal.

How best to integrate new immigrants and refugees is one of Western Europe’s biggest challenges. In the small Belgian city of Mechelen, the mayor’s passionate commitment to inclusive city-building has created a winning formula.

Mayor Bart Somers, City of Mechelen, was one of three city leaders awarded the 2016 World Mayor Prize which honoured mayors and their communities for their efforts to welcome refugees and offer them safety, shelter and support. In contrast to fellow awardees in Greece and Athens where refugee populations surged in cities across the country, Mechelen was the only Belgian town at the height of the refugee crisis to ask the federal government to send refugees its way. Why? Because, for Somers, there was no other way to go. “Human rights and justice are part of the DNA of this city.”

Over a nine-month period, 200 refugees were housed in an emergency aid shelter where they received Dutch classes, lessons focused on basic social skills as well as volunteer opportunities that brought them into regular contact with Mechelen residents. Housing the refugees, who have since been transferred to communities across Flanders, made the city stronger and better, says Somers, whose own grandfather spent time in a refugee camp in the Netherlands during the First World War: “They gave us the opportunity to realize a central Western value: that you have to give shelter to people in need, people fleeing war and violence. This is one of the basic principles of our society, and if we abandon this, we aren’t protecting our Western society, but destroying it.”

But the real story here is not about refugee reception. It’s about the rapid transformation over a 16 year period of an economically depressed and socially challenged town into the thriving, open and inclusive city of 86,000 Mechelen is today. A place where Mechelaars feel like Mechelaars, no matter where they, their parents or their grandparents are from. “There’s only one community in Mechelen, and that’s Mechelaars,” says Somers.” There are 86,000 of them, and they’re all different.”

The World Mayor Prize invites us to explore Somers’ efforts to create an inclusive city, and the secret to its success.

“Diversity is reality, inclusion is a choice.” – The Honourable Ratna Omidvar, Senate of Canada

Years ago Somers made the choice for inclusion. In a city of 138 nationalities, where one in two children born have an immigrant background, diversity was a reality the mayor of Mechelen could not ignore. The question was: “How do you organize this? How do you adequately support people? How do you organize this diversity in a good way?”
Success in Mechelen did not come overnight. Over 16 years, Somers developed a simple formula for building an inclusive city: public safety, improving neighbourhoods and public spaces, and connection. Starting with tough policing and community outreach, the mayor’s priority was preventive action aimed at strengthening social ties; subsidizing community programmes; and mobilizing schools and police officers.

Inclusion: a place called home

Central to Somers’ strategy is the idea that safe, clean neighbourhoods and responsive city services are critical to building a culture of mutual respect in which diversity and inclusion can thrive: “People will never have open minds for diversity if they live in neighbourhoods where they are scared.”

Safe streets. In the last 15 years, Somers dramatically increased police spending and installed more cameras than any other city in Flanders. Why? According to Somers, “Safety is a basic need…. I knew that if I could get the middle class to return to the city, it would create the financial and social leverage to lift the city from this negative spiral of impoverishment.”

Public space. Under Somers’ administration, streets were also re-laid and new parks and car parks constructed. Entire neighbourhoods got a fresh makeover. Residents with (and without) migrants roots are hugely appreciative. In the past, many new arrivals had no choice but to buy homes in the city’s poorest neighbourhoods because rampant racism and discrimination made it impossible to rent on the private market. Today, those residents have seen their investment double in value.

A strict anti-ghetto policy. Somers is adamant about “ghettos”, whether spatial, cultural or economic, immigrant or ‘white’: “If people are separated physically they are also separated mentally,” he says. Living together in the ordinary spaces of school, playground and marketplace are essential to creating the conditions for shared identity, connection and social mobility. By making all residents Mechelaars first, Somers aimed to instill a shared sense of belonging, but also a deeper sense of rights and responsibilities among all in the community.

A new narrative

Somers needed a new narrative of belonging. It was no longer enough to welcome the newcomer and then ask her to adapt as a condition of belonging. And how can you ask a third generation youth to ‘adapt’ whose parents were born in Mechelen and who speaks Dutch at home? That young person may be Muslim, but he or she has an equal claim to the city. “It is not only up to the newcomer to adapt,“ says Somers. “Everyone has to adapt to the New Normal, to a diverse society. It is the reality of the 21st century.”

To help all Mechelen residents adapt to the new reality of diversity and learn to “see each other as citizens of the same city,” the city took the bold, symbolic decision to add two new figures to irs iconic group of city mascots, four giants that are brought out for all important civic events. The two new additions – Amir and Noa – represent North African and black African giants and send a clear message to newcomers that they are part of the city’s social fabric, while making clear the narrative shift for longtime residents.

Building connection is the new normal

For the native Mechelaar, urban citizenship means recognizing that to be a successful, prosperous and safe, their diverse city must also be inclusive. For a new arrival, it means feeling immediately welcome in the new city they chose. For a refugee, who may have experienced years of statelessness, it means stability, safety, security; a powerful feeling of settlement along the path to a new beginning.

A narrative about urban citizenship that has something for everyone increases the sense of welcome, inclusion and belonging across the city. It creates a livable city, in all neighbourhoods, for all Mechelaars. It is an outstanding example of what local leadership can achieve with readily available policy instruments, community action and the necessary investments to make it work.


Not long ago, Mechelen was a struggling city. A lack of civic pride, criminality, political polarization and pollution were the norm. Today the city is a model for other cities in Belgium and neighbouring countries: a clean, pleasant, safe and open city.

Somers has also successfully dealt with another Belgian reality, radicalization and its appeal to marginalized youth seeking identity and relevance they sometimes cannot find that in their immediate community. Not in Mechelen while Somers as Mayor: “Not a single resident has left the town to fight in Syria, a surprising fact considering that Belgium has the highest ratio of foreign fighters per capita, and Mechelen is surrounded by cities such as Vilvoorde, Brussels and Antwerp, which have seen dozens and dozens of young men leave.” Rather, Mechelen has created a culture where Immigrants are recognized and see themselves as full citizens, and young people feel that they belong, that they are Europeans and more specifically, Flemish Belgians.

Be your city’s Minister of Society

In his essay for the World Mayor 2016 award, Somers calls for a ‘Minister of Society’ to help bring people together under a common sense of citizenship and values. To combat isolation and prejudice, it is important to not simply live beside each other, but to live together.

In a recent video Somers further comments on how he built a broad public consensus for inclusion among Mechelaars: “There are challenges. People may not feel secure, they feel alienated, or long for a past that is gone. We have to take those issues seriously. They have to feel that a mayor understands that they will sometimes have difficulties with a changing world. But, at the same time, you have to create a new WE, a new common identity and that has to be based on the future of living together in the city, creating a new co-citizenship. In the end, diversity creates more freedom, more economic and social opportunities and it creates a city that’s adapted to the 21st century.”

Migration, diversity and inclusion are the new normal in Melechen and as civic leaders wake up to Somers’ vision of inclusive city-building, a welcome future for more and more cities in Belgium and across Europe.

Making it Work for You:

  • Large cities aren't the only models to look to when seeking ideas and lessons on inclusion. Mechelen teaches us the value of looking at the example of smaller cities.
  • Just as settlement is a local phenomenon, so too is the feeling of being welcome and included. Mechelen’s approach can be replicated in a larger city,  or in a neighbourhood, community or suburb.
  • Ensuring the safety and security of all residents helps new residents feel safe, secure and welcome in their new city.
  • Social investments in the community mean investing in inclusion. They're tangible signs of an inclusion policy in action.
  • Visionary leadership  is critical to the challenging task of promoting civic action
  • Multiple strategies are required to create a new narrative for a city based on inclusion. In addition to leadership and public policy, don't ignore the symbolic value of public institutions and local traditions.

For this Good Idea contact:

Bart Somers, Stadsbestuur Mechelen
Huis van de Mechelaar
Reuzenstraat 1
Mechelen, Belgium,
2800 Mechelen