Ecocity Snapshots

Award-Winning Mechelen Targets Ecocity Standards

The Dijle Path bridges the River Dijle through much of central Mechelen.
Written by Rick Pruetz

by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders

The tower of St. Rumbold’s Cathedral offers an ideal view of the historic city of Mechelen, Belgium, once the capital of the Low Countries and now the winner of the European Green Leaf Award for 2020. In selecting Mechelen, along with
Limerick, Ireland, the European Commission recognized this city of 85,000 people as a role model in land use, climate action, ecomobility, circular economy and many other goals of the Ecocity Standards.

For years, Mechelen has been a favorite destination for history buffs and beer connoisseurs. In addition to the towers of St. Rumbold’s and the Town Hall, UNESCO has awarded World Heritage Site status to Groot Begijnhof, a neighborhood formed in the 16 th century by lay religious women known as the beguines who maintained their own bakery, hospital, church and brewery. The beguines were instrumental in the development of Mechelen beer culture, and today, Het Anker brewery still uses the original recipe to brew its hometown ale.

Ecocity enthusiasts should likewise be attracted here to see how Mechelen is transforming itself to achieve a better balance with nature. The city has reopened seven old canals that had been previously buried. At the entrance to University College, Mechelen removed a parking lot that completely covered the inner city arm of the River Dijle and replaced it with a landscaped terrace allowing access to the water as well as a green link between the Botanical Garden and the Mechels Broek nature reserve. Boats can now stop at a dock here and a new bike spur connects to the 57km bike trail following the River Dijle south to Leuven.

Mechelen converted its central square from a parking lot to a vibrant civic space.

In 2012, Mechelen joined the Covenant of Mayors, pledging to reduce CO2 emissions by more than 20 percent by 2020 and 40 percent by 2030. To hit those targets, the city maintains an on-line solar map to help estimate energy savings
on a roof-by-roof basis. The Flemish Energy Loan program assists building owners with the purchase of solar panels as well as insulation and heating systems. Mechelen currently has 53,000 solar panels and it is well on its way to having 85,000 solar panels, one for each resident of the city.

Mechelen is systematically transitioning public land from cars to people. The city removed cars from its main square, creating a vibrant civic space with St Rumbold’s Cathedral as a dramatic backdrop. Emphasis is now given to pedestrians and cyclists, as exemplified by the Dijle Path which follows the River Dijle through much of the city, often cantilevered over the water. Over the next five years, Mechelen will add 45 km of cycle paths, four bike bridges and connect bike highways to Brussels and Antwerp.

In 2017, Mechelen was one of 80 Flemish organizations to join the Shared Mobility Green Deal aimed at accelerating car sharing, ride sharing, bike sharing and other forms of shared mobility. Citizens who eliminate an automobile receive up to 250 euros to spend on alternative transport, such as e-bicycles, or apply toward car-sharing subscriptions. The city also contributes up to 3,000 euros toward the purchase of a shared electric car and pays entry fees for membership
in car sharing organizations. In an effort to lead by example, the city joined a “kick the car to the side” project and is replacing its own fleet with e-bikes and electric vehicles.

The European Green Leaf jury gave Mechelen high marks for progress toward a circular economy. The city offers mini-grants to citizens who propose sustainability projects such as neighborhood composting facilities, collective poultry enclosures, cohousing guidance, a mobile solar energy system for events, cargo-bike sharing, and lending libraries for tools and baby supplies. To date, Mechelen has funded over 50 such projects, proposed and managed by over 1,000 people. Other waste-reduction initiatives include a project that collects clothing for reuse, repair cafes and Foodsavers Mechelen, an organization that collects surplus food from wholesalers and grocery stores for distribution through
15 local foodbanks.

Mechelen was poised to welcome sustainability tourists in 2020 during its reign as European Green Leaf Award winner. Unfortunately, COVID derailed those plans and the city had to cancel many events. However, the city has rescheduled
much of the celebration to 2021.

About the author

Rick Pruetz

Rick Pruetz, FAICP, is Vice President of the Ecocity Builders Board and an urban planner who writes about sustainability, most recently Ecocity Snapshots: Learning from Europe’s Greenest Places and Smart Climate Action through Transfer of Development Rights.