Looking at our city through different eyes: students working with the city of Ghent

Students make us think about the way we do things.

With no less than 80,000 students and researchers, Ghent is home to a lot of bright minds. So why not involve all this intelligence in the challenges we face as a city - and by extension as a society? Student Lies Hens and head of the Housing Department Hilde Reynvoet share their experiences.

The City of Ghent cooperates with the higher education institutions of Ghent in different ways, for instance in the ‘Stadsacademie’, where the City of Ghent and Ghent University look for answers to the complex sustainability issues in society. Students contribute the Master’s thesis workshops, where they work on a concrete research question set by the City.

Last year Lies Hens, a Social Work student (Pedagogical Sciences, Ghent University) won the FUTUREproef award for her Master’s thesis on sustainable urban development in social housing. She specifically focused on the Sint-Bernadettewijk district. Lies Hens said: ‘I got my inspiration from the City of Ghent itself. When city workers told me that they wanted to create a sustainable garden district, my curiosity was aroused. I noticed that the City is also trying to determine what sustainability really means. To me, sustainability is about both ecological and social justice, and the two are inextricably linked. That’s how I ended up in the Sint-Bernadettewijk district. The City had announced that they wanted to transform the obsolete social housing district into a sustainable 21st-century garden district. In order to achieve this goal, the decision was taken to demolish the entire district, which was not to the liking of the local residents, who would have preferred a renovation in various phases. The district revolted against the decision. This caused me to ask myself the question: can you speak of a sustainable garden district if you don’t listen to the local residents? The conclusion of my research is unequivocally: no, you can’t.’

Lies is enthusiastic about the link between the City of Ghent and Ghent University: ‘I would not have come into contact with the Bernadettewijk district if that district hadn’t been brought up during the Master’s thesis workshops. For us students, it’s also convenient that we can immediately contact the right person if we have any questions. Thanks to the workshops, the right people are very approachable. It’s nice not to have the feeling that you are working on a Master’s thesis that will just gather dust in the end. You work with city employees to think about challenges and you really contribute to the debate.’

Learn from one another

Hilde Reynvoet has been involved in the ‘Stadsacademie’ from the very beginning. She confirms that Lies’s thesis has planted a seed for change in her way of thinking, especially the fact that Lies started her research from the local residents’ perspective. ‘Lies rightfully questioned the social sustainability of our project in the Bernadettewijk district. We think we are considering the needs of the local residents, but if we are honest, we must admit that we often take decisions in their place and only allow them to give their input when the project has already progressed to a stage where it’s too late. Why not find out in advance what the local residents want? And it’s very important to then take into account their perspective in the realisation of the project. When I read Lies’s thesis, I felt a bit ashamed that we had failed to do that in the Bernadettewijk district. I have learned an important lesson: professional expertise can be combined with the views of the local residents. That’s why I like to work with students like Lies, because we learn from them.’

Lies and Hilde. 

A critical look

Hilde added: ‘I find it very interesting to look at the issues we are working on from a different perspective and to discover the links with other policy areas in our organisation. Housing for refugees, for instance, is a topic that extends beyond the area of competence of our department. How do academic minds look at issues we are involved in on a daily basis? Their fresh views provide my team and myself with food for thought. That’s why we invite students each year to do a work placement with us and why we supervise students working on their Master’s thesis. Students take a critical look at things we take for granted. For them, there are no sacred cows nor practical considerations. The students remind us that we are working on actual social issues, they keep our focus sharp and they inspire us to think outside the box.’

Answers to social challenges

The story of Lies and Hilde clearly shows how looking at something from a different perspective can lead to refreshing ideas. Confrontational? Sometimes. Enriching? Certainly! That’s why Tom Van Nieuwenhove of the Strategic Coordination department thinks cooperation with all these intellectual minds is a must. ‘Our city is confronted with challenges we don’t always have an answer to. And we see a trend in higher education to work on actual social issues much more than before. The Master’s thesis workshops are a perfect example.’

‘Other cities also have this type of cooperation, but in Ghent it’s embedded in our structural organisation, and that’s something other European cities envy,’ says Tom. ‘Our consultations with the higher education institutions focus on four major topics: space in Ghent, internationalisation, students in Ghent and urban issues. With regard to the last topic, I am still looking for ways to bring the educational institutions together with the right urban partners. Municipal departments that don’t know which research institution is best placed to help them, can ask me. I will put them in contact with the right researchers.’

What is the FUTUREproef award?

FUTUREproef is an initiative of Green Office Gent (Ghent University) to highlight sustainable Master’s theses. The award, which is the result of a cooperation between Ghent University, the City of Ghent and MO*, is granted to the Master’s thesis that offers the most innovative insights and takes a broad approach to both ecological and social sustainability: really FUTURE-proof.

Do you know students with a heart for sustainability? At www.futureproef.ugent.be, they can find more information about this initiative, as well as some inspiring examples.

More information on the FUTUREproef award, see https://www.ugent.be/nl/univgent/waarvoor-staat-ugent/duurzaamheidsbeleid/student/futureproefaward

Photography © Christophe de Muynck

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