Sustainable Living

"By building the right living environment, we can solve a lot of problems"

Interview with Erik Wieërs, Flemish Government Architect

In Flanders, architecture policy is designed by the Vlaamse Bouwmeester (“Flemish Government Architect”). His mission is to promote the architectural quality of the built environment. He also contributes to vision formation and reflection on architectural quality, quality design and building in today's society.

The Flemish Government Architect is as such well placed to give his opinion on making our living environment future-proof. Which challenges are awaiting us, and what opportunities should we grasp? According to Erik Wieërs, Flemish Government Architect since 17 June 2020, it is not an impossible task. But governments must seize the opportunities that arise. Take, for example, the electrification of the vehicle fleet, which is on the rise worldwide. Erik Wieërs:

"In fact, the electrification of the vehicle fleet is not really being considered in spatial terms. But this could be exactly the necessary boost to get car-sharing started. The government wants to install 100,000 charging stations. Instead of giving everyone their own charging station, we can group them outside the residential area and create a meeting spot. We still do not realise how big the pressure of the car is on our living environment. If we eliminate parking spaces, we will have an enormous amount of space to live and play. In streets that are made car-free, encounters between residents double. The government should reduce rather than stimulate car use, including electric cars. Electrifying the car fleet will not solve the environmental problem. Electric cars also get stuck in traffic jams. And not all electricity is produced green."

Erik Wieërs - Flemish Government Architect © Pieter Geerts

Erik Wieërs - Flemish Government Architect

We cannot solve today's climate challenges individually.

Problems come together spatially

Wieërs is a strong advocate of more collective living and the creation of collective spaces, where people have the opportunity to meet. Numerous contemporary challenges can be solved this way, according to the Vlaamse Bouwmeester.

"Water management and drought, softening and greening, mobility and affordable housing, loneliness and aging – all these problems come together spatially. By building the right living environment, you can solve many of these problems. There is little reflex to deal with the theme spatially. Every municipality should have a spatial strategy to deal with these challenges, but it is not often enough on the agenda.

There is a need for more spatial direction. Local governments lack the know-how and the tools to tackle the challenges of smart & sustainable living. I call for a shift from “rules” to “guidelines”. Despite all the existing regulations, we are not succeeding in reducing the economic pressure on our living environment. Rather, the municipalities should be supported by specialists, who help think about a future plan for the environment."

Create collective space

The Flemish Government Architect therefore pleads for a spatial approach to contemporary issues, such as global warming. A major obstacle on the road to a definitive solution is the private ownership of a home. Erik Wieërs:

"Private ownership of a home is the worst possible situation for tackling the transition. We cannot solve today's climate challenges individually. It is much more sensible for an entire neighbourhood to install a windmill or install a heat network. For example, you  can set up a cooperative in which everyone exchanges land for a share. This way, you create numerous levers to make the transition possible, such as building a pond to collect rainwater.

The collective space that is created also provides gains on a social level. We meet each other more often and neighbourhoods are created in which we live. For example, residents of an apartment building could build a roof terrace with greenery and a barbecue. This way, they get to know their fellow residents and a new dynamic arises.

These initiatives often come from within society itself, and the younger generations are more open to them. Take my sister's children, for example. They don't want to buy their own apartment with their partner, but want to live together with friends in one house. Finding affordable housing becomes no longer an individual problem, but a collective opportunity."

Electric cars

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