Belgium smart city infrastructure brings new life to a Wetteren’s old center

Find how a Belgium smart cities infrastructure programme transformed one small town’s historic centre:

  • Smart Cities infrastructure tailored to new needs of citizens
  • How to create a Smart Cities programme for any city or town
  • Programme revitalises town centres across Belgium
  • One third of Belgian citizens have benefited from Belfius/European Investment Bank project

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Future Europe features a podcast episode from each of the EU’s 28 Member States. Each episode tells the story of a project that illuminates the way Europeans will live in the future. All the stories are told through the voices of people involved in the projects. 

Transformed by Belgium smart cities infrastructure

Annemie de Pauw remembers how the center of Wetteren used to look. “It was gloomy, desolate.” Now her hometown has been “transformed into an asset for everyday life.” 

Annemie works in Wetteren’s gleaming new town hall. The building is virtually carbon neutral and is easily accessible for disabled and elderly people with lifts from an underground car park.

Wetteren, which has around 25,000 inhabitants, is one of over a hundred ‘Smart City’ projects in Belgium, which aim to keep in place traditional services while making them more responsive and efficient. Wetteren’s renewal began with an idea from Belgium’s Belfius Bank. It recognised that municipalities needed support to encourage and enable more energy efficiency, urban renewal projects and mobility. So the Bank came up with its Smart Cities and Sustainable Development Programme. 

“The idea is to make people’s lives better and to help them surmount any challenges they face in a sustainable and eco-friendly way,” says Jeroen Vandevelde, who manages the Belfius programme.

EU bank finances Belgium smart cities infrastructure

The European Investment Bank saw the social and environmental benefits of the programme and joined in funding more than 100 projects throughout Belgium. 

Wetteren redeveloped a brownfield site right in the heart of the city centre next to the River Scheldt. In addition to the new town hall, this area now boasts 67 apartments, a post office and cafes around an open square with fountains. 

There’s underground parking, which means the new site is car free. There is also a new bridge across the river reserved for pedestrians and cyclists, allowing easy access to the city centre and its schools.  A regional court of justice is also on the way.

>@EIB
Stéphanie Verbrugghe, Els Van Gyseghem, Annemie De Pauw ©EIB

Citizen participation at heart of smart cities

Initially, in 2014, the EIB invested €200 million and Belfius added another €200 million. Since then, buoyed by the success of the first stage, the EU bank signed a third contract. Between a quarter and one third of Belgium’s population have already benefitted from these Smart city projects.

EIB urban development expert Leonor Berriochoa emphasises the importance of ‘participation’ in the whole approach.  Smart Cities are about the participatory process and the multi sectorial dimension that makes the city grow in a more sustainable and ‘smart’ way,” she says. “This will make towns and cities more resilient to migration, to environment, to climate and to all the challenges we need to face

In Wetteren, the benefits of the programme are easy to see. Herman Strobbe, a town alderman, recalls that people used be ashamed. “It was all so run down, whereas a river should be the central feature, the jewel at the centre of a town or a city.” But now, he says, young people want to spend time in the town center, to serve the community and to work in a revitalised area equipped with the latest technology.

Belfius’s Vandevelde says all Belgium’s Smart City projects have one major thing in common.  “They put the citizens and their needs at the centre, making for a better and future proof Belgium that can also make for a better and future proof Europe.”