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Jens Aerts on Integrating Placemaking Perspectives in the S²Cities Programme

Team Manager Spatial Research, BUUR Part of Sweco and Strategic Advisor for the S²Cities Programme

For young people to thrive, urban environments need to have adequate and accessible public spaces that stimulate positive social interactions and wellbeing, and more importantly they should have a say in shaping public spaces and experiences. Placemaking invites people to collectively reimagine and reinvent urban spaces as the heart of every community to maximise shared value. It facilitates creative patterns of use, considering the physical, cultural, and social identities of a place and the needs of different users. It is also a means to actively engage young people in the city and develop a strong sense of ownership in these places.


BUUR Part of Sweco, strategic advisor to the S²Cities programme, bring their experience of placemaking as a tool for young people to analyse, evaluate and redesign their neighbourhoods. In this interview, we talk with Team Manager Jens Aerts about BUUR’s work in developing youth-centred placemaking activities and what inspires him to invest in the S²Cities programme.


City Collab (CC): Can you start with telling us about BUUR and the kind of work you are involved in?

Jens Aerts (JA): At BUUR Part of Sweco we work on integrated solutions to address complex issues that do not follow a linear path but require ideation and multidisciplinary collaboration. The range of our work is expanding in Belgium and abroad, which is stimulating but also challenging because the understanding of the context and the collaboration with local peers and stakeholders is crucial. Therefore we are becoming even more attentive with global and local partners, as well as investing in online training and knowledge exchange.


With my team we focus on spatial research, so to identify how the built environment, spatial planning and urban design can be a lever for change to address societal challenges. In particular, we focus on energy transition, climate adaptation and urban health, topics that are both inspiring and challenging us as experts and citizens. Challenges will only take more a central position on the global agenda if we look at the accumulating series of crises related to health, energy and climate. All this requires leadership of cities, working on integrated and innovative solutions.



CC: What is BUUR’s role in the S²Cities Programme?

JA: BUUR is part of the global advisory group for S²Cities, advising on strategy, especially regarding integrating urban planning into the overall programme. We have been involved in the design of this new programme from an early stage on, with the organisation of learning workshops that brought together experts that have been developing interesting approaches related to safer cities and youth participation.


Our ongoing contribution is based on advising partners in ways to integrate a built environment component in the entire cycle of the programme as a principle for system change. If we can empower young people to analyse, evaluate and redesign their neighbourhoods together with local authorities and other stakeholders, they will feel confident in continuing to shape their city in a safe and sound way.



CC: How do you situate placemaking in a programme like S²Cities? Tell us more about how it is integrated in the various stages of the programme?

JA: Placemaking draws from the ability to empathise with and create value for others. Citizens, including young people, play a crucial role in this process of reshaping the city. In that sense, placemaking resonates with the principles of relational well-being: not only the place is a valuable result, but also the process to work together towards a solution based on the shared ambition to get to know all stakeholders and to use everyone’s knowledge. We have developed youth-centered placemaking guidance that is aligned with the different steps of the S²Cities approach. In a cyclic path of analyzing, testing, co-producing and learning, we put forward placemaking as a strategy that puts people central in the design and management of places, giving value to the process of collaboration.


Placemaking starts with the identification of typologies of unsafe spaces and stakeholders that can do something about it. In a second step the activation of spaces through dialogues and physical interventions allows to build capacities amongst young people and their communities to prepare for structural change. Well-chosen interventions on strategic spots in the neighbourhood can then be leveraged as place labs or innovation hubs, where coalitions grow in an innovative and inspiring way. These experiences will allow young people and local authorities allow to measure results and consolidate a city-wide investment in safety for young people.


Currently, we are setting up a placemaking course for local partners to ensure a common understanding of placemaking and to identify how placemaking can be integrated into local activities with and for young people. This course comes with a curriculum that includes theory and concepts but also practical guidance and good practices.


CC: Could you talk about some notable projects that you have undertaken in the past related to your role at S²Cities?

JA: We work a lot with local authorities on sustainable urban mobility plans and roadmaps towards climate neutrality. These plans are key to reduce cars and speed in neighbourhoods, but also to ensure clean air and provide more place for green, play and community activities outdoors. For example, we support the city of Leuven in its climate transition programs. In the city of Ghent, we supported the implementation of the new circulation plan through placemaking interventions that foster active transportation and provide places to meet and enjoy the city.


CC: What is your favourite thing about the S²Cities Programme?

JA: The global urban agenda is massive and requires more investment in urban planning. To ensure healthy, safe and future-proof cities local authorities need to embrace community-driven approaches. S²Cities provides this opportunity to work with young people towards system change and to empower them to be the leaders of tomorrow in their city.



Jens Aerts is the manager of the Spatial Research Team at BUUR Part of Sweco. He is a civil engineer-architect and urban planner with 20 years of experience in practice, policy and education, working with cities and municipalities, international institutions, NGOs and project developers at home and abroad. With his Spatial Research team at BUUR Part of Sweco he works on urban system analyses and area based strategies for emerging sustainability transitions such as circular economy, climate adaptation and healthy living environments. Jens is also regularly asked to provide technical assistance for UN-Habitat, UNICEF, UNESCAP and the World Bank. Jens holds a MSc in Civil Engineering and Architecture from the University of Leuven (Belgium) and MA in Urban Planning from Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya in Barcelona (Spain).


Role: Team Manager Spatial Research, BUUR Part of Sweco and Strategic Advisor for the S²Cities Programme



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