Portraits of a city's people, today
We’ve joined forces with Leuven to highlight 100 local people, places and projects that contribute towards making the city what it is today. From artists and architects to producers and professors, these are the driving forces powering Leuven forward one ingenious initiative at a time. Read this article and others here.
Serge de Gheldere
Founder & CEO, Futureproofed / Co-founder, Klimzatzaak (1967)
Can you describe what you do?
When you stop and look around for a moment, we’re facing some formidable challenges – and one I choose to focus on is climate change. The next decade or two may very well be the most important since the beginning of mankind: either we become the assholes who let the climate change tragedy unfold, or we become the heroic generation who sped up and controlled the transformation, allowing for attractive cities and a fossil-free future. This is not only our most pressing challenge, but also our biggest business opportunity in a century.
I’d initially trained with Al Gore over a decade ago concerning all things climate change and the possibility of a low-carbon economy. Today, I help cities and companies act on precisely this challenge through Futureproofed, by showing that moving towards a fossil-free future can help us innovate, save money and create jobs. More concretely, we develop the cloud-based software FutureproofedCities to help cities reduce CO2 and make them more attractive. Additionally, I’m also the initiator and one of the co-founders of Klimaatzaak, a non-profit carrying out legal action against Belgium’s federal and regional governments. After the Netherlands, in 2015 Belgium became the second European country whereby courageous judges ordered the state to be more effective in the protection of their citizens against the dangerous impacts of climate change. This has now become Belgium’s largest lawsuit by far, both in size with more than 31,000 individual plaintiffs, and in breadth because it’s an issue which touches upon everyone’s life.
How do you perceive Leuven? In your view, what kind of city is it?
Futureproofed is based in Kessel-Lo, in one of the ugly towers behind the train station. On the fourth floor, we have a wonderful view – though it used to be nicer when the other towers weren’t built yet. Before starting work, I always grab a small cappuccino from Einstein Coffee, in the tunnel under the train station platforms – theirs is without a doubt better and cheaper than the nearby Starbucks. I also love to stroll around the Vaartkom, which is where I first started Futureproofed more than 15 years ago, in a loft with a great view of the little ship-loading bridge extending on to the canal. The area was still considered off-the-beaten track at the time – a bit like New York’s Meatpacking District or London’s Shoreditch before they too became mainstream. I loved it there: the Hungaria lounge-cum-restaurant in the same building, for instance, was simply the perfect place to hang out in. Pétanque outside in summer. Just perfect. All of it’s been torn down since then, unfortunately. It’s also been really exciting to witness first-hand how Kessel-Lo’s been evolving – it’s got some really interesting, modern and compact residential urban developments now. I’m a huge fan of Fietsen King, arguably the most passionate, eclectic and friendly bike shop in Leuven. Otherwise Hal 5 is also another great example, clearly inspired by Paper Island in Copenhagen and Phoenix Food Factory in Rotterdam. We have yet to see how lively it’ll become, but it’s obvious we need more unpolished, collaborative efforts like this. Cities around the world have all become homogenized with the Starbucks, Zara’s and Body Shops dominating the high street. Local, co-operative spaces like Hal 5 – or even the temporary central park development – are what makes neighbourhoods interesting. There’s also a sense of personal history for me here: my parents studied here, my wife and I studied here, we live here, I work here. One night, I stole a rose from the Botanical Gardens for my then-girlfriend (and now wife). I was chased away by the geese, got scared, fled back over the wall, hopped on my bike – only to stop a few hundred metres further, muster some courage and come out triumphant. I recently re-discovered this area when having breakfast one weekend with my oldest son and my wife at the Swartehond – so many changes, with new residential developments and trees.
Leuven was one of Belgium’s first cities to measure its carbon footprint in real-time, and set out a roadmap for a low-carbon future. A feat that was recognised recently, when Leuven received a European Green Leaf award.
What would you say is Leuven’s main appeal as a city? What gives it its edge?
The fact that you can walk and bike everywhere. I love the weaving in and out of the historical, cutting-edge, urban, architectural, and natural atmospheres. Or the fact that there’s plenty of savvy, driven people willing to make a difference; launching interesting projects like De Hoorn – an incubator, co-working and restaurant space in a far corner of Vaartkom, founded five years ago. They re-vamped this beautiful industrial space with many of its original brewery elements intact and it’s been fascinating to witness this big experiment unfold, whereby its identity, activities and spatial qualities all interplay. It’s imperative to put the users first when working on such initiatives.
What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?
Leuven was one of Belgium’s first cities to measure its carbon footprint in real-time, and set out a roadmap for a low-carbon future. A feat that was recognised recently, when Leuven received a European Green Leaf award. In fact, we at Futureproofed carried out this project in collaboration with KU Leuven. It was great to be there from the embryonic stage of this journey, and see it evolve and grow – in a way, we were given the opportunity to provide a template for later developments around the world, and which ultimately led to FutureproofedCities. We’ll see how it goes, but it’s really exciting to be able to package years of insight and experience into a cloud-based app – and Leuven was precisely the place where this was all made possible.
On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?
Much more green and blue! I think the city needs to better its supply of vegetation in the city, in order to adapt to the changing climate and its environmental effects – which will very likely worsen in the coming decades. Think short periods of intense rain, heat waves in summer, the exasperating urban heat island effect, loss of bio-diversity and air-quality.
We can also further improve the city’s image, both designing it with its citizens in mind, and at the same time making it more bio-diverse and resilient. Or by focusing on spatial planning that provides more contiguous green infrastructure and public spaces, and local vegetation helping to filter and cooling the air. This will all lead to some rather simple and predictable outcomes: it’s become common knowledge that people who live in and around vegetation are healthier and happier. Also, we need to re-think the design of the city centre with its users in mind, rather than vehicles. Giving it back to pedestrians, cyclists, and electric public transport. Finally, all homes should be well insulated, with appealing architectural solar panels on any suitable roof.
If you had to take out-of-towners to one place that truly symbolises the city, what would it be?
A trip to Keizersberg Abbey park, where we could enjoy an expansive view over the whole City, while standing in a beautiful orchard in a beautiful secluded park.
A local legend, neighbourhood anecdote or urban myth that, to you, encapsulates the spirit of the city?
I used to go to a barber on Capucijnenvoer, when we lived nearby. This guy was an absolute legend: really bad and really cheap haircuts. Always with a glass of beer in one hand, clipper in the other. They just don’t make them like that anymore.