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ECN on wheels: A ride to the City of Antwerp’s youth participation projects

The Belgian sun shone on us once again, as 32 representatives from 13 European countries came together in the City of Antwerp for the 7th European City Network (ECN) Meeting. As the group prepared to cycle through the busy city centre, some of us thought back to the last time we rode a bike… for a few of us that was a very long time ago!

We met at the Central Station to pick up our bikes at the beginning of a three-day programme which focused on showcasing the City of Antwerp’s Youth Participation projects and initiatives. First stop was MAS (Museum Aan de Stroom), a groundbreaking museum about global connections between people. Here we got to know each other a little better and received a warm welcome from the Alderman for Education, Youth and Integration, Jinnih Beels. We also learnt more about the City of Antwerp’s Youth Participation Policy, with an insightful presentation on the ComPas programme. After a short Flemish Break, we got stuck into an interactive workshop on how to motivate adolescents using the ABC model.

Later that evening, we were back on our bikes and cycling though some of Antwerp’s luscious Garden Streets, which were designed through a participative process involving the residents. Our destination – Betonne Jeugd (Concrete Youth), an organisation for young people in poverty who unite and emancipate themselves through leisure activities. It offers a safe home-base, a warm nest where they can come and chill, play football, cook together, and be young. We experienced one of the offers young people visiting this organisation enjoy – live pizza bakery and a delicious dinner!

The following day was not the picture of sunshine we were getting used to, but the damp weather didn’t dampen the mood as we arrived at StampMedia, Flanders’ first youth media agency amplifying the voice of young people. We saw the impressive range of facilities, equipment, and knowledgeable mentors available to all young people who have an interest in journalism or sharing their own stories. A quick hop across the alleyway and we were in the Permeke Youth Library – created in collaboration with adolescents, this is a space they can call their own and use to explore writing and art, or use as a social meeting place. 

A short bike ride took us to SPRK, where we admired the multifunctional space made available for young people to explore urban sports and culture. We then made our way to STORMKOP, an impressive organisation located in the city’s old dry docks (Droogdokken) which is an out-of-the-ordinary free state for young and not-so-young adventurers immersed in a world of art, philosophy, science, sustainability, and adventure. After a lunch break, we explored the site with an audio guide outlining the substantial redevelopment plans for the site. 

The sun started to peek through the clouds, as we set off on our bikes once again to explore some of the results of the City of Antwerp’s Play Web Policy in situ. The City of Antwerp has been committed to child-friendliness and greening in urban development for years, and have undertaken 17 different studies into play-space webs. As we cycled through these areas, our colleagues from Antwerp explained how it was converted into effective play space, with reflections on the various challenges and difficulties. Some of the group went back to the hotel for a rest, while the rest went exploring a little further, visiting the pedestrian and cyclist tunnel that goes under the River Scheldt, returning on the electric ferry!

On the last evening, we made our way to TRIX Youth Centre, a music venue and centre for aspiring artists, with several stages, workshop spaces, and practice rooms hosting a network of artists, music lovers, as well as art and youth organisations. These alliances stimulate creativity and discovery and bring in a diverse audience. Here, after a tour of the impressive facilities, we enjoyed dinner backstage before we got the chance to shake off the drizzle from our bike ride and move to the beats created by international artists performing at the venue. 

Thankfully we all made it home in one piece, and we mustered the courage to face a very rainy last morning in Antwerp. Dropping off the bikes first thing, we walked to the EcoHuis (Eco House), a centre Antwerp’s residents can visit for inspiration, information, advice, and financial support. Here we learnt about the range of initiatives taking place to depave the city, turning grey into green, with green facades, streets, and roofs, as well as growing garlands. We also discovered how school playgrounds are being transformed into more natural, green environments that invite intuitive and healthy play.

Last but not least, we took a short walk to Jes Youth Centre, where we heard about the inspiring ways in which the young people of the city can be reached, brought together, and supported to overcome difficulties they and their communities face. Here, as with every organisation we visited, we were greeted and shown around by people who were undeniably passionate about their vocation and the work that they do. Throughout our stay in Antwerp, the group was inspired by the unique places that have been transformed into spaces which not only welcome the city’s youth, but were, more often than not, built up and designed by them too! 

Thank you to all the organisations who hosted us and to our fantastic colleagues in the City of Antwerp, for the work that they do, day-in day-out, and the inspiring programme they put together!

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