We are always eager to speak to keen Brussels residents who are doing their bit to improve the city. Jonas M. Helseth originally comes from Norway but calls Brussels his home for the past 14 years. We speak with Jonas about his life and his passion for making the city better and more liveable.
Hi Jonas, what brings you to Brussels and how long are you already here?
Long story short, I came here for a traineeship at Norway’s EU representation back at the start of 2008, to work on environmental policy. That makes almost 14 years, my god… I ended up being offered a permanent job there as advisor on energy and transport policies. Norway’s energy policy remains too much of a petroleum show for my taste however, so eventually I ‘switched sides’ – since then I’m in the environmental movement, leading the climate action NGO Bellona Europa.
Could you tell us more about your connection with the city over the years – did your perspective change in any way?
Well, life certainly changes anyone’s perspective of any place – probably the biggest change in that respect was becoming a father. Obviously, that changes your priorities somewhat; the state of the neighbourhood playground all of a sudden becomes a relevant matter. For me personally however, fatherhood has mainly emphasised more strongly some of the aspects that already had me engaged – sometimes enraged – about our city. Air pollution for one; when you’re told by a doctor that some kids in this city have lungs like they smoke 10 cigarettes a day, you simply can’t be cool about that. Road safety, and the insane amount of public space allocated to cars – hence extremely scarce space for pedestrians and cyclists – for another.
From a very early age, I could walk and bike to school where I grew up; in Trondheim, Norway, a city of 200,000. I later had the privilege to study in amazing pedestrian- and cycle-friendly cities like Delft, Netherlands, and Freiburg, Germany. The quality of life there is awesome! Some may say that’s not possible in a big city. I don’t accept that – because I know it’s not true. Ever more cities in Europe find political courage to limit car traffic, create child-friendly streets; make space for people. London does it. Why not Brussels?
We first noticed your activism on Twitter – how do you describe your engagement for a better city and what are your primary motivations?
I suppose I began answering this one above – a primary motivation these days certainly is my 3-year old daughter. She deserves better, and I sense that many parents feel the same way – not only at the downtown school where my daughter goes, but all over our city. Look to Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Oslo…even megacities like Paris and London are succeeding in making their cities places to live. Places with more nature, far fewer cars – parked and driving alike – with as a result cleaner air, and space for people to enjoy.
Who doesn’t want that? Sure, people fought the pedestrianisation of the Anspach and of Chaussée d’Ixelles; hell, they even fought to keep the Grand’Place as an open air parking lot back in the day! But no one would seriously want that back, nor a four lane road cutting our city centre in half. Chaussée d’Ixelles has even become the most busy shopping street in our city. Shop owners fought against this only a few years back. Seeing is believing!
So there are those promising steps being made. Mostly however, we see political announcements without a real plan to implement, like the GoodMove plan to scrap 65k on-street parking spots – to make space for people. Two years on, they’ve maybe managed 2k. This city was not built for cars, it was broken for them. Brussels politics remains occupied with that pain of the past. Sure, every little step is better than how it was 20 years ago. But please, lift your gaze; look at what’s happening in nearby capitals like Paris and Amsterdam. That’s the scale you need to act on, if our city is to stay relevant and attractive.
A lot of “expats” feel like they are “temporarily” in Brussels which makes their attachment and dedication to the city very difficult. Any tips on how to change this and should the effort come from both sides (expats + the city/region government)?
This is indeed a major challenge of our city, but such a fantastic one to have! Which other city of this size has tens of thousands of young, ambitious people from all over Europe and the world arriving every year, wanting to build a better future – such a wasted resource if they are not engaged!
My experience is it doesn’t have to be – attachment, and with it, dedication, can occur quickly if conditions are right. For many, language is a barrier to start with. Brussels politics take place in French and Dutch. Many thousands of people who move here for a job will be mainly or even solely using English professionally. Whilst they may learn basic French and/or Dutch, getting to a level where one can take active part in shaping a city – in politics or elsewhere – is not obvious. Of course, for any dedication, there has to be a two-way effort.
The mess that is Brussels politics – broken governance where institutions blame each other – is difficult even for Belgians to understand. You can see how people’s eyes glaze over when someone tries to explain how one street can be managed by three municipalities – and a region. If politicians here truly wish to engage this great resource for our city, they need to work on the sense of helplessness – the sense that no-one’s in charge and nothing can fundamentally change.
Nonetheless, in the years I’ve lived here, non-Belgians have gotten a lot more involved in Brussels politics – but mainly on a local level, where at least EU citizens can vote and stand candidate. A few years back, a Dutch lady called Dagmar and I started the initiative #1Bru, to address the mess – simplification, clear responsibility, less scope for blame game – by gutting the blocking powers of the 19 municipalities, in favour of our city-region government.
Which other city of this size has tens of thousands of young, ambitious people from all over Europe and the world arriving every year, wanting to build a better future – such a wasted resource if they are not engaged!