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Antwerp Named European Youth Capital 2011

by Monique Phillips, published in Flanders Today, March 2, 2011, # 169
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Antwerp honestly did not expect to win the title European Youth Capital 2011. And yet they've put together a programme Flanders will find difficult to forget - and other cities will find difficult to compete with.

A European Youth Capital (EYC) is a city with an exemplary local youth service - a standard bearer for the rest of Europe. The designation is also a challenge to create a rich and varied programme of youth activities throughout the year. Antwerp hopes to become Europe's permanent free- thinking haven for youth services.

The story started in 2009, when Rotterdam boldly proclaimed itself European Youth Capital. Consequently, REYC 2009 organised an impressive year of events involving the entire population. By facilitating encounters between young and old, Rotterdam, a dynamic but demanding and hectic port city, benefitted from many rejuvenating experiences.

One of the geniuses of REYC was that organisers encouraged the city's youth themselves to put forward their ideas for sustainable projects to make Rotterdam a better place to live. Young people - from children to 20-somethings - were to feel proud about living in Rotterdam. The slogan was "Your Ideas, Your World", and their dreams were obvious: a friendlier environment with respect and tolerance, fun things to do for everyone, free music festivals. As any parent knows: kids are not shy about asking for what they want.

After 2009, the Brussels-based advocacy group European Youth Forum took over the title and philosophy behind it. Now each year a jury of young people awards the EYC designation to a European city, based on a hefty application process.

In 2010, Turin was the lucky one. They focussed on more opportunities for young people to participate at every level in their communities, which is one of the main criteria of the application.

Surprisingly, the title EYC doesn't come with a budget or subsidies, so finances and accommodation need to be in place before cities can even apply. Even if Antwerp has plenty of infrastructure, youth and child services alderwoman Leen Verbist wasn't initially keen to put in the time to apply this year.

"I didn't think it was in the stars," she admits. "We'd had Rotterdam and Turin in the past years, and I was sure they'd go for an Eastern European city. Plus, Rotterdam speaks Dutch, as do we. And it's a port city, as are we."

But Antwerp's programme was strong, and Verbist's team enthusiastic. And they won. They had prepared themselves financially: €2.2 million comes from the city, and AEYC 2011 can count on a further €250,000 from the Flemish youth ministry. A further €300,000 for specific projects has been secured from the city council, private partners and the European level.

Antwerp's youth department has gotten the rest of the city's administration - which employs 8,000 people in 11 departments, from sports to employment - on board. The department of finance, for instance, came up with a well-received interactive game on budget management by cities and individuals.

"It's important to get young people involved hands on everywhere in your city," says Verbist. "They need to realise that it's their city, that we'll back them up in their plans, and that they can have a major impact on the future of the community." With 124,000 people - one third of the Antwerp population - younger than 25, you can see her point. "In a highly urban environment, you can't wait for youth to become 35 before finding their way to a museum or a job," Verbist says. So, an AEYC project like MAS in Jonge Handen (MAS in Young Hands) - in which the new city museum, which opens in May will showcase the creations of 15- to 25-year-olds - perfectly fits the bill.

AEYC officially kicks off this Friday, 4 March, in the city's Central Station. School kids from all over town will parade into the station and count down to the official start of AEYC 2011 in a giant dress-up party, dubbed European Carnival Bal. TV channel Ketnet will broadcast the event at 15.00 on Friday, which should liven up the last period of class before the annual Crocus Holiday. Ketnet will repeat the event at the weekend.

The following day, 5 March, Club Central will host pop-up music and dance acts, while free performances on two stages will keep teenagers awake until 4.00. Antwerp has historically been a youth- oriented city, with more than 200 youth clubs and 5,000 dedicated volunteers manning them. Each of its nine districts has a Jeugdraad, or Youth Council. Verbist feels proud when she sees them at work. "They truly represent a cross-section of our city."

Moreover, Antwerp youth actively participate. "Young people want to take responsibility, and, in turn, we take their suggestions seriously. That's always been our philosophy, and we're reaping the benefits of those policies today."

Activities planned for AEYC 2011 will be threefold: a continuation of running projects wrapped in a bow, test cases that might stay on, and daring experiments.

One of the more intriguing test cases is "De Werf", or The Yard, a 5,000 square- metre space in the Van Immerseelstraat. From April, a construction site for 10- to 14-year-olds will be set up. With on-site materials, they will be allowed to construct towers and other structures to their hearts' content. They'll learn to plan, build and persevere if the going gets tough. (Don't worry - all AEYC events are supervised by professionals.)

Verbist is convinced that what youngsters need most is room - both physically and mentally - to experiment, whether it turns into success or failure. You need to look at more than results: the road travelled is equally important.

Antwerp has consciously made the decision to have a festive year "for youngsters by youngsters". AEYC will continue to welcome projects of all sorts throughout the year. No preconceived criteria or boundaries have been set. If you have a project you'd like to share, now's your chance.

"Tell us your wildest dreams," encourages the AEYC website, and Verbist is anything but afraid of what those might be. "I can take it. Anything goes in my book. I find kids nowadays a bit too well behaved."

For a recent photo shoot of the AEYC team, for instance, Verbist suggested spray painting something on the bright red wall behind them. By the time the kids recovered from the shock ("but that wall has been freshly painted!"), Verbist had mastered a canister full of silver paint.

"Kids nowadays are very good, responsible and sometimes grow up a bit too fast," she says. "Which is beneficial for the city, but young kids need to dare to colour outside the lines first. Dreams are so quickly adjusted."

As for the European component, AEYC will bring about 10 European youth conferences to Antwerp this year, including Erasmian European Youth Parliament, which will find more than 150 youth from across Europe in Antwerp to discuss problems in their own cities and countries.

And thus we come to Verbist's own dreams. "I'd like Antwerp to remain a European Youth Capital, to see it become an acknowledged haven for forums on youth issues," she says. "If Europe wants to become a visible part in the life of its future citizens, they should invest way more in projects like the EYC. Europe shouldn't only focus on the elite of Erasmus students, but open up as widely as possible."

Verbist worries less for the future of Antwerp. "I feel pretty optimistic about what this city will look like in 10 years' time. Just look at how many children of different nationalities get involved here in creating their ideal town. It's important that they have a great year."

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