The Leuven Hundreds

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.

Johan Van Reeth

Johan Van Reeth

Co-founder, BUUR and De Hoorn (1972)

Can you describe what you do?

I’m co-founder of BUUR, a company specialised in urban and landscape design, planning and mobility. I consider myself lucky to be able to collaborate with many talented, engaged and driven people, seeking to improve the quality of people’s living environment. My professional activities take me to many Flemish cities and Brussels. BUUR’s office is situated in De Hoorn, a former brewery in the Vaartkom area, Leuven’s old industrial zone. Together with some friends, we were granted the chance to re-convert this renowned heritage into a creative co-working and meeting place.

How do you perceive Leuven?

With slight exaggeration, you could consider Leuven to be a pocket-sized metropolis. Thanks to its University, its population is on average quite young, dynamic and highly educated, with a strong international profile. Leuven’s urban community is numbered at approximately 200,000 people: 100,000 registered inhabitants within its administrative boundary, 40,000 residing students and at least 60,000 in the neighbouring municipalities, but with their daily lives oriented to Leuven. This explains why Leuven has a denser urbanity and higher service level than its compact spatial structure would otherwise suggest.

For most of its inhabitants, this size is an important quality: it keeps the city on a human scale. Though this has its downside too – despite its strong demographic and economic basis, Leuven can sometimes feel like a big village, hesitant in cultivating a real urban atmosphere.

Right now, this process of spontaneous transition is accelerating, and the direction remains unclear. That’s why I feel Leuven is entering a fascinating era.

What would you say is Leuven’s main appeal as a city? What gives it its edge?

No more than two decades ago, Leuven was known to be quite a conservative city with a “bourgeois” attitude. Since the mid-90s, a progressive city council managed to use the growth of the University and its spin-off activities as a lever for an ambitious urban renewal.

The speed and the size of this renewal is – at least in a Flemish context – quite remarkable. One could criticise individual projects but, in general, the result is impressive. As a result, today’s Leuven has the appeal of a dynamic, future-oriented city with a high quality of life. Some people might consider this as an accomplished mission. Indeed, the hardware of Leuven underwent a major update. Yet in my opinion, the most interesting aspect – the cultural phase – of this renewal process has only just begun. Societal structures evolve slower than the physical form of a city. How will this new urban scheme transform urban life? What kind of community do we want to live in? What does citizenship in Leuven really mean? How can we organise this process of transformation and innovation? This tension between the faster physical and slower mental renewal of Leuven is an intriguing phenomenon. Right now, this process of spontaneous transition is accelerating, and the direction remains unclear. That’s why I feel Leuven is entering a fascinating era.

How has Leuven contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?

Since my BUUR co-founders have a strong affinity with Leuven as well, it was only logical to base our company in this city – but more than that, and on a personal level, Leuven was and still is playing a central role in my career. I first started working as an academic collaborator for Professor Marcel Smets, and helped him design and guide a railway area development plan. Fifteen years ago, I had the chance to lead the elaboration of Leuven’s structural plan, which later formed the basis for the city’s urban-planning. Later on, the master-plan for the development of the Vaartkom area was the first big mission for my own office. Thanks to all these projects in Leuven, I’ve managed to build a strong and experienced background: capable of understanding urban metabolism, testing planning concepts, sensing societal and political concerns, collaborating with stakeholders, and reflecting on the city’s future. Grateful for all the opportunities Leuven has provided me with, I always take any chance to give back to my city. That’s why I’m engaged in Leuven2030, a city-wide organisation aiming for a more sustainable city; Straten Vol Leuven, a citizen platform striving for less vehicles in the city; and my local street committee. I’ve also initiated Regionet Leuven, a pioneering project looking re-structure the region’s development towards a more sustainable use of land and mobility.

It’s too easy to simply consolidate our perks – we have a moral obligation to use our prosperity as a catalyst in becoming a sustainable and inclusive urban region, as well as an inspiration for other cities.

On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?

Leuven could do with more experimenting. Our city is quite decent when it comes to its appearance and organisation; yet a bit more innovation and boldness in terms of its culture, public space, events, services, or commerce wouldn’t be missed. It would be great to see the local municipality, institutions, organisations, companies, and civilians take more risks. The new youth-zone in the former bus depot, the temporary use of HAL 5 in Kessel-Lo, cafés like Bar Stan, shops like The Food Hub, the new inner-city circulation plan and the graffiti-artwork downtown all prove that original, interesting directions are possible.

If you had to take out-of-towners to one place that truly symbolises the city, what would it be?

Walk from Grote Markt via the short but pleasant shopping street Mechelsestraat and Vismarkt to the St. Geertrui Abbey, with its eclectic composition of ornaments, gathered from destroyed buildings after the war. Continue on to the Klein Begijnhof beguinage, cross the new Sluispark and discover our co-working and meeting place De Hoorn. Pop into the cultural hotspot OPEK, check out the Vaartkom area and continue northwards to the new Engels Plein. Take the public elevator to the roof and enter the Keizersberg Abbey Park – a hidden, green treasure with a great view over the city.

A local legend, neighbourhood anecdote or urban myth that, to you, encapsulates the spirit of the city?

There’s an interesting story behind the establishment of the University in Leuven: in the 14th century, the Duke of Brabant wanted to reward the City of Lier for their military support. Lier was offered a choice between two privileges: hosting a new university, or a sheep market. Lier opted for the sheep market – and the university was allocated to the “second choice” Leuven instead.

This legend contains a lesson for Leuven: hosting a university in our city is not a merit, but rather a mere historical coincidence. Benefiting from this generator of welfare, we often forget how lucky we are. It’s too easy to simply consolidate our perks – we have a moral obligation to use our prosperity as a catalyst in becoming a sustainable and inclusive urban region, as well as an inspiration for other cities.