The Mechelen Hundred

Portraits of a city's people, today

Nestled between Brussels and Antwerp, Mechelen has often been overshadowed by its larger neighbours. Yet teaming up with the City of Mechelen, our line-up of 100 of the city’s most prominent people, places and projects proves the extent of its potential. From artists and creatives to critical thinkers and fighters, these are the powerhouses driving Mechelen forward one step at a time.

Machteld Verbruggen

Machteld Verbruggen

President at Thomas More University College (1966)

 Can you describe what you do? Where you are based, the neighbourhood you live in, your daily routine, the people you work with, the scene you feel the closest to.

I am the general director at the Thomas More University College, a professional educational institution with almost 5000 students in Mechelen alone. We offer renowned programmes and research in management, tourism, design and (multi-)media, and as such we maintain close ties with the local industries. We are also engaged in the catholic activity in Mechelen, offering support and services for prominent historical and religious events like the Hanswijkcavalcade. I very much like to be part of all these different networks in Mechelen, offering a variety of impressions and challenging projects.

Since my birth, I’ve lived on the outskirts of town, in the rural village Leest. I stayed there for practical reasons, such as living close to my family network, but also emotional reasons. I know most people in the village, and I really feel this is where I belong. On the other hand, I felt a need to live somewhere with a bit more of ‘vibrant city vibe’. Living in Leest, I can have the best of both worlds: I can see the cathedral from my front window, and from my back windows all I see is fields and meadows.

How do you perceive Mechelen? In your view, what kind of city is it? Its people, its cultural landscape, its vibe? How does it compare to other, similarly-sized cities?

Mechelen is like a sleeping beauty that has woken up. It is first and foremost a very beautiful city with lots of impressive buildings and beautiful squares and parks. When walking around, you can constantly turn new corners and discover another little gem which was as of yet unknown to you. Alongside the changing appearance of the city, the vibe has also improved. A few decades ago, there was not really a strong identity amongst the city’s inhabitants. But now, young people are moving to Mechelen, bringing with them a diversity of new projects and ideas. Compared to a city like Leuven, which is totally dominated by the presence of its university, Mechelen offers a much greater variety of people and things to do.

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

It is nobody’s merit, but the very central location of Mechelen (both in Belgium as well as in Europe) is a very big asset. The city is very well connected by highways and railroads, even Brussels airport is only a 10 minute train ride away.

In my opinion, the biggest charm of living here is the humanity and closeness of the city. Everything you need is nearby, you can cross the city centre by foot in less than half an hour. The typical problems which occur in every city do affect Mechelen too,  but our firm yet inclusive city policy keeps them under control. Mechelen offers a vibrant city life, whilst limiting the repercussions that sometimes come with it. The recent influx of several young entrepreneurs has resulted in Mechelen having a much younger vibe in an historical setting, an interesting contrast which I like a lot.

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

Pretty early on, I decided to pursue a career in academic management, and becoming vice chancellor of a college in my own city was like a dream come true. Thomas More is an ‘engaged university’, we definitely try to play a role in the development of the city. In particular, we are going to (re)build part of our campus in Mechelen. Sp far, we have worked closely with the city in this project, in an attempt to contribute to making Mechelen even more beautiful and interesting.

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

I took care of my elderly father until he died last year, and by doing so I learned that care provisions are in place, but not always as easy to access. Even for an educated person like myself, it was not always clear what to do and where to go to get support. Especially when you decide to take care of a family member at home, this proved to be a challenge.

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

I’m afraid my answer won’t be very original: our cathedral is the true symbol of Mechelen. No other city of this size has a cathedral like we do, and it is the first thing you see when you arrive here. I remember one time returning from a trip to New York, sitting on our market square with a coffee and looking at the cathedral, and thinking to myself: “They have nothing like this in America…”