One morning in 1997, Frank Beke, the mayor of Ghent,
woke up to find he’d been sent a bullet in the hookers in brussels post. For the next few weeks Beke wore a bulletproof jacket, while police stood guard outside his house and accompanied him everywhere he went. “I was very anxious for my family,” he says. “I was protected by police but my wife and my children weren’t.”
The culprit was eventually found and arrested – a man who owned a shoe shop in the Belgian city’s medieval centre. His motive? Beke’s plans to pedestrianise the area around his shop.
Sign up for the Cityscape: the best of Guardian Cities every week
“It was a rather radical plan to ban all cars from an area of about 35 hectares,” recalls Beke. “With every decision you take, there can be some opposition – but I never expected a bullet, of course.”
There were protests outside Ghent’s city hall: businesses were afraid they’d lose their customers, elderly residents were concerned about being cut off from their children. But Beke stood his ground, and although a few businesses that relied on car access had to move, today the city centre is thriving.
His successor, Daniël Termont, says that if he were now to reintroduce cars into the city centre, he’d be the one wearing a bulletproof jacket. In all, 72% of Ghentians are in favour of Termont’s new plans to expand the pedestrian zone by 15 hectares (a further 17% are neutral).
Bike parking Ghent train station
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Bike parking at Ghent train station. Photograph: Tamsin Rutter
That’s not to say the project – due to commence in April 2017 – is progressing without a hitch. As well as the car-free area, Ghent’s new mobility plan includes dividing the city into six sections, each of which can only be entered via a ring road, to reduce through-traffic. In 2015, 40% of journeys in Ghent were made by car, down from 48% in 2012. By 2030, Termont wants to see that drop to 27%.