by Massimiliano Sfregola and Francesca Polo
The impressive figure of Franc Weerwind, two meters high, would not pass unnoticed in the streets. If we add his institutional tone of speaking, imposed for sure by the role he covers and the thoughtful words he uses to describe Almere, the city that he runs from the last October, it seems strange to imagine these elements together with formal way oftalking and willingly explaining.
This clearly shows the cultural background of his nationality: the story of his family, doesn’t begin in the Flevoland, butdar away, in Paramaribo, in Surinam. A country that the Weerwind left more than half century ago to go in Amsterdam, where the burgemeester of Almere, was born in 1964. After he studied public administration in Leiden he became a mayor in the small city of Velsen, and laterbecame chair of of Almere, the seventh most populated municipality of the Netherlands. The first time ever for a mayor of Surinamese origins on a such high bench.
Almere is often perceived as a satellite town of Amsterdam, a new town of the capital, considered above all as an economic and nearby alternative for the many who are cut out by the exorbitant costs of the capital. Is it mainly a “service city” or has is developed its own identity?
It is certainly a good alternative to the capital, but it’s not only that. It’s a centre with an exceptional life quality, natureand an excellent position nearby Schiphol airport. The new inhabitants have the possibility to choose houses “off the grid”, almost customized, where they can adopt the last innovation in terms of energetic saving and eco-friendly development. Talking about diversity, we are a multi-ethnic city: there are185 nationalities, and half of them are not commutes but work in Almere.
People often choose to live in certain cities for working opportunities and cultural offers. But in case of Almere, a centre with only a few years of history, which could be the attractive one?
65% of the world population lives in urban environment, and will shortly become 80%. However, the traditional cities don’t always have suitable answers to key problems accessibility to food, disposal of waste and public health. We are trying to focus on these elements. Several times a year we organize an agricultural fair and we are also working on the Floriade that will be hosted in 2020. Then we will demonstrate our approach that we aim to become a city with zero waste, where the waste material is fully recycled. In order to do so we are working in synergy with the university to build an environment where insects, trees and vegetation interact in the urban ecosystem to guarantee lighting and irrigation.
The projects seems very innovative, but what is the situation on a social level? Would cohesiveness be possible if the people of Almere had not a common past?
If we want this to be an advantage we should have more space to reflect and experiment without prejudices. On a cultural level the process was special because lots of the issues of the big centre are missing. About the politics, the PVV here around is the first party. Does it somehow influence the atmosphere of the city? Absolutely not. There is a conservative part of the society that in the ’70 moved from Amsterdam to here, but I seriously don’t see it as a problem.
So, even if Almere is one of the two Dutch cities, together with Den Haag, with a strong presence of the Wilders party and delegates elected in the council, this is not representing an element of social friction?
No, I don’t have any kind of problem with them. If you have a close look, the PVV is present in every city of the Netherlands with the only difference that he has not a delegation in the council town: the one of Almere is formed by 11 parties and I work with everybody maintaining and open dialog.
You are the second mayor proponent of an ethnic minority elected in the Dutch council town of a big city. Your work is more complicated than Amhed Aboutaleb’s, who is the first citizen in a centre like Rotterdam, a city with a long multi-ethnic tradition. How was your election welcomed in Almere? It is, according to you, a factor of cohesion or division?
My responsibility as first citizen is to guarantee cohesion. I was born in Amsterdam and I studied in Harlemmermeer, a school where I was the only coloured student at the time. Today things are very different, the Dutch society is radically changing. It’s enough to go in any Almere shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon to realize: you see people from any different ethnical origin who speaks tens of different languages. By the way, I was chosen by 11 parties and all of them wanted me as mayor. I have the responsibility to contribute to the construction of this new society.
However the aggression racially motivated, thought, are not a memory of the past. Just few weeks ago, in Zwolle, a young man was called “negro”, then he was assaulted and beaten in the street. We could just define this as the gesture of “idiots” but maybe, on the background, there is something more worrisome. What do you think about it?
Often some people have little respect of the others, they use easily clichés and they’re led by fear. I’m thinking of an example of Europe. Look at the reaction when 10 billion euros allocated for Greece and the clamour of the media. We cannot isolate ourselves if we want a strong Europe. When there are problems, many people search for easy ways out, remarking upon the differences of the minorities. It has always been like that; for example in Indonesia, but even for the UK and France, with their ex-colonies. I noticed the colour of the skin and the sexual orientation have become less important for the new generation. They practice sport together, they grow up together and don’t worry about the differences. For them, talent is the most important thing. For older generations it’s harder,especially for the poorly educated. If we focus on important issues for everybody, such as the construction of new houses and the eco-sustainability we’ll make real progress.
The community of Surinameis very proud of its identity which surely is a positive factor, as it helps keeping traditions alive. On the other hand, it could represent an element of division.
Certainly no. The Surinamese community represents 11,4% of the population and it’s the biggest minority of the city. We talk about proud people who don’t fear sharing their cultural and culinary traditions. They are also well integrated, the situation is far from how it was in the 70s when it was associated with drug dealing and prostitution. Today, Surinamshave a good position in the society and cover important roles.
The national press called you the “Dutch Obama”. Do you recognize yourself in this definition?
Obama is great leader and it’s an honour to be compared to him, but I’m Franc Weerwind and my job is here, in Almere.