“Not to be afraid to take risks in Life”

Hanne is from Belgium. While working at an architectural office in Sao Paulo, she faced the harsh challenges of spatial inequality, inadequate infrastructure and rapid urbanization. Through these challenges, Hanne decided to focus on improving settlements and urban processes from a human perspective. This life goal was further shaped by a Master in Urban Ecological Planning at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), with research projects on housing projects for low-income saving groups and colonial architecture in Uganda. Hanne Vrebos' mentor is Helen Alderson.

Q: Tell us a few things about your country, and also your life's story! 

A: I come from Belgium, a small but complex country, where people speak Dutch, French and/or German. Its capital, Brussels serves not only as the capital of the country but also as the capital of the European Union. Besides it being a political centre, it is also home to some amazing art, music and cuisine. Growing up in a small village in Belgium, I was always looking forward to going and discover the world.

When I turned 18, I moved to Brussels for my studies in architectural engineering. A new love for the city was born.  After my graduation, my discovery of the world continued, as I went to Sao Paulo to work in an architectural office. Here I was struck by the socio-spatial inequality I witnessed every day. Better-off residents would live in houses or apartments with high walls around them, appropriating the space to a maximum and limiting access for others. The underprivileged population would take the left-over space – under a bridge, in residential areas far away from economic opportunities or in precarious informal settlements. Even affordable housing residences would get a high wall around the plot. It was this experience that brought me to reconsider my career path, and I embarked on a more focused journey to improve living conditions in cities for the most vulnerable. I started with a master in Urban Ecological Planning in Trondheim which focuses on improved urban governance and urban planning through participatory processes. Since this master, I have done research projects in Uganda on low-cost housing for low-income saving groups and on participatory processes in the refugee camps in France. I also did an internship with the participatory slum upgrading programme of UN-Habitat in Nairobi. Today I am an urban resilience officer for Concern Worldwide within the EU Aid Volunteer programme. I work on disaster risk reduction and waste management in precarious settlements in Port-au-Prince.

Q: What is your view of the world as it is today? and how do you define the concept of a better world? 

A: The world today is rapidly changing in many different ways, be it political, humanitarian, economic, social or environmental. We are at a critical point in time, where we as a society have to find new and innovative ways to reshape our world. The decisions and solutions we bring to the challenges we are faced with now will impact the world’s future generations. To make a positive change, we have to rethink our objectives of what constitutes a better world.

Q: What are some of the key challenges in your society? 

A: One of the issues in today’s society is technology and social media. It is a powerful tool to stay connected with networks all over the world, but it also holds a dangerous potential of making interaction more shallow and taking attention away from deeper connection. Urbanizations is another complex challenge in the world today.

It is undeniable and brings many advantages such as economic development and improved service levels and mobility, towns and cities around the world are hotspots for art, culture and technological development. At the same time, many urban centres struggle with the provision of public transport, affordable housing for young families, clean air and public space to meet with friends or do sports. Cities worldwide struggle with increasing pressure to provide public services such as health, education, sanitation and waste management. At the same time, cities hold resilience in them, with grassroots innovation bringing alternative solutions to these challenges. I believe in this power of people and their informal answers to enforce formal systems.

Q: As a young individual what are a few of the hurdles that you had to overcome up until today? 

A: A hurdle I had to overcome the last decade was choosing and starting a meaningful career and finding my place in this world as a young woman. When choosing a study at 18, I did not know myself well enough yet to know what I wanted to do with my life. It was taking me time, hard work and many mistakes to find my passion and to turn it into a meaningful career. It is often only in the aftermath that the dots were connected and started to make sense to me.

Q: Why is the role of a mentor important for you? 

A: As a knowledge manager, the mentor is somebody who reaches to the right tools, who inspires and shares lessons and experiences she went through herself to empower her mentee. The role of the mentor is to foster learning on topics that are normally not taught.

Q: Do you have a lesson that life has taught you and you would like to share? 

A: Empathy and good communication are key in every relationship.

Q: Name a project, a foundation or a person in your country that you think is doing great work in helping improve other people's lives! 

A: Rudy Vranckx is a Belgian war journalist and documentary maker that brings nuanced and empathic coverage of conflict that digs deep into their background, helps create understanding and looks for solutions. I like how he makes people think further and promotes peace and tolerance.

Q: Share with us a phrase, a poem or a story that you love or you find interesting! 

A: I like this quote from the movie “Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain” about not being afraid to take risks in life.

Voilà, ma petite Amélie, vous n'avez pas des os en verre. Vous pouvez vous cogner à la vie. Si vous laissez passer cette chance, alors avec le temps, c'est votre cœur qui va devenir aussi sec et cassant que mon squelette. Alors, allez y, nom d'un chien!

Q: Tell us one thing that you have learned from your mentor. 

A: If there is one thing I’ve learned from my mentor, Mrs. Helen Alderson, is to choose my battles wisely not to lose energy in small battles but save it for the significant ones. She showed me not to put too much pressure on myself to do everything at once, but to make strategic choices and set priorities.