Janneke de Vries: "I want to flood Tilburg with the Vitamin G feeling"

Tilburg is a city on the move. A place where the raw edges enclose a social heart, and where we are rapidly becoming greener. An open home for makers, cultural innovators and sensual niches. In short, Tilburg is a city with character. And one with characters. Distinctive city dwellers who have that typical Tilburg DNA in them and carry it out. For the interview series City of Characters we talk to six undisputed Tilburg pioneers. Pioneers, frontrunners and tastemakers from the very beginning who give Tilburg its color.
Photography: Roos Pierson 


The color Janneke de Vries gives to the city is easy to guess: green. She calls herself a connector when it comes to Big And Important Themes like climate adaptation, future-proofing and resident participation. A role she fulfills as director of the foundation Op Groene Voet and owner of Buro DuPro, a project agency for all kinds of sustainable projects. Everything she does is about initiating and supporting accessible projects that contribute to a colorful and climate-friendly city and world. Because according to Janneke, if you want to improve the world, you start close to home. Time for a nice conversation with this advocate of green.

Taking steps together is half the battle

About ten years ago, Janneke walked through the city with her newborn daughter and saw how drab Tilburg actually was. "That industry didn't appeal to me at all. I understand that this is well explained from Tilburg's history, but I like green, cozy and picturesque." She had also seen that picturesque in France, where she just happened to be on vacation and had become acquainted with the tourist concept Villes et Villages Fleuris. This competition was created in 1959 to promote the development of greenery in French towns and villages. Janneke: "The beauty of it is: residents are encouraged to do it themselves. To start their own flower boxes and vegetable gardens and green spaces. This bottom-up thinking - which I think is a terrible term, by the way - was an eye-opener for me."

One thing led to another, as it often does, and in 2015 she developed the election 't Schonste Strótje van Tilburg. More than 80 streets participated and were greened by residents themselves." The rest, in good Dutch, is history. With campaigns such as #1000BlauweTuinen (to make Tilburg's gardens water-friendly), De Gave Geveltu gardens (gardens at houses without a front garden), De Tofste Tuintjes van Tilburg election and Wormhotels013 (composting worm habitats at a number of schools in Tilburg) Janneke has shown since 2015 that you really can achieve more together to make things greener. 

Long live the vitamin G feeling

"Initially I was seen as a bit of a goatee," she says, laughing, "but that's not me at all! I just saw and see the need for a climate-friendly world and firmly believe that we can achieve this in a fun, social and positive way. Especially as 'ordinary' city dwellers among each other. In that respect, Tilburg is a perfect breeding ground: here we call each other and ask 'can you join us? Thanks to this 'don't bullshit but clean' mentality, we have already achieved a great deal with Op Groene Voet." Jannekes mission is founded on passion. And solid scientific research. "People become happier and healthier thanks to green. They call it Vitamin G. The University of Wageningen has now shown that this really exists. It has even been proven that children in a green schoolyard are more social, curious and happy."

"The trick is for all of us to take small steps,
because together they form very large steps."

Her main weapon for flooding the world with vitamin G, by the way, is not the raised finger. Janneke: "You won't achieve anything with that. To bring about a real change in behavior, you have to stimulate people in a positive and practical way. That's why I'm a great advocate of participation projects in which everyone can take a small step." Helping people to install a rain barrel in their garden or to create a facade garden is such a first step, she says. By making accessible contact, you get people excited about maybe doing more to green up besides a rain barrel. "I'm not one of the big, slick campaigns. The best advertising is to activate people with something small. That's how I plant real and non-real seeds in the hope that doing green will spread further."

Nature is also culture

An important part of Tilburg's urban identity is its maker culture. And as far as Janneke is concerned, nature making is part of that. "Nature is also culture! All square meters of nature in the Netherlands are cultivated. Who doesn't go out in nature, works in the garden or pays attention to where our food comes from? I would love it if local politics would pay as much attention to nature as to culture." But, says Janneke, that doesn't start with the policy makers either: "If it were up to me, nature education would get a central place in all primary and secondary schools. And then based on the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. Young people are genuinely concerned about the future. But they still see it as something far removed from their everyday lives. Time to change that, which Op Groene Voet is already doing with, for example, the worm hotels at schools where pupils and local residents can dispose of their vegetable, fruit and food waste."

Janneke sees countless opportunities for green thinking and doing to become even more firmly rooted in society: "The hospitality industry can put even more local products on the menu. We can store without packaging and eat more consciously. And in the (re)design of public spaces and tenders from project developers, even more account can be taken of green. You know, being sustainable is really so much more than just eating organic or vegetarian. It encompasses all aspects of life. For a long time we as green leaders had to fight against the scales. It is still a struggle. But when I walk through Tilburg now and see all the facade gardens, then I am really proud of what we have already achieved here."


Future-proofing is the future

"We talk about 'green' and 'nature' all the time, but really it all comes down to future-proofing." And that adds up, Janneke believes. Of neighborhood and facade gardens, monumental trees, parks, worm hotels, rain barrels, vegetable gardens, local food. Of conscious choices, gardening together and inspiring each other. "And all of this can only work, really work, if everyone can choose their own beginnings. After all, the arsenal of measures to make more conscious choices is giant, but you can't do everything. That's unfeasible."

To make the simplicity of future-proof choices really visible, Janneke already has a plan for Tilburg: "We could use some green marketing here! For example, I recently discovered that there is coffee for sale from fair trade coffee farmers in Matagalpa, a city in Nicaragua with which we have a twinning agreement. Very nice and very logical, we drink coffee anyway. Yet it is not widely publicized. While something like this would be a perfect news item for a - let's just say - monthly newspaper with all the green ideas and initiatives of the city. The more people who discover what is going on, the more they will want to participate."

"Brightening up my own city is my big, recalcitrant goal."

What the world will look like in ten years? "Brightening up my own town is my big, recalcitrant goal. So in ten years, Tilburg will be a bright and green city in a hopefully just as bright world. And greening is more than just a bunch of flowers on the table. The trick is to take small steps together. Because together they form very large steps." For everyone who wants to take action today, Janneke has a tip: "Take a walk through the Blue Railway Garden, next to RAW in the Tilburg Spoorzone. Here you can see, among other things, what solutions there are for collecting rainwater and using it in your garden. A small start to making the world climate proof!"