If you are among the growing number of people who are currently looking to visit the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, the European Green Capital, you are most likely to find out that the strongest urban traffic noise in the old city center is due to bells of bikes. These are the main vehicles in the cobblestone streets around the central Peshen Square. It is hard to imagine that only eight years ago these streets were filled with cars and city buses.
In less than a decade, most of the city’s central area is free of cars, with the exception of early delivery trucks or electric vehicles for tourists who are the size of golf carts and transporting shoppers to small shops, cafes and boutique hotels across the old center and the banks of the river.
The new trafficking regime, which has already achieved a 58% reduction in harmful carbon emissions, is just one of the completed components of the city’s 2007 Sustainable Development Plan. This is one of the reasons Ljubljana, a city with 280,000 inhabitants, elected by the European Commission as the European Green Capital 2016 – the seventh consecutive city to be honored after Stockholm received the first such title in 2010.
“The prize is of paramount importance for Ljubljana, as it puts us on the European and world map of sustainable cities,” says Nica Pirat of Visit Ljubljana (City Tourism Bureau) stressing that the city is the first and only one in Central and Southeastern Europe to receive this honor.
What is the European Green Capital?
What does it mean for a city to be awarded the European Green Capital title and why is Ljubljana this year? The prize, initiated by a city association in 2006, is an effort on the part of the Commission to recognize, mark and promote the best practices of cities that are firmly committed not only to improving their urban conditions, transform into sustainable areas that meet the ambitious demands for a better quality of life.
More than two-thirds of the 508 million citizens of the 28 EU Member States live in cities, which underlines the importance of the Green Capital initiative. The recipients of this title can be a source of inspiration and an example of other cities on the continent and the world. In the past, these examples came from bigger and more established cities like Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Bristol. All of the ancestors are located in Western Europe, while Ljubljana does not redirect the spotlight to what relatively smaller cities in Central and Eastern Europe can do in a short period of time if there are a political will and an ambitious yet feasible vision.
The European Green Capital title aims to encourage cities to focus on sustainable urban planning that meets the real needs of local communities.
“As urban areas expand, demand for housing, the need for energy, water and transport is growing,” said Karamanu Vela, at the ceremony in Brussels last month when Bristol officially surrendered Ljubljana’s title. “Environmental thinking often begins with thoughts about what citizens really want.”
But Vela added, “These solutions work only if they are part of a wider commitment that ensures that the quality of life is not compromised. They must be part of the efforts to build smarter transport networks, to ensure better air quality and green areas to be well planned. That’s exactly Ljubljana’s holistic approach that impressed the jury. ”
A panel of 12 experts assesses candidate cities in a dozen key areas, ranging from how they act to mitigate and adapt to climate change, how they make efforts to improve air quality and how they manage water and waste. The development of sustainable transport networks, the creation of new green areas and the revitalization of abandoned areas are also important aspects of evaluation. The jury noted the Ljubljana speed transformation in several of these areas.
A closer look at three of these areas – mobility, the construction and use of green spaces, waste management – provide a good starting point from which we can explore the path Ljubljana has made to the title.
European cities feel the weight of cars very differently to American cars because many of them have not been designed for cars. European cities are older, with narrow streets. The only sustainable solution is to eliminate cars from the equation. That’s exactly what Ljubljana did in 2007 when it shut down most of the old center (except early morning supplies) for motorized traffic. This is not about pedestrian shopping areas of several blocks that you can find in many other cities; Ljubljana has closed cars for nearly 100,000 square meters. As a result, the compact city center, from a territory of cars and buses, has become one for pedestrians and cyclists.
The newest major change is the conversion of part of Slovenska Cesta, the main road to the city center, in a car-free area. This idea took some time to become accustomed, but citizens got used to it faster than even the fiercest critics of change had imagined.
“One of my most proud moments as an architect and designer was when I saw that the community here in Ljubljana is ripe for the moment when part of our main boulevard and road artery is already shared by pedestrians, cyclists and buses without stop signs or traffic lights, “says Janez Kozel, architect, lecturer, and deputy mayor, while the 63 newly planted trees around the road now attract bees and butterflies.
Over the last decade, 9 bridges over the river in Ljubljana have been constructed or renovated.
One of the emblems of the capital, most of which are for pedestrians and bicycles. One immediate result was that the derelict and abandoned riparian alleys “came to life” instantly, increasing business and commerce in neighborhoods that were almost forgotten. Another great benefit of the new bridges, some planned over a hundred years ago, is that the city has become much more pedestrian.
Mostly situated on a plain, Ljubljana is the perfect city for cycling. It has a network of 220 km of maintained bicycle routes that are actively supported by the Bicike (LJ) – the city’s wheel-sharing system. The number of network users has grown to 70,000 people – a quarter of the city’s population.
The cost of the service is only € 3 per year and is included in the city map of Ljubljana, which is used for free transportation, libraries and more. Travels less than 60 minutes are free, the second hour is € 1, the third € 2, the fourth and every next hour is € 4. Since the stations are located between 300 and 500 meters apart, you will not have to use a wheel for more than an hour, and this makes the Ljubljana transport system one of the cheapest in the world.
Visitors to the city can register online with a credit card. Those who travel daily have access to five buffer car parks on the city’s main thoroughfares, where they can change the car by bike or city bus and the ticket is included in the parking fee. All this leads to the next goal, which is to evenly distribute citywide mobility in three ways by 2020: one-third of private vehicles, one-third of public transport and one-third of non-motorized vehicles, mostly bicycles.
How a city handles its waste is a key component of its sustainable development; here Ljubljana can serve as an impressive example. Last year, nearly two-thirds (65%) of the collected waste was split, a ten-fold increase over the past ten years. This is the highest rate for a European capital city that has even exceeded EU recycling targets by ten percent by 2020 (for example, the degree of recycling of waste in the US is about 34% according to its Environmental Protection Agency.)
In many Ljubljana districts, waste is collected from door to door, and in the central part mainly in underground collection points. There are glass, paper and plastic packages that are accessible to everyone. Biological waste containers are available through maps that collect data on the amount of waste per household, and on this basis also the waste charges.
Ljubljana is the first European capital city to adopt the Zero Waste Strategy by 2025.
Green areas are vital – they are the lungs of the community. Ljubljana has an enormous 542 square feet of public green spaces of a citizen. This abundance is mainly due to the Tivoli, Roznik and Siesian Regional Park parks extending to the west of the city center.
About 46% of the total area of the city is covered with natural forests, which account for 70% of all green spaces. Separately, between 2009 and 2015, a number of deserted areas were utilized and transformed into parks. There the progress of Ljubljana is most visible outside the city center.
Vision and action plan
Jankovic, the three-year Mayor of Ljubljana, first elected in 2006, is well worth mentioning. Jankovic, the former Mercator CEO, a large retail chain in the Balkans, is the author of the vision for 2025 – a plan to revive the city and identify the direction of sustainable development.
“When we started in 2006, we did not know anything about the European Green Capital, but we knew it was important to be green,” Jankovic said at a ceremony in the European Commission. “I was sure then that we were on the right track. ” Its administrations have completed over 1,600 projects, some of which were planned several decades ago or centuries as bridges.
Ljubljana won the second European Mobility Week 2013 award, was included in the global top 100 for sustainable destinations in 2014 and won the World Travel and Tourism Council’s Tourism for Tomorrow Destination Award in 2015.
Jankovic and his team rely on the recognition of the European Green Capital to expand their efforts to develop tourism and open doors that were previously closed. As the ultimate effect of the title, they picture the opportunity to rebrand the city as an important green global destination.
Local and global rebranding
A major component of this rebranding is the change in attitudes at the local level among citizens who are so close to change and often take for granted. This is already happening, Deputy Mayor Tisa Ficco said. “People not only begin to understand that Ljubljana is a green capital, but the pride of this fact is spreading,” Fitzko said at a ceremony in Brussels. “People who are proud of their city are motivated to take steps for a better Ljubljana and greener Ljubljana, contributing to a better quality of life in our city and that is actually our ultimate goal. ”
“Our way of thinking has changed,” Fitzko said. “We always think green, we associate everything we do green with culture, sport, everything.”
For a city like Ljubljana, which is still quite “new” and largely unknown on the international stage, the title brings with it an opportunity to shape the identity of the world podium. According to some indications, this is already happening. Over the last decade, the influx of tourists has increased by about 10-12% each year. In 2015, Ljubljana has grown by 18% of tourists because of its selection as a European Green Capital, which helps the city to enter influential tourist destinations. Reducing car areas means cleaner air, new green areas around the city, absorbing space around the river, more cultural events and a healthier lifestyle.
The value of the prize is that it serves as inspiration and creates a new way of thinking about what the attitude to urban spaces should be. It helps with investments that allow citizens to use their water and energy more efficiently, for example. This can stimulate a city, not only in building civic self-confidence but also through new economic activities.
Given the political and economic realities in this part of Europe, what Ljubljana has achieved in a relatively short period of time has to be noted, acknowledged, taught and multiplied. Changes have gone far beyond cosmetics and, most importantly, have helped to imply the importance of sustainable development in most segments of society.