If you’re among the increasing number of people who are visiting the Slovenian capital Ljubljana these days, the loudest traffic you’ll likely hear in the heart of its old town center will be the clanging of a bicycle that’s traveling across the cobblestone of the central Preseren Square.
Or the laughter of school children as they’re guided by their teachers across the city’s landmark Art Nouveau Triple Bridge that spans the narrow Ljubljanica River that divides the old town center.
Or the chants of demonstrators voicing their grievances under the watchful eye of Slovenia’s national poet, the Romantic France Preseren whose name the square bears.
It’s difficult to visualize that just eight years ago the cobblestone streets of this part of Ljubljana’s city center were awash with cars and buses.
Indeed, fast forward less than a decade and much of the city’s main central zone is largely car-free, save for the occasional city service vehicle, early morning delivery trucks or a “Kavalir”, the aptly-named electric-powered golf cart-sized vehicles that shuttle visitors to the small shops, cafes and boutique hotels that now dot the old town center and line the river’s banks.
That new traffic regimen, which in just one busy corridor has already decreased black carbon emissions by 58%, is just one completed component of a plan that dates back to 2007 when the city formally reset its course towards sustainability.
It’s also one of the reasons why Ljubljana, a city of 280,000 that few have heard of and even fewer can pronounce properly, was selected by the European Commission as European Green Capital for 2016, the seventh to receive the honor since Stockholm was chosen as the inaugural award winner in 2010. (It’s Lyoo-BLEE-YAW-nah, by the way.)
“The award is of great importance to Ljubljana as it puts us on the European and global map of sustainable cities,” said Nika Pirnat from Visit Ljubljana, the city’s visitor’s bureau, emphasizing that the city is the first and only in central and southeastern Europe to claim the honor.
What is The European Green Capital?
So, what does it mean to become the European Green Capital, and why is this year Ljubljana’s turn?
The aim of the award, launched by an association of cities in 2006, is an effort by the Commission to acknowledge, highlight, and promote the best practices of cities that have firmly committed to not only improving their urban environments, but transforming them into sustainable areas that meet ambitious quality of life demands.
More than two-thirds of the 28-member European Union’s 508 million citizens live in cities and towns, underscoring the relevance of the Green Capital initiative and the inspiration and example its recipients can provide to other cities on the continent –and around the world.
In the past those examples came from larger more established cities like the Swedish capital, like Copenhagen (2014) or Ljubljana’s predecessor Bristol, the UK’s eighth most populous city. All were located in Western Europe until Ljubljana’s selection redirected the spotlight to what relatively smaller cities in central and eastern Europe can accomplish in a short time if the political will and an ambitious but actionable vision exist.
The focus of the European Green Capital honor from the beginning, said Karmenu Vella, the European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, was to encourage cities to focus on sustainable urban planning while also meeting the real needs of their communities.
“As urban areas expand, so too does the demand for housing, energy, water and transport,” Vella said, speaking at the ceremony in Brussels last month when Bristol officially passed the proverbial torch to Ljubljana. “Thinking about the environment often starts with thinking about what the citizens really want.”
But, Vella added, “These decisions only work if they are part of a wider commitment” that ensures that quality of life is not compromised.
“They need to be part of an effort to build more intelligent transport networks, and with better air quality and well-planned green spaces. And that’s precisely the all-around approach that so impressed the jury when Ljubljana applied.”
So Why Ljubljana?
A group of 12 experts assess candidate cities in a dozen key areas, ranging from how they’re acting to mitigate and adapt to climate change to their efforts to improve air quality and manage their water and waste. The development of sustainable transport networks, the creation of new green spaces and the revitalization of former brown spaces are also important considerations.
The jury noted Ljubljana’s rapid transformation in several of those areas; many are what most visitors –both returning and first-timers—notice when strolling through and around the city center. A closer look at three of those –mobility, the creation and use of green space and waste management—provides a good starting point from where to examine the path the city forged towards what Ljubljana’s Mayor Zoran Jankovic describes as “the greatest award a European city can earn”.
European cities feel the weight of cars much differently than their North American counterparts, because they weren’t designed with cars in mind. They’re too old. Their streets are narrower. The only sustainable solution is to remove cars from the equation. That’s precisely what Ljubljana did in 2007 when much of the old town center was closed, outside of early morning delivery hours, to all motorized traffic.
These aren’t pedestrian shopping areas comprised of a few city blocks that you’ll find in many cities; the car-free streets currently cover 100,000 square meters, or nearly 25 acres. As a result, the compact city center, once the domain of cars and buses, is today reserved for cyclists and pedestrians.
The most recent major change was the transformation of a portion of Slovenska Cesta, a main downtown artery, into a car-free zone. That idea took some getting used to, but caught on more quickly than even its fiercest critics imagined.
“One of my proudest moments as an architect and planner was seeing that the public here in Ljubljana has matured to the point where part of our main boulevard is now a traffic artery openly shared by pedestrians, bicyclists and buses, with no stop signs or traffic lights,” said Janez Koželj, an architect, university professor and deputy mayor, at a recent forum on contemporary design.
Meanwhile, the 63 ash trees planted along the car-free route are already attracting butterflies and bees.
Over the past decade, nine bridges, the majority of them for foot and bike traffic only, were constructed or renovated over the Ljubljanica River, one of the chief hallmarks of the city, that divides the city center. One immediate result was that once ignored riverside promenades came alive almost instantly, boosting businesses and commerce in neighborhoods that lied neglected and almost forgotten. A larger benefit was that these bridges, some planned more than one hundred years ago, make the city exponentially more walkable.
Largely flat, Ljubljana is an ideal city for bicycling. It boasts a network of 220km (136mi) of managed bike routes and has actively encouraged bicycling through Bicike(LJ), the city’s bike sharing system. Similar to those in use in numerous other European cities, it was inaugurated in May 2011 to immediate success; the number of users has grown to 70,000 –one quarter of the population—who have gone on more than 3.5 million rides, nearly half of those in 2015.
The service costs just €3 per year and is incorporated into Ljubljana’s Urbana city card which is also used for cash-free bus travel, local library services and more. Journeys under 60 minutes are free; the second hour is €1, the third €2, the fourth and each addition hour is €4. But with stations located 300 to 500 meters apart, you’ll never use a bike longer than an hour, making it one of the cheapest transportation systems on the planet. Visitors can register online with a credit card.
Those who commute daily have access to five park and ride facilities along the main roads into the city whose use is also growing steadily. A bus ticket is included in the parking fee.
All this combines towards the next goal, which is to evenly distribute mobility city-wide three ways by 2020: one-third by private vehicles, one-third public transport, and one-third by non-motorized means, mostly bicycles.
How a city handles its trash is a key component of its sustainability; here by any measure Ljubljana has forged an impressive example.
Last year, nearly two-thirds (65%) of its collected waste was separated, a ten-fold increase in the last ten years. It’s the highest figure of any European capital city, one that has already exceeded by 10% the EU’s recycling target for 2020. (As a point of comparison, the national recycling rate in the U.S. is about 34%, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.)
In many Ljubljana neighborhoods it’s collected door-to-door while in most city center districts it’s collected in underground collection units. For the latter, units for glass, paper and plastic packaging are available to all; bins for biological and residual waste are accessible by cards that record how bags each household disposes of, and is then charged accordingly.
In 2015 a new state of the art regional waste management center was completed just outside of Ljubljana that is handling recycling and trash for 700,000 people in 37 municipalities – one-third of the country’s population.
Ljubljana is also the first EU capital to pledge to adopt a Zero Waste strategy by 2025. (Here are English excerpts from a 2014 Zero Waste Europe round table held in Ljubljana.)
Green Space is vital, the lungs of a community. Ljubljana claims to have a whopping 542 square meters (650 square yards) of public green space per inhabitant. That’s thanks to large swaths of park lands, primarily the sprawling Tivoli, Roznik and Sisenski Hill Regional Park just west of the center. (An aside: how many cities of 280,000 do you know of that have a ski jump and a castle in its central park?) Some 46% of the city’s total area is covered by native forests – that’s 70% of the total green space, one-third of which is protected.
That per inhabitant figure was padded by the addition of 80 hectares (198 acres) between 2009 and 2015 when former brown areas were transformed into parks and other green spaces. This is where the city’s progress over the past decade is most visible outside of the city center.
Plans are already underway to expand the so-called “ecological zone” beyond the center to connect it to the Tivoli, Roznik and Sisenski Hill area to the west and to the forested Golovec Hill, another park network, located well to the east.
In a roundabout way, those two park networks are already connected by the circular Path of Remembrance and Comradeship, a 34-kilometer multi-use trail that follows the exact route of a barbed wire fence that was erected in 1942 by occupying Fascist forces that entirely cut Ljubljana off from the rest of the world.
Traversing urban and rural areas and stretching well beyond the center, The path is wildly popular, used daily by thousands of joggers and bicyclists. It’s the best tour one can take to see the “real” Ljubljana.
By OpenStreetMap contributors, path marked by user StefanB – OpenStreetMap, path manually marked using Kosmos, CC BY-SA 2.5
The Vision and Action Plan
Credit for much of the change goes to Jankovic, Ljubljana’s three-term mayor first elected in 2006. A former CEO of Mercator, a large retail chain in the Balkans, Jankovic laid out his Vision 2025 plan for reinvigorating the city and setting it on a sustainable path.
“When we began in 2006, we didn’t know anything about a European Green Capital, but we knew the importance of becoming green,” Jankovic said at a European Commission ceremony. “I already knew then that we were on the right track.”
His administrations have implemented more than 1,600 projects, some that were planned decades ago. In the case of some of the bridges, a century ago.
He’s been a controversial figure, too, mired in a series of scandals that range from nepotism to corruption, accusations that stalled and eventually ended his brief foray into national politics in 2011. They nonetheless haven’t managed to derail his mayoral ambitions and general popularity in Ljubljana, where he feels most at home, in a city whose face and image has changed dramatically for the better under his reign.
Ljubljana won a second European Mobility Week Award in 2013, was included among the Global Top 100 Sustainable Destinations in 2014, and won the World Travel and Tourism Council’s Tourism for Tomorrow Destination Award in 2015. Jankovic and his team are counting on the European Green Capital recognition to expand its tourism efforts even further and to open doors which have previously been closed. In effect, an opportunity to rebrand the city as a premiere global green destination.
Rebranding Locally and Globally
But a major component of that rebranding is to change attitudes locally, among a citizenry so close to the changes that many are taken for granted. That’s already happening, said Deputy Mayor Tjaša Ficko.
“People not only are starting to know that Ljubljana is the green capital, but pride in that fact is spreading,” Ficko said, also speaking at the handover ceremony in Brussels.
“That’s very important. People that are proud of their city being the green capital are also motivated to take small or bigger steps for a better Ljubljana and a greener Ljubljana. They are contributing to a better quality of life in our city and that is actually our ultimate goal.”
“Our mindset has changed,” she said. “Now we’re always thinking green. Associating everything we do with green – in culture, in sport, everything.”
For a city like Ljubljana, still quite “new” and largely unknown on the international scene, the title brings with it an opportunity to also create and further shape its identity on the global stage.
Slovenia itself is one of the planet’s newest countries, in existence since it broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991. Recognized internationally as an independent state the following year, it became an EU and NATO member in 2004, took on the Euro on New Year’s Day 2007 and later that year joined the EU’s Schengen border zone. What it hasn’t yet managed is to shape its own brand. Earning its way into the European Green Capital club just may be the ticket it’s been looking for.
By some indications it’s already working. Over the past decade, tourist arrivals have steadily increased 10-12% annually through 2014 when Ljubljana first topped one million overnight stays; according to preliminary figures 2015 witnessed an 18% bump to nearly 650,000 visitors (and 1.16 million overnight stays), Jankovic said, because of its selection the year before as the European Green Capital. That in turn helped Ljubljana and Slovenia pop up on influential “Top Places to Visit” lists.
“Tourists were already aware of the positive changes the city has made,” Pirnat said. “Ljubljana is known to be a boutique, romantic destination which offers many pleasurable experiences. Reducing car zones means cleaner air, new green areas around the city, new embankments by the river, more cultural events and a healthier lifestyle.”
Pirnat said that city officials are also well aware of the problems inherent with attracting too many people.
“We want tourism to grow, but not to unlimited numbers. We are aware that growth should not reach the line when locals would not feel comfortable in their own city – which is also a part of our sustainable orientation.”
Improving and sustaining its natural environment, Pirnat said, means preserving the “priceless competitive edge” Slovenia offers as a small boutique destination.
One recent strategy is to attract people to the capital and then sending them into the countryside.
Since Ljubljana’s recent tourist boom began, Pirnat said, “we started to promote the region of Central Slovenia which also has a lot to offer. There are some amazing small villages, not crowded by tourists, from ten to twenty kilometres from Ljubljana. By inviting tourists to visit also the [greater region], we succeeded in two key points: to keep tourist in Ljubljana longer and not to overcrowd the city.”
A boost in tourism is a major ancillary benefit of the Green Capital designation, but not because it was the primary goal, said Vella.
“The value of the award is in how it can serve as an inspiration, and create an entirely new mindset in how urban areas can and should be treated,” he said. “It helps with investments that make citizens use water and energy more efficiently, for example. You can energize a city and not only build civic pride but also new economic activity.”
In Ljubljana, he said, where tourism has continued to grow and thrive in the historical city center, “it’s created the kind of tourism that cities want and the kind that visitors look for.
“But we cannot forget that it’s most beneficial to the citizens themselves.”
I’ve been based in Ljubljana for most of the past 12 years and have closely watched its transformation unfold. It’s been far from perfect or seamless. The prioritization of some projects over others has given rise to valid criticisms, its initial focus primarily on the city’s central core among them.
That said, given the political and economic realities in this part of Europe, what Ljubljana has achieved in a relatively short period is worth noting, acknowledging, studying and replicating. The changes have gone well beyond the cosmetic and most importantly have helped instill the importance of sustainability in most segments of the community. The mindset, habits and lifestyle locally, as Deputy Mayor Ficko points out, have changed significantly.
- Ljubljana European Green Capital 2016 (Official site)
- Visit Ljubljana
- Zero Waste Europe
- European Green Capital Guide (from Visit Ljubljana)