The rise and rise of Europe's greenest capital
Ljubljana's free electric taxi, the Kavalir, taking to the streets
IMAGE: LJUBLJANA TOURISM / D. Wedam
You only need to look back about 10 years to find a city which is almost unrecognisable to the green Ljubljana of today. Back then, you had cars packing out the city centre, high pollution levels, long waits for public transport on overcrowded streets were the order of the day. Even going from one side of the river to the other was considered a laborious task. Ljubljana was simply not that much of an environmentally friendly city.
It was Ljubljana's Mayor, Zoran Janković, who was instrumental in turning things around. One of the first things he did when he came to office was to ban cars in the centre of the city in 2007. Today they call that region the "ecological zone" and it has grown in size to cover more than 100,000m2 of the city. Visit Ljubljana today and you'd be hard pressed to find anything in the city centre except for pedestrians, cyclists and Kavalirs (free electric taxis mainly intended for the transportation of the elderly, mobility-impaired and other eligible residents, but is also free to use by tourists and citizens of Ljubljana).
In 2007, he introduced the sustainability strategy "Vision Ljubljana 2025," which aimed to turn the city into a beacon of sustainability, whilst maintaining a cosmopolitan character and a contemporary style which other cities would seek to emulate by the year 2025.
The vision itself was the creation of Deputy Mayor Prof. Janez Koželj and numerous other stakeholders. Their vision of Ljubljana was one of a green city without all the car parks and without the endless stream of concrete developments which one typically finds in many other European capital cities. A city that nurtures its history, and places high importance on quality of life, and values safety and tolerance over quick profit and over-development. A city that seamlessly entwines urban development with rural preservation, and respects its intrinsic connection to the surrounding ecosystem and the environment. Former brownfield sites along the Sava River have now been beautifully transformed into footpaths, cycle routes, horse-riding trails and cafés, showcasing the Ljubljana of today. Nine years and over 1,700 projects later, the fruits of Vision Ljubljana 2025 has dramatically transformed the entire landscape of the city.
Take a look at this video from the City Municipality of Ljubljana, complete with before and after images of Ljubljana, to get an appreciation of exactly how far these changes have brought the city:
Today, Ljubljana has around 542m2 of public green areas per resident. Over 2,000 trees have been planted in the last decade alone. They didn't decide to stop there, either. A new tree planting initiative launched last year will see over 12,089 members of Ljubljana's "greater city family" (comprising of city administration figures, public servants and members of the institutional and corporate sectors) each planting their very own tree. The initiative is due for completion later this year. More than 46% of the city is covered by forests, which when you add that up together with all the parks and wildlife spaces, means that almost 75% is already covered by green areas and growing. Now how's that for a green capital?
Cycling has also been strong on the agenda. In 2015, as part of the "Copenhagenize Index 2015" evaluation of 122 cities, Ljubljana was ranked as 13th in the list of 20 Most Bike-Friendly Cities on the Planet. A bicycle sharing scheme has been in place since 2011 and has proved to be highly popular amongst the residents and has been able to bring a significant reduction in traffic to the centre. The aptly titled "Sustainable Mobility Plan" sees residents now use the "Urbana" smart card which also enables them to pay for transport, parking, whilst doubling up as a library card.
Ljubljana became the very first European capital to be part of the Zero Waste Europe network and has pledged to adopt a Zero Waste Strategy by 2025. But unlike many other areas of sustainability such as electric taxis and the development of green areas, an effective waste strategy cannot only rely upon central action, but rather the individual efforts of the city's citizens. For it is the people of the city who must choose to become more conscious of the waste they produce and accept responsibility for recycling. This concept certainly wasn't lost on Ljubljana, who brought together companies, stakeholders, NGOs and Snaga in order to release the "Get Used to Reuse" initiative which aimed to get consumers thinking about their use and reuse of everyday items and put forward the (absolutely correct) notion that new is not necessarily any better than old or pre-used.
They even made a great video about it (and we just love that soundtrack):
The results are clear for all to see. No other capital in Europe collects as much separated waste as Ljubljana (65% as of 2015) and the city has already exceeded the EU's 2020 recycling target, make it not only Europe's greenest city, but also its cleanest.
Black carbon (BC) emission levels in the centre of Ljubljana have dropped by 70%. That's been partly assisted by the complete transformation of the main city arterial road, which now has a dedicated space for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport vehicles. You can no longer find private vehicles on the main arterial road, and instead the refurbished city walkways of today are lined with newly planted ash trees and are attracting the butterflies and the bees instead of the carbon. With five P+R system car parks available at the beginning of the city's arterial road, visitors and commuters no longer have to spend so much time driving around in search of parking spaces. Together with other measures such as the 'Urbana' card, modernisation of the public transport system, the Bicike(LJ) system to name but a few, they all encourage Ljubljana's citizens to avoid using private vehicles and therefore contribute to lower overall pollution levels.
But there's a lot more to sustainability than simply keeping CO2 emissions in check. All too often we overlook the fact that the very ecosystem we are trying to protect also needs a helping hand. As some of you may already know, Sustain Europe has been highlighting the decline of bees in Europe and the potential impact this will have on the ecosystem as a real cause for alarm. Not so in Ljubljana. Around 300 bee-keepers maintain more than 4500 beehives, home to as many as 180 million bees. Proof that you don't have to live in the countryside to care about bees.
To find out more about the life and heritage of bees in Ljubljana, please visit:
It's not only the dramatic visible changes that have made Ljubljana such a great green city today. The seemingly little things such as looking after the bees and frogs and other initiatives in the city is what has really helped Ljubljana to cement its rightful place as Europe's beacon of sustainability. It is not only the European Commission who have recognised this fact, either. In 2015, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) recognised Ljubljana's commitment to the environment by presenting them the Tourism for Tomorrow Award as the top sustainable destination.
There is no doubt that a great many changes have been made in Ljubljana. Environmentally speaking, and in the short space of time we are referring to, perhaps more so than any city in the world. But what you find in Ljubljana isn't just sustainability on the surface, but a much deeper and profound appreciation for the environment which runs deep within the psyche of the city's inhabitants themselves. If we were to single out one specific change that Ljubljana has managed to get down to a tee, then changing the attitude of its citizens would rise head and shoulders above all the others.
These were sentiments mirrored by Ljubljana Deputy Mayor Tjaša Ficko at a European Commission ceremony, who said: “People not only are starting to know that Ljubljana is the green capital, but pride in that fact is spreading."
“That’s very important. People that are proud of their city being the green capital are also motivated to take bigger steps, for a better, 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. Now we’re always thinking green. We’re associating everything we do with green – in culture, in sport, in everything.”
And that is what sustaining Europe is all about: Influencing hearts and minds. Do that and you've won half the battle.
So thank you, Ljubljana, for reminding us. And here's to your success as 2016's European Green Capital!
Ljubljana Green Capital's page dedicated to providing tips on what we can all do at the micro-level in order to facilitate a better green strategy. Aptly titled "GREEN YOURSELF" - it provides an opportunity to take a look at the things which we can all influence. Each and every one of us.
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