Ten years ago, the Estonian city of Tallin gave the initiative to the European Committee to give out annual awards to the city which made the most advancement within the fields of ecology and comfort of living. The objective was to promote blue rivers and green city jungles for the city dwellers to enjoy a more relaxed, happier and healthier lifestyle. This year, the flattering title has been bestowed on the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, which will be followed by the German city of Essen and then the Dutch city, Nijmegen. We paid a visit to each of them, in an attempt to discover the secret to their success.
After visiting the three green capitals of Europe, Ljubljana, Essen and Nijmegen, we realized that the introduction of new parks, new bridges or city center traffic restrictions are only a drop in the ocean. A city with an ambition to become a green capital must also envision the future and demonstrate their interest in sustainable development, which is also made of many small, at first glance inconspicuous, trivialities.
Our journey through the 2016, 2017 and 2018 green capitals began in Ljubljana, which will soon pass its sash on to Essen. Over the last couple of years, the Slovenian capital, one of the smallest cities, with a population of around 300,000, made tremendous progress, as far as comfort of living in an urban environment goes. Having been closed off to cars a few years ago, the city center now boasts electric minibuses that go by the fitting name of "Cavaliers," which aim to help the elderly, weak and handicapped move about the old city center.
Closing a city center to traffic has also improved the air in the city. While the air-quality measuring station in the center used to record high levels of NO x and particles a few years ago, the situation has improved considerably after the environment improving actions started. Event before cars were banished from the city center, the bicycle-renting scheme started. City bicycles are available 24/7 at 32 stations, situated 300 to 500 meters apart. Although the bicycle trails are still a work in progress (and can't match those in Nijmegen, for instance), Ljubljana doesn't lack advanced sustainable mobility solutions. With a multi-purpose suburban and city transportation ticket (Urbana city card), users can seamlessly switch between bicycle renting, trains, buses and from September also electric cars replacing buses on under-occupied city bus lines.
"Our goal is
to enable people to have an easy to use,
adaptable transport system. They have to be
able to seamlessly switch modes of
transport, adapting to their needs. This is
the only way to persuade people to use
public transport instead of cars," says
Ljubljana mayor Zoran Janković.
Another e-mobility project aimed at lowering congestion and improving air quality is Avant2Go electric car-sharing system, which rents out electric vehicles (with BMW i3 at the top of their fleet) at various locations throughout the city and Ljubljana airport.
Recently, the city authorities have built a bicycle trail between the center, the hilltop Ljubljana castle, and Tivoli Park, the park adjacent to the city center, which stretches over 17.5 hectares of land and represents the lungs of the Slovenian capital, improving the quality of life and air. Ljubljana prides itself on its 542 square meters of public green space per capita (three quarters of the entire territory of Ljubljana are green areas), which puts it at the top of the list of the greenest cities in the world. Just between 2009 and 2015, the city acquired 80 hectares' worth of new parks and other publically-accessible green surfaces, while also being one of the few European capitals that is rightfully boastful of natural and high-quality drinking water that requires no treatment and is accessible via as many as 30 water fountains across the city.
And while we explored the city center on foot and by bicycle, we ventured into the more distant areas by car, electric, of course. The BMW 330e iPerformance plug-in hybrid features both a petrol (for longer distances outside of the city) and electric motor. A 2-liter four-cylinder supercharged engine generates 184 hp, the electric motor an additional 88 hp. The 7.6 kWh Li-ion batteries are safely tucked away under the trunk, where the exposure to air ensures it is appropriately cooled down. The silence during a moderate city drive is impressive, as is an up to 40 km all-electric range— despite a day-long drive, and not using numerous public charging stations within the city, our battery lasted until night. Compromises in terms of electric performance are not a concern, as testified by acceleration that pins you nicely into the seat, and agility that is typically BMW, even in the eco-friendly renditions. A cherry on top is the all-electric top speed of 120 km/h, which means we were able to speed along past other cars on the Ljubljana ring-road, on electricity alone.
Parks and transport aren't the sole things that earned Ljubljana the title of Green Capital 2016. The city also boasts the highest (as high as 63% in 2014) percentage of separately collected waste, and is the first capital in the European Union in the Zero Waste program.
Part of the credit goes to the new Regional Waste Management Center (RCERO Ljubljana) on outskirts of the city, which began its operation in late 2015, tending to one-third of Slovenia's waste. "RCERO utilizes the most modern and sustainable technology for waste management and recycling on the European scale," explains Nina Sankovič, from the Snaga company which manages RCERO . "Every year, as part of the mechanical and biological waste treatment, we also produce 17,000 MWh of electric energy and 36,000 MWh of thermal energy from biogas," she adds.
The plants built as part of the RCERO Ljubljana thus enable the production of green electricity and thermal energy which goes back to city inhabitants, reducing their carbon footprint. The whole process yields less than 5% of post-processing waste impossible to reuse as raw materials or an energy source - so the landfill needed is much smaller than before. The 155 EUR million project was partially funded by EU and represents not only good use of money, but also a project that other cities can learn from - and that is one of the important parts of the Green capitals project.
Discard nothing, buy almost nothing, make everything yourself!
This is the life motto of Matic Praznik, the professor of visual art who has been applying it to all aspects of his life for the last 15 years. He breathes fresh life into bulk waste and discarded scraps. In his hands, the drum of a washing machine is transformed into a coffee table, an old vacuum cleaner shines as a lamp, bicycle parts become clothes hangers. Where we see junk, this artist sees useful raw materials.
"The biggest challenge for me is the larger waste items, the ones I need a ladder to access," he says, thinking of all manner of materials, from wood to metal. "All that is discarded and forgotten can come to life once more, at the heart of a new story."