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.

Kavalir: Tranportation in city centre
Tranportation in city centre is organized with electric busses named Kavalir.

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.

BMW 330e iPerformance A Plug-in Hybrid version of the BMW 3 series, the 330e, has a 2-liter four-cylinder supercharged engine that generates 184 hp and the electric motor an additional 88 hp. The 7.6 kWh of electricity stored in a li-ion battery is enough for up to 40 km of all electric driving. BMW 330e combines all the benefits of BMW dynamic limousine with the ecology potential of plug-in hybrid drive, and with all the electronic safety and comfort assist systems available.

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.

RCERO: The recycling plant in Ljubljana
RCERO: The recycling plant in Ljubljana is producing electricity from waste. Charging your BMW 330e with electricity produced from your own waste makes it even cleaner.

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."

Green areas are one the most important features of any city that wants to be European Green Capital.

Our next stop was Essen. With over a thousand kilometers from Ljubljana to Essen, we played our Joker card passing by Munich. Even though the BMW 330e iPerformance turned out very economical at lower speed limits on the Austrian motorway, and comfortably fast on the autobahn towards Munich (at over 200 km/h the car rides as smoothly as during a city ride on electricity), we swapped it for a larger and glamorously comfortable BMW 740Le iPerformance, which is truly spacious, while remaining eco-friendly, thanks to its plug-in hybrid technology.

Essen provides its inhabitants with almost 4000 acres of parks and other green areas - equal to 2.200 soccer fields.

Essen provides its inhabitants with almost 4000 acres of parks and other green areas - equal to 2.200 soccer fields.

The drive to Essen, and the new chapter of our story in such a car, went by in a flash. In contrast to the Slovenian capital and the oldest city in The Netherlands, Essen is a large city which ranks as the sixth biggest in Germany, with a population of 600,000. Better known for its heavy and mining industries, the city was bestowed the title of European Capital of Culture in 2010, and will become the second German city to become the European Green Capital, in 2017.

Their project of 150 years, together with the North Rhine-Westphalia federal state, has been for the city to break free from the industrial, and fully set their foot into a green era instead.

"Our biggest challenge is to change the mindset of locals and those visiting, because Essen is no longer a city of mines."

Matthias Sinn, the head of the environmental department.

Matthias Sinn

"Probably we're up to a more difficult task than other cities, considering we're better known for coal and steel than green space. But, we're taking a big leap towards a more friendly environment, whether it's the restructuring of the Emscher River
(author's note: as much as two-thirds of Essen's sewage is drained into the Emscher River, which is why 400 km worth of sewage pipes have been installed since 1990, to reduce river pollutants and reinvigorate life in the river and its shoreline), new parks, new lakes, new bicycle trails and public transport improvements," explains Sinn.

"Currently we're not yet sure if the electric motor will be powered by fuel cells (methane, hydrogen), batteries or something else, a different type of organic fuel, for example," explains Sinn, but the choice will be made soon.

Just recently, Essen launched a project with the objective to efficiently, and as quickly as possible, replace diesel-run with alternative fuel buses.

One of the next steps in improving traffic in the city will be car-sharing project. "There are three bidders interested in car sharing," Says Sinn. Essen is also expanding the network of bicycle trails that are designed to extend over the city boundaries and connect adjacent towns with Essen, thus enabling people to use bicycles for daily commute and further reduce traffic congestion. "We built a new university campus with the newest trends in mind, we channeled the water from the nearest rooftops into parks, and made the lakes an inviting venue for people to socialize and work out, and we even reduced the playground area for children to gain space for new types of gardening," he adds further.

With the city center being long closed off to traffic, the city also aims to expand its electric charging stations, to encourage more electric and hybrid vehicles. Yes, the kind we drove, the BMW 330e iPerformance and 740Le iPerformance. Because it is extremely difficult to break people's thinking patterns, the environmental department has to tackle the issue at different levels, from talking about it locally to participating at internationally-held debates. Essen's devotion to green is exemplified by 1600 hectares of green space and parks, which equals 2200 football fields, and the famous Zollverein coal mine (protected by UNESCO).

Unesco world heritage site: Zollverein mine.

Unesco world heritage site: Zollverein mine.

BMW 740Le iPerformance

The comfort of driving in a BMW 740Le iPerformance came in handy in the very early morning hours on our leaving the hotel. We set out quietly and efficiently in allelectric mode, not disturbing the sleeping and with no emissions from tailpipe, but once on the highway, the drive to the Dutch border was hybrid and fast (as was going back from Nijmegen to Munich). The system output of 240 kW (326 hp) meant the 130 km/h at which we traveled on Dutch highways was a piece of cake.

If the land of cheese and clogs seemed rather disciplined, with the fastest driving car topping out at 135 km/h, then Germany felt far more easygoing. With almost everybody traveling slightly above the speed limit, we could not but release our beasts on the speed limit-free sections of the autobahn. Owing to summer congestion and merciless downpour, we rarely broke the 200 km/h limit (which is still far off from the electronically-restricted top speed of 250 km/h), yet the feeling was nothing short of sensational. Not only behind the steering wheel, which instructs the 5.32 m long sedan to respond to each of the driver's moves with such ease and grace, but mostly at the back. Indeed, as befits an elongated version of a prestigious car, the royal back right seat (chosen without reservations by our photographer, who was fond dozing off like a king in just a few minutes) can assume the semi-reclined position and perform a back massage, while the passenger examines the tablet for driving information, enjoys TV or surfs the net (the vehicle comes equipped with a WiFi hotspot, for multiple users).

The drive was a top-notch experience, even in the face of distance, and I'm not so sure flying business class through Germany would still win me over. The Steptronic automatic eight-speed transmission works smoothly, and thanks to the lightweight construction technology (the engineers utilized carbon fiber and aluminum), high performance and low consumption go hand in hand. The electric propulsion in BMW 740Le iPerformance proves to be very useful, even on the highway, where it will silently spring to an astounding 140 km/h. Not bad for a 5.23 m long sedan, which can be then run all the way to it's top speed on hybrid power on the German highway, where the fast lane is reserved only for you. What about that? No wonder we arrived in Nijmegen in the blink of an eye.

Green cities – fit for life

The European Green Capital award was first awarded, in 2010, to Stockholm, followed by Hamburg, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Nantes, Copenhagen, Bristol and Ljubljana. In 2017, it will go to Essen and to Nijmegen in 2018. It is meant to reward cities which are making efforts to improve the urban environment and move towards healthier and sustainable living areas. The award is given to a city that has a consistent record of achieving high environmental standards, is committed to further environmental improvement and sustainable development and can act as a role model to inspire other cities.


Nijmegen has an elaborate anti-flooding system of channel, spanned by bridges with separate cycling lanes.

The university town close to the German border, with over 2000 years of history, is the oldest city in The Netherlands. If we said Ljubljana was small, then Nijmegen is even smaller, yet no less interesting. For instance, there are more bicycles in the Netherlands than people, and Nijmegen is no less vibrant with bicycles of different shapes and purposes. Like the kind that carries many children, or delivery bicycles.

"Nijmegen is a university town, where students love to bike, which makes it easy for us, in a way. Still, we had to ensure a proper infrastructure, which is why we built over 50 kilometers' worth of fast cycle routes, which offer a fast, safe and maximally stress-free way to move inside our city and between other cities," press secretary to the Mayor and Aldermen and also a member of the management team for the European Green Capital Freico Amberg tells us.


"We built over 50 kilometers' worth of fast cycle routes, which offer a fast, safe and maximally stress-free way to move about."

Freico Amberg

Freico Amberg

This goes to show that the planning approach to building bicycle trails in countries like Germany, Slovenia, France, Spain, etc, is nothing like the one in The Netherlands. While the land of bicyclists considers only what's best for them, other countries usually plan their bicycle routes around the preexisting road network. "This is not where we stop. We'd like to see even more people going to work by bicycle, or using it for afternoon activities. So there're quite a few challenges ahead of us, such as expanding on bicycle parking, closing off more of the city center to cars, deepening our already fruitful collaboration with pollution producers to decrease polution and, above all, further hand-in-hand work with about 40 inhabitants, who take air pollution measurements and pass on their findings," says Amberg.

To achieve their goals Nijmegen authorities spend a lot of energy on education, especially with children. "We educate them and spread awareness among them, with kindergartens and schools often participating in a community cleanup," adds Amberg. Every year, Nijmegen gets a new park to increase the amount of green area in the city. As cars are still an integral part of daily life for Nijmegen inhabitants, every new underground parking garage is equipped with charging stations for electric cars - and for electric bicycles, which are rapidly growing in popularity. "Because they're bigger and faster, we've already started thinking about widening the bicycle trails," says Amberg.



BMW 740Le iPerformance is BMW's most luxurious and refined plug-in hybrid model. Powerful twin turbo four cylinder petrol engine and electric motor bring the total system output to 326 hp - and yet the total consumption is only 2,1 litres per 100 km. More than 5 meters long and with spacious and comfortable back seats, 740Le iPerformance can drive up to 40 kilometres in electric drive mode - or reach 250 km/h on autobahn, all, while maintaining a composed quietness in the cabin, enabling relaxed passengers to use its extensive array of infotainment and communications options.

Through the introduction of new, ecofriendlier buses the Nijmegen city transport, which features stations just 300 meters apart on average, all is well on its path to grow even cleaner. Due to flooding of the Waal River in 1993 and 1995 that required the evacuation of a quarter million people (you read correctly, 250,000 people), a special canal, draining water out of the city, was added to the river.

To kill two birds with one stone and make the project more eco-friendly and improve quality of life, the city also built a unique artificial island, as a welcome venue for animals and recreation, which can be accessed via a beautifullyconstructed bridge. Interestingly, to lower the noise pollution, the city decided to use quieter asphalt (by 3 dB quieter than its classic counterpart) on roads that need paving, and to provide seven more parks by 2018.

And not only do the city authorities impose the law on others, but they also abide by it themselves, as evident in their all-electric fleet of vehicles made of cars, scooters and bicycles, of course. And the mayor is no exception. Blue and green are not the only colors in this world, yet they play an important role in ecology, as well as in viable and sustainable urban development. Who wouldn't want to have a green patch, a tree, a park, a clear river or lake as their neighbor? Ljubljana, Essen and Nijmegen are very different, but they are exemplary of the only true pathways to higher comfort of living—for us and our offspring.

Bicycle parking: charging stations for e-bicycles are plentifull.

Plugin vehicles

Drive PHEV Power 165kW 0-100km/h 6.7s Battery Li-Ion, 5.8 kWh Electric range 41km
Drive PHEV Power 185kW 0-100km/h 6.1s Battery Li-Ion, 5.7 kWh Electric range 37-40km
Drive PHEV Power 185kW 0-100km/h 6,2s Battery Li-Ion, 9,2 kWh Electric range 50km
Drive PHEV Power 240kW 0-100km/h 5.6s Battery Li-Ion, kWh Electric range 40km
Drive EV Power 125kW 0-100km/h 7.2s Battery Li-Ion, 22 kWh Electric range 190km
Drive EV Power 125kW 0-100km/h 7.2s Battery Li-Ion, 33 kWh Electric range 300km
Drive EV+Rex Power 125kW 0-100km/h 7.2s Battery Li-Ion, 22 kWh Electric range 170km
Drive EV+Rex Power 125kW 0-100km/h 7.2s Battery Li-Ion, 33 kWh Electric range 300km
Drive EV Power 135kW 0-100km/h 6.9s Battery Li-Ion, 33 kWh Electric range 235km
Drive EV+Rex Power 135kW 0-100km/h 7.7s Battery Li-Ion, 33 kWh Electric range 185km
Drive PHEV Power 266kW 0-100km/h 4.4s Battery Li-Ion, 7.1 kWh Electric range 37km
Drive PHEV Power 275kW 0-100km/h 4.4s Battery Li-Ion, 11.6 kWh Electric range 55km
Drive EV+Rex Power 275kW 0-100km/h 4.6s Battery Li-Ion, 11.6 kWh Electric range 53km
Drive PHEV Power 230kW 0-100km/h 6.8s Battery Li-Ion, 9 kWh Electric range 31km

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