For the past six months the European Union has put the spotlight on the Slovenian capital Ljubljana. As a consequent of their continuous expanding of their car-free city centre, Ljubljana has become one of the healthies cities to live in. All these measurements have resulted in a lively atmosphere where carbon emission has been reduced by seventy percent throughout the years.
“A few days ago, I was walking through the old city around eight ‘o clock in the evening. However, the old city is the magnet for tourism, there was barely no one around because of the severe temperature.”
“When I approached Slovenska Street a feeling of satisfaction overwhelmed me. Hundreds of pedestrians were moving back and forth on the street which used to be a polluted four lane-traffic corridor through the city.”, tells Marko Studen, one of the architects who has designed Slovenska Street.
Slovenska street is broad lane that crosses right through the city where pedestrian, cyclists and public transport share the space freely. This joint traffic area became the central section of the car-free city of Ljubljana in 2012.
An infrastructural changeover of a city with 279 000 inhabitants which started about ten years ago obviously gains rough opposition, Marko Studen explains: “The fact that we’re a team of four befriended architects helped us to get through all the criticism. Really, everything was up to opposition. From inhabitant who weren’t able to park their cars right before their doors anymore to taxi services who were attacking us because we would push them out of town.”
After all, both the citizens and the commercial businesses seem to be satisfied, explains a representative from Ljubljana’s Mayor’s Office: “Now there are practically no complaints. Neither from residents nor from business owners. Even more, they have discovered the city has a new lease on life.”
In order get to this point of satisfaction, the city had to change the travel habits of its inhabitants as well as those of the visitors. Therefore, the city has chosen to offer alternatives to the use of cars, such as four electric vehicles which are free of charge, a public bicycle sharing system and better public transport.
According to a Eurostat report from 2015, 92% of the citizens are (very) satisfied with the quality of life in their city.
“Furthermore,” the representative continues, “the cleanliness and the safety of the city will attract new residents and numerous visitors from Slovenia and abroad to the city centre which is a positive evolution for our commercial businesses in the city.”
To get through all this initial criticism, a local solid political body with a strong traffic policy was necessary, says urban designer Marke Studen: “The whole project is a consequence of a very strategic and very carefully developed traffic policy over the last eight years which was already developed by our Deputy Mayor Janez Kozelj, who’s an architect as well. He’s actually the engine of the modernisation of Ljubljana.”
“To have such a complementary duo in the municipal office was a gift for us. I don’t think we would have got this project done without them. Our Mayor Zoran Jankovic took a lot of risks for us, even though he was afraid of the outcome. We just needed his executive power to realise it.”
Ljubljana’s mobility and infrastructural changeover started in 2007. Back then, the Slovenian capital introduced its ecological zone, a car-free zone in the middle in the city which expanded throughout the years by more than 600%. Nowadays, the area covers more than 10 hectares.
Furthermore, the municipality of Ljubljana was in 2008 one of the lucky few who were involved in a European funded programme Civitas Elan. This program was focussed on a ‘cleaner and greener’ transport in the cities.
“During these four years, we’ve been spending a lot of time travelling together, innovating and improving and learning from each other. Our knowledge about sustainability, quality of life and the accessibility has increased over the years”, says the representative for the Mayor’s Office.
Together with Zagreb, Ghent, Brno and Porto, Ljubljana enjoyed a joint funding of 5,9 million euro. “Civitas was the foundation of our Ljubljana’s traffic policy. Without EU-funding the development would have been slower”, the representative tells.
Moreover, the city will keep on improving the quality of life for their citizens. Again in June 2017, Ljubljana’s mobility strategy will be upgraded according to new European SUMP-guidelines.
The European Union’s sustainable urban transport plan (SUMP) is stimulating Ljubljana and sixty other European cities to guarantee the liveliness of the cities. For this process of European unification in terms of sustainable transport in the cities, the European Union has allocated 3,7 million euro from their Cohesion Fund.
Though, the international appreciation is great, Marko Studen still is modest: “In my opinion, we’re not doing something extraordinary. We’re just trying to fulfil today’s standards regarding sustainable modalities of transportation in the city sphere. It’s a movement that came up in the last decade but, I don’t feel like we’re the leaders of it.”
Angelo Meuleman, a Belgian promoter for sustainable mobility for Taxistop, agrees with the urban architect in the sense that it is the Mayor’s choice whether he attaches value on international appreciation or not. Even though it mostly resulted in a boost of tourism.
“The award of the Green Capital of Europe is a beautiful price, but, it is a well-considered decision from the Mayor and his municipal office to apply for this award.”
According to Angelo Meuleman both cities are at some points quite comparable. Both of them have a progressive Mayor and the both cities share the corresponding atmosphere and size. Besides that, Ghent was involved in the Citivas Elan program as well.
“Both cities may have some characteristics in common. But, the distribution of competences is in almost every state different. It won’t be that easy in Ghent to adjust the activity of our public transport company to the needs of a car-free city.”
According to Angelo Meuleman from Taxistop, this has to do with the difference between the levels where both public transport organisations are organised upon. In the case of Ljubljana, it is was much more realistic to adjust their public transport to their city, because that company only operates for Ljubljana and its surrounding municipalities and not for multiple cities as in the Belgian case.
The differences in needs creates also other opportunities. Whereas car sharing is a well-established phenomenon in Western Europe, Eastern people still see their cars as a status symbol.
“I’ve seen some local car sharing initiatives popping up in Eastern European cities, but it still isn’t as big as it is here”, states Angelo Meuleman from Taxistop.
Therefore, Ghent’s putting much more effort into stimulating this trend, although they have a lower scaled car-free zone, too. By 2020, Ghent wants to count twenty thousand car shares.
Also, urban architect Marko Studen is aware of this trend: “There’s a totally new shift on the horizon. The perception of the ownership of cars is changing the ball game completely. So, I think we as architects should start thinking about this evolution.”
Although the shared-space for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport has already been expanded by more than six hundred percent, Marko Studen and his colleagues are discussing again with the municipality what they’re going to do with the northern part of Slovenska Street.