“It’s not about money. It’s about political will.”


In an interview with Vlado Babić, former undersecretary of the Department for Environmental Protection at the City of Ljubljana, we spoke about the project “Ljubljana. For you.”, an initiative including the promotion of a green and sustainable Ljubljana for all citizens. In 2016, the city was awarded as European Green capital by the European Commission, the first city in Southeastern Europe to receive this price. The recognition enabled Ljubljana to become one of many sustainable cities worldwide.

Ljubljana - before and after
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Ljubljana - before and after

When did the project “Ljubljana. For you.” start?

While the whole idea already began in the 1970s, this project has been announced in 2007. Since then, it has been an ongoing process. We have partnered with universities, NGOs, private companies and others, and we received over five million euros from the EU for our projects. Ever since, we have achieved so much in fields like sustainable land use, biodiversity or green growth. Everything we’ve done is still in action and financed by the city.

What are some concrete measures that have been implemented?

For once, we have restored many brownfield sites and transformed them into green spaces. It was always a focus to turn unused areas into public spaces. Furthermore, the city has invested in some urban gardening sites to further local self-sufficiency. People can rent a small, fertile space and grow their own vegetables. That has lately become really popular. Also, beekeeping and honey has a very rich tradition in Slovenia. So we created the project “Bee path” and have developed many beehives in the city through that. These are just a few of many examples.

One of the focusses was sustainable mobility. What was the idea behind that?

The essence of sustainable mobility is mobility for the people. Cities in Europe are built for people and not for cars - you cannot have both. We aimed to close some streets for cars in the center of Ljubljana to turn them into pedestrian zones - right now, we have 100.000 sqm of those, and there is even more to come. We had to redirect bus lines, we built underground garages and introduced a free “cavalier” bus to take tourists and citizens around the center. Electronic mobility is also important to us. Our busses mainly run on methane, and there is a widespread city bike system and park-and-rides on the outskirts of the center. You can park for the whole day for 1.20 euro, and that fee includes two bus tickets to and from the city center. So it’s basically free! Our goal until next year is to reduce car usage to a third of all transportation means, with cycling, walking and public transit covering the other to thirds. And especially with cycling, we are on a very good path to achieve that.

Were there any obstacles during that process?

Yes. We especially struggled when we tried to build a pedestrian zone on the main road of Ljubljana. When we suggested to ban car traffic in that spot, all of the old school engineers told us that it would be impossible. But we did it, and what happened? Nothing happened. It wasn’t a problem. But this project was in discussion for eight years. Obviously the automobile lobby was the most opposed party - all those people who drive cars are also voters, so they spread a lot of fear before the re-elections.

Luckily, the majority of the citizens and some important politicians were on our side. We conducted an opinion poll before this project, and the vast majority of the people were in favor of introducing these pedestrian zones. The mayor of Ljubljana won the election with a green program. But since he is also a manager, he was not convinced that closing our central street was a good idea. In the end, he agreed on the condition that we add an inner ring in the city and a park-and-ride system.

How did you and your team mobilize and convince the people in Ljubljana?

To realize projects like this, the priority is to convince politicians. The mayor and the vice-mayor were on our side, so we had the support of their list in the city council, which brought us the majority. That made it a lot easier to go forward. We also worked hand in hand with several NGOs, especially in the field of sustainable mobility, and we cooperated with some media outlets as well. Still, it is also important to gain support from the citizens. Therefore, we included them by conducting surveys to get a deeper insight about their opinion, wishes and needs. In order to make our project more comprehensible for them, we created postcards with pictures of our project’s possible results. That contributed a lot to the citizens’ support. Of course, the people of Slovenia don’t exactly have a tradition of public participation, but the city is definitely working on including them more. Progress is not about money - it is about political will.

What can the city of Sarajevo learn from Ljubljana - what kind of measures could be implemented here?

You should start with small steps, for example with parking management. Many people commute from the outskirts of town to their workplace in the center. So central parking should be costly - people will think twice about whether they want to drive into the center or take public transit instead. Right now, especially up the hill, it is impossible to walk on the sidewalks because cars are parking everywhere. But free parking is not a human right! Quite the opposites, cities invest a lot of money into parking spaces. But if you take that money as well as the higher parking fees and spend it on improving the public transit network, change is possible. This is the cheapest and fastest way to reduce traffic. After that, you can build more pedestrian districts and car-free zones, and implement park-and-rides on the outskirts.

Sarajevo has overstepped its limits by far already, so change is necessary. Perhaps some local initiatives could be found, as well as media coverage. People in Sarajevo are starting to realize that their situation is bad. The air quality in the city was such a scandal this year, but five years ago it was even worse, and nobody spoke about it. So awareness is slowly building. Sustainability is not a political, national or religious question - it is a question of survival. And the citizens are a crucial part of achieving change.

27. März 2019, by Lena Gibbels and Laura Meier