‘People are proud of this green spirit of ours’: how a small Spanish city rejected cars – The Guardian

Decades ago, when many other European cities were building more road capacity, Vitoria-Gasteiz took a very different path
They call it the anillo verde, the green ring, a 30km (19 mile) series of parks and cycle lanes that encircle Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital of the Basque region in northern Spain.
Broad, tranquil avenues of tall trees link parks, squares and allotments, forming a circular oasis around a city centre that itself is largely car-free and where, aside from a passing tram, the dominant sound is conversation, birdsong and even the persistent chirping of cicadas.
It is the sort of zone that cities around the world are increasingly investing in – but Vitoria-Gasteiz began this process decades ago. As a result this small Spanish city is a global leader in urban green policy.
As postwar Spain transitioned from being a rural to a largely urban society, the city’s population quintupled from 52,000 in 1950 to 253,000 today, with an increase in car use to match.
But the city governors were very worried about the rising number of vehicles. While many other cities around Europe were embracing cars in the 1970s, and in many cases building bigger roads and more capacity, they took the then fairly radical decision to buck the trend by starting to pedestrianise the city centre.
They also created Spain’s first network of cycle paths, which now extends to 180km, one of the most extensive in the country.
Plans to create the now famous green ring were first mooted in the 1980s and work began in the early 1990s. This included a community-based project to plant 250,000 trees.
Now no one is more than a few minutes’ walk from green space and the city boasts 50 sq metres of green space per inhabitant, compared with 31 in London and 17 in Barcelona. In 2012 the city was named the 2012 European Green Capital by the European Commission.
“We’re a city where people are keen on cycling and like to go walking in the hills and much of the impetus for making Vitoria a green city has come from its citizens,” says Borja Rodríguez Ramajo, the city’s head of environmental policy.
Since 2006 the city has also been creating “superblocks” similar to those in Barcelona, sections of the city closed to through traffic. Altogether, these measures have increased the city’s pedestrian areas from 31 to 71%.
Inevitably, some of these measures have been met with opposition, says Rodríguez, who argues it takes courage to implement sustainable policies.
“We’ve always sought the involvement of environmental groups and residents’ associations in these initiatives,” he says. “I think people here are proud of this green spirit of ours.”
And so they are, but many residents claim the consultative process looks better on paper than it is in practice.
“From the start the city council had two types of meetings between the public and private sectors,” says José Luis Azkarate, president of the residents’ association in the city’s Ensanche district.
“One dealt with specific issues such as mobility and another on the impact on neighbourhoods. We don’t think these meetings worked well because there wasn’t a plan and everything was too improvised.”
“Sometimes the city proposes big projects in which residents don’t feel very involved or don’t bother to participate,” says fellow resident Rosa Murguía Quincoces.
Julia Neidig, a researcher at the Basque Centre for Climate Change who has spent “the past four years looking at the contradictions, challenges and dilemmas that arose from Vitoria-Gasteiz being the green capital”, says that while nearly everyone is proud of the green city, there is criticism about the greening process.
“A green city is something where people are in the process of creating that city and includes other notions than the green aspect, such as community, and integrating citizens into how projects are developed,” Neidig says, adding that many residents feel that meetings between the city and its citizens are “more informative than involving”.
With greening comes gentrification and in working-class areas this can lead to the displacement of the original inhabitants as property prices rise. However, the relative lack of tourism and digital nomads in Vitoria-Gasteiz has minimised this impact compared with cities such as Málaga and Barcelona.
“The greening agenda needs to be bold and quick to be effectively realised, which is what European cities are good at,” says Isabelle Anguelovski, a research professor at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies and director of the Barcelona Lab for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability.
“It’s also because the cities are dense and we don’t rely on cars, unlike American cities.”
However, she says that issues of “green injustice” are not on the European agenda in the way they are in the United States.
“In Europe we don’t think about social justice or racial justice the way progressive American cities do,” says Anguelovski. “We don’t have a strong racial environmental justice movement here in Europe.”
In 2019, the UN awarded Vitoria-Gasteiz the title of Global Green City for its efforts in achieving the Agenda 2030 sustainable development goals.
However, not content to rest on its green laurels, the Basque capital is now helping to coordinate the NetZeroCities project, a network of 53 cities in 21 European countries which, Rodríguez says, “aims to create a total of 112 intelligent and climate-neutral cities by 2030”.


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