LJUBLJANA, Slovenia—Along the narrow streets on the banks of the Ljubljanica River, the only sounds you’re likely to hear are the patter of shoes on cobblestones, the voices of people out walking and the clanking of glasses at sidewalk cafes.
It’s much changed from 10 years ago, when these streets were clogged with traffic. There was little room for pedestrians then. Those who dared to walk had to dodge cars and buses and breathe fumes from their tailpipes.
Now, not just these riverside streets but all of Ljubljana’s compact core is essentially car-free. Only pedestrians, bicycles, and buses are allowed; an electric taxi service called Kavilir offers the elderly, disabled or mothers with children free rides. If you live in the center or want to drive there, you must park your vehicle at an underground garage just outside the car-free area and walk from there. Fears that this would kill local businesses never came to pass. If anything, business and tourism have increased in the historic center.
Ljubljana’s successful fight against traffic is one reason the European Commission named the city European Green Capital for 2016. That’s a title that has frequently gone to acknowledged leaders of the debate on urban sustainability, wealthy cities such as Copenhagen, Stockholm or Hamburg. The choice of Slovenia’s small capital shows that cities of modest size and means have lessons to offer, too. It also shows that smaller cities can make a staggering amount of change happen in a short period of time.
Credit for this goes to Zoran Janković, Ljubljana’s mayor since 2006. Before his election, Janković was CEO of Mercator, the leading big-box retail chain in the Balkans. As mayor, Janković laid out a long-range plan to improve quality of life in the city known as Vision 2025. It set ambitious goals for the city on sustainable transport, conserving green space, recycling and other areas, giving direction to dozens of infrastructure projects and policy choices that came later.
“When I came in, I did not know anything about the city structure,” Janković told Citiscope in an interview. “We did our program in the same way as in a company, with a strategy and goals.”
The decision to ban cars from the center was by far the most impactful—and contentious. Janković implemented it his first year in office. That way, by the time of his next election campaign, residents would have a chance to experience the benefits of cleaner air, safer streets, and quieter public spaces, in addition to the inconveniences. He’s been re-elected three times since then (with one short-lived detour into national politics that made him a controversial figure in Slovenia).
“In the beginning, these decisions are very difficult to take because you will never get 100 percent agreement on it,” Janković says. “But after eight years, if I were to ask the people in Ljubljana in a referendum if they want the city center open again to private cars, I am sure that 90 percent of them would want to keep it closed to traffic.”
Janković has the benefit of leading a culturally vibrant city blessed with a rich architectural heritage and indigenous forests that make up almost half the city’s land area. Slovenia was the first state to gain independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, and the first of the Balkans to become a member of the European Union in 2004. Thanks to the local university, Ljubljana is a young city—43,000 of its 287,000 residents are students. The city (whose name you pronounce lyoo-BLYAH-nah) has become a crossroads of ideas and practices from neighbors such as Italy, Austria and Hungary.
The Green Capital title gives Ljubljana a marketing tool to appeal to tourists and to inspire civic pride among its own citizens. Local events and activities are planned throughout 2016 with a different theme each month—for example, January is “smart waste management” month. The award also carries weight with other cities. “Before we became European Green Capital, it was impossible for me to visit the mayor of Paris or the mayor of Berlin,” Janković says. “After this prize, all doors were opened.”
Janković has a lot to share with them. In recent months, European cities such as Brussels, Madrid, and Oslo have announced plans to close parts of their city centers to traffic. Ljubljana offers a contained laboratory—it takes only 15 minutes to walk from one side of the car-free area to the other—to see where such policies lead. For example, the city built the underground garage near the center, and plans to build more. The city also is creating a park-and-ride system where commuters can leave their cars; the cost of parking includes a return bus ticket to the center.
The city also has taken steps to promote bicycling. Ljubljana has had bike sharing since 2011—the same smart card used to check out a bike works to pay for transit fares, parking, or library fees. The city also allows people to ride bikes in pedestrian areas if they ride slowly. This is unusual in Europe, where riders normally must dismount and walk their bikes in pedestrian zones. The policy has encouraged more bicycling, although some cafe owners protested out of concern that bicyclists would slalom dangerously among their tables.
Marko Peterlin, director of the Institute for Spatial Policies, or IPop, says these actions have helped “reduce traffic in a considerable way.” But Peterlin says the city has not invested enough in public transport. That will change some later this year when 30 new low-emission buses come into service, boosting service to the suburbs. The city is working with surrounding municipalities on a public transport plan that aims to reach the objective of a “balanced” mobility distribution by 2020. That means one-third of trips would happen by private vehicles, one-third by public transport and one-third by non-motorized means.
A recent makeover of Ljubljana’s most important boulevard, Slovenska Street, embodies this new balance. The busy thoroughfare, which connects the ring road circling the city to the historic center, has been closed to traffic except for buses, delivery vehicles and hybrid-electric taxis. Otherwise, the road is now mostly used by bicycles and pedestrians.
It’s not just transportation that is getting an overhaul in Ljubljana. The city recycles almost two-thirds of its waste—and is the first of the EU capitals to devise a “zero waste” strategy. The latest innovation in the city center is a system of collection points that stores waste underground until it can be picked up. (Deposit points that look like regular trash or recycling cans are located at street level.) Anyone can dispose of glass, packaging or paper. Biodegradable waste goes in separate containers available only to residents of the area — they use an electronic card with a microchip to open the container and can deposit only a certain amount of organic waste per week. The monitoring is intended to encourage people to produce less organic waste.
The city’s green spaces also are getting a fresh look, with the help of civic groups and associations. For example, Tabor Park had been largely abandoned despite its prime location in a central neighborhood. Several years ago, an association called the Bunker Institute began a bottom-up effort to regenerate the park by hosting a cultural festival and temporary uses such as gardening. A group of four young women urban planners known as Prostorož continued the push, asking nearby residents for ideas on how to revitalize the park. They also hosted flea markets and concerts in the park to draw both neighbors and people from across the city in to use the space.
“We were surprised to see how many people came from other parts of the city to join the activities in Tabor Park,” says Alenka Korenjak, one of the founders of Prostorož. “The success of these initiatives demonstrates that investments of millions of euros are not the only way to promote urban regeneration.”
Cultural associations and groups of residents also played a big role in the revitalization of an abandoned construction site near Tabor Park. For two weeks in 2010, the project—called “Beyond a Construction Site”—turned the fenced-off parcel into an urban garden. The city, which owns the land, has allowed the gardening to continue since then. Nowadays, more than 100 people come from all around the city to cultivate vegetables here.
“Initiatives like this are still exceptions, since there is no consistent city policy to support these kinds of projects,” says Urška Jurman, one of the initiators of the project for the Obrak Association. “But the culture of citizen participation and self-initiative is developing very fast.”
Another good example of that is the so-called “Library of Things.” Started by Prostorož in a former bar owned by the city, this initiative allows people to share or rent items they may need only occasionally, such as tools or sporting equipment. For a city that constantly reminds its citizens to “reduce, reuse and recycle,” this is an easy way to foster the first two parts of that saying.
“Every city can increase the quality of life in very short time if the mayor has a good team,” says Janković. “You must have more projects than the money you have in budget. Because some of these projects you cannot do in the years you have. But you can do the others.”
This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.