Posted by Alex Nurse, Research Assistant, Low Carbon Liverpool project.
Last week, as part of the Low Carbon Liverpool research project, I visited Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. Vitoria is the capital of the Basque Country, located some 40km south of Bilbao and this year has the honour of hosting the European Green Capital award. The Green Capital award is given to cities who have demonstrated an ability to lead on environmental issues whilst showing a commitment to continuing this development – the award has previously been held by Stockholm and Hamburg.
I attended an event entitled ‘Greening European Cities’: a collective of NGOs with an interest in the environmental issues who meet each year in the respective European Green Capital. We heard from representatives of Vitoria-Gasteiz and had several opportunities to explore the city.
What shone through was that Vitoria-Gasteiz is a very well planned, compact city. For 30 years planners have emphasised the need for good transport links, coupled with easy access to amenities. By way of illustrating this, almost all of Vitoria-Gasteiz’s 240,000 residents live within 300m of key amenities (including shops, schools and hospitals). However the most striking point is the fact that a resident living on the very edge of Vitoria-Gasteiz has to travel only 3km to reach the city centre (a 40 minute walk, 10 minute cycle, or 5 minutes by one of Vitoria-Gasteiz’s trams or buses). This would be the equivalent of the edge of Liverpool being located in Sefton Park.
However, after visiting the town centre, and speaking to residents it became evident that Vitoria-Gasteiz was a city that was struggling to reconcile the commitments that were made to the Green Capital year with the financial downturn which has enveloped Spain in recent times. Although the reasons why the city won were evident, and logos in store fronts indicated a wealth of citizen support and pride, there was little by way of celebrating or engaging with the visiting public. This could lead to Vitoria-Gasteiz being dubbed ‘The Austerity Green Capital’.
Nonetheless, I think Vitoria-Gasteiz has some key lessons to those who wish to study the city and to develop low carbon futures. The central role of the citizen, effective multi-modal public transport and the ease of access to amenities could be held up as a model for how to develop future cities even if the financial downturn has prevented Vitoria-Gasteiz from celebrating its time in the spotlight as much as they might have liked.