Basque City Capitalizing on Green

The advantages of city life are myriad, hence the world’s astounding rate of urbanization (1.8% annually) and the fact that 73% of Europeans live in urban areas. So the future will be one filled with cities, yes.

It is also true that cities can be resource-sucking, pollutant-spewing monsters hugely impacting all things natural in their path. But the picture could instead be green — dotted with medium-sized sustainably developed cities that are connected by efficient transit and purposely separated from surrounding areas by preserved natural spaces. Would it not be lovely if city-dwellers could have all the urban convenience but in a liveable, socially-coherent and less energy-consuming package?

Well, that vision is not a dream but rather a real possibility if modelled after the European Green Capital for 2012 — Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital of Spain’s Basque Country (one of the seventeen autonomous communities that, along with two cities, form the Spanish state).

The European Green Capital prize was launched in 2010 and is awarded, based on some straightforward criteria, to an applying city that: “Has a consistent record of achieving high environmental standards; is committed to ongoing and ambitious goals for further environmental improvement and sustainable development; and can act as a role model to inspire other cities and promote best practices to all other European cities.”

The population of Vitoria is 240,000 — modest compared to 2012’s other contenders like iconic Barcelona (1.6 million citizens), the 2011 title-holding Hamburg (1.8 million) or 2010 winner Stockholm (800,000 citizens). And this is exactly what makes Vitoria a particularly well-suited champion. Since only a quarter of Europe’s population lives in cities that are home to more than 250,000, Vitoria is quite representative, making its achievements more replicable.

This city’s environmental policies and management models could in fact be germane to the greening of not just this continent, but others as well, including those in the developing world. For, according to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, “the bulk of new urban growth globally is occurring in smaller, and often institutionally weak, settlements of 100,000–250,000 people”.

With climate change impacts ever more imminent, municipal sustainability policies are key since local authorities are closer to citizens and local managers and politicians are more likely to have the ability to adapt to social demands.

However, local governments often lack adequate economic, human and knowledge resources, so in the quest for local sustainable development, collaborative approaches can help local authorities save resources and share knowledge and best practices. That is precisely why initiatives such as ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability) and showcases like European Green Capital are of great import.


Photo by Joan Grífols.

[quote quote=”Vitoria-Gasteiz boasts a transport system that is recognized by the UN as among ‘Best Practices in Improving the Living Environment’.” type=”image” image=”3576″ ]

Moreover, Dr. Raquel Moreno-Peñaranda of the United Nations University Institute for Advanced Studies says those cities with the means must help those with less. Moreno-Peñaranda, whose research focuses on the role of urban ecological systems for enhancing local ecosystem services and biodiversity, encourages “policy makers of European green capitals to think about those cities at the other side of the spectrum, those enduring local environmental problems and often, as it is the case across the developing world, having very limited material and knowledge resources to address these challenges”.

“I think a truly Green European Capital is one that performs outstandingly well locally but is also willing to share experiences, provide support, and actively engage in partnerships, showing that real sustainability entails solidarity.”

Favourable political landscape

Vitoria’s environmental efforts have benefited from the fact that the political landscape has long been continually favourable, demonstrating that sustainability is really part of the city’s identity, not just somebody’s grand platform promise.

The just-ended four-year socialist administration built upon the work started and then carried forth by governing parties of two separate stripes — one of which has just regained office — and the end result is that city’s move to green has gained momentum over three decades.

Key in the journey is the creation in the late 80s of the Environmental Studies Centre (CEA — Centro de Estudios Ambientales) — an institution that has ended up contributing analysis and solutions into almost all areas of the government. [The former director of the CEA, who quit due to differences with the former mayor Paxti Lazcoz back in 2007, has just been named by the city’s incoming administration to a new position overseeing the city’s green policies and all of its sustainable development related organs. This is said to bode very well for Vitoria’s continuing sustainability plans as he, Luis Andres Orive, is credited with (link in Spanish) being the key architect of much of the work that got the city this far.]

The involvement of the academic community is an essential element of good green governance, explains Moreno-Peñaranda. Dialogue between policy-makers and academics “ensures that the questions studied by the latter have a connection with the urban reality the former have to manage, and vice versa,” she says.  This boosts the chances that the “commitment of the city to sustainability can successfully go from theory to practice, and the other way around, from a political idea to a well-planned reality”.

Another among Vitoria’s avant-garde moves was being one of the first European cities to sign (in 1995) the Aalborg Charter — a framework for local sustainable development that called on local authorities to engage in Local Agenda 21 processes.  (Agenda 21, adopted by over 178 governments at the 1992 Earth Summit, is “a comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, and Major Groups in every area in which humans impact on the environment”.)

The city’s Agenda 21 work included the 1998 system (expanded in 2004) of indicators to measure the level of achievement of its goals in various areas, including: pollution, traffic, water, energy, biodiversity and environmental risk.

Vitoria was also among the first cities to sign up in 2009 to the European Covenant of Mayors launched by the European Commission to encourage and support local authorities in the implementation of sustainable energy policies that are to help the European Union to the meet and exceed its target of a 20% CO2 reduction by 2020.

Covenant signatories prepare a Baseline Emission Inventory and submit, within a year, a Sustainable Energy Action Plan (SEAP) outlining the key actions they commit to making. Vitoria has prepared Sustainable Energy Action Plans to 2050 and is one of 12 Pioneer Regions in the ENNEREG Regions Paving the Way for Sustainable Energy in Europe initiative.

Real-life sustainability lab

Chief among the concrete outcomes of this green-mindedness, and an asset that played a role in the Green Capital win, is the city’s Green Belt.  This ambitious project was conceived in the 1990s to solve problems of the urban periphery where the sprawl and industrial expansion of the city — with gravel pits, dumps and other degraded sites — were threatening (via problems like erosion and fire) the several surrounding fragile areas with high ecological value areas such as forests.

Currently including six major parks (several more are planned), the belt consists of a variety of eco-systems. Among these are wetlands (one a designated Ramsar Wetland of International Importance) recuperated to provide a natural flood break for the rivers to the south, rather than the environmentally destructive option of building a system of canals.

In addition to providing biological corridors that support a diversity of animal and bird species, the belt was designed for “eco-recreation” with a network of biking and walking trails that is still expanding, and will eventually take the form of a completed ring.  There are also two lagoons, two bird observatories, a nursery for plants used in the city’s landscaping and active community gardens for organic food production.


Photo by Roberto Cacho

[quote quote=”The city’s Green Belt provides biological corridors that support a diversity of animal and bird species.” type=”image” image=”3577″ ]

The latter is an important element in engaging citizens when greening a city, says Moreno-Peñaranda. Urban dwellers with no farming connection often have low awareness about the ecological impacts of modern agriculture, for example, and do not consider them in their purchase decisions.

“But those involved in an organic community garden will certainly make more informed decisions, hopefully contributing to reduce the ecological footprint of the city. And even more importantly, will be more willing to mobilize for a cleaner, greener city,” she says.

The city also boasts a transport system that is recognized by the UN as among Best Practices in Improving the Living Environment. Planning began in 2006 on this scheme that included the start-up of a tram line and a redesign of bus routes and stops that brought wait-time to 10 minutes. This helped increase the number of users and saw journey numbers jumping by an impressive 43.5% (from 1,129,761 to 1,621,410) during the period November 2008–January 2010.

The plan included a cycling network and a bike-share system too. In addition, disincentive measures were introduced to cut car use, such as new parking regulations with increased fares and the opening of specially designed park and ride car parks.

The ambitious project was helped by contributions from the Basque and Spanish governments, as well as the European CIVITAS program. But the Best Practice fiche also recognized the social contribution to the plan, “including over thirty briefings and participative workshops, as well as the unselfish collaboration of over a hundred volunteers, who provided support in the streets informing citizens about the extent, scope and operation of the new public transport network.”

Green cars and green audacity

So yes, this is one city that has been ‘walking the talk’ for a respectable amount of time.  What with such a track record, it makes sense that this Green Capital does not intend to slow its efforts after 2012.

“We should be much more audacious and ambitious,” former mayor Lazcoz told children (Spanish) at a recent School Agenda 21 event where kids gave presentations on sustainability related topics that concerned them.

And indeed the city still has some innovative plans in the works, including expanding its transport efforts to provide more alternatives that get carbon-spewing private vehicles off the road. To be inaugurated at the start of next year are the first stations in an electric vehicle charge point network and an electric car-sharing service whereby membership allows residents to reserve cars, pick them up at the lot of their choice, and be billed by the hour.

And Vitoria is betting that people will be attracted by the savings offered by giving up individual ownership. “For every share-vehicle we get moving we estimate six to ten cars will disappear,” the city’s environmental planning manager, Andres Alonso told a Spanish newspaper recently.

Vitoria’s car-share will form part of the Hiriko Driving Mobility Project, a consortium that includes MIT and aims to “transform and regenerate the industrial grid in the Basque Country” with the CityCar concept, which are mini electric vehicles designed to be “the cleanest, economical and sustainable solution to meet the demand for personal urban mobility”.

The Basque government’s energy agency (Ente Vasco de la Energía) also has a finger in the electric vehicle pie, having signed agreements with energy company Repsol to promote a network of charging points (with 10 already functioning, in collaboration with a supermarket chain), and with Mercedes to build electric Vito vans.

While there is no denying the benefits of electric vehicles, Moreno-Peñaranda says it would be best if policy makers began to “think outside the box”, and look for solutions rooted on sound science but also with social meaning.

“Some times when dealing with urban sustainability issues the answer is simpler than we might think,” she says.  She gives the example of the bicycle paradox, pointing out that it is a means of transportation being swapped from in so many cities because urban planning doesn’t provide the optimal conditions for its practice, instead favoring cars, especially in the developing world.

“Wouldn’t it have been wiser to stay away from pro-car development decisions bringing massive highways to our cities and take care of the dedicated bicyclers in the first place?”

The (bike) path ahead

While Moreno-Peñaranda admits that overall, Vitoria is an inspiring case (while cautioning that different cities face different challenges according to their local economies, geographical situation, demographics, country/regions in which they are, etc.), she says we need — even in already greening cities like Vitoria — “to keep the momentum and move forward, always aiming at achieving higher and higher green standards.”

salburua park observatory

Salburua Park observatory. Photo by: Enrique A. García Jiménez

[quote quote=”Dr. Raquel Moreno-Peñaranda of UNU-IAS cautions that cities must avoid the paradox of greening while outsourcing the negative effects of doing so.” type=”image” image=”3578″ ]

Further, she explains that a truly sustainable city has to also think outside its own borders. She reminds policymakers that they have to be ever vigilant of sustainable production-consumption, in order to avoid the paradox of greening a city at the expense of outsourcing the negative effects of its functioning.  So, she gives “a yes to solar panels, but not at the expense of pollution abroad”.

Her hopes are “for cities to take care of their local space but in connection to their regional and global influences. A truly green city starts at home, but extends throughout the globe”.

“Urban life and society as a whole are incredibly dynamic, with ideas, peoples, and materials circulating at increasing rates. One sustainability milestone accomplished today can be tiny for facing the challenges of tomorrow. The current breadth and pace of global environmental change and social transformation is unprecedented, and cities are meant to play an increasing role in assuring human wellbeing.”

Creative Commons License
Basque City Capitalizing on Green by Carol Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Carol is a journalist with a green heart who believes that presenting information in a positive and accessible manner is essential to activating more people to join the search for equitable and sustainable solutions to global problems. A native of Montreal, Canada, she joined the UNU communications team in 2008 while living in Tokyo and, after relocating to Vancouver, continued to telecommute to Our World as writer/editor through 2015.