Vitoria-Gasteiz European green capital by design

Vitoria-Gasteiz might be one of the greenest cities anywhere


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EDMONTON, Alta. Jan 6, 2016/ Troy Media/ – Change is hard. Green energy enthusiasts talk a lot about creating more sustainable cities, reducing emissions, and greening up our lifestyle. But then we toil away inside the bubble of our geography and culture while the inertia of our traditions resists innovation.

Shedding this inertia, I flew to Vitoria-Gasteiz in The Basque Country of Spain to take a look at the [popup url=”” height=”600″ width=”600″ scrollbars=”0″]2012 European green capital[/popup]. I was looking for a shake-up and some stimulating ideas about creating new sustainable cities that are resilient, beautiful, and oozing with livability.

Vitoria-Gasteiz could not have been more different than what I was used to. My home city of Edmonton is relatively new; Vitoria-Gasteiz is old, having been founded in 1181. Where Edmonton is one of the most sprawling cities in North America, Vitoria-Gasteiz is only six kilometres in diameter at its widest point. Where Edmonton is in the process of building a huge concrete ring-road that encircles the city, Vitoria-Gasteiz has opted instead to build a massive 1,000-hectare green belt surrounding the city on recovered gravel pits, drained wetlands, and decommissioned industrial parks.

Their decades-long effort at rebuilding nature is creating resilience from climate change and floods while giving citizens an amazing place to live – there are two million visits a year into the green belt alone. In fact, Vitoria-Gasteiz might be one of the greenest cities anywhere. It has an impressive 45 square metres per person of green space and gardens. You are never more than 300 metres from a park or natural space. And the city is green in more ways than just its parks and trees.

“There is a focus on using the biomass potential we have here, because we have 10,000 hectares of forest surrounding the city,” says Gorka Urtaran, the mayor of Vitoria-Gastiez. Biomass is one thing; Vitoria-Gasteiz also uses solar, wind, and geothermal energy, as well.

Vitoria-Gasteiz is a very compact city of 250,000 people and because of its geographical density you are never more than three kilometers from downtown, no matter where you live.

In spite of its compact form, Vitoria-Gasteiz used to have a 12-lane roadway running right through its heart. When the time for change came, planners did something other cities only talk about.

They dug up the 12-lane roadway and built a multi-mode marvel of design for pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, and yes, even car drivers. This is almost never done, but planners simply looked at what modes of transportation were important in terms of numbers of users and then built infrastructure that works.

Today, fully 54 per cent of all trips in Vitoria-Gasteiz are taken on foot, one of the best figures anywhere.

“We redesigned a very high speed traffic avenue into a new river corridor,” says Luis Andres Orive, director of the Environmental Studies Centre when describing the transformation of Gasteiz Avenue. “There were 12 traffic lanes. We divided [the pubic space] in a more democratic way for pedestrians, for bicycles, and also reconstructed the river that was there 40 years ago. That meant a revolution inside the city.”

The result is a stunning; a walkable, beautiful urban landscape, bustling with pedestrians and natural spaces. The city has increased their bicycle trips from one per cent to more than 12 per cent of total trips. Meanwhile, car trips have dropped from 36 to 24 per cent with public transit making up the rest.

Mode shift in transportation is tough, but one of the biggest energy efficiency nuts to crack is renovating old building stock. In Vitoria-Gasteiz, 60,000 homes were built with little or no insulation. This represents one of the largest energy-saving, emissions-reducing opportunities imaginable.

To tackle the problem, Vitoria-Gasteiz has embarked on one of the most ambitious home energy efficiency retrofit projects in the world. It aims to retrofit 750 to 1,000 homes in one neighborhood to reduce energy consumption by 75 per cent.

“There is no insulation at all,” says Juan Carlos Escudero, director of the Vitoria-Gasteiz Environmental Studies Centre. “We have only brick walls and windows. So the possibilities for improving energy efficiency are really high.”

Adding insulation is a no-brainer, but the city also plans to install a [popup url=”” height=”600″ width=”600″ scrollbars=”0″]district heating system[/popup] for the entire neighbourhood. This involves setting up a heat production facility that links to all the nearby homes.

The average cost of the renovations is expected to be €21,000 ($30,660 Canadian dollars) per home for façade changes, insulation, exterior work and connection to district heating, etc., but thanks to various programs each homeowner will pay about €9,600. It’s a €29 million project with €6.4 million in EU funding and €14.1 million. The balance will come from energy service contractors and homeowners.

Change is hard, even expensive. Victoria-Gasteiz demonstrates that it is worth it.

David Dodge is host of Green Energy Futures, a multi-media series presented at [popup url=”” height=”600″ width=”600″ scrollbars=”0″][/popup]. The series is supported by Suncor Energy, TD, Shell Canada and the Pembina Institute.

David is a Troy Media contributor. [popup url=”” height=”600″ width=”600″ scrollbars=”0″] Why aren’t you?[/popup]

The views, opinions and positions expressed by all Troy Media columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Troy Media.

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