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27. 9. 2007

My Vision for Ljubljana

Richard M. Andrews
Well into the first year of a new future for the city, with the Euro, it is now time to reassess where and how this beautiful city and its people are being directed. Sixteen years after an opportune and unheralded but welcome independence, the like of which was formerly unknown to the citizens, it is time to review the manner in which this city is being adapted to the modern world, a people’s world of the Twenty-First century, with its Mobile phones, Internet connections, and, of most physical impact on the city, the boom in private car ownership.

As a frequent visitor to my favourite city (and as one who intends shortly to finally move here permanently, to retire) I observe with wonder and considerable concern, several aspects of the manner in which the city is developing, and feel now is an opportune moment to try to set in train a process of thinking, by those in power, regarding the pattern of developments that will shape the city for its future importance in a European, globalised world.

Let me first analyse that which makes this city one of the most enjoyable and vibrant in a European context. Proof of this ‘attraction’ is surely the upward spiraling of property prices, as those informed in-comers, who, formerly, could not buy property here (under the pre-1990 administration) are now given free rein. And why not? Ljubljana is now part of an expanding European world and should offer its qualities to all those who will best contribute to, and benefit from its future.

The city has inherited from its mediaeval past and a very astute architect, a pedestrian’s paradise: it has all the elements of a well-organized walking environment, a PLACE FOR PEOPLE:

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a large indigenous inhabitant population ensuring constant activity on the streets:
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a wide variety of shops with wares ranging from the essential to the luxurious;
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all the accoutrements of a capital city (parliament, courts, theatres, galleries, museums, sport venues) within walking distance in an environment of perceivable and comfortable scale;
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public open spaces ideally suited to festive and celebratory gatherings;
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restaurants and cafés on every corner, for every taste and eventuality;
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a wide range of architectural styles and backdrops on which to feast ones eyes;
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the castle to orient ones-self visually at all points;
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a transverse river giving character to the streets alongside, and fully integrated into the city, primarily through the works of that astute Architect, Jože Plečnik.

These are only some of the positive elements in the city’s firmament, but many pressures are abroad that could seriously detract from the present character of the city.

To identify these negative elements we need to look at the way that the inhabitants now use the city for their everyday lives (they are, after all, the primary life-blood of any city).

In almost thirty years of visiting this city I have seen many changes, many improving its character and its environment but sadly many creating new problems that only firm action by the present administration will reverse.


Pressure for redevelopment

One of the few benefits inherited from the post-second-world-war administration period has been the relative lack of out-of keeping redevelopment within the older parts of the city, due in part to the lack of financial benefit that such redevelopment would have provided during that era, as any new developments gave better and simpler returns on the outskirts. Thus the latest sudden pressure for redevelopment of some historic sites has met with initial favour before any real analysis of the cultural and environmental consequences and impact has been undertaken (Kolizej for example). This has surely occurred because the city administration has yet to clearly identify the manner in which the city should concentrate its future developments. The opportunistic advent of the major out-of-town shopping area BTC has had a significant impact on the character and type of shops in the centre but this is something that will settle down as people become used to the differentiation between the two types of shopping environment. Each serves a need, even if BTC needs better transport links with the city centre.


Transport difficulties

Probably the most significant negative pressure is the invasion of the private car. While it is quite understandable that people should wish to utilise their new-found freedom and wealth in acquiring and using their own transport, the consequences for the city centre have been something of a disaster in environmental terms, when one considers the random parking that has grown over the last fifteen years and which occurs on every working day. Until the people’s perception of this damage is heightened, and efficient and economically beneficial alternatives are presented, such parking chaos will continue, and it is unfair to penalize people for choosing their sensible option, however short term the benefits of that option continue to be. In any event the cost of enforcing such penalization will eventually become too great to be utilized effectively, a ‘negative’ cost that could be better spent elsewhere if the problem were to be reduced by other means. A review of another European city Copenhagen which has spent 35 years solving the same problem is now called for. The rise of bicycle use in Copenhagen has made that city another pleasant experience for its walking population. The introduction of a ‘vehicle-free’ zone throughout Ljubljana’s centre, extending the positive effects already seen in Stari Trg and Mestni Trg, would improve the environment enormously.


Revisions to public transport

I would therefore like to suggest that it would be of major benefit to the city to reassess the public transport system along the following lines. Currently the city has one of the better bus systems in any city in Europe which should be invested in, but the decline in use and consequent excuse for raising prices will be quite counter-productive for users, as was proved in many cities in Britain in the 1970’s:

Short-term changes
a) Modify the bus routes to better serve the desires of the majority of the traveling public; this could be achieved by realigning many bus routes to go from where people want to go from, and to go to where they want to go to (usually into the city centre; but for example, how many bus routes go past the Zoo?). As the new residential population shifts out to the new residential suburbs while usually still working in the city centre, those are the areas the bus services should serve, with cheap and effective direct routes into the city centre.
b) Reduce the actual cost of a bus fare, so as to be seen to be an advantage over the private car; fares should change to being charged on a ‘time’ based unit for the ticket, as in some other cities (Singapore; Stockholm) Thus up to one hour validity, within an ‘inner zone’, might well be One Euro, up to two hours or across two zones: two Euros, and five Euros for use all day; (or some similar variable units of time against simple units of currency) keep the coin units simple as it’s the odd ‘bits’ of money that are one of the disincentives to the use of public transport; especially if you have a child in a buggy with you! And scrap any special offers except season tickets (a ‘single zone’ season ticket might be 12 euros per week). The basic principle should be to keep the ticketing simple to achieve two objectives:
i) people’s perception of cheaper travel and
ii) speedier getting on at stops, for one-man buses.

Longer term changes
c) The next generation of buses should be smaller with more of them and therefore more frequency on busy routes; this would provide more driver employment and ease street congestion, while improving the frequency and therefore improving the perceived ‘service’. Such buses should have modified entry points to ease the inconvenience for those with small children and push-chairs (buggies).
d) Thought should be given to a revised system of bus route layouts; with an ‘inner city’ hop-on:hop-off bus ‘train’ (a modern version of the tourist ‘train’) running frequently (and slowly, so you can get on and off anywhere) on various circular city centre routes starting at the railway station, which should become a Transport Hub. Again these would have a ‘time’ based ticket, linked to the radial bus services serving the outer suburbs, that in turn could terminate at the main station Transport Hub, or similar ‘interchange’ sites served by the bus ‘train’. Thus city centre workers would have a maximum of two trips to get right to their workplace destination. And a traffic-free central area would ensure the bus ‘train’ ran to time and would be a major environmental improvement. Public transport is the future in an era of Global Warming so don’t ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater’ by not investing in the service just when it’s about to show its worth. Easy and convenient Bicycle rental is the other essential requirement for such a pedestrianised city: look again at Copenhagen, which has made it work.


Present Limitations

While I love this city there are aspects of its public facilities that its management has allowed to descend into a degraded state through lack of maintenance or involved thinking (as could happen to the public transport). For example, for a capital city, there is a distinct lack of quality public swimming baths that are open at sensible times of day throughout the year. To have a central, open air baths that only opens at Ten o’clock and closes at 8.0pm through the warmer months, is a serious lack of progressive thinking (Ilirija). Who wishes to benefit most from public swimming baths? Why, those who wish to enhance their health before, or after, going to work; school children with organized swimming times; and the elderly who see this as a perfect way to maintain their activity levels and health. But Ten O’clock? Not very appropriate for those who wish to swim before a hard day in the office (and it is those who will doubtless be most encouraged should the facilities be upgraded, facilities which, in my limited experience, are a sad reflection of the lack of maintenance since the original was built in the 1930’s). Global Warming may well enable such an out-door pool to become a year-round attraction!

Then there is the abandoned pool at Kolezija, west of the centre, but still in an area of mainly professional employment. That has been closed for the last five years or so. Inexplicable in an era when swimming as a form of healthy exercise is becoming increasingly popular. After all, there is now a confirmed connection between active longevity and health, and efforts to keep active into old age should be encouraged; cycling again and swimming are the most effective ways of maintaining adult health and a healthy workforce is a productive one. The pedestrian benefits and delights of Ljubljana are a support for this life-style, but to gain exercise in this city, in other manners than walking (pleasurable though that may be for those who live in the city) is much more difficult for those who, like me, are approaching retirement, and cannot justify the luxury (yet to be provided) of expensive ‘health club’ membership. The subsidy needed for the up-dated maintenance of two pools (which already exist) would be an investment in the health of the city workforce, and provision for the elderly population, with consequent long-term savings in health care expenditure.


What is the future PRINCIPAL FUNCTION of the city for Ljubljana and its people?

Are we to see a major gambling centre? Is it to be a financial hub? A tourist Mecca?

None of these aspects will particularly enhance the city environment; the first an environmental and social threat of potentially massive proportions, the second something that can occur in any urban environment bringing little tangible benefits for such an historic environment. The third is already happening with somewhat mixed consequences (many positive).

But one possible future offers an opportunity to revive the self-generated spontaneity and youthful vigour of the city: to develop the city and its University as a major academic centre along the lines of Oxford or Cambridge in Britain. This could then compete with the Sorbonne or London University as a centre for European Further Education bringing the financial benefits of Research (particularly medical – we have one of the best hospitals for cancer treatment in Europe) on the academic front, while benefiting the local economy through the residential expenditures of students from across Europe and the rest of the world.

The already multi-cultural character of Ljubljana would lend itself to such a future, and I can say that as a foreign Englishman I have never had any problem communicating in Ljubljana, unlike my experiences in France and Italy. The University already has a firm base, and following some 90 years after its foundation, it would be a fitting expansion and up-grading of the Institution to raise its academic standards and expand its intake, even as many other institutions around Europe are allowing their standards to fall in attempting to draw more students. The youthful character and active energy of the city will be enough to bring in the extra students for Ljubljana.

The subsidiary benefits of such an academic expansion would be multiple. The simple matter of providing lodgings for students would generate a boom in residential building in the city and smaller shops, service providers and food suppliers would all benefit. The International Standing of Slovene education would also receive a major boost.


Potential for a new City Park?

Finally, a particular idea that I have savoured for many years, as I looked out from the windows of the staircase of the Architecture school. The major area of agglomerated private open space yet existing within the inner city is made up of the gardens of the historic houses of Krakovo. While one would not wish to remove their livelihoods from the original long-term inhabitants of this area, it is quite evident that as property prices rise, the pressure for redevelopment of these gardens will increase (many houses have already been altered out of all recognition of their historical origins) and the historic open space benefit will disappear. One way to avoid this loss, to preserve this open space as such, and to ensure that the city populace will eventually benefit, would be for the city to purchase the major part of each of the gardens, which would then be ‘leased back’ for minimal ‘pepper-corn’ rental for the lifetime or length of ownership of present residents (the garden plots could be assembled piece-meal under compulsory purchase powers) with the long-term aim of consolidating this land into a new Public Park, within the next fifty years. This sort of long-term thinking was a feature of the nineteenth century, sadly abandoned in second half of the twentieth, and to revive such an altruistic philosophy for future descendants of the present population of this city, would be by far the most beneficial action by the present administration, on a par with those actions of Jože Plečnik when he instigated the building of the river embankments and made it a part of the modern city’s successful pedestrian environment. I hope the moves for such a new park commence in my lifetime.

And a final plea: can someone please repair the ZOIS obelisk, by Jože Plečnik, in Zoisova Cesta. Like the city, it’s lost its point!

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Richard Michael Andrews, B.Arch.(Hons.), M.Sc.(T&CP). Trained as an Architect and Town Planner in Edinburgh, worked in Local Authorities and private practice from 1971 to 1979. Then took up University Teaching in both Town Planning and Architecture finally working as Senior Lecturer at Birmingham School of Architecture from 1989 to 2003, and (for 4 years) as Post-Graduate course director. Visiting lecturer on several occasions at Ljubljana School of Architecture. Now 64 years old, semi-retired, working part-time as Private Consultant to a group of British companies preparing schemes for Care Villages: assisted sheltered housing for the Elderly. Architectural photography a serious hobby. Co-author in first monograph and exhibition in English celebrating the work of Jože Plečnik 1983, Regular frequent visitor to Ljubljana since 1979. Interview in Razgledi 8th January 1997. Hopes to move permanently to Slovenia within two years.

To extend this ‘debate’ contact Richard M. Andrews on rich-dada@ntlworld.com


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