Walking along the city’s streets in Pontevedra, Spain is a joy to behold. Gone are the poisonous traffic fumes and the constant noise of engines revving or cars honking, even the awful noise of young people wanting to share their taste in music with the rest of the world is now a thing of the past.
Instead, all you hear now on the streets of Pontevedra are the birds singing, coffee spoons clinking and the sound of human voices. Teachers herd lines of hand-holding young children across former intersections without the worry that a child could accidentally step out into traffic- none of these things are usual for a Spanish city.
“Listen,” says the mayor, as he opens the windows of his office. From the Calle below rises the sound of human voices. “Before I became mayor 14,000 cars passed along this street every day. More cars passed through the city in a day than there are people living here.”
Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores has been mayor of Pontevedra the since 1999. His philosophy is a simple one: owning a car does not give you the right to occupy public space.
“How can it be that the elderly or children aren’t able to use the street because of cars?” asks César Mosquera, head of infrastructure for the Galician city. “How can it be that private property – the car – occupies the public space?”
Lores became mayor of Pontevedra after 12 years in opposition, and after barely a month of being elected, he had pedestrianized all 300,000 sqm of the city centre, paving the streets with flagstones made of granite.
“The historical centre was dead,” he says. “There were a lot of drugs, it was full of cars – it was a marginal zone. It was a city in decline, polluted, and there were a lot of traffic accidents. It was stagnant. Most people who had a chance to leave did so. At first, we thought of improving traffic conditions, but couldn’t come up with a workable plan. Instead, we decided to take back the public space for the residents and to do this we decided to get rid of cars.”
The first thing they did was to get rid of on-street parking as it was people looking for a place to park that caused the most congestion. Then they closed all surface parking lots in the city opening underground parking lots on the periphery of the city centre. All traffic lights went next in favour of roundabouts and at the same time extended car-free zones in the historic 18th-century area of the city.
The benefits to the city have been enormous with CO2 emissions down 70% and people actually walking or riding a bicycle to get where they need to go.
You can even see an increase in the quality of life for the residents, with the city ’s population increasing while other comparable cities have seen a decline.
Pontevedra has also refused planning permission for big shopping centres; allowing small business to stay afloat during a prolonged economic crisis that has forced similar businesses in other city’s to close.
Withholding planning permission for big shopping centres has meant that small businesses – which elsewhere have been unable to withstand Spain’s prolonged economic crisis – have managed to stay afloat.
Of course, all these changes have had their opponents as well. People don’t like being told where they can’t drive, but the mayor says while people see driving as a right, it is, in fact, a privilege.
“If someone wants to get married in the car-free zone, the bride and groom can come in a car, but everyone else walks.”
Car owner’s main complaint about the scheme is that it has now led to congestion on the periphery of the pedestrian zone and there are not enough parking places available for the number of cars wanting to use them.
“The city is the perfect size for pedestrianisation,” says Pontevedra architect Rogelio Carballo Soler. “You can cross the entire city in 25 minutes. There are things you could criticise, but there’s nothing that would make you reject this model.”
When asked what she thought of Pontevedra’s car-free approach, local resident Raquel Garcia said: “I’ve lived in Madrid and many other places and for me this is paradise. Even if it’s raining, I walk everywhere. And the same shopkeepers who complain are the ones who have survived in spite of the crisis. It’s also a great place to have kids.”
The entire city centre plan was financed locally, receiving no aid from either regional or central government.
“In effect, these are everyday public works that have been carried out in the context of a global project, but they cost the same or even less,” says Lores. “We’ve haven’t undertaken grand projects. We’ve done what was within our grasp.”