What were your first impressions of the public spaces here?
We had a very extensive walk yesterday - we walked a big part of the city centre and what first impressed me is that Sofia is a green city. You can also see the surrounding landscapes with the mountains so the mountains are always around you. There are also a lot of green parks and trees on small streets. So the green character of the city is quite strong. And what is something that we saw and is valid in many cities is that cars are still very dominant and I understand that this is a big part of the discussion at the moment. During the event, we saw quite strong projects that were initiated to transform the centre into pedestrian areas and to create bicycle lanes but what was clear is that there are still kind of fragments in the city so it's kind of specific when it comes to changes. So that is something I think should be a very big agenda for the city - on a systemic level.
That's a big problem here - the cars are more important than the people. But what should be the first steps for a municipality to take to show that making public spaces for people is not that scary? How the mindset "the car is king" can be changed? I am pretty sure that once a pedestrian zone has been made, people will be happy but the municipality is still afraid of discontent. So what can city authorities do to show that this works?
I think the most effective step is to look at the parking system. Reducing the amount of surface parking in the city centre. But that's a very big topic to be discussed because it affects almost everyone. What I think is a much easier first step is looking for existing streets that are over-dimensioned. What I mean is a few crossings and a few big streets and avenues - like the area in front of the big cathedral St. Alexandar Nevsky. Now it looks like a roundabout with a cathedral in the middle, a big road comes around it, but the intensity of the traffic is not that huge. I think there are several such spots where you can narrow down the infrastructure without reducing it, to cut car parking, so you do not harm anyone but you do create a lot of quality. This could be the first step to looking for quick wins when you do not create opposition, but you will be able to show what quality brings. The next step will then be to rethink the traffic system, to see if you can block streets or make one-directional streets but that needs to be done on a very systemic level and takes a lot of time. Trying to find these places and make pilot projects to transform them into green and pleasant areas will be a good step. Also, it will change the polarization which I think exists in the city.
Some recent initiatives blocked some little parts of streets for cars, also the Saborna Street is now half pedestrian. But people don't feel like it is - they still walk on the sidewalks like they are afraid that cars will still get through the streets. What should be done for a place to be acknowledged as a pedestrian area?
Especially for historic city centres it is important if the street is not used as a street anymore, you should stop designing it like a street because then people think they walk in an area where cars were supposed to drive. In a historic city centre, this is a specific task because in the past they were used for this but now you should green them. That's another discussion that you should have: what can streets that are not dominated by cars look like? They should not be predominantly paved with just a few plants, you can make them intensively green. I think that really changes the atmosphere of these streets and also strengthens the feeling of a pedestrian area, not just a street without cars.
How should public spaces be designed so that they are adequate for people but also sustainable at the same time? Last week, Sofia saw really heavy rainfalls, for example. And I don't think the capital is prepared for such cases. So what can cities do to face climate change?
That's a really big question. I think what we are working on is overcoming or adapting to climate change because we cannot stop it anymore. We should make our cities resilient to climate change. We can intensively green streets, squares and parks so they can store water, and infiltrate water in the ground. And also greening them affects temperature: pavement reflects the heat and this is how the so-called urban heat islands are created. Where you have a big pavement area, it is warmer than where you have a big green area because the green absorbs the heat and stores it and the pavement reflects it. So by planting trees, you create shade. So greening also gives a different agenda and strategy for water and temperature to be better maintained in the city centre. That's why greening is so important.
Our municipality had an idea to make green roofs on old buildings and apartment blocks. Can this help in fighting climate change?
It is a huge project but also focuses on the private buildings because you are greening the roofs of private buildings and these green roofs help to store the water on the roof but they do not help to cool down the public spaces. Of course, it is very important to have them but that's a program in which you need to collaborate with the private owners of the building. But the municipality itself is in charge of the public spaces. I think green roofs are important but they should be part of a big project. It doesn't mean you should not do anything on a street level.
How to fight heat islands, maybe with pop-up parks?
Yes, that helps. There are different strategies how to overcome them and the first is to change paving into a plant, green surface so it doesn't reflect heat. The water also helps - water elements backstreet heat from the air and cools it down.
You have said that Sofia is a green city. I am sure it has a lot of potential, but the truth is that many parks are projected in our Urban Plan but they are not realized. The reason is that the land is privately owned and the municipality had 15 years to buy it but didn't. So it is a problem because the owners want to build on this land. What can be the solution here? We are talking about seven corridors with parks, connected with Vitosha Mountain. But are private parks a possible solution, can they be opened to people if they are private?
Yes, they can. There are many examples of that that you create building blocks with communal participation. It is also what I noticed here - these green wings which are also an entry from the outside areas over through the historical city centre. It is super important to protect them and not to have them built. And you have the existing parks which are nice and I think they can be optimized. The communal gardens also exist, I think it is also a third layer of the landscape which is very important because they can add a lot of quality. If someone wants to build, you may do a green agenda, so they can build only if they also provide a communal garden to the city. If it is not possible anymore to turn them into parks then the city can argue and give an agenda so the builder can contribute to the overall development.
Also, we have many abandoned industrial areas near the city centre, one idea is making new neighbourhoods there, another idea is turning them into parks.
What is crucial - if you want to create climate-adaptive public spaces, they also require more projects to build them, maintain them, to make sure they are effective. So there can be new neighbourhoods, but those new neighbourhoods can be connected with a park, and the resources for building a park can come from the new neighbourhoods.
In your presentation, you have shown examples of street planning that ensures enough places for everybody - pedestrians, bicycle lanes, parks, and cars. We don't have an example of such a street in Sofia. What can be done for this to happen? Maybe the municipality has to be the main initiator but what do we do if they are again afraid to make the lanes for cars smaller?
That also refers to the previous question, I think polarization is a very important factor. If you want to make such a street, it doesn't mean that you should block the cars. You can have open spaces in the city and if you want to make them greener, it doesn't mean that you cannot have any buildings or residential developments. You need to find tools to kind of align these all different interests. We have developed street guides and what we've learned from these projects is that it is not about kicking out mobility entirely, but is for free balance with the agendas. And that creates a base for a coalition, rather than polarization.
We had such a project for one of the central boulevards - Patriarch Evtimiy, that predicted a place for public transport, cars, bicyclists, pedestrians, and trees, but it was not implemented. Again, the municipality is afraid to make shared spaces.
The answer is not only shared spaces, it can also be having narrower streets, and no parking. It is not necessary to share everything on one surface. On the street behind us, you can see there is parking on both sides. You can for example decide to remove the parking on one of the sides and enlarge the pedestrian area so that it is more comfortable. You can also put benches. Shared spaces are one of the solutions, but narrower streets with one-side parking are also a solution. Pushing out the cars entirely is never going to work, we need to find different ways for better balance.
Many cities have low-emission zones (LEZ), and this is also connected to air quality and climate change. Sofia wants to implement them this year. Is this a solution?
Making car-free areas and LEZ is crucial and I'd say that being car-free also goes together with good bicycling and pedestrian networks and public transport. These are things which take time to do and if you don't have these other elements organized, you are not in a position to want people to get rid of their car. The alternatives are really important. There is also one main thing and this is support on a political level. Political support is key.
I saw your project for the railroad zone in Amsterdam's southeast area which is turned into a green corridor. Sofia also has a similar project - it is called The Green Ring What are the positives of such a project?
The one in Amsterdam includes the railway area between the inner city and the neighbourhoods around it. What it did is to transform the area into a connector by greening it and making connections. It created parks in an area that usually doesn't have many parks. Turning this into a green park helps these places that are historically less green. This improves the life quality in these areas and that's why it is very crucial.
In your case with the green line: the peripheral area lack public spaces quality and green parks and the realization of such a project is an easy way to change this because you are not taking away parking, and you are not making anyone angry.