By Raul Cazan, published in 2celsius.org on 13 November, 2011
Vilnius, a fantastically well-preserved mix of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, classical and contemporary architecture, is enchanting the eye of the visitor. And the lungs as well. While documenting for a short climate change related article it bounced as a surprise that the Lithuanian capital enjoys the cleanest air in urban agglomerations in Europe. The answer to such low levels of CO2, CO, NOx or heavy metals in the East-European air of Vilnius, as well as to being an overtly bicycle and people friendly city, must have lied in some really alternative local leadership and policies.
Thus, I wrote a letter to the town’s charismatic mayor. Arturas Zuokas peaked global notoriety following a rather military public-relations move when he drove a tank over an illegally parked automobile and his Youtube viral video became quite an international alternative media hit (see embedded video). As an environmental journalist and passionate cyclist, I was rejoicing in some strange feeling of justice and revenge. On the other hand, watching a Soviet tank rolling on the street in an apparent legitimate mission gives me the chills, brings back a scary image of Brezhnev, and makes me wonder if urban ecology did actually need a PR war-monger.
“Sometimes you need a tank to get your message across,” wrote Zuokas to 2Celsius. “If you see something, you have to do something about that – and this is the only way to solve problems. We have, shortly after this event, strengthened forces against illegal car parking. The number of policemen on patrol has been doubled in the city.” Indeed, Vilnius was one of the first towns to introduce an intelligent city-wide traffic management system (TMS). The municipality improved its control over the rising amount of traffic in the city center causing serious congestion and jams. The traffic system was set-up by Siemens Industrial Solutions and Services Group, in conjunction with a local consortium.
Well, same Siemens indexed Vilnius as the capital with the cleanest air in the EU. Says Zuokas: “talking about air pollution, one of the latest Green City Index made by Siemens company revealed that Vilnius can be proud to have the cleanest air among European capitals. Also infrastructural changes – new bypass roads are being build – help to control and reduce pollution. “
“There always should be balance between all kinds of transportation in the city. We are glad numbers of those who chose riding a bike in the city are increasing significantly during recent years,” the mayor added.
“We are always thinking how to solve traffic problems in the city, especially in the Old Town (included in the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1994 – n.n.). We are investigating most modern and environmentally friendly ideas to implement them into our public transport in the City Centre as well as all over the city. Different financing structures are also being considered.” Public transport, far from satisfying Jan Gehl’s sustainable city, relies on soviet flavored electric trolley buses, gas guzzling buses and a bunch of higher-speed vans named maxi-taxis.
Vilnius has already gone through the East-European trauma of having a bike sharing system implemented when no one was prepared for a non-motorized urban evolution; an older program of the municipality named the “Ride Orange” turned out to be a flop due to massive thievery from the two-wheeled orange armada.
During Zuokas’ first term, the municipality invested in the construction of cycling paths and the installation of bicycle stands, while private sponsors such as Rubikon Apskaitos Sistemos, Utenos Alus (beer), Baltic Vairas (the largest East-European bicycle construction plant), Lietuvos Draudimas, Pieno Zvaigzdes and other firms – had bought the bikes. The 1,000 orange bikes, in a good yet involuntary promotion of green jobs, were ordered from the Siauliai-based company Baltic Vairas.
“Ride Orange” eventually had some downturns. Are you envisioning similar projects?
“Yes we do. This summer Vilnius has become the first city in Europe to offer an electric bike share system, we are also looking forward to implement city bike rental system as soon as possible,” Zuokas replied.
Indeed on the occasion of the European basketball championship, September 2011, in Vilnius, the municipality launched a “Rent and Share” program allowing residents and tourists to rent electric bicycles at four Tourism Information Centers located in the business downtown and Old Town areas. One has to block approximately EUR145 on her credit card and pay around EUR5 per hour in order to get electric on bicycling. Thieves must face top notch technology this time; all electric bikes are being monitored via GPS.
“Everyone should find the most comfortable way to travel in the city. Segway is also one of them, but I often use a bike or electric bike as well. There is no need to advertise comfortable transport,” concludes the mayor, a declared fan of electric transport.
Green space. “Vilnius has number of green spaces that we are up to preserve, develop and manage properly. We are also looking for the ways to expand these areas. In the near future we will renovate one of the oldest park of the city – Sereikiskiu parkas, that is situated in the very heart of Vilnius – in the Old Town near the Gediminas Castle.”
Energy saving in buildings (Lithuania does not have a Green Building Council). “House [insulation and] renovation is a big issue in our country and in Vilnius as well. There is a municipal company that consults and helps citizens to organize the renovation projects, but the program is still moving too slowly. There are some financial incentives from the Central Government, but it seems that there is much work to be done in this field.”
Strategy. “Vilnius has no particular document as Environmental Master plan. But the principles of city development are stated in other relevant plans, as General Plan until 2015, Vilnius City Strategic Plan for years 2012-2020. They include principles of sustainable development, green areas saving and healthy environment creation. Whereas Vilnius is a green city, it has clear objectives to save the best it has.”
PR. Besides riding tanks and Segways, Zuokas ticked something extra in his PR endeavors. He was endorsed in his last election campaign by… Jeremy Irons. Yes, the actor.
Corruption. Zuokas was convicted of bribery and thrown out of office in 2007, merely to return in the last municipal elections.
International relations. Within the same PR/advertising paradigm, the mayor has proposed the Lithuanian government buy an island in Greece to use as a resort – “an exclusive place for rest in the Mediterranean for our citizens, but also a great global advert for Lithuania.”
2 Celsius is a network of environmental journalists and thinkers as well as a virtual media platform for climate change related information and knowledge.