Our first few days here in Vitoria Gasteiz have certainly been a whirlwind! We’ve spent most of our time getting to know the city with help from a series of presentations from local professionals. We are also starting to understand the importance of the political landscape here – Vitoria has a progressive new mayor who ran on a platform to enhance the city’s connections to the surrounding greenbelt through a series of gradual improvements on four major corridors. We will be working in several groups to create design proposals for each of the corridors with the goal of bringing the perimeter nature into the city.
Preserving the landscape is a cultural issue here, and the people view the perimeter green belt as an important part of their Basque heritage. They still grapple with pressure for new lower density and sprawling development in some areas on the outskirts of the city, but overall, politicians have kept preservation of the green belt a priority over the opportunity to attract regional attention or new revenue with development there.
Along the lines of preservation, our first field trip was to the Salburua wetlands habitat – an agricultural area that was restored to its natural state in 1998 by diverting the Zadorra River to protect the city from flooding, which brought back many local endangered species and wildlife. Drainage, flooding, and water pollution are major issues throughout the city and surrounding area, and with these hydrological issues come threats to biodiversity, local industry, the agricultural economy and local food security. At Salburua, permeable trails and bird watching pavilions wind through the wetlands where stray piles of wood from woodpeckers house insects which has quickly brought back native wildlife species and bats to the area…all within a 15 minute bike ride of the city center.
One of our hosts from the city’s Center for Environmental Studies, Luis Orive, has emphasized how important it is to continue to maintain momentum towards a greener, healthier city rather than stopping since being recognized as the European Green Capital. Though the city is known as a shining example of sustainability throughout Europe and is an outstanding precedent for urban infrastructure in the US, we will spend the next week identifying nodes for improvement that can connect the many green spaces both on the interior and exterior of the city. Each of our teams has been assigned a different corridor to work with this week, so check back for more updates on our work soon!