Ecocity Snapshots

Ecocity Snapshots, Chapter 21: Galway, Ireland: Greening the Emerald Isle

Written by Rick Pruetz

Galway, population 80,000, lies on the west coast of Ireland on Galway Bay, an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, at the mouth of the Corrib River. It is recognized internationally as a center of culture, higher education and commerce. In 2017, the European Commission added to its reputation by naming Galway as the winner of its 2017 European Green Leaf Award, a prize granted to cities with populations of less than 100,000 that pursue ambitious goals for sustainability in diverse categories including urban form, climate action, eco-mobility, biodiversity, and waste reduction.

Ecocity Snapshots: Learning from Europe’s Greenest Places” is Ecocity Builders Vice President Rick Pruetz’ latest book, profiling 19 cities and their efforts to rebuild in balance with nature. We are publishing each chapter on Ecocities Emerging to make this important work available online. Visit Rick’s page for all chapters posted so far or get the paperback at Amazon.

In 2017, Galway adopted a development plan establishing a green network that pursues multiple goals including biodiversity, recreation, aesthetics, health, well-being and resilience to climate change. Galway’s green network incorporates five types of open space. 1) Protected spaces: sites of ecological importance at the national and European level as well as other corridors and nodes identified in the local biodiversity plan. 2) Blue spaces: the coastal resources of Galway Bay, Lough Corrib, the Terryland River and the Corrib River with its associated channels and canals. 3) Green spaces: neighborhood parks and the city-wide parks of Barna Woods, Merlin Park Woods and Terryland Forrest Park. 4) Community spaces: greenways, community gardens, cemeteries, playgrounds and special views. 5) Open spaces: agricultural lands and open space associated with residential, commercial, industrial and institutional uses as well as civic spaces like Fishmarket Square and Eyre Square in the heart of the city. In this fifth category, Galway also includes its car-free zones as open space in recognition of the fact that pedestrian-only rights-of-way like Shop Street and Quay Street offer benefits similar to parks by accommodating recreational walking, albeit within a completely urban environment (Galway 2017).

The 2017 Development Plan supports Galway’s Local Biodiversity Plan by protecting and connecting the city’s diverse ecosystems. The city has 58 wildlife habitats, of which 22 are designated as having high ecological or biodiversity value (Galway 2015). The Galway Bay and Inner Galway Bay complex provide world-class bird habitat and some of Ireland’s best examples of shallow bays, reefs, lagoons and salt marshes as well as habitat for seals, otters and numerous threatened animal, plant and bird species. Three miles inland, Lough Corrib, Ireland’s largest lake, is an ornithological site of international significance as well as a spawning ground for Atlantic salmon (Galway 2017).

Galway Bay is one of Ireland’s best examples of shallow bays, reefs, lagoons and salt marshes.

The Corrib River connects Galway Bay with Lough Corrib and is literally at the heart of Galway’s history and culture as well as ecology. The river’s original watercourse was long ago channeled into millraces that powered 19th century industries and a canal offering a navigable route between the bay and the lake. Over time, the stone walls of these man-made watercourses have been charmingly softened by nature. Today, residents as well as tourists choose to walk beside these streams as the most pleasant as well as the fastest way of getting to and from destinations north of the city center including the courthouse, Galway Cathedral and the National University of Ireland – Galway.

Despite its altered state, the river complex is key to Galway’s biodiversity plan. In June and July, salmon head upriver, leap over a low dam called the Salmon Weir and swim to their spawning grounds in Lough Corrib. Fishermen flock to the stretch of water below the weir, a spectacle documented in countless photographs. At the peak of these runs, people line the sidewalks of Salmon Weir Bridge to watch the fish parade below. The river also forms a blue-green corridor allowing people as well as wildlife to pass through the dense urban area and into the countryside above the weir (Byrne 2008).

The Salmon Weir Bridge is a good place to watch salmon swim up the Corrib River to spawning grounds in Lough Corrib.

For the past 20 years, Galway has been building a second major greenway branching northeast from the wetlands on the Corrib River and largely following the Terryland River Valley to the farmlands of Ballindooley/Castlegar. To show grassroots support for nature, volunteers have so far planted tens of thousands of trees to date in Terryland Forest Park as a first step in a plan to ultimately plant 500,000 trees in this corridor (European Commission 2016; European Union 2016; Friends of the Terryland Forest 2018).

Galway addresses climate change by retaining its compact urban form, redeveloping brownfields, building resilient water management systems, promoting renewable energy technologies, encouraging energy-efficient construction and implementing its progressive transportation plan. In the spirit of “leading by example”, the Galway City Council reduced its electrical consumption roughly 25 percent between 2006 and 2014 by upgrading to energy efficient heating, lighting and mechanical systems. To engage its citizens, Galway conducts training courses in renewables and energy efficiency as well as conducting car-free days in which private automobiles are restricted within various city zones (Galway 2015).

Galway recognizes pedestrian zones like Quay Street as open space within its green network.

Galway’s transportation plan improves public transport coverage, frequency and pricing. The plan also emphasizes pedestrian and cycling infrastructure while increasing private car access to the city center (Galway 2015). For example, Galway rebuilt a primary arterial with bicycle and bus lanes, wider sidewalks and priority features for cyclists and pedestrians at intersections. This was the first roadway in Ireland designed in accordance with the National Transport Authority’s Cycle Manual (European Union 2016).

To further encourage cycling, Galway is building a bicycle network serving major education and employment centers as well as reducing vehicle speeds in the city center. Three long-distance cycleways are also under development including EuroVelo 2 linking Galway with Dublin. Galway’s Coke Zero bike share network opened in 2014 and now offers bikes at 23 stations throughout the city (Galway 2015).

Coke Zero provides 23 bike share stations throughout Galway.

Galway diverts food waste from landfills though a segregated collection system, centralized composting and a pay-by-weight system that encourages waste minimization. Recognizing that households are key to the success of this program, the city holds regular educational events including the distribution of its “Luscious Leftovers” cookbook (European Union 2016). As a result, Galway achieved Ireland’s highest rate of waste diversion from landfills (Galway 2015).

Galway won the 2017 European Green Leaf Award for progress in climate action, waste reduction, biodiversity and the other categories touched on above. But perhaps the most obvious achievement is Galway’s success at preserving and enhancing its green-blue network so that people can enjoyably walk or bike from Eyre Square in the heart of the city and ramble through the car-free streets and streamside paths without any need for a private vehicle.

In the heart of downtown Galway, Eyre Square serves as a major open space element within Galway’s green network.

Byrne, Donal. 2008. Salmon in the city. Accessed on October 4, 2018 from

European Commission. 2016. Expert Panel Technical Assessment Synopsis Report – European Green Leaf 2017. Accessed on October 3, 2018 from

European Union. 2016. Good Practices Report – European Green Leaf 2017. Accessed on October 3, 2018 from

Friends of the Terryland Forest. 2018. Campaign to save the ‘people’s forest park’ in Galway City from road development. Accessed on October 4, 2018 from

Galway. 2015. European Greenleaf Award Application. Galway: City of Galway. Accessed on October 3, 2018 from

Galway 2017. Galway City Development Plan 2017-2023. Galway: Galway City Council.

About the author

Rick Pruetz

Rick Pruetz, FAICP, is Vice President of the Ecocity Builders Board and an urban planner who writes about sustainability, most recently Ecocity Snapshots: Learning from Europe’s Greenest Places and Smart Climate Action through Transfer of Development Rights.