Ecocity Snapshots Real cities

Ecocity Snapshots, Chapter 4: Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain: Growing up – not out

Figure 4-3: This historic church serves as a rest stop for walkers and bicyclists on the 91-kilometer network of pedestrian/cycle paths within the greenbelt encircling Vitoria.
Written by Rick Pruetz

Vitoria-Gasteiz is a walkable city and it aims to stay that way. This city of 242,000 people is the capital of the Basque Autonomous Community in northern Spain as well as the 2012 European Green Capital. Vitoria earned that prize by fighting climate change, building an eco-friendly transportation system and transforming abused land into an award-winning greenbelt. Many of these achievements are the result of a compact urban area where everything is close to everything else, including greenspace both within the city and in the surrounding countryside.

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.

Even though Vitoria’s population has tripled since the 1960s, 81 percent of its residents live within 1,500 meters of the city center. Not surprisingly, over half the trips here occur on foot. Despite that enviable statistic, Vitoria is building “super-blocks” – districts in which peripheral streets remain open to through traffic while interior streets are limited to pedestrians, bicyclists, deliveries and motorists who live in the super-block, all at a maximum speed limit of 10 kilometers per hour. This reconfiguration of the right of way converts 70 percent of the space previously reserved for cars into car-free public space. Vitoria has installed super-blocks in its downtown, including the Medieval Center with landmarks dating back to the 11th century. Eventually, the city plans to reduce “private vehicle primary streets” to 43 percent of the roadway network, which will make “pedestrian priority streets” the bulk of Vitoria’s circulation system (European Commission, 2010; European Union, 2012; Vitoria-Gasteiz, 2010).

Figure 4-1: Super-block concepts were tested in Vitoria’s Medieval Center.

Vitoria promoted other eco-friendly transportation modes by building tram lines, improving bus service and adopting new parking regulations, changes which generated a 45 percent increase in public transportation ridership. In addition to a 33-kilometer network of pedestrian paths, Vitoria offers 97 kilometers of cycle lanes/paths in the urban area plus 91 kilometers of pedestrian/cycle paths in the greenbelt surrounding the urban area. As a result, a bicyclist can reach any destination within the urban area in 15 minutes or less (European Union, 2012; Vitoria-Gasteiz, 2010).

Compact development is essential to these accomplishments. Vitoria’s urban area comprises less than 15 percent of the total land area of the municipality but accommodates 98 percent of the total population. From 2001 to 2010, the city maintained that ratio, capturing 97 percent of the municipality’s total growth within the greenbelt by redeveloping underutilized properties at densities of up to 400 dwelling units per hectare. In the two neighborhoods adjacent to 247-acre Salburua Park, the city introduced a policy known as re-densification calling for increases in the densities previously found in the general plan. Although re-densification proposals initially generate tension within neighborhoods, the city has found that residents ultimately learn that these actions improve local commercial activity, safety, public services and urban amenities, such as the ability to stroll through an adjacent natural area like Salburua to see the ducks and deer (Vitoria-Gasteiz, 2010).

Revitalization of obsolete buildings and contaminated land also helps Vitoria maintain its high density. Between 2001 and 2010, the city reduced its inventory of derelict property by 500 hectares, mostly by remediating and reusing brownfields and vacant industrial buildings. Historic rehabilitation also plays an important role, such as the multi-million-euro restoration of an 800-year-old cathedral and surrounding residential landmarks in the Medieval Center. These efforts to grow up rather than out have resulted in an overall density of over 67 inhabitants per hectare in the urban area and puts 90 percent of the population within 300 meters of basic services (European Union, 2012; Vitoria-Gasteiz, 2010).

Figure 4-2: Vitoria-Gasteiz created its greenbelt by restoring abandoned gravel pits, garbage dumps and the Salburua Wetlands shown here.

Vitoria residents are also close to greenery. To be exact, the entire population lives within 300 meters of public open space. These parks and gardens are interconnected and link to the city’s award-wining greenbelt, a string of five large parks that encircle the urban area, forming an unofficial urban growth boundary. The greenbelt features 91 kilometers of pedestrian/bicycle paths for those who want to wander for an hour as well as those who prefer to completely circumnavigate the urban area. Vitoria’s local planning think tank, the Environmental Studies Centre, refers to the greenbelt as an “eco-recreational corridor” (Environmental Studies Centre, 2012; European Union, 2012; Vitoria-Gasteiz, 2016).

The greenbelt parks were former gravel pits, burned areas, garbage dumps and other degraded land that Vitoria began reclaiming in 1992 for multiple benefits including ecology, water management, alternative transportation and biodiversity as well as recreation. The Zadorra River, which forms the northern segment of the greenbelt, was redesigned to retain storm water, create habitat and improve stream water quality, ultimately becoming a Natura 2000 site. The previously-disturbed Salburua Wetlands, located at the eastern end of the greenbelt, underwent a hydrological/vegetative makeover and is now home to numerous endangered species including the European mink, one of the most threatened carnivores on Earth. Today, birds literally flock to Salburua, which has been listed as a Natura 2000 site and an internationally-significant Ramsar wetland (Environmental Studies Center, 2012; European Union, 2012; O’Neill & Rudden, 2010; Vitoria-Gasteiz, 2016).

Vitoria’s Environmental Studies Centre sees the city’s urban green infrastructure as a series of concentric circles. The parks and gardens around the city center, or interior green belt, link to the larger greenbelt encircling the entire urban area. Beyond that lies an agricultural belt covering 58 percent of the city’s total land area. This area has been environmentally degraded by industrialized farming and the removal of hedgerows, riversides and woods. However, the good news is that this belt is still largely undeveloped and the Centre proposes a restoration process that includes the conservation and improvement of natural vegetation as well as the promotion of organic and ecological farming practices that respect native plants, streams and aquifers.

Figure 4-3: This historic church serves as a rest stop for walkers and bicyclists on the 91-kilometer network of pedestrian/cycle paths within the greenbelt encircling Vitoria.

Revitalization of the agricultural belt would improve fertility and the quality of the rural landscape while restoring environmental linkages to the outermost green circle formed by the forested mountains that largely define the municipality’s borders. These forests are well-protected by public ownership and ancient rules governing the use of natural resources such as water and pasturage. As a result, native species make up 91 percent of the forest (Environmental Studies Centre, 2012; European Union, 2012; Vitoria-Gasteiz, 2010).

Building on its accomplishments, Vitoria has committed to aggressive goals for the future. The city aims to continue its fight against climate change by expanding its bicycle infrastructure, superblocks and other eco-friendly transportation options while increasing its already impressive achievements in alternative energy generation with a target of eventually becoming carbon neutral. The city also pledges to retain its compact form, improve the bio-capacity of the urban area and incorporate biodiversity as a structural element in street design. In its quest for connectivity, Vitoria will expand the greenbelt even further and improve ecological linkages within the entire municipality and beyond: “Connecting it with the mountains surrounding the city will provide Vitoria-Gasteiz with a new ecological dimension, linking the city with the natural spaces known as the Highland Belt, and making it part of the great pan-European ecological corridor that runs from the Galician mountains to the Alps” (European Union, 2012, p51).


Chapter 4: Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain: Growing up – not out

Environmental Studies Centre. 2012. The Interior Green Belt: Towards an Urban Green Infrastructure in Vitoria-Gasteiz. Vitoria-Gasteiz: Environmental Studies Centre.

European Commission. 2010. The Expert Panel’s Evaluation Work & Final Recommendations for the European Green Capital Award of 2012 and 2013. Brussels: European Commission.

European Union. 2012. Vitoria-Gasteiz – European Green Capital 2012. Brussels: European Union.

O’Neill, Katie & Rudden, PJ. 2010. Environmental Best Practices and Benchmarking Report: European Green Capital Award 2012 – 2013. Brussels: European Commission.

Vitoria-Gasteiz. 2010. Application – European Green Capital Award 2012-2013. Vitoria-Gasteiz: City of Vitoria Gasteiz.

Vitoria-Gasteiz. 2016. The Green Belt of Vitoria Gasteiz. (Retrieved on June 28).

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.