Ricardo Rio, currently in his second term as Mayor of Braga, has shown a steadfast commitment to international cooperation between cities: Joining Eurocities in 2016, and serving important roles within the Global Parliament of Mayors and in networking the biggest cities from the North of Portugal and Galicia in Spain.
At the end of last year, his fellow mayors voted him onto the Eurocities Executive Committee where he plans to strengthen the political weight of cities and focus on more coordinated work between city administrations.
More recently, he brought Braga into the Green City Accord. Alex Godson spent some time catching up with this enterprising city leader.
Congratulations on joining the Green City Accord. What green city plans does Braga have and what achievements are you most proud of?
Well, first of all, the environment and sustainability have been at the centre of this administration since I was first elected in 2013, and I think one of the benefits of joining the Green City Accord is that it can reinforce that commitment.
On top of that, we have so much going on. We are investing hugely to enlarge the pedestrian areas of the city. For those that know Braga, it already has a wide pedestrian zone in the centre of the city – the historical zone which has a lot of commerce, and a lot of activities usually when we are not in these circumstances of the pandemic.
Braga has also been placed among the top cities worldwide that are committed to reducing carbon emissions, and I think one of the biggest inputs for this achievement was our strong investment in renewal of the city bus fleet, which is now headed towards running on either electricity or natural gas.
On top of that, we are moving into more dense urban zones in which more people live so that we provide better conditions for them to use the public space, for them to walk with their families to allow the kids to play, and obviously to use their bikes. We are investing in those areas and also creating bike lanes all over the city so that we try to improve the quality of those bike lanes and the safety for users that use them either for leisure purposes or for their current transport.
One of the most important achievements we made has been the total alignment between public institutions, private enterprises, and academia. What we tried to do was to develop a common strategy in which all these partners are willing to play a role and are committed to the same goals of sustainability. And, of course with citizens. That has really been a big achievement – also the recognition that people should be more engaged in this type of project.
It has been a difficult past 12 months. How has COVID-19 affected your green city plans?
Regarding the pandemic, there have been some positive effects: people are looking more towards nature, and are enjoying spending more time in open-air parks and in our rural areas. And from the perspective of resource efficiency, we are more digital too.
Meanwhile, we are doing a lot to ensure people can get about as safely as possible. For instance by fostering the use of the public transport system – that’s not so easy in a city where most people still prefer to use their own private vehicle to get around.
We have followed national guidelines to reduce the number of passengers on each bus, for example, but we also provide a hand gel for each person as they get on and leave the bus, and we have reduced the need for physical payments.
I wanted to turn to look at what is happening on the EU level: one of the debates right now is how cities can be included in the recovery. Has Braga put forward any plans?
Yes, we have, and I am a strong supporter of giving cities a bigger role at the European level. More financial resources can help us enact better policies to respond to the needs of our communities. And I think there are really two main reasons for this.
One is proximity, because we are the ones that know better the reality in each of the territories, know better the needs of our citizens and who have the ability to respond more quickly to their projects and to their ambitions.
And the second one is effectiveness, because when we deal with initiatives at the local level and we have the opportunity not only to implement measures but also to benchmark and to replicate these initiatives among each of the territories, we can also better use the resources, and there are many studies that show that a euro used at local level has a wider impact than another one that is invested at national level.
We have already presented a large set of projects that we would be available to implement here in Braga, for instance we have a project to create a rapid transit system within the city, which would be a significant investment.
We also have a lot of projects in the framework of the renovation wave that could transform old buildings into new facilities and improve energy efficiency.
In terms of valuing nature and our water resources, we have specific initiatives that we are developing. For example, we will create a ‘central park’ you could say, of 60,000 square metres, which will not only help to renew the air quality of the city, but also provide leisure opportunities to citizens who live in the more dense urban zone.
Is the current Portuguese EU presidency a good time to be focussing on social Europe, one of the aims of this presidency, and why?
First of all, we have to take into account that the current pandemic will have very bad consequences from the economic perspective as well as from the social perspective because many more people than usual have lost their jobs and income. Under these circumstances, the European Union and each of the member countries, also the cities, have a crucial role to play to lend a helping hand to lift up the most vulnerable. Braga’s commitment to Eurocities ‘Inclusive Cities 4 All’ campaign shows that we prioritise this. And, in Braga for instance, we are investing a lot in social innovation projects and more innovative responses to common challenges, and I think that is the commitment Portugal is trying to bring from all the EU countries: to have a common strategy and theme at European level.
How does a network like Eurocities help to boost your work?
The first is to strengthen our common voice, because when we work together we can be heard more, and I think Eurocities has this capacity at European level.
The second domain is obviously the exchange of good examples and exchange of good practices between the cities in the network. We are always looking at other cities’ examples, such as the current Green Capital, Lahti, and also seeking to develop common projects, because I think Eurocities not only allows us to replicate initiatives that are being trialled by our colleagues, but also stimulates the development of common projects between each of the cities that participate in the network.