The new life of Ljubljana’s main street

People walk peacefully along the pavement, looking at historical monuments and churches, hurrying to a play at the national theatre or trying to reach the central post office before it closes. They pass by bicycles and gather to watch street artists and temporary installations.

Slovenska Cesta now. Photo by STA

This is a daily scene on Slovenska Cesta, Ljubljana’s main street. It disects the Slovenian capital from north to south and used to be a noisy through-traffic corridor at the intersection of the city’s most densely populated areas.

The conversion of Slovenska Cesta from a hub of noise and air pollution to a hotspot of one of Eastern Europe’s most vibrant capitals began in 2008 when the municipality decided to gradually turn it into an attractive public place.

“By widening the sidewalks and the cycling paths on the central part of the street, the former four-lane road was reduced to a two-lane route solely dedicated to public transport and occasional deliveries. The complete renovation also included an upgrade of the street lights, the construction of new avenues and the renovation of surrounding monumental buildings,” explains Professor Janez Koželj, Deputy Mayor of the City of Ljubljana.

Slovenska Cesta before its transformation. Photo by Matic Kuder

This metamorphosis led Ljubljana to be nominated for the 2021 Eurocities Awards in the “planning public spaces” category along with Utrecht and Copenhagen (the latter ultimately won the award).

For Professor Koželj, “it’s a special honour for Ljubljana to be placed next to cities that are so advanced in terms of sustainable development like Copenhagen and Utrecht. The main point of all this is learning and sharing good practice examples. Sharing streets, buildings, means of transport, services and knowledge will become a general concept of sustainable cities of the future,” he says.

“Shared spaces, like in Ljubljana’s Slovenska Cesta, connect people, testing a new idea of equal space without restrictions, without priorities. By doing so, the community becomes more tolerant and more responsible,” Koželj adds.

A street for people

Slovenska Cesta with temporary tables for citizens to enjoy. Photo by ZaMestoPoDveh

“The initial phase of the overhaul [of Slovenska Cesta] was accompanied by street art events such as optical art floor graphics, temporary installations and social performances,” Koželj says. It was a way, he adds, to test the transformative potential of the street and make it attractive to the local population, which can now enjoy and reclaim the city centre.

“The first small, low-budget changes were accompanied by the staging of different street art events and social performances. This to gradually introduce people to the new shape and purpose of the street while it was being re-designed for public life. We also proved that removing vehicle traffic leads to a revival of public spaces as well,” Koželj notes.

Slovenska Cesta connects two important city entrances, Barjanska Cesta in the south and Dunajska Cesta in the north as well as several cross streets, which in the past meant heavy traffic on a daily basis (an average of 21,000 vehicles per day in the street’s central part).

The challenges to revamp Slovenska Cesta were enormous. The city’s goal was to reduce traffic while improving public transportation, creating cycling paths and more room for pedestrians. The efforts paid off and eventually led to air quality improvement and a reduction in noise pollution.

As part of the experiment, the street was closed to traffic from time to time to test the response of bus drivers, cyclists and pedestrians to the new traffic conditions. The local population’s opinion was considered very important for the new planning and residents’ feedback will provide material for a new book slated for publication in the near future.

Slovenska Cesta under construction. Photo by Vita Kontiå Bezjak.

In addition, the Architects’ Association “invited innovative architects to propose their vision for creating a new and recognisable identity of the main street,” Koželj explains.

“Before converting the street into a shared space, we have been taking into consideration the ability of the community to accept changes,” the professor adds.

For that reason, Koželj notes, “the process of implementing the shared space was one of the most demanding and risky measures we ever introduced in the city. In spite of doubts at the beginning of the project, pedestrians and bus drivers accepted the new conditions with enthusiasm.”

90%of the city’s population approved of Slovenska Cesta’s modifications and can now enjoy it as a hub for cultural events and a platform for urban innovation.

“This project surprisingly works and represents the best proof that people are willing to adopt innovative solutions if they are properly informed and have enough time to experience them,” Koželj remarks.

Raphael Garcia Eurocities Writer