A shopkeeper was once asked if the pedestrianisation of Pontevedra’s historic centre would affect business.
“Well, I’ve never had a car come in to buy a book,” he said.
A little over twenty years later, the plan to put its people before vehicles has propelled Pontevedra – 30 kilometres north of Vigo – to case study status. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo described the project as “visionary”.
Around 41 million people squeeze into 30 percent of Spain’s territory. Spaniards are good at co-existing – they’ve no other choice.
Home to some 85,000 inhabitants, Pontevedra is no different. The inner city is where we all live. And the living is safe and clean and easy.
“It’s the biggest village in the world,” says Bárbara García, owner of Bar El Toro.
Even the weary limbed pilgrims traipsing through its narrow streets on the home straight to Santiago de Compostela sense that there’s something different about the place.
Battling the elements and terrain along the Portuguese Camino route, peregrinos (pilgrims) must earn their cold glass of local Albariño by negotiating one last obstacle: children. A gauntlet of footballs and scooters and underage drivers in remote control cars.
Pontevedra is urban living with the sound down. Rather than honking horns, it’s playful shrieks, seagull squawks, and the low hum of local chatter that form the backing track of daily life.
But it hasn’t always been so pleasant.
“Pontevedra was a place without a future,” says mayor Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores. “Vehicles had taken over public space. It was a city full of pollution and noise and traffic accidents.”
On the worst days, 150,000 vehicles clogged the city. Many crossed town on their way to somewhere else. Others wasted hours each week scouring for somewhere to park, compounding the pollution and frustration. Cars and vans and trucks devoured more than 70 percent of public space. Two pedestrians with umbrellas were unable to pass each other on the slender sidewalks – and in this part of Spain it rains.
Lores, a member of the left-wing Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG), came to power in 1999 and is now in his sixth consecutive term, impressive for an autonomous region dominated by Spain’s conservative Popular Party (PP). The birthplace of former prime minister and author of Politics for adults Mariano Rajoy, Pontevedra has shown at the polls the value it places on politics that also benefit children.
The transformation was radical: the city’s historic centre was pedestrianised, all on-street parking spaces eliminated, and through traffic was redirected onto ring roads. Residents could avail of underground parking, while new parking lots on the peripheries would serve commuters. Lores, however, is eager to dispel the myth that Pontevedra has banned cars. “We are not a car-free city. We are a city with vehicles that are essential to the functioning of the city.”
In 2010, Pontevedra became the first city in Spain to introduce a city-wide speed limit of 30 km/h. In 2019 it reduced the limit to 10 km/h for pedestrianised areas. “Two cars don’t contribute to social cohesion. They can crash into one another, sure, but they don’t interact – people do,” says Lores. “Public space is for everyone, what matters most is the people. Everything else must follow their rhythm.”
Traffic in the city centre has plummeted by 97 percent, emissions are down 67 percent, and an estimated 90 percent of locals now shop on foot – local businesses are thriving. Service parking spaces also allow suppliers and customers to stop outside stores to deliver goods or collect heavy items before moving quickly along.
In 2020, the European Commission awarded Pontevedra the first-ever prize for urban road safety, recognition for the zero traffic-related deaths recorded over the past decade. The fact that 80 percent of children aged 6-12 walk to school by themselves did not go unnoticed either.
“(Those brought to school in cars) often arrive in a hurry, having been stuck in the back seat half asleep,” says Lores. “Children who walk to school are fully tuned in when they arrive. They interact with others along the way and learn. They become streetwise.”
The mayor’s office has more silverware than many Spanish football teams. Awards from New York, Hong Kong, Brussels, and Dubai.
Following in the footsteps of Amsterdam and Stockholm, Pontevedra recently hosted the urban planning congress Placemaking Week Europe 2022 – for a small city, it’s making big waves.
So, any other advice?
Having banished unnecessary traffic, calmed the flow of essential vehicles, and reclaimed public space for public use, Lores recalls how his team set about creating a more equitable society. The city began to give all neighbourhoods the same level of public services (sanitation, energy connections, street lighting, internet access) without exception. “We worked to avoid the creation of privileged zones that would attract the wealthy, expelling those less well off.” Today there are no upper-class or no-go areas. We are all bunged in together.
Lores outlines the importance of creating multi-service neighbourhoods – there are no districts dedicated solely to offices or nightlife, no areas that become ghost zones after 5 o’clock or overrun by revellers on Saturday nights. They opted to promote small local businesses in the centre over the creation of soulless retail areas on the outskirts. The result is a city that is always bustling but never suffocating.
Lores believes compactness is key – it’s about doing more with less. “You have to build up – it’s the most ecological way of living.” Denser communities use land more efficiently; they enjoy a greater range of services closer to home. In Pontevedra, we have schools, markets, clinics, bakeries, bars, restaurants (including the Michelin Star O Eirado), shops, and gyms on our doorstep. Four hours before the arrival of our daughter last February, we walked (slowly) to the hospital 500 metres away. There are no excuses for not getting in the daily 10,000 steps.
“I see 90-year-old women going around town with their walkers – it’s wonderful,” says Lores. The elderly live healthy, independent lives. A Mediterranean diet has been proven as a recipe for a long life, but an active body and mind are also vital. It’s their city as much as anyone else. And they are not left behind. “If Juanito doesn’t call into his local bar for his morning coffee someone will notice,” says Lores. “This solidarity is what makes resilient cities, cities that are better equipped to take care of themselves.”
At a time when cities are haemorrhaging people, Pontevedra’s population continues to grow steadily. “By prioritising people over cars, Pontevedra has made itself a great place to start a family,” says Alfredo López, La Voz de Galicia journalist. Playgrounds, green spaces, and all-weather football pitches and basketball courts are all within a stone’s throw of the main square, Plaza Ferrería. “These are places were kids have to the freedom to be kids,” says López.
Locals regard the city as an extension of their homes; it’s what American urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg called it the third place. We meet friends in parks and squares or by the river. We strike up spontaneous conversations with strangers in the bars and markets.
Cars promise us personal freedom, but urban sprawl has obliterated our collective sense of community all over the world. We have let vehicles dictate the quality of our lives; they have held Irish urban planning to ransom for years. With soaring fuel prices making drivers feel the pinch at the pumps, it now pays to live in an energy-efficient city.
Pontevedra shows the camino other cities in Spain and around the world must follow to rebuild community resilience. We’d all love a semi-d and generous garden, but there are trade-offs to be made and, as shown by Pontevedra, myriad benefits to be enjoyed in compact, multi-service urban areas.
Brendan Boyle is an Irish journalist based in Pontevedra, Galicia. You can follow him on Twitter @BrendyBoyle