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Valencia: from Spanish tourist city to Green Capital of Europe

Valencia has long been one of the sunniest cities in Spain, thanks to its privileged location on the Mediterranean. Now, it can also claim to be the most sustainable, after winning the coveted title of Europe's Green Capital .

The European Commission cited Valencia's 5 million square meters of green space. According to the Commission's report, 97% of residents live within 300 meters of a large green area. Whether it's the popular sandy beaches of the Mediterranean or the marshy lagoon of the Albufera where Valencia's paella rice is grown.

The title of Green Capital is awarded annually to a city in Europe that sets an environmental example for others to follow. The European Commission awards 600,000 euros ($656,000) to the winner to fund more sustainable programs.

The real prize, however, is the marketing push that accompanies a city’s certified green credentials. Previous winners have included Tallinn, Estonia, and Oslo, Norway, among others.

“I think it is a recognition by the European Community of our common work”, says Paola Llobet, Valencia's Tourism and Innovation Councilor. “It’s something that we, as a community, have been building for years, within the neighborhoods. We have protected our orchards, our beaches, our sea, the Albufera natural park and much more.”

Potential visitors need only look at a city map to see the most impressive example of Valencia's green spaces: the Turia Natural Park a nine-kilometer-long converted riverbed that runs through the city.

City of Arts and Sciences

After a deadly flood in 1957, the river was rerouted and the Turia it was slated to become a multi-lane highway. Public opposition thwarted the development, however, giving rise to a movement demanding more green space in the city center. Today, the Turia has become a precious community space: a green ribbon that connects the orchards on the outskirts to the Mediterranean Sea.

Weekends are filled with football, rugby and baseball games at one of the park's many sports facilities. On a sunny day, families picnic under cypress groves, while amateur climbers and acrobats test their skills by climbing or spiraling down some of the stone medieval bridges that still cross the park.

Valencia is also home to City of Arts and Sciences , the futuristic masterpiece by Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava – today one of the city’s biggest attractions. Its bright white curves and skeletal supports give it a space-age design, making it a favorite filming location for sci-fi films and series, from “Star Wars” to “Westworld.”

The love for cycling was what led Giuseppe Grezzi , an Italian in Valencia, to get involved in local politics, becoming the city's councilor for sustainable mobility for eight years. His proudest achievement: increasing the city's bike lanes by more than 50%. “The city is flat. The weather is perfect! I wish I could cycle everywhere,” he said after participating in a community meeting to discuss Valencia's Green Capital status.

“We transformed the city. I was proud to be part of it. We have implemented many policies to protect public space, to make the city greener, with more pedestrian zones and to reduce pollution.” During his tenure, the city invested money in sustainable transportation, expanding a new metro line, installing public bicycles and adding nearly 200 kilometers (120 miles) of bike lanes that connect to several “green routes” outside the city.

“Km0” products and sustainability

Valencia is surrounded by orchards and vegetable gardens.

The other benefit of all this greenery is Valencia's abundance of fruits and vegetables. The city is surrounded by La Huerta , more than 120 square kilometers of orchards and vegetable gardens whose products are sold in Valencia's municipal markets. The European Commission has highlighted the city's food and neighborhood program as it pushes for “km0” food, a movement that advocates growing and processing food in the same place where it is sold and consumed in order to reduce transport costs and emissions of carbon.

O Valencia Central Market It's a good place to see this in action. Almost 300 fruit, vegetable, fish and meat vendors sell their wares in a huge modernist hall. The day begins before dawn, when hundreds of vehicles begin unloading fresh produce from the surrounding area, including bushels of Valencia's famous oranges. Although it has become a popular tourist attraction, the Central Market is still used by locals. About 80% of customers are local residents, according to the market. This includes a growing number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the city.

In 2005, the chef Begoña Rodrigo opened his restaurant, La Salita , to showcase local ingredients from the Valencian region. In 2019, Rodrigo won a Michelin star for his innovative menu that “elevates vegetable cuisine to new heights”.

Political disputes

Not everyone is happy with plans to expand Valencia's port to bring in tens of thousands of tourists.

Not everyone is happy with plans to expand the port of Valencia to attract tens of thousands more tourists. However, there are still major environmental challenges ahead for the city.

No less important is the change in the political environment. Valencia's Green Capital proposal was initiated during the city's previous administration, a coalition of left-wing parties known as Compromis. The 2023 elections brought to power a coalition between the center-right Popular Party (PP) and the far-right Vox, a party that denied the existence of climate change.

This worries Giuseppe Grezzi , former councilor for sustainable mobility. “Many of our projects simply stopped. Many are now paralyzed by the current administration,” he said. “So we are very concerned about this, whether it will continue. Because this strategy should not be partisan, nor just linked to one party. The whole city should be involved in this.”

Paola Llobet, current councilor for tourism and innovation, states that although some projects are being reevaluated, the current administration is still committed to achieving sustainability objectives.

“Maybe we have a different way of achieving our objectives, different public policies,” she said. “But the objective remains the same: to have a sustainable city and a better quality of life for the people who live here and for the people who come to visit us.”

A critical point is Valencia's commercial port and cruise terminal. A proposal to expand the port, potentially attracting tens of thousands of new tourists a year, is being considered. The current administration is also exploring the possibility of adding new direct flights from the US to Valencia International Airport.

Cities such as Barcelona and Venice, however, have struggled to cope with the large number of arriving tourists. Even for those who work in tourism there is concern that Valencia could suffer the same fate.

“If they manage to limit tourism, whether by cruise ship or plane, it may be necessary to set a limit,” a tour guide, who declined to be named, told CNN Travel . “I worry that at some point the numbers will become unsustainable.”

For Llobet, this means using technology to alleviate the impact of tourism in Valencia. She has started a project to produce “heat maps” of the city that tourists and guides can use to show which areas are most congested, suggest alternative routes and encourage tourists to visit other places in the city.

“We have a lot of data. We are measuring air pollution; noise pollution and we are starting a project on carbon emissions.” Llobet said: “We want the impact of tourists to be positive. You know, 70% of employment in the city depends on the service sector which is absolutely linked to tourists.”

Perhaps the most visible environmental challenge is the tradition of Valencia's “Fallas”, a spring riot of noise, color and pageantry that takes a heavy environmental toll. Tens of thousands of people visit the city every March to take part in a succession of elaborate parades and fireworks extravaganzas. Giant colorful statues are displayed in neighborhoods across the city and then set on fire at the end of the festival. The result is often clouds of black smoke from burning polystyrene and petroleum-based products.

Sustainable traditions

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This year, in honor of its status as a Green Capital, Valencia celebrates its first “Fallas Verdes”, providing financing for neighborhoods to build with environmentally friendly alternatives such as papier-mâché and wood.

The objective is to celebrate the “Fallas” with fully sustainable materials by 2030 .

This year, the centerpiece of the “Fallas” is a giant two-story statue being built in front of City Hall called “2 Doves, 1 Branch”. A plea for peace depicts a pair of white doves carrying an olive branch. The structure is constructed of wood, papier-mâché and Neops, a foamy alternative to polystyrene made from plant waste, such as waste from the processing of wheat and cereal grains.

Still, it is difficult to impose environmental limits on cherished traditions. After the interview, Llobet invited CNN Travel to go to the main balcony of City Hall to see the “mascletà”, a daily fireworks display during the first 19 days of the festival. Each day is hosted by a different Valencian neighborhood community known as a “fallero”.

Just before two in the afternoon, a group of specially selected “fallera”, young women and girls in elaborate traditional costumes, accompanied the mayor to signal the start of the “mascletà”.

After a single shot comes a steady burst of booms, followed by the piercing scream of fireworks exploding into white stars, almost invisible against the blue sky. What was visible, however, were clouds of smoke. As the local broadcasters breathlessly explained on the balcony, the art of the “mascletà” is not the light show, but the rhythm and crescendo of the sound, culminating in a deafening barrage of thunderous, exhilarating noise and smoke.

Llobet admits that it is difficult to make “Fallas” a truly green event, but his goal is to make it a more sustainable tradition.

“We are working with different “falleros” to improve the use of plastic and waste, the use of water. Every year we try to improve a little more,” she said. “But we have more than 100 thousand “falleros” in the city. One in each square or block. So really, it’s our way of life.”

Source: CNN Brasil

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