Slovenia as Europe’s Costa Rica: EU’s Green Capital Ljubljana and Triglav National Park

Just back from Ljubljana–the capital of Slovenia–where I met with city leaders on future smart green city possibilities while soaking in the beauty of this 2016 European Green Capital. Because of its biodiversity and strong conservation culture Slovenia could be viewed as the Costa Rica of Europe.
Costa Rica became an international model for its early preservation of its rich rainforests, mountains, scenic rivers and other natural resources. The Central American country has only 0.03 percent of the planet’s land area, yet boasts 6 percent of Earth’s biodiversity.
One’s first impression of Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana (“Lu-blann-ya”), a historic city of 300,000 that banned vehicles from its city center, is of breath-takingly poetic Renaissance streets and riverside walks, thanks to the forward-looking vision of Mayor Zoran Janković in 2007. Ljubljana as well as regional car-free districts in Dubrovnik, Croatia and Corfu, Greece, are human rhythmed centuries-old neighborhoods providing simultaneous glimpses into humanity’s fossil-free past and its fossil-free future.
Slovenia, part of the former Yugoslavia, achieved country status in 1992 after Yugoslavia’s break-up into six nations (Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Slovenia). It has about two million people.
At Ljubljana City Hall (originally built in 1484) I met with the Chief City Planner, the CIO, the Public Relations and Tourism directors, as well as the liaisons for the European Union and city international diplomacy. As a green city benchmarking study author and smart city advisor to cities and national governments, I wanted to explore how Ljubljana can leverage its accomplishments.
Even in the city, one gets the vibe of Ljubljana’s direct connection to Slovenia’s pristine heavily forested hills at the foot of the Julian Alps.
Ljubljana’s water supply flows straight from these high mountains and, since it is so pure, it is the only EU capital whose drinking water is untreated with chlorine or other chemicals. In fact, an app for iPhones helps you find 16 public water fountains around town, even art installations incorporating drinking water into sculpture.
Precipitation is plentiful and frequent: 55 inches annually in Ljubljana, averaging between 3 to 6 inches per month, but why is the water so clean?
Look to its small-scale, nature-integrated farms for the answer. Slovenia’s average farm agricultural production area is among the smallest in the EU with 17 productive acres and six heads of livestock. A typical Slovenian farm will have meadow for managed rotational grazing and a small area for crops framed by an additional 14 acres of privately owned woods.
These forests supply oxygen, support biodiversity, help clean and cycle fresh water, and are key to the nation’s ecological integrity. And, by maintaining integrated crop-livestock systems adjacent to existing native forests, Slovenia’s farmers are true stewards of the land. Additional practices like carefully managed rotational grazing, pasture cropping and silvo-pasturing (integrating trees with forage and livestock production) cause less water pollution than industrial farming or unmanaged grazing, and are ultra high-carbon-sequestering versus uncontrolled grazing and industrial row-crop production. (Conversely, cattle feedlots, non-existent in Slovenia, are one the largest life-cycle contributors to climate change).
Slovenians of all ages, visibly relish being out in nature, which explains the country’s motto: “Green. Active. Healthy.”
To explore the regional ecosystem further, we traveled by bus from Ljubljana some 50 miles to Triglav National Park, where centuries-old grazing and food production (meat, milk, cheese, yogurt, fruit and vegetables) cultures exist harmoniously within UNESCO’s Julian Alps Biosphere Reserve.
Each tiny valley town nestled in Triglav’s Bohinj region had dedicated common grazing lands up-mountain in the Alps, often with cooperative production models. Though the cattle were in the highest Alpine meadows for summer, we could see paddocks for grazing in other seasons that were woven into the small valley towns, interspersed with fruit and vegetable production.
In the Days of Horvat, Head Cheesemaster
The Alpine History Museum in Stara Fužina (pronounced “stara fu-cheena”) is a 20-minute walk along an enchanted meadow bike-ped path from the forested shores of Lake Bohinj, a large glacial lake visibly teeming with trout. The Alpine museum interprets the region’s fascinating pastoral lifestyles. Well into the 20th Century, historic eras for a dozen or so Bohinj settlements were recognized by whomever had the role as the town’s Head Cheesemaster, as in “That was during the Days of Horvat…”.
Small-scale, local-centric food production continues to pay national dividends: Slovenia’s biodiversity is palpable. Hiking up 2000 feet in elevation above Mostnica Gorge, one finds Stara Fužina’s lovely seasonal grazing meadows and rustic huts (again, the cows and their shepherds were somewhere even higher up). We saw more varieties of wildflowers (at least 40) and butterflies in this section of Triglav National Park than anywhere outside the extensive national parks of Costa Rica’s tropical jungles.
The pristine natural habitat of Slovenia is of a quality and on a scale that justifies referring to it as Europe’s Costa Rica. Besides its capital having a car-free city center and chemical-free tap water, Ljubljana has also been aiming at Zero Waste.
Not all is perfect in Ljubljana: public transport can be challenging for visitors to find and pay for (tickets are at kiosks, tourist info offices and post offices, but not on board, and non-European bank cards are not accepted). The city’s longtime bicycle sharing program was hard to sign into online as I couldn’t get past an unfriendly interface, so I rented another inexpensive bike at the city information office.
These procedural matters, however, can be sorted. The takeaway is that protection and valuation of Slovenia’s stunning natural landscape can and should be more explicitly linked to activities in Ljubljana, its green capital as well as in other Slovenian cities and towns. By illuminating food supply chain transparency, Slovenia would be well poised as both a market and model for regenerative food systems, the subject of my next post.
This post is the first in a series of two–the second post examines innovative opportunities for blockchain in certifying Slovenia’s and Ljubljana’s regenerative food system.

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