Paris’s Deputy Mayor in charge of greenery and biodiversity – who is of Macedonian descent – tells BIRN that Skopje must make the same tough choices as Paris has done, if it wants to remain liveable.
If a Skopje mayoral candidate ahead of the autumn local elections promised to scrap half the parking spots in the city and repurpose them for more green space, they could be sure of losing.
But Paris’s Mayor, Anne Hidalgo, was elected last year to lead the French capital based on exactly those pledges.
For some time, she has been implementing policies that introduce radically more greenery to the city and reduce car traffic.
One of her closest allies in this drive is a Parisian of Macedonian decent whose parents come from Bitola, Christophe Najdovski.
After serving as a deputy mayor in charge of transportation and mobility in his previous term, he is now a deputy mayor in charge of greenery and biodiversity.
He is one of the 35 deputy mayors in Paris, who like government ministers, each have their own departments.
“We want to carry out a true urban revolution. One in every two parking spots will be repurposed for [planting] trees, lawns, expanded sidewalk or a cycling lane,” he told BIRN.
“We will remove 100 hectares of asphalt from the streets and replace them with trees or lawns. We will transform 100 streets into green oases,” Najdovski adds.
These “radical measures”, as Najdovski calls them, which include transforming the famous Champs-Élysées into a pedestrian zone, are not the only representation of the city’s green policies.
Every other decision made on the city, however unrelated at first glance, is also weighed for its potential impact on traffic and the environment.
The news of Paris’s green transformation has garnered a lot of attention in Skopje – mostly because North Macedonia’s capital has been developing in the exact opposite direction.
Despite having a “green agenda” of its own, it is mostly busy adding more high-rise buildings, more parking space to service them, and more asphalt at the expense of greenery – all catering to the increased use of cars.
Skopje needs to change direction fast
Najdovski who follows what’s going on in Skopje, says this has to change – and fast.
“It is not easy to carry out the same policies that we here [in Paris] carry out, because the two cities are at a different level of development. However, Skopje must undergo a transformation fast, one that the other European cities have been doing for years,” he says.
“I know this is radical, but one cannot have urban policies today without balance in their development, like it was in the 1980s and 1990s,” he adds.
Noting that even Paris was late with making changes, Najdovski says Skopje should learn from the experiences of the French capital, which has felt hard the effects of climate change, with growing numbers of heat waves, hailstorms and floods, all of which were rarer in the past.
“We are literally racing with time – and with the storms,” he says.
Paris has learned lessons, Skopje has not
Paris is a densely developed city many of whose buildings were constructed 100 or even 200 years ago, when today’s ecological, transport and space problems were non-existent.
Today, Najdovski says, a city cannot develop in the same way, no matter how much the construction investors want it and how much the local authorities allow them, as was the case in Skopje for the past few decades.
“They should understand that if they continue the same way, there will be no reprieve, because the city will run out of space,” he says.
“The reactiveness of a city is not determined only by the jobs it offers. It also needs quality of living, and this can be done through culture, education and the public space. Without the streets and parks, there is no quality. It is an entire ecosystem,” he adds.
In contrast to Paris, where most policies now seek to find more space for greenery, not for cars, Skopje has been heading in the opposite direction.
Most of the city’s policies focus on building new streets in order to alleviate the congestion in the existing ones.
Plans are being drawn up to expand parking space. In some cases, authorities face popular resistance when they mull reducing the dimensions of planned new buildings.
In one such case in central Skopje, the local residents complained that they “don’t want more greenery, but flats for their children”.
Najdovski says Paris experienced similar reactions as well, but from a minority of the population.
He believes Parisians have now learned their lessons from the heat waves that repeat each summer, and from dramatically high levels of air pollution in winter.
The movement restrictions in the COVID-19 pandemic have shown Parisians that it’s not enough just to have big parks in one location and vast residential blocks in another; each neighbourhood should have a pedestrian walkway, a park and a public space where the people can go out, interact and relax.
“All of this has contributed to the creation of a big majority that supports these policies … people’s awareness is growing and they understand that even when they are tough, changes are necessary,” Najdovski says.
Trees instead of air conditioners
Paris’s experience has shown that asphalt alone has raised the city’s temperatures in some critical spots by as much as 7 to 8 degrees Celsius, and that even overnight these temperatures do not go down to allow normal cooling and breathing.
Studies have also shown that one fully developed tree can replace five air conditioners, “so, instead of buying air conditioners, we should be planting trees. That’s our leitmotif,” Najdovski says.
This sounds familiar for many residents of Skopje who are also experiencing extremely hot temperatures in summer and extreme pollution in winter.
“That’s why it’s so important to plant trees and create parks, because otherwise our cities will not be good for living. The measures done so far in Skopje are not heading in a good direction,” he remarks.
Reducing car traffic, he says, does not mean citizens can’t commute to work. They just need to consider alternative means, like walking, bicycling or using public transport.
The core concept that Paris is implementing, Najdovski says, is for each citizen to have everything he or she needs within 15 minutes’ walk.
As someone whose parents come from Bitola in North Macedonia, he is adamant that the same concept is needed all over North Macedonia, not just in the capital.
He says that when he visits his parents’ town, he can see the evident depopulation there, like in so many other smaller towns in the country, while Skopje is getting bigger and bigger, and in a way that creates even more problems than it solves.
From around 100,000 residents in the 1960’s Skopje has grown to almost 700,000 according to the latest available data, an almost seven-fold increase in just 60 years.
If this doesn’t change, “We will be left only with Skopje, and everything else will turn into a wasteland,” he warns.