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Sustainable Cities in Macedonia: How to make your city a better place to live in?

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   Most of you reading this are likely living in a city. The reason is simple: two thirds of all Macedonians have their home in a city or urban area. The five biggest cities alone – Skopje, Kumanovo, Bitola, Tetovo and Prilep – are home to almost half (40 percent) of the entire population, and it’s not because people were born there and stay; people choose to live in cities. In the last ten years alone, the number of urban population in Macedonia grew by more than 150,000 people, roughly the size of Tetovo and Prilep combined. This trend benefits both the people and the economy. Cities offer better services, more job opportunities, and cultural diversity. Not surprisingly, they also produce most of the country’s wealth: most businesses, industry, innovations and new enterprises, as well as services are located in cities.

More than two out of three Macedonians live now in cities


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Source: World Development Indicators

   However, not all Macedonian cities have grown at the same speed, and some have even lost population to other cities. Although people generally prefer living in cities, they also make a careful choice where to move. For mayors and national policy makers, the question of what attracts people to cities is becoming increasingly important. Mayors don’t want to be seen as governing a place that nobody wants to live in anymore; and they understand that cities are the engines of economic growth, and their strength and economic prowess the window to the world. While in the past the citizens had to fight to obtain a resident permit in a city, now cities are struggling to attract people. The more successful cities are in attracting and keeping people, the better off the national economy will be.

   Cities need to be built and managed with the people who live there in mind. Around the world, urbanites want cities that are walkable, with close access to services, with good public transportation, with clean air and water, and with green parks and open spaces, uncluttered by trash and unmarred by pollution. In other words, people want green cities. If a city does not offer the quality of life they desire, they may well choose to move somewhere else, be it in the region, or anywhere around the world. Local policy makers are gearing up in an attempt to make the cities they govern more attractive. You, as a citizen, have more power than ever to demand change from them. Below are some ways in which your city can become more sustainable, and some reasons why that is important, because, as the Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, cautioned, “going green is the only path to long-term prosperity that we have.”

   Cities in Macedonia are becoming less pedestrian-friendly -- they are sprawling out and losing density. In Skopje, for example, the number of dwellings has been increasing around three times as fast as the number of households during the last five consecutive years. People want more space, but this drives up the costs of services. For example, water and sanitation networks, roads, street lighting and other infrastructure need to be extended into new neighborhoods. People and goods have to travel greater distances, burn more fuel and spend additional time in traffic.  Garbage collection and other public services need to cover larger areas to serve the same number of people. Examples from other countries have shown that people move back to city centers if these offer good quality public infrastructure and services and an attractive mix of economic and recreational activities. Local authorities can influence dwelling patterns through investment decisions and good urban planning that provide incentives for citizens and enterprises. Shaping those mixed-use neighborhoods should be one of the priorities of mayors and urban planners in Macedonia. While this will require better and more integrated planning across different departments in a city’s administration, it will also need better enforcement of existing planning regulations, such as building permits, parking zones, and business licenses.

Skopje is sprawling out

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Source: World Bank

   A clean and healthy urban environment is equally important to citizens around the world. Today, only five cities in Macedonia have proper wastewater treatment: Ohrid, Resen, Doiran, Makedonski Brod, and Sveti Nikole. In all other cities, wastewater is discharged in the rivers without any treatment. As a result, the Vardar River enters Skopje as “Category II” in terms of pollution, and leaves the city as “Category III” or even “IV”. Imagine the River Vardar instead as an urban swimming pool, just like the inner city harbor in Copenhagen. This would, of course, require significant investments in wastewater collection and treatment infrastructure. A great opportunity to make this happen is by mobilizing the grant funding that has been made available to Macedonia for that purpose by the European Union and other entities.

   The right infrastructure is a great start. However, it also needs to be maintained properly. This can be a challenge for cities which are now forced to invest heavily in new infrastructure in sprawling urban settlements, leaving little money for maintenance of existing infrastructure. As a result, the quality of services decreases, and the systems become more expensive to operate. Take the water system in Skopje as an example: although the distribution network benefits from a good original design that uses gravity and needs only little electricity to pump the water, it is showing its age and the accumulated effect of little maintenance year after year. The old water pipes break often, and leakages cause high losses. Indeed, as comparative data indicate, technical water losses in the City of Skopje are among the highest in the region. The same is true for most other Macedonian cities, with Gostivar, Struga, Kavadarci, Kocani, and Stip in need of greater focus on repairing existing networks rather than expanding into new areas.

   Public transportation is another example of improper infrastructure maintenance. As urban transport systems crumble, people switch to private modes of transportation. In Macedonia, ridership has decreased sharply from 164 million people transported in 1988 to only 64 million people in 2010, a decrease of 100 million in just over 20 years. Part of the increasing use and number of private vehicles is to be attributed to higher incomes of city dwellers. However, expanding the network and improving the quality of public transport services can help attract old and new customers as the example of Skopje shows.  Ridership in the city has increased substantially with the introduction of the new red double-decker buses. In 2011, Skopje public buses carried 10 percent more passengers than in 2010. Investments in the public transport infrastructure and modes of non-motorized transport, such as bike lanes and sidewalks, can contribute to reducing the number of private vehicles congesting city streets and sidewalks, and thus shortening transportation time and reducing air pollution.

Negligence of existing infrastructure causes losses and decline

Percentage of Non-revenue Water in Selected Cities

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Source: World Bank

People Using Urban Public Transport in Macedonia

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Source: Statistical Yearbook of the Republic of Macedonia

   Citizens also expect general cleanliness in their cities. Nobody wants to live next to a smelly dumpsite where garbage covers the surrounding roads and run-off leachate from waste pollutes soil and groundwater. Macedonian cities are in charge of waste collection and disposal. Ensuring regular waste collection in all streets and neighborhoods can be achieved with fairly limited means and often is a matter of organization and logistics. Even simple recycling techniques can reduce the amount of waste that is delivered to a landfill. At the same time, establishing and operating a modern sanitary landfill with minimum negative impacts on the environment is expensive. To date, not a single landfill site in Macedonia meets the criteria set by the European Union. But cities and municipalities can collaborate: regional waste management systems in which a number of municipalities share joint facilities reduce the per capita cost for their citizens. Some regions in Macedonia have made progress and plan to establish regional landfills and recycling centers. This process can be accelerated to improve the cleanliness of cities and even create jobs, e.g., in the recycling industry or other related services which are also beneficial for the environment.

   Promoting ‘green growth’ policies and building more sustainable cities is not only about the environment. Implementing a green growth strategy will help Macedonia encourage local economic growth and increase employment, reduce energy costs and resource consumption, and thus ultimately also lead to an improved quality of life in the country.

More on Macedonian Green Growth and Climate Change Analytic and Advisory SupportProgram 

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