A Local Green Turn
On a hot day two Bulgarian architects and two engineers from Sweden and from Denmark drove some 500 kilometres to Gorna Malina, a small town 30 kilometres south of Sofia. At the end of the journey they were to construct the first solar district system in Bulgaria and the Balkan peninsula. Waiting for their their innovative and unique project was the town’s mayor, Andrey Jilanov – a bold man in charge of Bulgaria’s first green municipality.
Back in 2011 the community of 6,000 inhabitants voted to become the first mining-free municipality in Bulgaria. This was the beginning of the road for Gorna Malina to becoming Bulgaria’s first green municipality. To a country rich in underground resources, the local vote came as a surprise! To its mining industry, used to getting its way with everything it, it was an outright shock. The 2011 referendum ruled that there was no place for mining projects in Gorna Malina: neither for hazardous waste depots nor any other polluting or hazardous activities or industries..
And things did not stop there. Once local people managed to stop mining, they realised that this was not enough and were ready to move on to accomplish environmentally sustainable development in their community, explains Borislav Sandov. A green activist and aspiring politician at the time, he was contacted by a group of Gorna Malina citizens for advice. “Stopping a single dangerous project doesn’t make for a better living; they needed something more, and for this they had to achieve the power of local government”, Sandov explains.
A TTIP-free municipality
A couple of years later, in 2014, the inhabitants of Gorna Malina elected their green mayor – Angel Jilanov. One of his very first decisions was to proclaim Gorna Malina the first Bulgarian municipality free of the Trasnsatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP). Soon after, several other Bulgarian municipalities followed suit: Lovetch, Karnobat, Rakitovo, Chavdar and Tundja.
Another shock for the mainstream pro-industry and political status quo of Bulgaria came when Gorna Malina decided to create a new nature protection area in addition to its two already existing ones. Typically in Bulgaria, protected environment zones are created under the country’s Environment Protection Act. But instead, the town’s council did it this time through a new municipal master plan. This was unprecedented. The new protected area is situated close to Zvezdets – the highest mountain peak in the region.
Having a green master plan is not just beneficial for protecting nature. It is also crucial for the local community and provides a sense of long-term stability for local business as well, the mayor explained.
“There will be no compromise in our attitude to nature – our goal is to guarantee that no unregulated intervention will ever be possible”, says Jilanov. He believes that his fellow citizens deserve strict protection of their ability to leave nature clean for their children.
A third shocking decision in Gorna Malina was in regards to two areas protected under the EU’s Natura 2000 network within the municipality. The town’s council requested the right to manage these zones itself- not to undermine protection and enable construction, as happened elsewhere, but to strengthen and properly manage the areas. The Ministry of Environment was asked to transfer the management of both Natura 2000 sites to the local municipality. “Yes! We want to manage the Natura 2000 sites ourselves because we need to build management capacity as a green municipality”, Jilanov exclaims, adding, “When we manage these sites by ourselves, we’re able to do it better than the Ministry – our attitude to nature is much deeper than that of government bureaucrats”.
Caring for local environment is the most obvious aspect of green governance in Gorna Malina. The municipality is located at the feet of a mountain and amidst vast fields that gradually pass into forests. Illegal logging is a common problem for Bulgaria’s mountainous municipalities, and mayor Jilanov is determined to stop this as well. And he believes that the current level of protection is simply not sufficient to achieve this.
At the same time, a lot of new opportunities for business become possible when nature is left intact. Ecological farming is a huge one. It is also possible for locals to make a living from nature, inspired by activities such as herb collecting, wood art and crafts.
Ecological tourism is the most obvious prospect. Tens of different places of interest in the region already attract tourists, including two monasteries in the villages of Aprilovo and Gaytanevo, a church and museum house of Bulgaria’s celebrated writer, Elin Pelin, in Baylovo, and several caves with ancient drawings, a hydro-park, and an art center in Dolno Kamartsi. There is an open ranch with scouts camps for children in Makotsevo as well as several monuments and memorials in Sarantsi and Chekanchevo, and the area also features several eco-tracks, including one that leads to the protected Zvezdets peak.
A green master plan is crucial for the local community.
The city council wants to create more eco-tracks, and guesthouses are being built in most of the villages around the region. There is already a municipal strategy for developing ecological tourism, Sandov explains. It is entirely focused on sustainable tourism and based on the existing infrastructure with many new additions to come. New guesthouses will be needed, but with a greater number of places of interest as well as increased adventure opportunities, the local economy is sure to get a boost. To the mayor, green tourism seems a logical, natural way of promoting growth for the region.
Bulgaria’s first solar district heating
Energy, especially in terms of heating for buildings, is believed to be one of the major sources of pollution. Therefore, energy transition is a major point of the new governance program in Gorna Malina.
Solar district heating is a technology that could bring a lot of benefits to any town in Bulgaria, considering the abundance of sunshine in the country. Jilanov is especially interested. At the end of July, he welcomed a team of architects and engineers from Varna to present a detailed solar district heating (SDH) project, the first in Bulgaria. The draft consists of 1,000 SDH solar panels – essentially big thermal solar collectors – and a 6,000 cubic meter thermal storage tank. Such a solar district heating system will be enough to provide heating for three major public buildings: the school, the kindergarten and the sports hall. There are several scenarios and one of these is unique for its innovation feature that the world of SDH has never seen before. Jilanov listened to the presentation in perfect silence. At the end, he declared that the innovation feature design is the one he wants to build in Gorna Malina. Still there is no funding for the project.
“SDH can easily be implemented in small municipalities. The greatest challenge is that a completely new infrastructure is necessary. There are no existing district heating networks in the small towns, hence an additional investment would be needed for the pipelines“, explains Milan Rashevski, an architect from the Institute for Zero Energy Buildings in Sofia. He’s one of the architects behind the unique SDH design for Gorna Malina. “On the other hand, a newly built district heating infrastructure would be a modern one, in contrast with the existing district heating systems in some big cities. Those are inherited from the 70s and 80s of the last century and are already too old.”
Gorna Malina has great ambitions but limited resources, the mayor admits. “We don’t have the resources for such projects. We are exploring all the possibilities to use the existing EU funding schemes.” A possible scenario for the first green municipality is to apply for the Norwegian funding scheme that has proved to work well in Bulgaria. There are also some opportunities to apply to programs for small innovative projects.
“The budget is a huge issue when talking of large-scale projects”, Rashevski adds. “It’s not just a question of having money or not; it is a question of how the whole country is organised. The problem is that budgets are allocated in a centralised way. Local authorities are not autonomous – they are dependent, politically and financially, on the central government.” Rashevski believes a solid approach is desperately needed to provide financial independence for the small municipalities. “When people feel their taxes are going into the municipality, that makes them active, willing to put efforts into the well-being of their towns and villages”.
A new SDH system containing an innovation feature would be also in line with the sustainable tourism policy of Gorna Malina. “Research tourism” may boom. As there is no other SDH system in the Balkans, the installation in Gorna Malina may become interesting to engineers from all the neighbouring countries who may want to come and explore the system. Such “research tourism” is already familiar in Europe. In Denmark, for instance, the first SDH installation was built on an island, and it gets 30,000-40,000 visits every year as engineers from different countries go there to study the system. The biggest SDH in Marstal is getting a lot of research visits, too. Another example is the village of Wildpoldsried in Germany that produces 500% more energy than it needs. Guided tours for students and researchers are regularly organised there as well. “To Gorna Malina, this may be new business for the locals: new jobs and new sources of income”, Rashevski says.
Aspiring energy independence
While surveying the opportunities to build the first SDH system in Bulgaria, the mayor of Gorna Malina is working on a program for replacing all the existing heating systems with highly efficient wood burners that produce almost no pollution.
There is a long-term strategy for an energy-independent municipality based entirely on renewables. “It is to be voted on at the end of the year and should cover the period of 2030-2035“, Borislav Sandov explains.
“We are talking of energy independence. At this moment it is still just a dream”, Jilanov says. The lack of administrative capacity at the municipal level is hindering his efforts, as the municipality limits the financial resources that could be used by the local authority. But even given these hardships, Jilanov doesn’t give up. He goes even further.
Despite the lack of financial resources, the mayor of Gorna Malina goes crazy when he hears of innovations. His dream is to create a “Green innovation hub” in Gorna Malina. He already has in mind the perfect place: an old military terrain of 837 decares that was transferred to the municipality.
“The idea is to make a demonstration centre for all sorts of green technologies and innovations. Of these 837 decares, 250 are a part of a Natura 2000 site. So we can apply for funding through the LIFE+ program of the EU”, Jilanov says.
The place can demonstrate the cumulative effect of different green technologies. There may be a a passive house on the site, some organic production “factory”, an SDH network, an electric vehicle charging station, etc. There definitely must also be an educational centre for children. People, business managers and school classes from all over Bulgaria will be able to come and see what green technologies exist today. “People would be able to touch the technologies of the not-so-distant future”, Jilanov says.
When people feel their taxes are going into the municipality, that makes them active.
Reuse is a part of the strategy, too. The old military buildings may be refurbished and used for the demonstration center.
The “Green Tech Park” is another dream project for the municipality. It is to be located on a 146-decare plot owned by the municipality. The tech park will be located close to the railway station and near a road that goes from Gorna Malina to Sofia, thus providing easy transport connections.
Officially there is nothing on the site right now. The plot is dedicated for “warehouse and logistics”. On the other hand, a lot of infrastructure features are available: a “dark fibre” optical “highway” and a major power transmission line. The municipality is ready to provide another power line though a substation in Aprilovo as well.
Again, a lack of financial resources is hindering the project. The municipality has divided the terrain in 12 pieces so it can start building the tech park piece by piece.
“We are taking on the technological experience of Stuttgart – a city that evolved in the same way. They created tech parks piece by piece: when one division was finished and already working, they started the other piece”, Jilanov said. He visited Stuttgart to get a firsthand look of their experience. The mayor now says this is the only way to do it – the municipality simply has no money or administrative capacity to to it all at once.
The green tech park is supposed to help innovative green startups. “There are several types of businesses that may feel comfortable there”, Borislav Sandov says. “These include electric cars, renewable technologies, construction and organic production, IT too.”
Jilanov is not afraid the project may follow the failure of Sofia Tech Park, a notorious endeavour of the Bulgarian government, plagued by property speculation allegations. “We’re not worried. We firmly believe what we do is a matter of national priority – these tech parks should work for the young people who come out of the universities”, says the mayor of the green municipality. “As they finish their education, they come out and fall into a vacuum… These tech parks give them an opportunity to organise and create startups, get help for development and create innovations.”
If all goes well, Gorna Malina may become an attractive place for people from Sofia willing to avoid the noise of the big city. Sofia is already one of the most polluted cities in Bulgaria and all of Europe. More and more people are seeking to leave Sofia. Gorna Malina may be the place to live and work.
And IT companies may be among the first to move to Gorna Malina, as most of them are software outsourcing companies, and it is important to their clients where the company is located. And for the workers it may be a more comfortable, calmer place to live as well. Being close to the big city, half an hour away from Sofia, they can still enjoy the social life of the capital and also have their calm retreat among the forests and mountain hills.
Gorna Malina is a fantastic place for families, too. There is a kindergarten and a school in the town, and the sports hall is open all day long.
To those who decide to move but still have to visit Sofia from time to time, transport will be an issue. The towns council is aware of the problem and already working on several ideas.
To improve the transport connection to Sofia, the city council will apply for a grant to buy electric buses. This way it will be able provide ecological transport between Sofia and Gorna Malina. There is already a national subsidies program for municipalities willing to buy electric or hybrid vehicles, and as of 2017, the National Trust EcoFund provides financial support for M1 electric vehicles. The subsidy amounts to BGN 20,000, which is approximately 10,000 euros.
Another option under consideration is the development of rail transport. There is an existing railway track that runs near Gorna Malina and even a railway station. Currently it looks deserted, but it can be revived. As it is located outside the town, some shuttles may be needed to transport people between the town and the station.
Providing railway transport will be a matter of discussions with the Bulgarian Railroads Company. Mayor Jilanov wants to suggest the idea of organising short-distance trains from Gorna Malina all the way to the Sofia metro, similar to the S-Bahn in Germany. That type of interconnection is familiar in the rest of Europe but still not popular in Bulgaria.
In the meantime, the green municipality is working hard on improving the connections between the little towns and villages throughout the region. Roads are being repaired and bike lanes are being created. A lot of people prefer to ride bikes instead of driving cars, the mayor says.
The toughest battle: waste
Although the energy transition of a whole municipality is a hard challenge, what may be the toughest battle for Gorna Malina is actually waste management. The long-term goal of the green mayor is to create a zero-waste municipality. Recycling and reusing should be encouraged so that every single piece of thrash can be turned into something useful. However, a regional waste collection system with a big waste depot is growing near Gorna Malina.
It is the place where the much bigger town of Elin Pelin throws all its waste. As long as Elin Pelin is sending its trash to this place, creating a zero-waste municipality will remain just a dream.
“They generate 4.5 times more than we do,” Jilanov says. “The depot … is close to reaching it’s limit. Our colleagues at Elin Pelin do not realise that. The limit is 200,000 tons of waste, and we have already placed 193,000 tons.”
To start changing the situation, Jilanov has an idea for starting an organic waste collection system. People in the small town have houses with yards and are already used to composting their organic waste. Encouraging people to compost is an easy step for the municipality and will open up the way for other recycling initiatives. As long as dealing with the waste is a matter of thinking, the mayor believes local people will easily understand the benefits.
“We want a zero-waste municipality”, Jilanov says. He’s familiar with the European Zero Waste Municipalities Network and already joined one of their meetings to draw on their existing experience. He got to know in detail the waste treatment practises of small towns in Italy, Spain, Slovenia and Croatia.
A good sign for Jilanov may be a new regulation that was recently introduced by the Bulgarian government, completely changing the way waste taxes are paid by people and businesses. Under the current regulation, waste tax in Bulgaria is calculated in terms of the size of the dwelling/office. The new regulation provides that the tax is calculated based on the amount of waste generated. This means that the basic principle of “the more you pollute, the more you pay” will finally be enforced.
“Waste tax should be calculated in relation to the amount of waste you generate”, says Stella Shihan, a young woman who lives in California, USA, but comes to Gorna Malina with her husband and daughter. “In California we recycle, we do composting, and taxes are based on how often the waste collection truck takes away waste from your house.”
This same place used to be a landfill, a local woman says while waiting for the bus. “There was a big hole”, she says, “and everybody was throwing away his waste there”. Now the area is green and pleasant.
Stella Shihan is glad the town is gradually changing and becoming greener. As she comes here every summer, she can notice the difference. “There are more trees. It is clean. There is a nice playground for the children. It is much better now”, she says. “There is also a new sports hall up there on the hill. A lot of people are going there to do sports, and the hall is constantly in use. The national karate team was here recently, the national volleyball team too.” She even says she’s considering moving back to Bulgaria herself.
The more you pollute, the more you pay.
“A municipality is like a personal house: if you have an old house and you want to live comfortably there, you have to refurbish it, but first of all you need to make it clean”, says a man who operates a street cleaning machine. He prefers to stay anonymous but allows a single picture of the machine he operates. He used to work in Sofia until recently but then chose to find a job in Gorna Malina. Here he drives a new street cleaning machine that the municipality bought in June. “The streets were very dirty. There was a five-to-six-centimetre layer of sand, dust, cigarette butts… I had go several times along every street to make it really clean. I first clean the central part, then I have to enter the smaller streets of the rest of the town.” He says the machine can carry 900 kilograms of waste, and within a day his cleaning machine would be filled with eight to nine tons of waste.
The man says that greening and cleaning the centre of the municipality is a good start of the journey to a green municipality. “There is an old Bulgarian song that says, “I went on a walk one afternoon, I went without a goal and without a direction” – but this is not the case in Gorna Malina! There is a goal. There is clear direction!” He believes locals have to help the mayor and encourage him.
The local cleaning truck driver is not the only one who sees that there is a direction – and the direction is green and straightforward. “This is a very progressive community – one which is seeking how to make a difference”, says Patrick Yanson, sales manager at Savo Solar, a company that produces SDH solar collectors. He’s travelled all around Europe to prepare SDH projects and believes that progressive communities go through similar patterns. He sees the pattern in Gorna Malina. “The first move is similar to many other villages and communities that we are seeing all over Europe: decisive people who want to lead by taking an example and not be a follower!”