Science - March 30, 2006

Dutch knowledge for greener Bulgaria

Bulgaria is due to join the EU in 2007, but in many ways the country still lags behind Western Europe. Air pollution and other environmental problems are a big issue, but the Dutch style of incorporating environmental aspects in spatial planning may come in useful.

The Bulgarians are still coping with their communist inheritance – centralised policy making was geared to maximising production and there was little room for protecting the environment. Although Bulgaria has already incorporated EU environmental legislation into its national legislation, the question remains how to enforce and implement it in practice.

Bulgarian PhD researcher Vanya Simeonova is examining how Dutch environmental and spatial planning can be applied in urban areas in her home country. Last week she held a seminar at the Mansholt Graduate School. ‘Traffic intensity has grown a lot in recent years in Bulgaria. Biodiversity is threatened by massive construction of roads and buildings. Many hotels are being built in our mountains and coastal areas, damaging nature. Another critical problem is the growing amount of waste.’

Simeonova looks at the small but crowded country where she is studying and sees that the Dutch are strong in integrating environmental issues into spatial planning. The cities of Rotterdam and Amsterdam for example have been quite effective in developing their own spatial and environmental plans instead of trusting that national policies will solve their problems. Simeonova would like to make this possible in Bulgaria, where she worked as chief environmental expert in the Environmental Department of the municipality of Burgas.

Local planning
In Bulgaria and many other former communist countries, it is a huge task to reform the centralised planning approach, and to start treating environmental problems seriously. The Bulgarian government recently developed a policy for sustainable development for each region in Bulgaria and for urban areas. But policy and practice are two different things. Simeonova: ‘So far there is little coordination between our spatial and environmental plans. For instance, the latest spatial plan for the city of Burgas does not coincide with the environmental action plan for the city.’ Burgas is a big industrial city and port on the Black Sea and it has many pressing environmental problems. The oil refining industry there creates air pollution, to the annoyance of the local population. ‘The industry has regularly received fines for its activities, but this has not stopped the pollution. It says it is trying to invest in clean technologies but the process is very slow and cumbersome.’

Currently the EU is searching for policies that could be used to achieve more sustainable development in cities of some member states. Simeonova: ‘In Bulgaria, municipalities should develop their own environmental plans instead of looking at national policies.’ The Bulgarians could learn from the Dutch example. ‘But not everything works perfectly in Holland either. Simply copying the Dutch model in other countries such as Bulgaria will probably not be feasible, but adopting some useful aspects in specific regions of other countries may work.’

What is important is to bring environmental policy makers in line with spatial planners. The Dutch are ahead with this. Professor of spatial planning Arnold van de Valk is Simeonova’s supervisor: ‘After many years of discussion, Dutch spatial planners now bear environmental issues in mind from the start of the planning process. But environmental experts also see limits to how far environmental protection can go. In many Dutch cities – Arnhem is an example – analysis of air and soil pollution has shown that meeting environmental standards in the whole city is an impossible task. To do so, half of the houses in city would have to be demolished as air pollution standards are not met there. Now we seek alternatives, for example by compensating for pollution in one place by creating natural areas somewhere else.’

This might be a good option for cities in Bulgaria, but hopefully not as an excuse to give up on all environmental problems. Van der Valk also believes that, as Bulgaria and also Romania join the EU, they will have to work hard to clean up and protect the environment. One environmental threat has already been addressed as it forms a requirement for admission to the EU: the Bulgarians have agreed to close down part of their nuclear power plant along the Danube. It was the source of radioactive leaks in the past, but dismantling will still take fifty years. /HB