So I’ve left behind the wild, lush landscape of the Costa Rican rainforest and arrived in Strasbourg, France, to find a completely different kind of green.
Costa Rica is one of those countries the climate change debate focuses on – it’s the epitome of natural diversity and everywhere you turn there is some species or habitat that could be gone in 20 years’ time. Or 10 years’ time. From the rainforests I hiked through to the sloth sanctuary my mum and I visited, everything there seems at once so wild and so fragile. The conservation efforts we see there are direct, tackling the specific problems the land faces: protected areas are being designated, turtle-watching programmes are being set up to monitor and protect the species, and the people at Aviarios sloth sanctuary provide education for locals as well as caring for the animals.
These funds, trusts and organizations are often set up by visitors to Costa Rica, who have been amazed by the new and fascinating nature here. Often, they rely on other visitors for funding, as the national government has enough on its plate just maintaining the national parks and dealing with Costa Rica’s other problems (by funding social organizations like MUSADE, for example). With the burden of running a country and encouraging economic and societal growth, it’s all the government can do to struggle against the immediate effects of climate change, which are threatening its lands from day to day.
Here in Strasbourg, though, I see an entirely different perspective. Comparatively, France is a wealthy country, and has much less need to pour funding into conservation schemes and the like, within its own borders at least. But that isn’t to say they’re not doing their bit over here (nor that they don’t have their own environmental concerns). My town, host to the European Parliament building, the European Court of Human Rights, the Council of Europe and a handful of other such institutions, sets a positive example in many ways.
The city is located in the Upper Rhine Plain, right next to the border with Germany and smack-bang in between the Vosges mountain range and the Black Forest. This means a reduced air flow over and through the city (although you’d never believe it on these chilly winter days!); and this lack of natural ventilation amplifies the effects of any pollution.
Perhaps consequently, Strasbourg is a decidedly ‘green’ city. New traffic strategies have been designed to decrease the flow of private cars in the centre of town using some form of the ‘carrot and stick’ method. A wealth of alternative travel methods are being emphasized, including a widespread and efficient network of buses, well-marked bicycle-lanes which often allow for two-way traffic and even turn lanes; plenty of strategically-placed indoor and outdoor bicycle racks, well-marked walk and cycle routes, Park-and-Rides which keep traffic out of the centre, and perhaps most notably, the six lines of electric low-floor trams which extensively serve the city and provide a fast, efficient and convenient alternative to driving. As for the ‘stick’ part, major central roads are gradually being pedestrianized, converted into bicycle lanes with bollards at either end, or closed to private traffic, only allowing trams and/or buses to serve them.
Because of all this, the reasons why Strasbourg-dwellers would want or need their own vehicle are shrinking rapidly. Obviously, businesses and large families and the like might still find it easier to travel on their own schedule, and that’s not so terrible. Sometimes, one simply needs a car. However, for what surely must by now be the majority of citizens, the other options available are beginning to strongly compete against the automobile. It has been made increasingly difficult not to use public transport, but in many cases, the ease of being a regular user of the network more than compensates for this. A multitude of different ticket combinations are available, including singles, returns, day passes, ‘trios’ allowing three people to take the same journey for the price of two; and the ultimate Badgéo. This card allows you unlimited use of all the transport amenities of the city, including the secure indoor bicycle racks, Park + Rides, trams, buses and trains within the local area. It is one simple card with a chip which you can use again and again: and at only €44 a month (€22 for students), why on earth wouldn’t you?
So, as well as acquiring new languages, my two semesters abroad are serving me with a much greater appreciation for the world’s efforts to hold back climate change. Whether it’s Costa Rica tackling the mounting effects, or Strasbourg dealing with the root of the problem, it’s encouraging to know that there are at least some authorities out there who are making sincere efforts to go some way in righting our past environmental wrongs. It makes me apprehensive to leave Strasbourg and go back to a less advanced public transit system, and it makes me wonder how much more we could all be doing to follow the examples of these two exemplary places.