A shopkeeper was once asked if the pedestrianisation of Pontevedra’s historic centre would affect business. “Well, I’ve never had a car come in to buy a book,” he said. A little over twenty years later, the plan to put its people before vehicles has propelled Pontevedra — 30 kilometres north of Vigo — to case study status. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo described the project as “visionary.”
41 million people squeeze into 30% of Spain’s territory. Spaniards are good at co-existing — they’ve no other choice. Home to some 85,000 inhabitants, Pontevedra is no different. The inner city is where we all live. And the living is safe and clean and easy.
“It’s the biggest village in the world,” says Bárbara García, owner of Bar El Toro. Even the weary-limbed pilgrims traipsing through its narrow streets on the home straight to Santiago de Compostela sense that there’s something different about the place.
Battling the elements and terrain along the Portuguese Camino route, peregrinos must earn their cold glass of local Albariño by negotiating one last obstacle: children. A gauntlet of footballs and scooters and underage drivers in remote control cars. Pontevedra is urban living with the sound down. Rather than honking horns, it’s playful shrieks, seagull squawks, and the low hum of local chatter that form the backing track of daily life.
But it hasn’t always been so pleasant.
“Pontevedra was a place without a future,” says mayor Miguel Anxo Fernández Lores. “Vehicles had taken over public space. It was a city full of pollution and noise and traffic accidents.”
On the worst days, 150,000 vehicles clogged the city. Many crossed town just to go somewhere else. Others wasted hours each week scouring for somewhere to park, compounding the pollution and frustration. Cars and vans and trucks devoured more than 70% of public space. Two pedestrians with umbrellas were unable to pass each other on the slender sidewalks — and in this part of Spain it rains.
Lores, a member of the leftwing Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG), came to power in 1999 and is now in his sixth…