For several days in December 2023, Sarajevo topped the list of the world’s most polluted cities. Dangerous air quality has plagued Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital for decades. It’s a problem with no quick fixes – but there is a dedicated team in the City of Sarajevo offices working collaboratively with citizens to find sustainable solutions to a challenge that takes a daily toll on residents’ mobility and quality of life.
Sarajevo lies in a steep valley in the mountains and is filled with high-rise buildings that block wind corridors. The air quality hits peak levels in winter, as older cars with higher emissions traverse the city and residents burn coal and wood to stay warm.
“As soon as you walk outside, you can smell the pollution,” said Nermina Suljević, the Assistant Mayor for Sustainable Development at the City of Sarajevo. “And on really bad days the smog is so bad you can’t see anything when you’re driving – literally, you can’t see the car in front of you, even with its lights on.”
Nermina has worked for the City of Sarajevo for 15 years, and prior to that she held various roles at NGOs, international organizations, private companies and governmental institutions. She currently oversees a team of six that works with Helvetas and other organizations to tackle the urban challenges that Sarajevo faces.
The fate of Sarajevo is also personal to Nermina. “I was eight when the siege of Sarajevo started,” she said. “I witnessed Sarajevo, which was a modern, urban area at the time, being destroyed, and then later being rebuilt from the ashes.”
Today, she’s using her role in local government to continue the building effort – with residents in the lead on identifying and solving Sarajevo’s challenges.
Enlisting citizen participation
“Citizen participation is typically quite limited in urban planning,” said Nermina. “By law, you need to consult the citizens, but it's usually an old style with a public meeting where they are allowed to give comments, but ultimately feel that what they say doesn’t matter or make a difference in the outcome.”
“We wanted to rethink this outdated method of participation, utilizing a more innovative approach that doesn’t position citizens on one side and the city on the other. We also genuinely want to hear citizens’ ideas and perspectives – we don’t want to sit in our office and make crucial decisions on behalf of the community. This process needs to be from citizens, by citizens.”
The Smart Sarajevo Initiative, a project implemented by the City of Sarajevo and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), collected survey responses from 1,300 citizens to identify the three most pressing problems in the city. The results: (1) air pollution, (2) poor public transport, (3) and corruption.
The digital platform CONSUL DEMOCRACY, was used as an open, transparent and inclusive space for residents to propose ideas for addressing these problems, and to then to vote on which of those ideas move forward.
Since 2021, the City of Sarajevo has worked with Helvetas and our partners on the Urban Transformation Project Sarajevo (UTPS), a four-year project funded by the Swiss State Secretary of Economic Affairs, to continue expanding opportunities for citizen participation in urban planning processes. This collaboration has so far focused on exploring good practices for public participation in cities, taking examples from other cities in the region as well as Sarajevo itself (see the publication "Good Public Participation Practices in Urban Planning").
Helvetas facilitates exchanges between the City of Zurich and Grad Sarajevo so that both cities can learn from each other on different approaches to using digital tools to enhance participation. The project is now developing an online platform designed to offer a range of participation tools that all public institutions in the Canton of Sarajevo can use to provide more opportunities for residents to play a bigger role in decision-making and to improve trust between residents and local government – which is currently very weak.
Nermina Suljević, Assistant Mayor for Sustainable Development, City of Sarajevo
Citizen-designed solutions to urban challenges
Public participation in Sarajevo is not limited to identifying challenges and advocating for change – the brain trust of the population is also being tapped to design solutions. The City Mind Lab was created as part of the Smart Sarajevo Initiative. It’s a civic group of more than 120 residents that gather to share their opinions, ideas and comments on different processes in the city. The multi-disciplinary group is self-organized and brings together thematic experts from the private sector, government and academia.
Through the initiative, more than 35 innovative proposals for addressing the city’s biggest challenges were submitted through CONSUL. Eleven of these received seed funding as pilot projects, including:
- An open-source air quality measurement and monitoring system that is accessible through a web-based real-time interactive map and a mobile application.
- HOV lanes to optimize the flow of traffic in the city.
- A car-sharing system facilitated through a mobile application.
- Expanding the “NextBike” bicycle-sharing system with 20 new smart bicycles, thus supporting greener urban mobility.
- “Smart” waste bins that compress waste and optimize waste collection.
Achieving climate neutrality by 2030
Nermina’s team in the City of Sarajevo’s Sustainable Development department is currently overseeing around 15 projects working towards a better quality of life in Sarajevo. “We are continuously building new bike lanes and trying to encourage alternative sustainable ways of urban mobility,” said Nermina. “There are also new tram lines that encourage citizens to use more public transport instead of cars. And a lot of effort has been made to switch heat systems to more sustainable ones.”
Nermina said her most important lesson from past initiatives is that “to be successful, collaboration between the government, private sector, NGOs and the international community is essential.”
“Another key lesson is related to our local context,” said Nermina. “We have a complex governance structure and hold elections every two years, which directly impacts our sustainable development projects. So it is important to build the political resilience – ensuring that the project can survive, regardless of which political party is in power at the moment.”
There is a lot of momentum – at the citizen level, government level and international level – to clear the skies for a brighter future in Sarajevo. The next big opportunity Nermina is excited to see move forward: Sarajevo has been selected to be one of the European Union’s NetZeroCities, a project that is designed to help cities overcome the structural, institutional and cultural barriers they face in order to achieve climate neutrality by 2030.