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The pace and quality of work that we have imposed within a short time placed Sofia amongst the fastest developing cities

The Mayor of Sofia Municipality does not need to be presented. Everybody knows Ms. Yordanka Fandakova, who has been in charge of Sofia for more than 8 years. And that's not an easy job. What helps her do it successfully? May be it is what the people in her team say: she is really down to earth, she does not like to promise things she will not complete, and she works a lot, persistently and  purposefully, to make our city a better place to live.

Right now, both she and our capital face a big challenge. In 2018 Sofia will not only host the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, but will also be the European Capital of Sport. Here is our conversation with Mrs. Yordanka Fandakova literally a few hours before the start ...

- Ms. Fandakova, only a couple of days are left until January the 1st, when Sofia will be at the center of the events related to the Bulgarian presidency of the Council of the EU. Is our city ready for them?

- We take the Presidency at a key moment in which we are talking about the future of the European Union. Bulgaria can play an important role. Sofia will host the program meetings. However, our goals of making our city more orderly, accessible and better to live in are not related only to the Presidency. They are tied to our long-term vision for the city: to build transport, cultural and social sites whose applicability far exceeds the needs of the capital for the next six months and of course they will be used by Sofia residents and guests for the years to come. Now is the time to unite around the important topics for the city and to implement the key projects so that Sofia can establish itself as a factor for the region and an equal partner on the European stage.

In connection with the presidency, Sofia will host top-level meetings. The task of the Interior Ministry and the Security Services is to take the necessary security measures. The Metropolitan Municipality is helping this process, so we've also upgraded the CCTV system by including the main routes of the delegations and connected all systems so that we can guarantee maximum response whenever needed. Regarding the traffic in the city, we will have moments of temporary and stepwise restrictions, only at the times when delegations pass. Complete closure of streets will not happen. In the area of ​​the National Palace of Culture people will be able to pass; for events of the highest level only, the security area around the building will be expanded. The two car parks at entrance A3 and entrance A4 of the National Palace of Culture will not be open for public use. The first event, the opening on the 11th of January, will be held in the National Theater and there will be a temporary restriction of traffic within the square between Tsar Osvoboditel blvd., Rakovski street, Gurko street and Tsar Alexander I street .

- As a mayor of one of the 28 European capitals, would you share what the connections between them are, any common goals?

- A broad debate arose a few years ago on the urban dimension of European Union policies and the Urban Development agenda. Undoubtedly, the personal commitment of Commissioner Hahn and Commissioner Crețu to the problems of the capitals and the big cities brought this discussion to another level. An understanding that Europe's future lies in its cities was developed. All Mayors of the 28 European Capitals have annual meetings with representatives of the European Commission and with Mrs. Corina Crețu. This is a great opportunity for a direct dialogue with the European Commission and above all for an exchange of views and ideas between the mayors themselves. We know each other well, share similar problems and find common solutions. Obviously, our common agreement on developing an urban agenda for capitals and big cities is based on existing EU-level agreements and I believe that we have a clear unity around topics, such as air cleanliness and green solutions, innovation and digitization. These are just some of the topical issues that are being discussed at a European policy level.

-What is unique about the role of Sofia among them?

- Each city is unique and has its own significant position. Each of us has a lot to boast about, a lot to work on, what to borrow as good practices and what to contribute as working decisions. Sofia gradually and confidently took its place in this group of European capitals and for part of the topics is an example for progress and sustainable solutions. We, mayors, are practical people, people of action, and as my colleague, the mayor of London, who I had the pleasure of meeting and establishing a basis for future cooperation, said: "It is better to take and apply an idea that works than to invent something that does not work."

Over the years, we have been exploring the experiences of different cities with certain problems. The success we have achieved in Sofia is also due to the trust we have built with our European partners. Thanks to the active dialogue, regular and transparent control and accountability of the success.

The pace and quality of work that we have imposed in a short time placed Sofia amongst the fastest growing cities. We focused ourselves on projects that develop the city in all sectors. Sofia ranked among the top 30 of the fastest growing cities in the world in the rankings of JP Morgan Chase.

For the past 10 years, Sofia is the European capital with the highest GDP growth, according to a study by the Bloomberg Foundation. Sofia is in the top 3 of the European cities with start-up companies in the IT sector. And I believe that with the development of new technologies, we can substantially change the quality of life of our fellow citizens.

A major impact on the living environment and the environmental concerns is the expansion of Sofia's underground. The capital’s underground is a project that changes the lives of many people, changes the look of entire neighbourhoods, opens jobs. It is the largest project that the European Commission has repeatedly set as an example of well-invested European funds. Besides a strategic transport facility, the underground is also a strategic environmental project - with the third line we expect to save 90,000 tons of harmful emissions per year and to reduce the traffic in the areas where it passes by 10-20%.

The projects in Sofia, the results achieved and the development of the city, are highly assessed in Brussels. Such was also the assessment of the EPO Secretary General Antonio Lopez during my meeting with him in March 2017. I am glad that the change in Sofia in recent years is visible.

We continue the modernization of the public transport - the procedures for the purchase of 142 gas buses and the first 20 electric buses are in progress, with the support of the Operational Programme "Regions in Growth" we will purchase 13 new trams, which will be running on line №5. We continue with the upgrade of the traffic management system with the prioritization of public transport, and we hope to increase its attractiveness. This will not only improve the quality of public transport, but also the quality of the air. It is a strategic task. Unfortunately, results in this area are not fast, big investments and the participation of each one of us is required.

We have a fully completed domestic waste treatment system that meets the strictest requirements of the EC for the protection of environment. This project is unique because it is the biggest one, successfully implemented within the Operational Programme "Environment". Currently, we are preparing the installation project for the utilization of RDF fuel, together with the European Commission and the European Investment Bank and it will reduce the harmful emissions from "Toplofikacia Sofia".

As I can continue with good examples and successful practices, I would like to conclude that with my team we have managed to obtain over 500 million euros from the European Union grants under the Operational Programmess (OP) for the period until 2020. The Investment Program of the Sofia Municipality under the OP “Growing Regions” is worth € 143.16 million, of which € 119.64 million is grant funding public transport, educational, social and cultural infrastructure projects. We continue with key projects for our city under the OP “Transport and Transport Infrastructure” and OP "Environment".

We have what to show and in a short time we have become a reliable and desirable partner. Not only for countries of the European Union. We should not forget that 5 European corridors pass through Bulgaria and connect it with a market of 500 million people in the EU, and Sofia is the natural portal of every major investor in the East, in particular, I can talk about China, which has a serious interest in investments in the region.

In 2012 I accepted a delegation from Qatar, led by the Minister of Municipality and Planning Sheikh Abdul Rahman Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, during the talks it became clear that Qatar has a keen interest in our experience in the implementation and management of the underground project in Sofia. In 2017, I accepted a delegation from Hanoi, during the talks a strong interest towards the same was declared - the know-how for the construction of the metro and subway stations. It is seen that Sofia is also a factor in the Balkans, because during his visit to Sofia, the Mayor of Belgrade visited the construction of the third metro line and expressed a direct interest in using the “Metropolitan” practice for metro-construction.

But when we talk about the uniqueness of Sofia, I cannot do but point out that Sofia is still the city it has been for a millennia now - an example of tolerance, a place where representatives of different religions continue to live together in harmony. At times of various challenges that face our established model of hospitality and mutual respect, we are obliged to resist and preserve that value, which I really believe it is not a trade mark of Sofia citizens but of all Bulgarians.

- Where do you think the European Union is heading to?

- The European Union is an example of solidarity and unity. And now more than ever we need unity. Bulgaria has chosen its national slogan for the motto of its first presidency of the Council of the European Union. One of the recent European Union Summits in Bratislava and Rome have confirmed that despite Brexit, the European dream is our goal and a united Europe is our future. Europe continues to be among the most attractive places for education and life worldwide. This should motivate us even more about the Union.

- What are our contacts with the capitals of other countries? What is the policy of Sofia Municipality in communicating with them?

- The contacts of Sofia Municipality with the capitals of the other countries are related to specific projects or cooperation within certain areas.

We are working on dozens of topics together with the Mayor of Paris, Ms. Hidalgo and her team; we discuss green policies together, and specifically that of air cleanliness; we work together on issues in education as modernization and renovation of kindergartens and schools are of great importance to me; of course, we also have an agreement for preserving the historical neighbourhoods of Sofia, following the example of the Marais area in Paris.

We have traditionally friendly relations with the municipality of Vienna in the face of Mr. Häupl. Ecology, environmental protection, improving air quality, improving the quality of public transport - many measures have been borrowed from Vienna, but of course it takes time for them to be realised. I have personally made business visits to Vienna's newest Pfaffnau Waste Incineration plant, as well as the Spittelau plant, which is located in a densely populated area in the central part of the Austrian capital.

We are also working well on an operational level with London in the areas of security, transport and air cleanliness. Mayor Mr. Khan admitted that he was impressed by the successful development of the Sofia Underground project, as well as our actions to address the problems of air cleanliness.

I am grateful to my colleague Mr. Jankovic, the mayor of Ljubljana, for his support for the preparation of Sofia's candidacy for the Green Capital since experts from the municipality of Ljubljana are consulting the process.

The Mayor of Amsterdam and his team helped Sofia better prepare for the Bulgarian EU Council Presidency at a city level.

We work with the municipalities of Budapest, Bucharest, Riga. We mainly work for the modernization of our cities and better management.

Recently, I signed a joint letter with the mayors of Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, Madrid, Copenhagen, Vienna, Brussels and Helsinki, urging the European Union to introduce unified stricter measures to reduce air pollution from transport. They envisage stopping non-organic cars from registering, thanks to devices that measure how "environmentally harmful" the car is. There are many examples, I would not like to miss out on one of our partners, but it is our policy as a whole - to be a predictable and reliable partner. We are open to cooperation with the aim of modernizing the city and improving the quality of services.

- Sofia is the heart of the diplomatic life in Bulgaria. How does the municipality participate in it?

- I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the diplomatic and commercial representations in Sofia. They do a great contribution to the development of Sofia's relations with other cities, united we do a lot for our city. Together we have held joint celebrations, forums and initiatives. I would not want to miss anybody and I would like to point out: the joint initiatives of the Sofia Municipality and the Embassy of Austria for the Bronze House project; the working on joint projects with the German embassy, ​​holding Days of the Bulgarian-Hungarian Friendship with the Embassy of Hungary, conducting an action against anti-Semitic, Nazi and other symbols of hostility and hatred organized by the Shalom Jews Association in Bulgaria, together with the Embassy of Israel and the Sofia Municipality; the embassy of the Netherlands, who actively supported the Sofia Municipality in the preparation of the Bulgarian and EU Presidency, we also organized joint initiatives to encourage cycling; the Embassy of France and the French Cultural Institute in Sofia that are working on the issues of urban environment, air cleanliness. The French experience in urban planning was presented at the Green Capital Public Forum in Sofia.

On the 2nd of July 2017, in the Borisova Garden in Sofia, on the Summer Stage, an Asian Culture Festival, was held for the first time, where 13 countries with representations in Bulgaria introduced us to their traditions. These were our partners from the embassies of Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Iran, China, Mongolia, Pakistan, Palestine, Syria, Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan. I am grateful to the Swiss Embassy for its cooperation - you can see the result of our joint actions - the new green trams on the streets of Sofia, as well as, the technical equipment used in combating various natural disasters that were provided to the municipal emergency-rescue and volunteer formation of the Sofia Municipality. We work with the Embassies of US, China (last year we also opened the Chinese Cultural Center in Sofia). We have joint projects with Russia and the Balkan capitals. I will not have the time to list all the joint initiatives, but I'm glad there are so many. In general, I am a happy mayor, because since the diplomatic corps is based in the capital, I have the opportunity to benefit from direct contact and to get help to realize the goals we have set. And some objective criticism as well, which is very important. For me, the diplomats based here are not just representatives of their countries in a foreign country, they are quite often ambassadors of Sofia abroad, this city is their home, home to their families, here are their children and from their attitude towards the city, I dare to say, that most of them are real citizens of Sofia. Which makes me happy.

- Is there any diplomacy in your mind that can reconcile the world today?

- I think this is diplomacy based on the democratic European values ​​of peace, freedom, justice.

- This year Sofia is also the European capital of sport. What are the biggest events that will take place in it?

- Yes, Sofia is the European capital of sport this year. To achieve this, the biggest athletes of Bulgaria were with us at all times, and I thank them for the support. This is a cause that will provide additional incentives for the city and for the people of sports.

Sofia will host more than 200 sporting events. Among them are the World Rowing Championship, the World Volleyball Championship for Men, Tennis - ATP Sofia Open, the Balkaniada Athletics and others. The opportunity for children and their parents to meet real sports champions and witness races is an additional incentive for many to engage in sports and achieve success.

- Do you expect this to encourage the citizens Sofia to exercise more?

- The initiative is for supporting the mass sport. In recent years, Sofia Municipality has invested in building and developing sports infrastructure in municipal kindergartens and schools, as well as, within the city. For some years in Sofia there have been developed 44 outdoor sports grounds and 17 playgrounds for sports and play. We built 78 gymnastics halls in kindergartens, as well as, 14 swimming pools. We rebuilt 7 gyms in the schools and built 10 more. At the moment, with the expansion of the First English High School and the 112th High School we also build a sports hall. In 2018 we continue to build gymnastics halls for 4 kindergartens and 2 schools.

In 2015, the new sports complex and park "Vazrazhdane" was built, and with the support of the state were renovated "Festivalna" hall, "Academik" Hall, "Sofia" hall in the Borisova garden, part of the National Stadium "Vasil Levski", while the "Winter Palace" complex is currently being renovated.

During the last two years under the Children and Adolescent Sports Development Programme, Sofia Municipality has supported 69 projects for sports clubs working with children. This year in the draft budget we proposed a double increase of the funds under this programme.

Our big goal with Sofia being the European capital of sport, is to lay the foundations for a sustainable model that will remain in the benefit of the citizens and the guests of the city.

- And because it is winter I have to ask you - what about the Vitosha Nature Park, which was one of the biggest winter sports centers in Bulgaria? It seems to have lost its importance in recent years...

- One of the first sports events of the year is on the Vitosha mountain. On the 13th of January 2018, under the appropriate weather conditions, the Vitosha Winter Fest is scheduled to be held on the World Snow Day near the Aleko hut, where competitions for children and adolescents are planned for ski-alpine disciplines - parallel slalom, cross-country skiing, ski-mountaineering for men and women, mountain bike and snow-biking. There are also plans to have competitions for the best snow figure. On the 4th of February 2018, a "Winter Family Holiday" will be organized in Vitosha in the area of ​​Ophelia. The debuting edition was last year and it gathered nearly 1,200 children along with their parents.

At the end of last year the government decided to restore the state ski lift "Zaeka" in Vitosha. It is important for the mountain to become more friendly and accessible.

- You received Sofia’s Award for Sustainable Development as a Tourist Destination for 2017 some days ago. Will the tourist industry manage hosting the important events that are ahead of us?

- Sofia is becoming one of the leading tourist destinations in the country, dynamically developing the tourism sector. It is a result of the investments for improving the city's infrastructure, for unveiling and exposing the cultural and historical heritage of ancient Serdika, for the favorable business climate, the creation of new attractions, the rich event calendar, and last but not least due to the partnership with all the stakeholders- the tourist industry in Sofia has been steadily growing within recent years. Sofia welcomes an increasing number of Bulgarian and foreign tourists, offering opportunities for practicing in different types of tourism throughout the year.

In the chart of the Master Card Global Destinations Cities Index for 2016, our capital was placed in the Top 10 European Urban Destinations, registering the highest growth rates of the number of tourists for the period 2009-2016 - with over 7% on average. The results for the 10 months of 2017 confirm the upward development of Sofia as a tourist destination - 11% of growth in the number of the registered visitors of the city; 13% increase in the number of nights spent by them.

- There was an interesting campaign of the Sofia Municipality - "Decorate Sofia for Christmas". Did it make our city more beautiful?

- Starting on the 1st of December, the traditional campaign of the Sofia Municipality "Decorate Sofia for Christmas" is being launched to create an outdoor festive decoration within the urban environment - of a building, a balcony, a courtyard and an inter-block space on the territory of Sofia Municipality. The campaign will continue until the 15th of January 2018. Every year, people are interested in it and more and more citizens are surprised with the beautiful decorations. In the picture, on the "Decorate Sofia for Christmas" website, you can see the photos submitted in the campaign. And the top three decorators, that were mostly liked, will receive awards.

This year again, the festive decoration of Sofia, provided by Sofia Municipality and by the business organizations, extends to city boulevards and squares. The Christmas tree of Sofia is in the square, in front of the National Palace of Culture. Hundreds of Christmas lights and figures, as well as ornate trees, decorated streets and squares. The Christmas decoration is on Moskovska street - from Paris street to 11th August str.; P.Y. Todorov blvd., Vitosha blvd., Bulgaria blvd., the roundabout of Yavorov blvd. next to the TV tower, on V. Levski blvd. in the section between the Rectorate and Dondukov blvd., around the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Orlov Most and the Russian Monument.

This holiday season, various companies took part in creating a mood for the citizens of Sofia and for the guests of the city. A luminous arch is placed on the corner of Patriarh Evtimii blvd. and Vitosha blvd., and on the "Largo" - a illuminated complex.

The square in front of the National Theater Ivan Vazov is again decorated with a composition of a luminous tree and a sled with reindeer. New decoration on the pillars of the street lighting is located on Dondukov blvd., on Todor Alexandrov blvd., on Tsar Osvoboditel blvd. - in the section from Orlov Most to the National Art Gallery.

- It is the end of the year and it is time to take a stock. Except for the big challenges we have already talked about, what accomplishment satisfies you, and what do you regret for failing to achieve?

- It is important that we continue to work with the 2018 budget, which provides for all our programs, and for our top priority - air quality. This year we have fully repaired over 10 km of streets and boulevards: like the total renovation of Dondukov blvd. Unfortunately we have not been able to obtain the consent of the Ministry of Culture to realize our project with the pavement part being only on the tram lines and having asphalt on the roadways, which forced us to change the terms of service, on the move. We have renovated Praga blvd., Ovcha Kupel blvd. together with the tram lines; we have re-asphalted Orlov Most, we have completed the extension of Montevideo blvd. and for the next year is left the passage till N. Petkov blvd., we started the expansion of T. Kableshkov blvd.. The overall construction of the road from Bulgaria blvd. to Cherni Vrah blvd. will be a key project for the coming years because we will build a very important part of the inner city ring. We basically reconstructed the old Chavdar Bridge, which had not been touched since its construction.

We are building 12 new km of the underground from Vl. Vazov blvd. in Poduyane through the center, "Krasno selo", "Ovcha Kupel" to the Ring Road, where there is a connection with the railway station. Our goal is for the end of 2019, to have built 12 km from the third beam- with it the metro will be of overall 53 km, while when we started working on it, it was less than 20 km.

We have invested BGN 28 million in construction and renovation of kindergartens and schools, of which BGN 17 million are for new construction. So far, we have built 87 new kindergartens while 6 are currently being built. In the 2018 budget we have put over 32 million for education.

Last year, we continued with the discovery of the rich cultural and historical heritage of Sofia - we found the first archaeological park - "The West Gate of Serdica", the Triangular Tower of Serdika. We renovated the park at the National Palace of Culture.

There are always difficulties and problems, especially in the scale that we are working on. It is important not to discourage and to continue by ensuring that the public funds will not pay for what is not done properly.

We were delayed with the beginning of the renovation of West Park since we were scheduled to start during last year but the project is not ready and we will actually start in 2018. The West Park remained the only one of the great parks, whose recovery did not begin. I am confident that in 2018 we will make up for this delay.

- A wish for the New Year ....

- I wish everyone a healthy, successful and blessed 2018 year.

Photo: Sofia Municipality. Photographer: Silvia Dimitrova