20 years of the Alpine Town of the Year Association

When a romantic cliché turns into international ecological and economic projects for the future

Anniversaries give us reasons to look back. The “Alpine Town of the Year” association celebrates its twentieth birthday this year. Strictly speaking, 20 years is an age at which we change from our youthful shoes and gradually grow up. The Alpine networks, which were created in the 1990s to protect and strengthen awareness and a sense of life in the Alpine communities and towns, are also leaving their youthful years behind them.

After the Alpine states signed the “Alpine Convention” for the protection of the Alps in 1991, many ideas emerged. Two of these were the “Alpine Town of the Year” association and the Alpine network of municipalities, the “Alliance in the Alps”. Both were launched in 1997. The original ideas of promoting sustainability and combining ecology and economy were still virgin territory for many at the time. Today almost every company, region or initiative features ecological ideas. For some, however, this symbiosis means far more, such as those Alpine towns that strengthen each other in the “Alpine Town of the Year” association.

Tolmezzo is the youngest member of the Alpine Towns of the Year. © Fabrice Gallina

It all began in Villach

The proposal to award the title of “Alpine Town of the Year” to a town was strictly speaking the result of the wish of the base itself, the Austrian town of Villach (Carinthia/A). In 1997 Villach was the first to be awarded the title of “Alpine Town of the Year”, for two years. During this period the town installed the first solar panels in a youth project and the award enabled the establishment of the Dobratsch Nature Park.

Andreas Weissen, the association’s jury president from 1995 to 2004, as well as the acting president Norbert Weixlbaumer (University of Vienna), say: “It depends on the city whether it uses the award as a spark to start things off or lets it burn out like a flash in the pan”. Annual awards followed from Maribor (Slovenia), via Sonthofen (Germany) to Chamonix (France) and many more. Today, 19 Alpine towns can already boast of having won this award. Any town in the Alpine region that is prepared to prove that ecology and economy are not mutually exclusive, but complement each other in a forward-looking and meaningful way, can apply for the title.

The Executive Board of "Alpine Town of the Year": Bojan Sever, Mayor of the Alpine Town of Idrija (Slovenia), Ingrid Fischer, Third Mayor of the Alpine Town of Sonthofen (Germany) and President Thierry Billet, Vice-President Grand Annecy for Air, Climate and Energy Policy (France). © Alpine Town of the Year

Across national borders

Joint development, growing together, meetings, pools of ideas, think tanks, activities and festivals characterise the work of this active association. Working together ignites the fire, the actors agree. The “Alpine Town of the Year” association is based as an administrative institution in Schaan, Liechtenstein, while the official seat is in Bad Reichenhall, Bavaria. The close relationship with CIPRA, the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps, also characterises the activities of the association. Numerous projects interlock in their objectives and tasks in everyday life. “This close cooperation between the actors and platforms makes great sense. After all, we are all pursuing the same goals with different approaches,” stresses Claire Simon, Executive Director of the “Alpine Town of the Year” Association. “The network makes projects possible and promotes a culture of sustainability”, explains the current president of the association, Thierry Billet, member of the municipal council of the Alpine Town of Annecy in France.

Focus on youth

Towns in the Alps are mostly medium-sized, charming and still partly rural in character. 40 percent of the Alpine area is covered by Alpine towns, but 65 percent of the Alpine population lives in these medium-sized conurbations. They form the cultural, social and economic centres of the Alpine regions.

A particular challenge is to retain young people and well-educated people in particular in the region. It is important to make the advantages and opportunities of a lifestyle in the Alpine environment visible and palatable and to offer attractive standards. As an example, the current international youth project GaYA (Governance and Youth in the Alps) aims to involve young people more in political life. The “Alpine Town of the Year” is an important partner here, with direct links to the grassroots in the towns, youth groups and local political actors.

Making young people's voices heard and involving them in decision-making processes is a central concern of the Alpine Towns. © City of Annecy

Combining economy and ecology

Other focal points to which the association devotes itself are, for example, the sustainable use of brownfield and conversion sites, such as empty barracks or industrial sites for which a new use is to be found, the promotion of a green economy in Alpine towns, urban biodiversity or air quality in Alpine towns, on which research is currently underway.

Anchoring sustainability in Alpine Towns is an ongoing process and requires action in a wide range of areas. However, a broad network has now been established to share good practices and ideas. In the face of enormous global warming, Alpine towns are doing their part to reduce the causes and consequences.

Think globally – act locally

Current social studies, political actors and committees, as well as the association’s board of directors or local decision-makers all agree that all major changes begin at the core, in the smallest cell of society: in families, in communities and cities and in the local regions. Great-sounding plans and words will go up in smoke if direct local measures are not taken nor awareness created.

Sharpening the focus

Learning from each other, looking to the future, creating ideas, creating encounters. These are just some of the qualities and goals around which the whole network revolves. In the anniversary year, the focus and the public profile will be honed once again: the identification of the Alpine towns as a strong association, youth and cooperation between the towns will all be strengthened. The Alpine Towns in the network are to become even more active and visible in their awareness of their important role as “local-global players”.

Anniversary celebration in Villach in November: projects, people, friendships

The 20th anniversary of “Alpine Town of the Year” will be celebrated in November this year in Villach, the very first town to receive this award. The self-confident motto “Urban passion for the Alps” characterises the conference and the festivities. Throughout 2017, events have been and will continue to be held in the individual Alpine towns to mark the anniversary. Tolmezzo, for example, launched the first honey competition in the Alpine Towns, while in Idrija “Alpine Town” menus were created and served up. The organisation is on the move and on the up. Just as it should be for young adults – with a clear view to the future.

Villach © Roland Ster
Villach, the Alpine Town of the Year in 1997, is celebrating its 20th anniversary. © Roland Ster