Island of pedestrians

Marko Peterlin

By Marko Peterlin, on February 1st, 2018

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Landing at the ferry port of Silba, a medium-sized island in Northern Dalmatia, crystal-clear sea and a decent beach with white pebbles are waiting right next to the port. The nearby café serves as a beach bar, as well as a waiting room for many travellers who visit the island in summer. But, unlike other islands, no car disembarks from the ferry. Cars are not allowed on Silba.

The island is one of seven in the Croatian Adriatic, where cars are not desirable: in addition to Silba, there are also Unije and Susak in Kvarner, Zlarin and Prvić near Šibenik and Lopud and Koločep near Dubrovnik. Although Silba is the largest among all, the islands are very similar in terms of the number of permanent residents. Today there are a few hundred people living on each of them, and all islands have seen better times. Silba experienced its golden age in the 18th century with the booming of seafaring, when some 2,000 inhabitants lived on the island. Her fleet then surpassed even the one of Dubrovnik.

As on most islands, its population nowadays grows considerably in the two summer months, in July and August. Silba even stands out. On an island without a single hotel, the number of inhabitants climbs from the winter low of less than 300 to more than 7000 in peak season in early August. With such a population it is easily compared to many smaller towns in the Mediterranean and throughout Europe, so it can be an interesting and rare example of a functioning town, which is entirely intended for pedestrians.

A lively town in the summer

Silba_Marko Peterlin (8)The only settlement on the island has developed on a low ridge, on the narrowest part of the island, and extends on its both sides. The old fishermen’s port Mul is on the northeast side and looks towards Velebit. In the last decades, the settlement expanded mainly on the southwestern coast, where the ferry port Žalić is located in the middle of an almost kilometre long pebble and rocky beach.

Around 1200 houses on the island, of which some 200 are permanently inhabited, have quite large and lush gardens surrounded by walls. The built-up area of the settlement is about 81 hectares. Today, most of the paths running between the stone walls of the gardens or between houses are paved with concrete, but have once been sandy.

The entire network of streets and paths forms an extensive network of public spaces. During the summer, various parts come alive in different periods of the day. In the morning, the centre of the village awakens first, the streets are full of people on their way to shops, bakeries, or cafes. Over the course of the day, the paths along the coastline are filled, the children’s play and bathers give them a beat. The youth occupies one of the main multifunctional public spaces, the main pier on Žalić, in the middle of the day. In the evening, the centre of the settlement and the two ports become the main stage again, filled with strollers of all generations.

No motor traffic

Silba_Marko Peterlin (3)Any form of motor traffic is prohibited on Silba. Moreover, during the tourist season, even cycling is prohibited within the settlement. The entire passenger traffic on the island therefore takes place on foot at the peak of the season, when the number of inhabitants is the highest. This gives Silba a character valued by the locals as well as many visitors returning to the island year after year.

Between two outermost edges of the settlement there is about two kilometres, or a bit less than half an hour walk along a branched network of streets and paths. From all edges of the settlement to the centre, where all three shops, both bakeries, post office, parish church and most cafes are located, there is at least 10 minutes’ walk. The municipality of Zadar, to which Silba belongs administratively, is responsible for the maintenance of all public paths.

The only allowed type of motor traffic shares the streets with pedestrians twice a day, delivering goods for 7000 or more temporary residents. Almost all food and beverages, as well as all consumables and construction materials, are brought to the island from the mainland by ferry every day, mostly from Zadar. During a short stop, all cargo must be unloaded from the ferry to the pier, and then from there all over the island. One hour before and after the arrival of the ferry, motor traffic is permitted for vehicles that have a special permit from the Zadar municipality for this purpose. Forklifts and tractors with trailers, which carry out this task, mix with pedestrians on the pier and the nearby streets, leading to the centre of the town in the early afternoon and early evening.

Two-stage logistics and handmade carts

Silba_Marko Peterlin (1)The first part of the task is to unload cargo from the ferry. There is little time for this, since the ferry should not wait for too long. Therefore, the cargo, which is mostly loaded on pallets, is unloaded to the pier with forklifts, where it then waits for transport to the final destination. Sometimes the retail chains operating shops on the island also unload the whole small truck that is parked there until the evening return of the ferry. Also technicians and craftsmen who carry out maintenance and craft work on the island do the same with their vans occasionally. However, construction work is mostly carried out outside the tourist season.

The second part of the task is to deliver the load to the final destination. The bulk of the cargo is intended for the three shops, bars and restaurants on the island. Pallets that remained on the pier after the departure of the ferry and those from parked trucks are either dispatched by forklifts one by one to shops and bars, or they are loaded on trailers, which are taken to the final destination by tractors, on Silba more freight than agricultural vehicles.

Tractors also help to some extent to dispatch the cargo to individuals, for example when buying a refrigerator or a washing machine. More often, when transporting loads, including the luggage of their guests, locals make use of special carts, called ‘karići’. There are hundreds of carts on the island and are one of the features of the island. They are either towed or pushed, and their size is usually somewhere between a bicycle and a car trailer. They are mostly unique pieces of homemade craftsmanship and therefore extremely varied. In addition to ‘karići’, locals and guests regularly use wheeled bags on everyday errands.

Waste management during the tourist season is a challenge

Silba_Marko Peterlin (11)The large number of summer inhabitants also causes some unwanted consequences, including a considerable amount of trash. These are collected in containers in front of each house and at several collection points in the settlement, where there are special containers for separate collection of waste. Two municipal utility company employees collect the garbage throughout the year, but in summer this becomes quite a challenge. The garbage collection is also carried out with the aid of a tractor that takes garbage from the containers to a collection point in the immediate vicinity of the ferry port. A garbage truck, which is brought to the island by a special ferry, then picks up waste from the collection point about once a week.

Waste management and its removal remain one of the major challenges for the island. For the time being, there is not yet a real solution to how the infrastructure and the way of charging for the service can be adapted to the extraordinary differences in the amount of waste between the winter and the short summer season. Silba could probably learn something from other islands that have already faced similar problems, mostly by preventing waste.

Quality of life and public space: a way to attract the youth back to the island?

Silba_Marko Peterlin (5)Both visitors and residents of Silba do not doubt that the traffic arrangement on the island, based on walking is a good solution. Last but not least it gives the island a distinct identity. In more than half a century there has never been a serious initiative to abolish the ban on motor traffic or change the strict rules at Silba. Due to less pollution and, in particular, less space used for transport, the diversity and quality public space, the green gardens instead of parked cars around the houses, the quality of life on Silba is higher than on comparable Mediterranean islands.

Perhaps this can contribute to the return of young people to the island, as on Silba, like on most Mediterranean islands, the key problem is aging and the decline of the permanent population. And, as it seems, Silba is doing better than some other islands – in 2016, the residents elected a group of young women to lead the local council. A promising outlook for the future of the island.


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