Various news outlets have stated in recent days that Destil Tirana – a popular hostel, bar, and co-working space alongside Elbasan Street – is closing shop. Its elegant, meticulously managed, two-story villa will be torn down. There is no more available public information right now, but it seems like it will be replaced by a 9-story apartment complex. To make matters worse, this process is just getting started in this area of the city.
Another similar property next to Destil, known as Vila Gjuta, awaits a similar fate. In fact, it is likely that they are part of the same development. A stone’s throw away, also alongside Elbasan Street, a villa which once was the residence of King Zog’s sisters, was torn down last year. Is is now being replaced by an 11-story building.
A number of adjoining narrow alleys in the same area are also undergoing the same fate. Small residential villas are being replaced by six-story or taller buildings. Most of these villas, built in the first half of the 20th century, are the last remnants of what once Tirana used to look like. Now, they are forever being consigned to history. Themistokli Gërmenji Street, a narrow alley which connects to Elbasan Street, has already witnessed the destruction of many similar villas in the recent past. This week, another one, formerly named Ambassador Villa, was the latest to be torn down.
Asim Zeneli Street, parallel to Themistokli Germenji, is being redeveloped in a similar fashion. At least four similar villas have been torn down during the last year, with more soon to follow.
While there is much to be said about the loss of the city’s history and fabric, this, unfortunately, is arguably the least problematic issue. What is much more worrisome, is the city’s ability to handle the increased density given an already overloaded infrastructure.
Is this “development” normal?
In short, no. This is absolutely not the way European cities develop!
The Municipality of Tirana is publicly defending these developments through two main arguments. First, they claim that the right to develop a property is universal and cannot be infringed upon by local institutions. Second, they claim in the TR030 urban plan that a denser city is “better”, more easily managed and more sustainable in the long-run.
Both of these claims, in the context of Tirana, couldn’t be more wrong.
Regarding the first claim, it is true that the right to own property is constitutional and fundamental to a democracy and free-market system. However, the right to develop a property is always conditional on the myriad of rules and laws which regulate city planning in the developed world. These rules, as any other, are designed to balance between the legal and economic interests of land owners, as well as the residents, businesses and visitors in any given area.
As a legal and economic principle, property development should achieve two goals. First, the right to develop should be equal among land owners in a given area. Second, it should be also controlled in order to limit the damage imposed on the rest of the residents in said area. These legal and economic rights are why throughout most of the developed world cities exhibit a form of symmetry and similarity. Cities aren’t aren’t designed simply to aesthetically beautiful. Most importantly, they are designed to be legally fair and just.
It doesn’t take much to understand that development in Tirana is neither legal equal, nor controlled to limit the cost on the rest of the residents. Development such as the ones underway alongside Elbasan Street are simply a continuation of this tradition.
The second claim is just as ridiculous as the first, and even more problematic in Tirana’s context. Yes, there is a movement within urban planning circles that favors increase in density … in New World cities (that is USA, Canada, Australia, New Zeeland). This is due to the urban sprawl of single-family home suburbs, which is driven by the cheap available land in these countries. However, this process imposes a strain on infrastructure development and provision of public services in ever-more distant areas from city centers.
Rarely, if ever, does one find in the developed world examples of what is happening in Tirana: previously densely urbanized areas allowing massive development which has not been forecast in the original planning of said area. As I have previously explained, this has not occurred even in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe. Public spaces between “commieblocks” have been well preserved despite the return to private property rights. This is not only difficult to achieve because of the economic and legal rights which citizens enjoy and I previously explained, but more importantly, because developments need to occur along the type of infrastructure designed to handle the density.
This is where making a factual argument about Tirana becomes somewhat difficult since there is a severe lack of local data to make correct comparisons, but at least one can try. According to European Environmental Agency data, the most developed nations of Europe. tend to have at least 0.1 km of motorway infrastructure per 1,000 inhabitants, measured as “accessibility” in Table 1 below. Some countries, like Germany and France, make up for lower motorway accessibility by having a much more developed railway network – of which Albania has none.
No one truly knows what this number is Albania or Tirana. We do know however that there is little to no new infrastructure to keep pace with the new development. Tirana’s current density in the entire prefecture, measured at well above 520 inhabitants per km2, would require something alongside the Netherlands infrastructure level, yet we could only dream of that. In fact, most of the city’s street grid is the one planned during the 1940s during the Italian occupation period, for a significantly lower density and population.
Elbasan Street is a prime example of lacking any infrastructure to support the significant increase in density. The only main street of the area, the aforementioned Elbasan Street, once planned as the access point for an area made up of residential villas, is already chocked off during the day due to the impossible amount of traffic it has to handle. The new buildings, while adding to the chaotic development, will place an additional on the only main street which handles traffic and access.
But then how do other dense, European, cities develop? Mostly by planning new neighborhoods alongside new or additional infrastructure.
Figures 9-10 below show how new development occurs in Madrid or Milan, two of the largest and densest European cities. The areas are planned from scratch, with the necessary public infrastructure and space needed. Meanwhile, previously urbanized areas are mostly preserved according to the original plan. New multi-story buildings would be unthinkable in any of them, as is currently happening in Tirana, regardless of property rights. These expansion plans are made public by local authorities, to allow developers the opportunity to bid for property rights in a transparent and competitive manner. Therefore, cities develop fairly, aesthetically, while preserving the quality of life of residents in older neighborhoods.
So why is this happening in Tirana?
In short, follow the money!
As I have explained before, it is very profitable for construction businesses and the Municipality to develop as near the center as possible for three main reasons:
- Buildings close the city center sell for much more. If no one can block them, it is more than reasonable to expect businesses to build there.
- Building in previously urbanized areas reduces the cost of developing the infrastructure, for the developer as well as the Municipality.
- By not developing a proper urban plan – which provides clear outlines to where and how the city can develop, and therefore makes property owners and small firms independent of the Municipality – a process of subjective construction permits continues to the benefit the of the most powerfully connected firms.
Who pays the cost for this type of development? The current residents in these areas are the ones that bear all the cost. They have to live through a continuing hell of traffic, noise, pollution, loss of public areas, lack of parking, and constant construction. Instead of having their legal, economic, and urban rights protected by Tirana’s urban plan, they are not given any. Any type of development is allowed anywhere, as long as the Municipality agrees to it!
While this process has been underway in Tirana for thirty years now, it seems like Veliaj’s administration is the one that is pushing the limit of this development to unforeseen limits. In doing so, his administration is transforming Tirana into an urban mess unlike any other in Europe and the rest of the developed world.