From: Johannes Estrada
Masterplan Tirana – The Last Raid of the Oligarchs

On Monday, the municipality of Tirana staged a “public hearing” with members of the municipal council and another with citizens regarding the new masterplan that is planned to be approved on December 29.

This “Tirana 2030 Masterplan” envisions the complete and final concretization [betonizim] of the city, reviving former mayor Edi Rama’s dream of a city made out of concrete. It is a plan that will further enrich a small group of political and corporate clients of the Prime Minister, and a plan through which current mayor Erion Veliaj hopes to become prime minister in the same way that Rama did: one building, one vote.

Because the true reasons for the implementation of this plan have no relation whatsoever with the wellbeing of Tirana’s citizens, its entire drafting process has happened in complete obscurity and in flagrant violation of the law. The “starchitect” of the plan, Stefano Boeri, was handpicked from a small group of international clients who promote Rama’s artistic career outside Albania, while at the same time functioning as a fancy façade for the actual contents of the plan.

What does the new masterplan comprise?

Before we discuss the particular private interests that are served with this masterplan, we have to explain its aim. What was previously offhandedly confirmed by Boeri can now be confirmed by the few materials made available by the municipality: the whole of Tirana will become available for construction.

The aim of the masterplan is to increase the building density in the old part of the city (more or less the part of the city inside the red line in fig. 1). The building density is supposed to increase toward the city center, where several high-rise buildings are planned. The plan completely eliminates protected zones. The municipality’s justification is that in this way the green zones in the periphery of the city will be saved. But as I will show below, this is not at all the case; such green zones no longer exit.

The increase in building density in the center will occur through a redevelopment of different properties. The municipality is planning to destroy low-rise buildings, both public and private, in order to replace them with high-rise buildings, with the promise that this will leave more public space available. Most probably, the municipality will accomplish this aim through public-private partnerships, or concessions, as explained below.

Even though this will result in an increase in population and traffic density, the municipality at the same time plans to turn a large part of the city into a pedestrian zone, with prohibited or limited traffic. The municipality states that transportation inside the city will shift to walking or bike usage. No plans are made for a modern public transportation infrastructure, such as tram or metro, but the intention is to improve the bus network.

While the municipality claims that this initiative will protect or even improve the green spaces inside the city, there doesn’t seem to be a chance that this will happen any time in the near future. The municipality claims that the old part of city will be surrounded by a “green corridor,” but these are simply roads with limited traffic. Along this corridor there will be some decorative trees, but there will be no significant new parks, gardens, or other recreational areas.

No expansion but intensification

During the 2011 municipal election campaign, the two main candidates, Edi Rama and Lulzim Basha, agreed that the old part of the city had been developed sufficiently and that Tirana needed to grow beyond its former limits, the so-called “yellow line.” The extension of the boulevard, strongly supported by both candidates, was a step into that direction, and was supported by independent studies even  up to 2015. Although not explicitly against further expansion of the city, Veliaj promised during his campaign in 2015 that he would not allow the further “concretization” of the city.

It is easy to understand why seemingly everyone agreed that expansion was needed. The old part of the city, built for a population of about 200,000, had tripled to a population of over 600,000. At the same time, the peripheral areas especially to the north, are relatively undeveloped and have a low population density. The ideal solution for the public interest would be the further development of the peripheral areas, thus creating a uniform population density throughout Tirana, as is typical for most European cities.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Tirana to the left, and the Don Bosko area to the right

Figure 1 shows the clear difference between the old part of the city (on the left, the large red perimeter) and the peripheral zones because of a lack of infrastructure. A concrete example is the Don Bosko neighborhood (on the right) where high-rise buildings have been built along the road. As soon as the road ends, we only find low-rise and scattered buildings.

During the 2000s, Tirana turned into a unique case when new buildings were erected in the middle of already well-planned zones, or along small roads amid one-story houses – an unimaginable situation in any European city. Exactly in order to stop this development it was necessary to develop the city through the construction of infrastructure in peripheral zones. This would bring a double profit: less pressure on the center, and urbanization of the zones that really needed it.

As it seems, only Boeri and the current municipal administration still think of the peripheral zones of Tirana as “green areas”; rather, these are spaces that for a long time have needed a proper urbanization. So the idea of the masterplan to “protect” these “green zones” is completely ungrounded in reality and utterly ridiculous.

Economical interests

The chaotic development of Tirana during Edi Rama’s years as mayor wasn’t accidental or because of a lack of technical knowledge. It has simply been the result of the political and economical interests of those who profited from it. The density increase in the old part, together with the absence of any formalized expansion of the city has profited two main groups: large construction companies and politicians.

To understand this process, think about the profit a construction company gains from a building in the center. The new building profits from already existing infrastructure, without the need for further investments, and thus generates a high profit. This in turn is profitable for politicians, who, instead of doing the complicated planning for the expansion of the city, receive handsome kickbacks from the construction companies with whom they collaborate.

This process is reinforced by another important element: awarding building permits through clientelism. Because building permits were awarded without grounding in any urban masterplan and transparent procedures, only specific individuals with political connections were able to plan and construct buildings. Simple citizens were mostly refused a building permit.

These specific interests are also the reason for the low level of development in the northern periphery, as a proper urbanization of the city would imply a proper masterplan for its development. But such a plan would empower property owners to develop their properties themselves and, however modestly, and weaken the grip of individual politicians and building companies. The proper urbanization of the northern periphery would necessarily democratize the construction process and thus limit the enrichment of the small construction elite that profited from its absence.

The costs of this lopsided development were carried by ordinary citizens. They were confronted with an overloaded infrastructure and a worsening of the quality of living because of the increased building density. They were also unable to develop their own properties and have remained hostage of the will of the municipality and its construction companies.

In essence, the new masterplan re-empowers precisely those economic interests that have plunged the city into this chaotic development in the first place.

The new masterplan denies the expansion of the city precisely to avoid the democratization of the building process in Tirana. By concentrating the development of the city on high-rise buildings in the center, the power once again ends up in the hands of the big construction companies. The buildings that will be erected in the center are complex, implying the acquisition of both public and private properties, and can only be completed by large companies with strong political support. It will be impossible for smaller companies or simple citizens to take part in this process, which, like any other economic activity in the country, will be monopolized into the hands of a small elite.

It is thus ironic that Mayor Veliaj spent public money on sponsoring the visit of a large group of journalists to Milan, as an example for the new urban plan of Tirana. It is ironic precisely because Milan has nothing in common with what is proposed in the new masterplan, as may be clear from Figure 2.

Figure 2: Milan urban layout; CityLife area on the right

Just like most European cities, including Tirana, the city’s traffic circulation is organized through a network of rings. The city is characterized by a uniform development from center to periphery, with buildings hardly every higher than 5-6 stories – nothing compared to Tirana.

Like any large economical center, Milan needed to develop a modern business district. But the CityLife area, marked in red in Figure 2, is situated far from the center and is served by a series of new train and metro stations as well as broad roads and easy access to the highway system.

It is understandable that Mayor Veliaj has no interest whatsoever in such a development. It is also understandable that those journalists, often employed by media companies related to construction firms, wouldn’t emphasize the enormous difference between the two cities. But above all, this raises doubts about the professional capabilities and integrity of its main architect, Stefano Boeri.

The plan that Boeri has proposed for Tirana has nothing to do with the city in which he himself lives.

“Exotic” traffic solutions

If this masterplan fosters corruption in relation to the construction process, its traffic solutions are simply ridiculous. Confronted with the fact that the addition of buildings to the center of Tirana will create an impossible traffic situation, the new plan has a simple solution: to prohibit it! So even though the masterplan envisions the construction of high-rise buildings all through the old part of Tirana, it at the same time proposes to turn most of the city into a pedestrian zone. The municipality’s argument is that new roads incentivize the additional usage of cars. But the municipality at the same time contradicts this argument by stating that the existing road network is built for a city much smaller than the current size of Tirana – let alone the overpopulated Tirana envisioned in the masterplan.

It is difficult to understand where the architects of the masterplan and the staff of the municipality got this ridiculous idea from. The best example of cities with a high-density city center are those in the US. For example, Figure 3 shows the urban layout of Dallas, typical for American cities, which is characterized by highways criss-crossing through the center (marked with red), while its perimeter has many exits- and entryways to the highway network.

Figure 3: On the left, the Dallas highway network; On the right, the downtown area of Dallas surrounded by highways

It is true that many European cities are trying to turn parts of their centers into pedestrian and bicycle zones, but this has mainly happened in historical centers unsuitable for traffic and with low-rise buildings. Just like CityLife in Milan these cities have built their high-rise business districts away from the center, where the infrastructure could entirely redeveloped.

The best examples of this type of development can be found in the two main European capitals, Paris and London. Both have developed specific high-rise business districts, respectively La Defense and Canary Wharf (Fig. 4). But both zones have extensive public infrastructure to support this development, as well as the close proximity of the highway network.

Figure 4
Figure 4: On the left, La Defense in Paris; on the right, Canary Wharf in London

In the case of Tirana, it appears that again specific economical interests have dictated the main decisions. And its costs will mainly fall on those citizens who live in old apartment blocks or private houses. They will have it ever more difficult to park their car close to their house and will have to choose between between two alternatives: to use private (underground) parking or to sell their house to one of the construction oligarchs. Naturally, the latter option is exactly what is openly envisioned by the current masterplan: to bully citizens out of their properties to serve the interest of construction companies.

As with its vision on construction, this masterplan’s idea about trafffic and infrastructure has nothing in common with the European cities Boeri and Veliaj claim as an example.

Concessions, concession everywhere

If the municipality and its corporate allies manage to realize this masterplan, the life of Tirana’s citizens will be increasingly controlled through concessions. They are a fundamental aspect of this Tirana 2030 Masterplan. As always, these concession will be justified by the absence of public funds, even though this argument does not hold.

With traffic limited, buses will remain the only means of fast transport available for short- and medium-distance trips. Unfortunately, as was recently shown by a report from the State Supreme Audit Institution,  the contracts through which the municipality has outsourced public transport are clientist and financially penalize Tirana’s citizens.

Also, public property, such as schools, will be redeveloped in partnership with private companies. It will not be surprising if the same companies winning the concessions for those school will be allowed to build a high-rise on top or elsewhere. Moreover, the masterplan allows concession holders to use those buildings after school or work hours, turning public property into private money machines.

As explained above, even the redevelopment of old buildings or private houses will happen in close partnership between the municipality and building companies. It will be the municipality that will create the conditions which will simplify the transfer of ownership from the previous owners to construction companies. And it will be only the large construction companies, those with strong political ties, that will profit form this.

To conclude

It can be said without a doubt that the new masterplan has been designed solely to favor large construction companies, the clients and sponsors of the current political system. The masterplan envisions a thorough concretization of Tirana, which will greatly enrich a small group of individuals, while completely eliminating the possibility for regular citizens to develop their own properties within a clear legal framework. The traffic solutions of this masterplan are ridiculous, especially in a context of intensification of the city center. And finally, the main source of financing of this masterplan will be through concession constructions, which place an unacceptable burden on the tax payer for many years to come – and in spite of the many scandals already caused by similar constructions.

It is also clear that this masterplan attempts to repeat the political game which former mayor Edi Rama successfully for twelve years. It will enrich a small group of oligarchs, which will then sponsor the political career of those who helped them. Through this plan, which Boeri claimed was given to him by Rama, the latter aims to increase his political life expectancy and to secure the political future of his anointed successor, Erion Veliaj.

And all of this by betraying, once again, the city and citizens of Tirana.