Transition in Tirana: Public Space Reclamation through Private Redevelopment
Text by Joni Baboci
Through the 1990s land reform practically eliminated large swaths of publicly owned land in the urbanscape. Furthermore, the problem was exacerbated by a severe lack of planning, regulation, and enforcement – which meant that private and public space in and around the city was informally occupied. In the last decade efforts to increase the availability and quality of public space have often failed for a variety of predominantly financial & design reasons. I will describe approaches at reclaiming public space that have been taken in the previous three years which include: capturing development value, increasing capital expenditures on public works, creating a more permeable and flexible urban form through form-based planning & incentivizing limited lot-coverage while extracting public land through private redevelopment.
Land Tenure and Informal Development
Lack of public space in Tirana comes as a direct consequence of transitioning from one of the only political systems in the world that forbade private property, to a free-for-all shock-therapy casino-capitalism. In an opinion poll conducted by the City of Tirana in order to understand the needs and priorities of the public in preparation for the drafting of a new General Local Plan, lack of green space and lack of public space ranked respectively first (61%) and second (53%) in importance. The amount of green open space per capita is low at 0.5 m2 per capita in the urban area. Land ownership and tenure issues remain unresolved 27 years after the fall of communism. In 2004 when the law for the legalization and urbanization of urban areas was passed, nearly two-thirds of all urban buildings in Albania were informal. In a country with fewer than three million inhabitants, there were 350000 informal buildings in 2010. Governments used large-scale land redistribution and legalization as a means to electoral ends – constantly changing the rules to cater to political interests while disregarding the consequent tenure and financial issues that were generated. Suffice it to say this is not unique to Albania; land has been occupied, informally built and legalized since Roman times. Power has often used land ownership and land reform as political capital. Considering that in fifteen years the number of informal settlements will exceed 2 billion, this should not be an issue developing countries should take lightly.
Barriers to high-quality Public Space: Land
The extreme demographic pressure exerted on the capital city after the fall of communism was physically expressed through informal construction. Hundreds of thousands of Albanians whose work and residence were centrally planned while movement severely limited, hoped to find in the Tirana of the 1990s a sense of hope and possibility. Informality was not only a consequence of people looking for opportunity, but it also illustrated the incapacity of local government to reform and simplify the planning and permitting process. The bureaucracy inherited from the regime wasn’t able to deal with the booming bottom-up demand for housing through strict top-down regulation. Furthermore, development was parcel-based and not grounded in any comprehensive area-based planning effort. The limited attempts at medium-sized masterplans were fragmented and only partially implemented. Finally permitting was often mired by accusations of corruption and nepotism based upon the inherently arbitrary and centralized decision-making process. Informality, however, did contribute to the vitality and energy that characterizes Tirana. The ground floor of the city was revived by individual entrepreneurs who transformed the modernist-communist residential blocks into revitalized neighborhoods with bustling small-businesses. This commercial redefinition of the ground floor of apartment blocks had its detractors in residents being inconvenienced by noise or pollution – however it actively contributes in serving as a social and economic elevator for newcomers to the city. In the high-pressure, developer-driven environment of the 1990s little forethought was given to public space generation and the public services that would have to deal with the increasing population density around the city.
Barriers to high-quality Public Space: Money
An important hurdle beyond the restricted availability of public land was the constrained municipal financial resources. In order to turn the tide, the City lobbied for an ad valorem development tax which multiplied the value captured from private development. This helped for the first few years by boosting the municipal coffers and quadrupling capital expenditures in public space projects in 2017 compared to 2015. However a new normal has now been reached and revenues have plateaued while the needs of the city for new public spaces are far from being fulfilled. Furthermore taxing new development is unsustainable in the long term and it disincentivizes regeneration and renewal of the city, therefore, the Municipality is looking at slowly stabilizing the income it receives through new development with an ad valorem property tax.
Barriers to high-quality Public Space: Design acupuncture
In order for public space to be successful one has to go beyond the limitations of land and capital; one of the most important elements is high-quality design. In the constrained context described above, the City of Tirana developed an acupunctural plan of interventions at different scales to ensure that the extra revenues were highlighting the potentials of different typologies of projects. The high-quality design was ensured through competitions which at the same time stipulated a series of conditions that ensured participating entries were collaborations of local and international architects. At the large scale, symbolic projects like Skanderbeg Square projected a vision of the administration’s approach to the urban fabric. At the medium scale, the city promoted proactive urban renewal interventions like the New Market Area aimed at revitalizing key centralities of Tirana. Finally, at the small scale, the city reacted to citizen activism by employing quick neighborhood-level interventions like playgrounds and pocket parks. The approach was successful in illustrating what great public space means at different scales with some projects winning important international awards, however, one of the limitations that quickly surfaced was the difficulty at scaling the medium and small-scale projects beyond the initial quick wins.
Scaling up through Planning
The totally planned city is a… myth. Therein lies the historic error of urban planners and designers and of architects: they fail to see, let alone analyze or capitalize upon, the informal aspects of urban life because they lack a professional vocabulary describing them.” – Urban-Think Tank as quoted in McGuirk
The new General Local Plan of Tirana was drafted as a flexible planning document which tries to set a standard of order while absorbing the positive lessons learned from decades of organic growth through informality. The hybrid plan combines adaptable land use regulation with form-based building codes. This produces a distinctive bottom-up land use mix for each neighborhood-level masterplan allowing developers to customize functions depending on needs. One of the most important form-based rules of the plan allows the city to partially waive height limits by lowering a structure’s footprint. This means architects can choose to free themselves from building envelopes or setbacks encouraging and incentivizing behaviors that reward public space generation at the ground floor – where it’s most needed.
This major rule, as well as a number of subsidiary rules mandating permeable green space, road space, and public amenities space, attempt to deal with the unnatural ratio of public to private land stemming from thirty years of land appropriation and informal development. An average of all the Neighborhood Masterplans drafted since the formal approval of the new plan shows that the existing percentage of publicly accessible land is restricted to only 12.2% of the total planned area. In contrast, approved Neighborhood Masterplans increase the mandatory publicly accessible land at the ground floor after redevelopment to a minimum of 55%. This can discretionarily be increased up to 73% with no loss of Gross Floor Area by employing a combination of the aforementioned rules.
One of the main limitations of this approach as in most of urban planning is the factor of time. While the Neighborhood Masterplans promise between 55% and 73% of public-access spaces and amenities when all the structures of the masterplan are redeveloped, it does not solve the imminent problems of residents today. Nevertheless, the masterplans also stipulate that each new redevelopment project also needs to individually abide with these lot coverage conditions, meaning that piecemeal, slowly but steadily the neighborhood should generate new public space with each new private project going up.
Another critique of such an approach argues that the implemented masterplans might create a Corbusian “towers in the park” condition which has often failed at generating the circumstances for a satisfactory urban life. However, the modernist approach often failed because of both homogeneous socio-economic conditions of residents and homogeneous residential land-use. The experience of Tirana in the past twenty years with its informal organic growth of miniature “towers in the park” projects, shows that an active commercial ground floor combined with recreational facilities and a diverse residential population can be successful in overcoming the stigma often associated with Pruitt Igoe and the likes. The vivid success of the streetscape in Tirana might also be associated with the city’s geographical and cultural assets.
An alternative approach to generating public amenities resides with Public-Private Partnerships where the government might receive investments or services today and pay at a later point in time, often at a higher interest rate than typical institutional rates. An iteration of PPPs in urban planning might sometimes translate to POPS or Privately Owned Public Spaces. While Tirana has been engaging with a couple of PPP models, developing countries often lack the sound regulatory framework needed to ensure the success of such endeavors. One solution offered by Irzabal (2016) is to transform them into PPPPs: Public-Private-People Partnerships where the process might be de-institutionalized and the ultimate stakeholder can become an active part of the process.
The described approach has achieved some encouraging preliminary results in freeing up space and most importantly avoiding where possible the difficult and expensive social and financial costs of land condemnation and expropriation. Furthermore, because of its piecemeal and flexible approach, the current urban plan might be more resistant to political change than other plans in the past and therefore might ensure a longer-lasting impact on the territory. A system of transferable development rights which aims at freeing space in some of the most clogged neighborhoods of Tirana is also being set up. Coupled with a more stable and diversified revenue portfolio as well as the continuance of the design efforts through competitions and public participation, public space in Tirana might soon close the gap with its other European counterparts.
Bounded Flexibility: object-oriented planning in Tirana
To plan is human, to implement, divine. – Jerold Kayden
TR030: The General Local Plan of Tirana was drafted as a flexible planning document which tries to set a standard of order while absorbing the positive lessons learned from decades of informal organic growth; it also attempts to incorporate some basic versions of the aforementioned ideas. The structure of TR030 was designed with three main elements in mind: an executive summary for citizens taking the form of a vision statement on the future growth of Tirana; a series of clear rules and regulations– aimed at standardizing development procedures and; a number of strategic projects which selectively drive public capital expenditures.
The hybrid plan combines adaptable land use regulations with form-based building codes which produces a distinctive bottom-up land use mix for each neighborhood-level masterplan – this allows developers to customize function depending on need. The plan weaves a tapestry of conditionally flexible yet bounded rules that enable creative architecture while mitigating the risks of corruption and arbitrary decision making.
The ambition of TR030 was to function like a minimum viable product: it should work well enough from day one, but be designed like a planning framework which could change depending on context and adapt to the future needs of the city. The plan centrally fixes key variables of planning – think minimum distances or FAR – but allows contextual margins of flexibility when designing each of the 567 urban neighborhood masterplans.
One of the most important form-based rules of the plan which illustrates bounded flexibility allows developers to partially waive height limits by decreasing a structure’s footprint. This means architects can operate free from limitations set by FAR objectives set by developers, while incentivizing design that rewards public space generation where it’s most needed: on the ground floor. In practical terms each new private development project frees up a minimum of 55% of the land being managed; this can discretionarily be increased up to 73% with no loss of Gross Floor Area by employing the aforementioned regulations.
One of the city’s strategic projects was the creation of dynamic urban polycenters The plan tries to break the historical monocentric organization of the city by outlining a set of well-connected focal areas within the urban core to serve as secondary centers. FAR around these areas is higher providing an incentive for private capital to intervene. Furthermore the plan foresees important infrastructural as well as public services capital expenditures in these areas. The concept revolves around creating a critical mass of public and private investment empowering these areas to become focal points of their larger neighborhoods. This is greatly enhanced by our urban mobility strategy: hundreds of small and medium scale interventions in urban acupuncture, sidewalk enlargements, protected bike lane networks and separated bus lanes
One of the largest barriers to responsive development in fast-developing cities is land ownership. In order to provide solutions to this problem Tirana uses an adaptable development toolkit. This is a set of self-explanatory tools that can be selectively used at the masterplan design stage including: transfer of development rights, density bonuses, city-backed development bonds, expropriation by physical compensation and compulsory shareholding in development corporations. Each of these tools provides solutions and expedience to developers if certain public-interest conditions are met.
In Rebel Cities, David Harvey claims that any alternative to the dysfunctional contemporary form of globalization “will have to come from within multiple local spaces – urban spaces in particular – conjoining into a broader movement.” The breakdown of global supply chains caused by the ongoing pandemic illustrates the need to reimagine cities as the new distributed engines of the world. With impending climate disaster and exponential unsustainable growth approaching collapse shifting the way we plan our cities might be crucial to confront the one-off exams of our short-term future: if we fail, we do not get a second chance.
 The Infrastructural Impact Tax changed from being assessed as 2% of the cost of construction, to 8% of the value of what was being built.
 The General Local Plan divides the Municipality of Tirana in 1863 subunits and sets the basic rules and regulations regarding FAR, building height, and lot coverage for each of them. However before major development happens in each of the subunits, a Neighborhood Masterplan must be drafted which is a morphological expression of the conditions set forth by the plan. This secondary planning document defines public space, green space and public amenities (Tirana Municipal Council, 2017).
 Because of the highly fragmented situation of property, developers in Albania almost never buy land upfront, but rather enter into agreements with existing landowners rewarding them with a percentage of the gross floor area. Legally all of the managed land in a project which is not used up by the building footprint becomes commonly held and as a condition of the building permit is managed by the Municipality until and if all the plot owners decide to redevelop.
 Few buildings in Tirana are higher than 10 stories – and also most buildings are much closer together than typical residential neighborhoods.
 According to Haines (2016), Tirana ranks in the top ten sunniest cities in Europe. Furthermore Albania has one of the highest numbers of restaurants, bars and cafes per capita – according to Ibrahmaj (2016), the number stands at 152 restaurants, bars and cafes per 100000.