I came into the Peace Corps as a recent student of urban planning and with an interest in communism. The overlap of these two interests manifests itself in the field of urban planning in many ways both directly and indirectly. Living in a formerly communist place like Albania, the past is very much still with us in the form of the cities.
First let me say that like most urban planner types, I’ve always been a fan of walkability, high population densities, and an urban design built around the human form rather than for the automobile. Modern Albania, a tiny country built almost entirely under a communist regime, is a great place to experience these three lovely urban features.
Let’s talk about the population density. My little city in the middle of nowhere is roughly one square kilometer yet holds14000-18000 people. To put this into perspective, this is half the population density of Manhattan, 5x the population density of the City of Los Angeles, more than double the population density of the City of San Francisco!
How did this happen? Almost all housing is apartment blocks which were built under the communist era. People had no choice of owning a new single family home because the only builder was the government and the only thing the government was building was apartment blocks. The lack of government control that followed the fall of communism only lead to greater population densities because people filled in spaces left “empty” (parks, gardens, yards, pedestrian paths) with new, taller apartment buildings.
Car-free life here in Albania is the default, rather than in America where it is impossible except for some exceptions. Why is this so? Not just because at these population densities the rates of car ownerships in America would be physically impossible, but because personal cars were illegal under communism and Albanian cities were simply not at all built with cars in mind which is a legacy of the built environment that persists. Until 1991 there were an estimated 2000 cars in the country of 3000000 people. Even today, it is fair to say most Albanians have no need for a personal car, given such high densities of both housing and employment, and most are simply status symbols for men.
These three things: population density, car free lives as the default, cities built around the human form, all these foster a certain relationship between the built environment and people in Albania that is noticeable to me as an urbanist in an almost extrasensory way: I can just feel it when I am outside in Albania. What is most prominent to me is Albanian pedestrianism. I call it pedestrianism because I’m from America where the car rules but it feels inaccurate to use the same word “pedestrian” for what someone in America does when they walk and what someone in Albania does when they walk. Let me explain.
In America, some hip cities try their best to promote walking and increase non-vehicle trips. These efforts tend to have little if no impact. Generally in America, cars dominate the landscape and move at scary high speeds. In many places there is no infrastructure for walking at all. In Albania, people walk on the roads and cars and people coexist. You can see this especially in the older population who will just loiter or walk aimlessly to pass time down a road. The high population density creates a feeling that the entire city is an outdoor room.
Perhaps my favorite experience of Albanian pedestrianism is the freedom enjoyed by children. Children in my town can be seen in pairs, groups, or alone walking down the streets and sidewalks running errands, playing tag, talking to friends. When school lets out the streets overflow with children on foot. When I was a child in the American suburbs we lived less than a mile from school but were still driven in cars to school due to the urban design (or lack thereof rather). Walking anywhere was out of the question. Being alone in public as a child is simply unimaginable in either the city or the suburbs of modern America. In Albania it is expected.
A lovely way to spend summer evenings in Albania is the ever popular xhiro: walking aimlessly on a designated pedestrian path, plaza, or road with the goal of seeing, being seen, meeting friends, and passing time. It is something we just don’t have in America and something that I see other Americans just don’t “get.”
So I guess my conclusion here is twofold. First is that modern Albania has, because of its past, enviable urban physical features to the extreme that communities and urban planners in America could not dream of: car free life for most, cities built for people, and high population density. The environmental benefits from high density living and little driving, the quality of life benefits of having little to no commute, and the benefits to those who would otherwise be stuck at home (the elderly and young) who can participate in community life are both huge and largely immeasurable.
Second, I think I’m also arguing that these physical quantitative features of Albanian urbanism influence culture and lifestyle in a positive way that is qualitative. That businesses and homes and everything else are all right next to each other without the need for cars creates a more enjoyable life, a life more worth living. I try sometimes to explain to Albanians how in America people don’t walk… they cant walk… but the idea is difficult to convey because it is much more complicated than simply imagining their current Albanian city with all would be pedestrians in cars. The difference is both a qualitative and quantitative change in the relationship to one’s built environment. In my opinion, its a difference between Albania and America where Albania is better.