The Cultural Infrastructure of Urban Planning

Overheard in Albania:

Hey, This park is would be a great place for my new apartment building!

Hey, I can enlarge my shop by simply building on the sidewalk!

Hey, This public square is a perfect place to build kiosks!

Hey, To make new parking spaces all we have to do is destroy these useless sidewalks!

Hey, there is no more space to build near the beach. Let’s build ON THE BEACH! ::highfives::

Ok, so not exactly overheard in the literal sense but “overheard” if you look around you and surmise what people were thinking when they did in fact build a building in the middle of a park. These phrases are a kind of “pattern language” for post-communist Albania.

Living in Albania as an urban plannery person ( I have a masters in urban and regional planning ) will make you laugh, cry, and despair. A discerning eye will quickly notice that the current chaotic built urban environment at one point was the product of an urban professional’s “vision.” A look at old photographs will reveal that communist Albania built buildings in rows, with features like uniform distances from the street and from other buildings, green spaces, ample pedestrian space, etc.  In sum, it was the opposite of what we see today.

But how does such a built environment  – one of almost pure chaos built on top of one of pure order – exist? The simple answer is that the communist government was better at urban planning than the current democratic government. But the real answer is more complicated than that and may make you look at urban planning in developed countries in a different way.

Part of the answer lies in taking another look at the phrase “urban planning.” Although we may use this same word to describe both what an authoritarian/communist government does and what a democratic/capitalist government does, the two systems in fact behave completely differently in forming their built environment.

In the Authoritarian/communist model, the state is the only actor. It decides where everything goes and what it will look like and how everything will fit together. In the capitalist/democratic model, the local government “zones” areas to somewhat limit and guide what individuals can do with a certain area. The main difference is that in one case we have one all-powerful actor enforcing their vision, in the other we have lots of individuals and government bodies all trying to work in their self-interest but all limited by laws. There is of course a range of how much freedom is granted to landowners, from Houston which doesn’t have zoning to New York City or San Francisco where the development regulatory process may take years.

What I never realized about the capitalist/democratic model of urban planning before living in Albania is what exactly allows it to work. I never realized it because the requirements are simply taken for granted in America. For example, to do democratic/capitalist urban planning you need a government that doesn’t just make laws but enforces them. These laws also need to be enforced uniformly and equally over long periods of time regardless of who wins elections. This requires professional city government employees who aren’t merely political appointees.  You also need land use law and lawyers, planners, and developers who know it. You could call all of this a sort of “cultural infrastructure of democratic urban planning.”  If you had asked me before I came to Albania what it takes to do urban planning in America I would have simply said local government and zoning laws. I simply took for granted this “cultural infrastructure”

Why can’t Albania do capitalist/democratic urban planning? Well, laws aren’t regularly or fairly enforced here. Strike one. They lack the know-how because they’ve never done it before. Strike two. Local government is staffed almost purely through nepotism and the only goal of city employees is to keep the current party in power. Strike 3.  In sum, it’s not really any one thing that stops them but a collection of them.

Let me end with an anecdote. My family’s home in America had to have a retaining wall replaced. Along with other legal requirements and regulations, the project would only be finally approved by the local county government inspectors once they had seen grass growing again on the site of the construction project. To some, such a requirement on top of all the other requirements may seem silly and an example of too many government regulations.  However, after living in the urban chaos of Albania for 2 years, when I learned of this final grass requirement I had never been more thankful to be a citizen of a country that enforces such laws.

Check out my other post about urban planning in Albania:

Albania’s Inherited Communist Urbanism, a Love Story

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3 responses to “The Cultural Infrastructure of Urban Planning

  1. Pingback: Growing Sage Growing Sage | dude, where's my gomar?·

  2. The simple answer to “But how does such a built environment – one of almost pure chaos built on top of one of pure order – exist?”, is that the communists actually had a government. The democratic one it’s not that they don’t have good planners or good ideas. We have a lot, actually, but every land owner has built whatever he wanted without getting bothered by the government, and with the government allowing all they did and now we’re at this point. I am from Elbasan and visited my town and the neighborhood where I grew up playing football with the other kids and I was apalled by what I saw. New apartment buildings in absurd shapes dictated by the remaining plot of land. If the free land was in the shape of a casual drip of paint on the ground, that’s the shape the apartment building had, only to make use of ever inch of land. They don’t leave space for trees because trees cannot be sold for 400 euros a square meters for all the 10 stores of the building. And below these apartment buildings there were the buildings of land owners, each building according to his own head. No planning at all. The problem with the communist government is that when we overthrew the communists, we brought them down together with the rule of law, and the new Democratic Party government in 1992 didn’t have the capacity or even the will to do something. They even supported this. They didn’t have the capacity because their strategy was wrong. Let’s repay those who have been persecuted by the communists with leading jobs, because we have no money to compensate them. And it doesn’t matter that they’re not cut for these jobs, because they deserve to be treated well. Urban planners and police directors were fired for having worked with the communists, and they were replaced with former political prisoners who knew nothing, they simply took the salary and did “favors” by being “good” to the people by letting them build wherever they wanted, whatever they wanted, because that was “freedom and democracy”, and anyone who opposed that was a dirty communist. Tirana was a huge mess and the Socialist Party, with Edi Rama, demolished thousands of kiosks that were built all over Tirana, right on parks and even in front of the President’s office, and that’s how people liked them in Tirana. But it didn’t happen throughout the city. Just try to search Tirana in google before and after the demolitions in year 2000.

    • What Edi Rama did was pretty impressive, destroying tons of illegal buildings and kiosks in Tirana.

      Urban planning requires restraint and decentralizing power… so whoever decides to allow buildings based on zoning rather than based on political favors/retaliation will be putting themselves at a disadvantage at the next election… unless the citizenry respects that whoever is in power has tried to obey and enforce the law fairly.

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