Sunday, March 27, 2011

Walking the City- 1st episode

Train Station Tirana – Northern Tirana – Paskuqan Lake – Kamza Municipality

Saturday, 25 November 2010

10.00:              We meet all in front of Tirana’s Railway Station. At first meeting there were around 15-20 people that joined the walk. Me and my colleagues Sotir Dhamo explained to participants the route of the first tour with a simple A3 format map, underlined the walk to be undertaken. After informing a bit the nature of areas and the social-urban problematique, we started the walk from the railway station, which is very back warded and I would say primitive. It is one of the worst services in Albania, and yet not reformed since the time of friendship of Albania with Stalin. I think it desperately needs to be changed. Probably privatizing or giving it by concession might be a good idea for the moment. At this moment authorities are not interested on railways. It is bad. One line system. No electricity. Trains mean 1-2 wagons and oil run locomotive. Very low speed of maximum 30 Km/hour. Although cheap it remains neglected and used by limited and most poor segments of society. Using trains in Albania is an exotic experience. The train goes several days to the neighboring Durres city. And once per day in three main destinations: Vlora, Pogradec and Shkodra. Certain tentative in 2003 to create a rapid connection by train from Tirana the Airport and Durres, failed because of harsh political debate in the national Parliament.

From the railways station ticket shop we walked the northern extension of “Rruga Barrikadave” road, beyond the city ring. The road brings us between the economic area of railway station were several forgotten hangars and depots are still there as testimony of the importance of the past. Soon we left asphalt road and walked parallel with railway lines along the concrete floor of one the main trunk sewer drainage infrastructure which is supposed to accumulate sewerage liquids from the northern parts of the city spilling it over Tirana river one of the most polluted hot spots of the city. Along the city we could see several while-sale economic activities going on there, including the “Zippo” pub/disco. One of the students told us that it is a popular place in the weekends, but it has also bad reputation of drugs, prostitution and gang fighting. Well I never heard myself about this before.

After walking some times we end up at in a kind of “culdesac” situation. It is strange. This is the end of railway station area supposed to be developed as a green area/park refereeing to the city center master plan of Architecture Studio Paris, approved in 2003. From both sides of the area you see new housing blocs developed with nicely colored facades but no infrastructure at all. It is a mess. The railway corridor is protected somehow and you could see also a lot of military bunkers inherited from communist past. This is an area to be developed as an extension of the main city boulevard to the northern direction. But in fact the connection with north is almost impossible and interrupted, deviated to the western direction where the railway heads. Practically we could not walk further anymore. We checked for some deviation to the left towards Sori Kodra road. The deviation is narrow almost pedestrian path, but often few cars could penetrate, blocking the communication of pedestrians. After some struggle we could get to the asphalted Siro Kodra road and walk for some time somehow normal. Along the road most of the constructions are houses and simple shops mostly built informally last 20 years.

After a soft deviation to the west, we could turn to a road that brings us according to the map towards norther areas of city and a potential bridge along Tirana river. We asked kids along road and they were friendly and curious to show us the way ahead. Before getting to one of 2-3 existing bridges we see along way a complex of sport, green ang restaurant facilities called National Sport Park. This is an interesting pleasant surprise. A green island oasis in between urban informal chaos in a former economic-industrial area of former Dynamo factory. The waiter was friendly. He called the manager a lady that explained us the complex. It was recently opened, with modern football tennis volleyball facilities, a green facility and a restaurant for families and visitors. Prices look affordable. I though this is a good first sign of PPP concept approaching to develop public spaces and activities/services in those areas where activities are almost not present, although the road is asphalted and public transport busses passes here and there.

After leaving the National Sport Park we end up in front of bridge. Its is narrow and old just for one way. When cars pass the bridge shakes, and sidewalks are very narrow and insecure for pedestrians. We experienced a fight between local drivers on the right of way over bridge. Finally there was a consensus and the traffic problem was solved. We could also walk without tension the bridge. While walking the bridge one can not miss the highly polluted river banks of Tirana River. It is so bad visually and smelly. A real urban environmental catastrophe! I felt lost, humiliated and bad. Officials clearly never have been here. It is a lost alternative path, few politicians even might dare to know it exist. Only local people and curious professionals like us can experience the problem and understand the dramaticity of the situation. It might be easily one of the most problematic areas in India or Africa. It is not real European context. Urgent desperate measures are needed! Cleaning the river, opening up roads, greening it might bring a radical transformation and melioration of situation here. But to whom to talk? Even that I think any change here can bring big benefit to local communities and politicians. We left the bridge with bad feelings among numerous big fat moving rats, the smell of burning trash, and local people contributing to further pollution while we were passing over.

After the bridge we get to the main east-west axes road of Paskuqani Commune and turn west. Paskuqani commune host lat least 50 thousands people, mostly settled there informally after the collapse of communist regime. It has been a state owned agricultural farm that transformed suddenly in an urban area, adjacent to northern area of Tirana. It serves as a buffer area between Tirana and Kamza Municipalities. Indeed looks a segregated and isolated area, although people are friendly and one can easily notice the energy of people and construction around. The study of Berlage Institute Rotterdam Holland describes the area correctly as a future green city tape area. Indeed the density of constructions is low. You can see mostly individual big plots of land and 3-4 floor new houses. Over the area there are several asphalt-paved streets, which is indeed a luxury situation for the density here. People seem to live a patriarchal type of life, and the presence of cows and haystacks, the traditional clothing of people, and puppets over balconies of the new houses against bad devils eye, shows for transition between rural-urban culture.

We turn towards north leaving the main road of Paskuqani, but we are still on asphalt. The road becomes stiffer and relief becomes hillier. Along roads there are several small shops/kiosks with goods at lower prices than Tirana. Also goods look of second hand quality. Probably they are false productions. However people are relaxed. They work in gardens, or stay at private verandas and look on us with signs of hospitality. We deviate through an unpaved shortcut path, ending up quickly at the top of hill. This gives us the opportunity to enjoy the amazing landscape of Paskuqani Lake. We stoped and discussed for a while. From one side you can see Tirana’s densified silhouette, from the other side the almost rural atmosphere of Paskuqani lake area. The water is at minimum level, leaving free the green sides of the lake crater. Someone told us that when raining people whom built and live now informally below the lake’s dyke fear seriously flooding so they make sure the gates of the lake are open. Once the gate was broken during winter someone exploded it with dynamite. I remember it as it was a main headline in the news. However the lake is a big potential not only for the area but for all Greater Tirana region. It can easily be developed as a city scale park, to balance with the one in the southern end of Tirana. But authorities must hurry as the first signs of illegal encroaching are seen also within the lake’s crater/basin.

After walking for sometimes along yet asphalted road, we ended finally to the dam of the lake. Very impressive picture of the lake area, of Koder Kamza, up to Tirana hills and Preza & Kruja castles in horizons. Alond the way we could experience also interesting turbo-informal architecture. Some houses are really big and not poor at all, although they are build in incremental way and somehow by informal cooperative housing schemes (brothers join forces as family and solve their own housing problem). Some houses clearly use their political connections to get protection. This is easily understandable: blue color would mean connection with right wing (Democratic Party), rose color would mean connection or sympathy for left (Socialist Party). This is really funny, but shows that people use all potential means to survive. However asking people they accept that they are involved in the process of formalization regulated by law. But they are not happy with the speed of formalization process.

From the dam of the lake we continue walk, but suddenly the road becomes heavily muddy and dirty with garbage. Garbage is a national disaster in Albania. There are not accumulation and treatment plants for garbage. In the past the consuming of goods was very limited and packing of good was almost non-existent. Authorities were responsible to clean the limited amount of garbage produced. Nowadays situation has changed radically and amont of garbage produced is increased drastically, while there is no public awareness/education neither specialized infrastructure to deal with such complex issues. We walked among garbage and mud, approaching Bathore neighborhood which is the biggest informal settlement in the country and symbol of informality. In certain moment our student slips over mud, transforming the situation in friendly joke. I had to help her to wash hands, while someone gave papers to clean clothes, Sotir said: now you can consider that you area graduated as city planner! The moment is documented in pictures. In this moment we decided to make a break in front of a little shop with marriage dresses.

 The conclusion was consensual: people want to live and enjoy life, everywhere. They marry, they built houses, they work and live, and they get children like everywhere. Suddenly kids of family come along the fence and talk with us, as a good prove of that. Eranda is nervous getting cleaned out of mud. I tried to say few relaxing words…. Local kids meanwhile are smiling. They are two little beautiful girls. Than we walked again among paths of the neighborhood, and I explored the opportunity to talk with one of the old man passing next to us. He accepted that they were not aware of the difficult conditions in the outskirts of Tirana, when arriving. But up there in the mountains he said was not better. He looks forward to the legalization of his house. Not happy with authorities at all.

Someone from the group wants to pie, but it is not easy. No toilets around and high exposure view from neighboring houses. Than he asks one of the local home owners, and the last one shows hospitality and solves problem. In fact people are everywhere friendly. They look us curiously but never caused any problem. Furthermore a group of youngsters play with motorbikes, driving as in American movies. We walk carefully. But that is all. Finally we get to the highest point of the next hill, and suddenly an impressive view of Kamza Municipality and Bathore neighborhoods appears in front. There you can understand the scale of problem with informality. Few professionals and politicians might ever have been here. So they can not understand it at all. However people live. They find the way to built their future, while the existing political elite clearly has forgotten them. We pass through some areas we have been working 10 years ago. The houses are bigger and better off. The public space opened by community during Co-PLAN participatory planning processes are still open there and luckily protected. This proves the sustainability of approach. I have a good feeling, although the area has still serious problems. We stopped a while. Students buy bottles of water which are again cheaper than Tirana but again not original. I and Sotir use the opportunity to explain shortly the idea of the project in Bathore. The group is curious to know more.

After sometimes we end up at the main axes road of Zall Herr, and cut short among Kamza field where there are recently asphalt paved roads and sidewalks with street lighting. 20 years ago Kamza was just an agricultural state farm of 7000 people. Now there are almost 100,000 people living there. In early 2000 Co-PLAN found out that authorities were investing there not more the 100,000 US$/year while people and communities 100 million. Big discrepancy! This was the basis for a process of bridging between people and authorities, where a consensual city plan was produced with participatory methods. It is the only urban plan design and approved in the region of Tirana, despite several other international failed initiatives. 10 years after the situation has improved a lot, but problems remain still big.

Suddenly the asphalted road finishes, and mud becomes very bad in the road. The adjacent areas are more rural rather urban, but signs of first constructions are already there. Finally after a long walk we arrive again a main asphalted road which turns west and brings us after sometimes to the Kamza City center. On the way we could see that the local stadium is highly populated as the local team plays at the first league, intending to get next year the Super-league. The local football team is the city’s pride. We try to see few minutes the match, but local police is very strict with su. We walk further to the centre. We are tired but happy that we did it. Somone calculated that it is almost 15 kilometers walk in several hours. The weather was very good. We were lucky. While moving to the center, we see that some of the housing blocks are façade painted like in Tirana. The difference here is that the motives of paint are: EU, NATO and USA flags. A foreigner would never understand it. But we do. At the center is crowded, and people are proud of the new sculpture monument with a running horse and a kid next to him. People do photos there. A bit further the new cultural palace is under process. The mayor has the reputation of someone hardworking and keeping promises. 15 years ago Co-PLAN almost established local authorities here. Now they have a modern building and surprisingly a GIS database system. The city center is a mess under construction but full oh hope.

We get the first minivan there and drive towards Tirana. The driver is from informal area of Durres but he has a license in Kamza. He comes everyday here to work. He and his conductor are friendly and make jokes with us. The road becomes with traffic. Opposition has a rally so many people come from other city to join. This increases more the traffic and chaos. Welcome to Tirana. But our driver saves our life. He deviates to ALTERNATIVE paths and penetrates easily and fast towards city center. He makes sure to guarantee us that things will go smooth and in time. Indeed we continue somehow a motorized version of alternative path walking in the city.

16 .00              Finally we are at the so called Zogu i Zi intersection thanks to the shortcut driving along Don Bosco road. A student and participant of the Walking the City, invites us to the bar of his own family. I discover they are neighbours with my parents. Nice place, good coffee. After 20 minutes break. I leave to home. Students stay still there hanging on. I can see they are tired but happy. They experienced something new and never seen before. It is so near and far reality. I am thinking already what will look like the next tour of the Walking the City 2…?

 ~ Photos from Walking the City- 1st Episode ~

Article by: Besnik Aliaj
Photos by: Eranda Janku

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