Tirana is a beautiful city in Albania with layers of history still painted on the buildings through architecture and design. I spent a whole day walking through the streets of Tirana searching for some of 750 000 bunkers scattered across the country from a previous leader who was paranoid of an enemy that didn’t exist. This intricate network of tunnels and bunkers is an absolutely fascinating adventure and bizarre way to explore such a historically rich city. Along my travels, I also found an array of cafes and bars with amazing outdoor seating. However, many of these places did not serve any food other than toast for breakfast. Finding brunch was a bit of a mission, but as I wandered the city, it became apparent that the Tirana region is going through a green revolution. From restoring local parks to creating contemporary art precincts and new buildings, the city council is leading the development of new spaces to revitalise the city.
Tourism and Tirana
As the secret of Albania’s beautiful beaches, mountains and culture becomes more widely known, tourism is growing at a rapid rate. On average, Albania has seen a 20 percent year on year growth in the past 5 years. This is taking a major toll on local infrastructure, especially in Tirana where one third of the 2.8-3 million tourists visit every year as they are home to Albania’s only airport. Air and road quality is being impacted by the influx of tourists and needs to be addressed.
After doing some research and exploring the city, I had the opportunity to meet with Tresi Trebicka who is leading the implementation of The Green City Action Plan. Tresi is building an interesting career spanning local government policy, sustainable tourism and has recently completed her Masters in sustainable tourism with a focus on climate change.
She passionately told me about how the ecotourism market has gained more attention as green hotels and tour companies become more popular. ‘We are starting to see young people returning to Albania because there are job prospects, especially in tourism. Young entrepreneurs are bringing their own green innovations to Albania which is great for business and the environment.’ Tresi shared. Young people leaving to pursue careers in higher paying countries is a common social challenge across the Balkans. However, Tresi is hopeful that things are about to change. ‘Our food and dining culture is becoming well known and there are more cultural aspects like our contemporary art and green spaces for young people to enjoy. Tirana is becoming a top destination to live and travel and we are already seeing young people return as the lifestyle and job prospects increase.’
The Green City Action Plan (GCAP)
In 2014-2015, the Albanian Government undertook a large territorial reform which rezoned how cities and municipalities were arranged. The reform grew Tirana’s territory by about 25 times in surface area, including more regional land. This was the catalyst for developing a comprehensive plan for the Tirana council to become a sustainable and attractive European destination for people to live, work and travel called the General Local Plan- Tirana 2030. The Green City Action Plan was an extension of the General Local Plan with the intention to address the growing challenges of urban stress and climate change through sustainable planning. Some of the key areas of focus include clean drinking water, greening of the city to improve air quality, citizens’ health, energy use and green infrastructure. Central to the plan is to create urban microclimates to combat not only greenhouse gas emissions but to also mitigate climate change effects, as cities will host almost 79% of the population by 2050.
The GCAP is part of a Green Cities Programme developed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). It follows a Memorandum of Understanding between EBRD and the Municipality of Tirana signed in 2015 on cooperation in areas such as urban transport, urban roads infrastructure, water and wastewater services, solid waste management, street lights and overall improvements in energy efficiency. The GCAP is funded by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Finance under the Western Balkans DRIVE Fund.
After public consultation and research with other countries, the top priorities were chosen:
1. Land Use
3. Solid Waste
4. Water Supply and Wastewater Treatment
7. Climate Change Resilience and Adaptation
One of the most impressive parts of GCAP is the time to execution. It took less than a year to develop and approve. They also implemented certain initiatives even before the plan was finalised including tree plantings and cycling promotion. ‘Sometimes it is best to be proactive when it comes to climate change. We knew there were many ‘no regret’ initiatives and we wanted to engage the public to show the commitment and action.’ One of their first initiatives was the local engagement of citizens and businesses to plant 2 million trees in Tirana by 2030. This was a tangible activity for locals to get involved and learn more about the Green City Action Plan in more detail.
Key Green Initiatives
The GCAP has some exciting initiatives that will have a positive impact on people and the environment. These include:
Sustainable Transport: Managing traffic flows across the city is incredibly important for the climate and local air quality. As we entered Tirana, there was heavy traffic congestion as there is only one main road in and out. Other than road infrastructure with priority bus lanes, the team are testing a new fleet of electric buses and are also introducing a dockless bike system as well as a new fleet of electric taxis.
Green spaces and biodiversity: A key community engagement activity is to empower businesses and local citizens to plant 2 million trees by 2030 in a zone that encircles the urban area, creating a separation of the urban and rural areas. This is to stop urban sprawl and to ensure that green spaces are part of the core urban infrastructure. They have a website that tracks the tree planting efforts which can be viewed here.
Energy efficiency: Their residential building energy efficiency programme offers the municipality and residents of buildings to collaborate and co-finance 50%-50% energy efficiency upgrades including the thermo-isolation of old buildings, solar and glazing. This is also being extended for investments in Public Schools, Kindergartens and Nurseries for upgrading standards on energy efficiency and LED lighting.
Climate change resilience and adaptation: Their plan is to also Implement smart and resilient urban planning which involve new city areas and developments made for people and sustainable in terms of public space usage that considers transport, green spaces, open public spaces, pedestrian spaces and the creation of microclimates inside the urban areas to lower city temperatures. The New Northern Boulevard road was just finished and further development around the road will be central to the development of Tirana’s sustainable future.
Their urban plan can be viewed here.
The role of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
The SDGs were central to the overall General Local Plan- Tirana 2030, highlighted in their targets, measurement and implementation plans. For example, the General Local Plan has emphasised inclusive urban planning and access to natural resources and services for all citizens.
Although the GCAP stems from the General Local plan, it was based on methodologies and frameworks from the Green Cities Programme developed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).
The role of the SDGs in the plan is to act as a supporting guide, offering inspiration for the continued growth of the plan. ‘The SDGs are very important for Tirana and Albania as we strive to become leaders in sustainability in Europe and the world. It is really helpful for us to learn from others and track progress through the SDG measurement framework.’ Tresi shared.
Awareness is Key
Increasing awareness of sustainability practices within local residents is another critical aspect for a sustainable future in Tirana. Recycling is a strong focus at the moment as they have just begun separating household waste into recycling and waste. ‘This is a challenge and it will not happen overnight. Ultimately we need people to change their behaviours, so there will be an adjustment period. Currently there is a door to door collection service of larger household items including couches, mattresses and electronics. This is done through a joint venture with Eco Tirana Ltd.’ Tresi shared.
Another important awareness building activity is the local ‘My Tirana’ app (TIRANA IME in Albanian) where citizens can be informed about traffic in the city, transport lines, tourism points, pay for their parking, be informed about Air Quality in 4 key pilot areas (with IOT smart meters). However, it is more than just traffic. Citizens can also report by sending pictures and text complaints regarding waste problems, environmental pollution and feedback. They are answered by the municipality immediately with the problem addressed in less than a week.
Road to a More Circular City
Tresi also discussed how building practices are becoming more circular. Instead of rubble and construction waste going to landfill, they are repurposing it for other building sites. ‘It is really important that we think about all aspects of the impact we have, from building to waste. We need to think beyond recycling. Reusing and repurposing is a critical activity for the council to lead. We are looking more into circular city practices and implementing staff training on the topic to move towards this field.’
There are big things happening in Tirana with the Council working on a long term strategy, anticipating tourism and population growth trends. Hearing of the Tirana Council’s comprehensive plan to develop more green spaces including lakes, parks and recreational space, it will no doubt become a hotspot for tourists and locals alike. Further to sustainability, there is a strong investment in arts and culture spaces, highlighting the history of Albania and attracting global artists to showcase their work in the region. I was so impressed with the bars, museums, and restaurants in the city area.
Compared to other cities in the Balkans, Tirana definitely has a buzz of growth and excitement. With the knowledge that the leaders of Tirana and Albania are increasingly focused on sustainable development, Albania will no doubt become a top European tourist destination in the coming years.
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