Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The ambitious mayor of Tirana, Albania, is selling a wary constituency on economic transformation by putting kids at the forefront of his agenda.
Tirana’s main children’s playground fits so neatly in the Albanian capital’s central Grand Park, it feels as if the playground’s wooded ridge has organically sprouted terracotta-colored climbing frames, swings, and crawl spaces. Children of all ages play under its tree canopy, the sound of their parents’ and grandparents’ chatter, knitting needles, and dominoes clacking from the surrounding benches.
More than simply a charming space, the playground is the spearhead of a grand plan to refashion Albania’s capital city as a more walkable, more sustainable, less car-dependent city—specifically by placing the needs of the city’s youngest citizens at its forefront. Its creation also sparked one of the most intense urban debates in Albania’s recent history, one that reveals the highly specific growing pains the country has endured since the fall of communism in 1991.
The Grand Park playground, the largest of its type in eastern Europe, was the first site chosen for a child-friendly overhaul by Tirana’s center-left mayor Erion Veliaj, who was elected in 2015. The playground became a flagship for a municipal scheme that has since seen 33 more playgrounds installed across the city, with more on the way.
This focus on both children’s needs and reclaiming public space runs like a seam through Veliaj’s attempts to refashion Tirana as a greener, denser, and less car-dependent city. When Veliaj’s administration wanted to kick-start the pedestrianization of Skanderbeg Square, Tirana’s central plaza, he staged monthly car-free days when parents were actively encouraged to bring their children to cycle. When the city recently launched a central cycle lane grid—one that easily surpasses equivalents in American cities of similar size—the municipality also created special days when cyclists as young as three years old could cycle there in convoy, supervised by adults. And when the city sought to encourage more healthy eating, it started by revising kindergarten menus to make them healthier, sending local chefs into elementary schools to provide education about produce and cooking.
Focusing on the young makes sense in a very young city—Tirana’s average age is 27 to 28. There’s more, however. As Mayor Veliaj told Citylab’s General Manager Rob Bole during a discussion at this summer’s reSITE conference in Prague, children are like “revolutionaries in the household,” capable of influencing their parents far more strongly than a politician ever could.
There might seem to be an eccentric strain to the idea of transforming a city from toddler height upwards, and using children as sleeper agents to promote sustainability, but it is in keeping with UNICEF’s efforts to position child-friendly urban development as a cornerstone of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Albanian capital is thus part of a growing global wave that sees urban children’s well-being as a way of unpicking a broader knot of issues.
Such an approach is particularly effective, says Sam Williams, initiator and co-author of the Arup study “Cities Alive: Designing for Urban Childhoods,” because good child-friendly development does not isolate the young, but integrates them more seamlessly into their wider communities.
“Unfortunately for them, children are a great indicator species for urban problems, because they are more vulnerable to traffic pollution, to car accidents,” Williams told CityLab. “They have less range because they have shorter legs. They don't have money or income and they can't drive.
“By designing well for children, what you're really doing is designing well for the most vulnerable in society, whether that's the elderly or disabled, or the less wealthy. It's a very equitable approach to design that can fall by the wayside if you focus is on getting 30-year-old commuters from A to B as quickly as possible.”
This is grand rhetoric to attach to a playground development plan, but these playgrounds do more than provide more community space. Following years of (not yet dispelled) mistrust of officialdom in the immediate post-communist period, the municipality is using a child-first approach to urban management as a shop window for its political message that government can indeed be trusted.
The transformation of Skanderbeg Square is emblematic of this. A huge space lined with a collection of monumental communist-era institutions and saffron-colored, Italianate buildings from the interwar period, the square was almost entirely car-free under communism—because private cars themselves were so rare during the period. In the post-communist era as congestion gradually increased, Skanderbeg Square’s fate became a battleground between rival city administrations: One mayor’s total pedestrianization plan from 2010 was cancelled by his successor, who had the space remodelled as an island surrounded by a carousel of traffic—an arrangement that, as of December 2018, is still visible on Google Street View.
When elected in 2015, Mayor Veliaj revived his predecessor’s total pedestrianization plan. This time, in order to help win the public relations battle, his administration appealed to the public by emphasizing the space’s role as a facility for young people, and by using occasional car-free days as an advertising campaign to turn the whole area into a child-friendly strolling area and play space.
Veliaj describes the reaction: “Kids came with their bikes and rollerblades and were very happy. Their parents, however, hated me. They said, ‘He was such a nice guy during the election campaign, and now he wants to take the cars away!’ But with kids, it’s very different. They don’t have dogma or ideology. The kids loved it and said, ‘Mr. Mayor can we do it one more time?’ Then, when they went home, they’d convert their parents.”
These car-free days became monthly fixtures until residents came to expect and rely on them, a reaction that helped smooth Skanderbeg Square’s transition to its now remodelled, permanently car-free state. The effect of the makeover is subtle, but dramatic. The square’s paved heart now slopes gently upwards to a sort of flattened hump, transforming the square into a stage that places pedestrians at its center. As the sun cools, children kick footballs around on a sunken lawn that, so far, seems to be bearing up well under the pressure of their feet. And it’s doubly popular because it doesn’t cost anything, says a young woman called Anita, (who preferred not to give her last name), who I find hanging out with teenage friends next to the square’s temporary beach volleyball courts. “There aren’t many places for us to spend time in the city without paying something,” she tells me. “Here there is always something happening and all we need is the bus fare to come.”
Tirana’s child-first reforms are also reclaiming formerly public plots of land that have been taken over for private uses such as garages and parking in the immediate post-communist years.
With central planning control largely removed during Albania’s semi-lawless 1990s, Tirana’s apartment buildings started to bulge with informal extensions, and self-built houses started to sprawl across farmland. Many formerly public courtyards and open spaces were encroached upon for private uses, such as garages, parking lots, small sheds—and in a few rare cases, even tower blocks. By clearing away these illegal occupations, the city restored the spaces to common use.
“Ours is a fundamentally Mediterranean culture,” says Veliaj, “where a lot of social life takes place outside in the afternoons and evenings. But if public spaces have been taken over by private owners, if sidewalks aren’t wide enough or cars are rushing by all the time, who is going to want to sit outside breathing in fumes and looking at someone’s garage?”
The need for children’s play space has over the past few decades been met by the same private interests. The city’s huge expansion has left little open space, prompting the private sector to step in with children’s facilities in the form of small playgrounds attached to cafés and bars, where access comes at the price of a drink. This creates an inherent inequality between those children whose parents can afford to access play space and those who cannot.
“One thing that's come out of our research here is that parents pay for their kids to play,” said Simon Battisti, director of Qendra Marrëdhënie, a Tirana spatial consultancy non-profit working with the city. “There is very little public open space of qood quality, especially on the periphery.
“Time after time, parents we talked to lamented this issue that they had to pay for their kids to play locally—some as much as a quarter of their monthly disposable income to play. Having this little creature that must expend this energy every day. if you don't have a park nearby, the best place to go is the bar. That means that the poorest people, out on the periphery, are currently paying the most.”
Reclaiming public space for both the children and adults of Tirana, and refashioning the city into a greener, denser, and less car-dependent place, has been a slow, deliberate process.
But not everyone immediately embraced the changes. During the construction of the Grand Park playground in 2015, the site saw 78 days of constant protest, and even sabotage of construction equipment. This intensity of feeling partly represents the extremely polarized nature of Albanian politics, but also shows how battered public confidence in the state had become. Some feared a large-scale destruction of the park, one that might enable officials partly to harvest kickbacks to builders and allow the commercial exploitation of garden space in one of the most exclusive areas of the city.
One pro-opposition newspaper accused the city of using the playground as a false front, “a façade, [behind which] the felling of hundreds of trees and the concreting over a large part of the Grand Park will proceed.” This doesn’t seem to have happened, but given Tirana’s recent history of private interests gobbling up public land and widespread corruption, it’s not hard to see why diggers in a public park aroused such suspicion.
And while it is fairly easy to outline how child-friendly policies could both improve young people’s lives and the well-being of a city as a whole, it is less easy to demonstrate that they have. In the past, dependable data that would allow Tirana to assess impact has not been available. This autumn, however, the city is creating a new data package that will allow it to track the conditions of young people and their carers properly. Charting their experience may be the true test of the city’s policies.
If nothing else, Tirana will have leveraged one potent political tool by creating a city of little “revolutionaries”: Children can also be especially persuasive advocates for the sort of sustainable change a rapidly warming world needs. It’s a point underlined by Ruud Schuthof, Deputy Regional Director of global local government sustainability network ICLEI Europe, which nominated Tirana for a Transformative Action Award (whose ultimate winner was announced this November).
“We've seen in various cities that children are good advocates for change, that they also convince their parents to do more,” Schuthof said. “We’re experiencing an urgent call for transformation, for rapid change in all aspects of society. In the end, it's easier to promote a big push like the one we will need if you have worked from a young age on the topic.”
Funding was provided by the Bernard van Leer Foundation to support our project, “Room to Grow,” about raising tiny humans in the city.