Had a fantastic conversation with Jarret Fisher on her awesome podcast regarding cities and the sustainable development goals: tune in to hear about Tirana, urban planning and complex systems - Spotify - YouTube - if you like what you hear, Jarret’s got more fantastic stories from Accra, Bristol, Quito, New York, Barcelona, Melbourne, Lagos!
We are back in Europe, but now we are in the Balkans, Tirana, Albania. People should pay more attention to Albania and especially Tirana. They’ve been hard at work upgrading their infrastructure to benefit their citizens and have been leading the way in Europe for sustainable city design. The country is run by a former mayor of Edi Rama, the Prime Minister, and the current mayor is exactly 40 years old. Many of his most trusted advisors within City Hall are even younger, including our honored guest Joni Boboci, who is hands down the most engaging and passionate public speaker I’ve ever heard. Especially when you get him talking about urban planning and development. Joni studied in Toronto and then London at LSE for a Master’s in Urban Studies, so he is well acquainted with city life. Joni started his career as an architect at a boutique studio in Tirana, and in 2015, joined City Hall as Director of Planning an Urban Development. He has remained ever since and recently transitioned to a new title this summer, the senior urban advisor to the mayor. Good morning from Chicago and thank you so much for joining today. I’ve read so much about you so I’m so thrilled to finally speak to you. You are a self-described urban enthusiast. Why do you love city so much?
Thank you so much, Jarrett and thank you very much for having me. I think it’s so interesting to talk to you about an issue, which is very, very close to my heart. I think it’s sort of a cliche to describe the importance of cities and they’re expected growth in the next century as a craddle of innovation and the value they bring in balancing the consumption of resources and the waste of energy that currently pervades our planet; but I think it feels a bit working with cities like. Investing in in Apple in the 70s or in Google in the 90s they’re a platform. They’re a platform for the future. I think they’re the original platform of our civilization. They create opportunity and they close the gap of inequality and I think that they are a churning socioeconomic elevator, in a way, the generator of the future of humanity and I’m so happy to have dedicated for cities for most of my career: at different scales, at different levels, but always sort of keeping in mind the importance that they hold. I think especially for the next 30-40 years in showing us the way and leading the way forward for humanity.
Wow, your energy has already gotten me more awake this morning. And for anyone listening, I’m sure they feel energized as well, like we should go work for cities. We should do something about urban planning, and you’ve been director of planning and Urban Development for Tirana for the past five years. Now with a new title, I understand, senior urban advisor. What does your job for the city entail? and what are the main development projects you’ve been proud to complete in this period of time?
Yes, so I have recent transitioned to alternative role in the city. It’s a bit less bureaucratic and a bit more creative. I’m currently advising the mayor in delivering cross disciplinary change to the city in terms of how do we meld the urban planning architecture, urban economy, mobility, infrastructure together through information Systems in sort of planning for the future of our cities. Previously I was leading a team of more than 100 professionals, architects, planners, engineers, in sort of planning is bustling, vibrant capital that is Tirana. We delivered large scale land use and planning documents, redesigning the growth of the city’s urban scape; having a lot of collaborative processes; a lot of innovative, I would say, flexible methodologies in terms of planning. How we think about cities. We delivered and coordinated very large scale projects, including Skanderbeg Square, really, revolutionizing change in the center of the city: we transformed the biggest roundabout in the Balkans into a huge pedestrian space for people to enjoy. We’re extending the city North in the new Boulevard. We’re transforming an old Bazaar into fantastic marketplace. We’re transforming the mausoleum of the dictator of Albania 30 years ago, into an innovative tech hub for youngsters to learn about innovation, technology and dip their toes, so to speak, into programming and coding at an early age and therefore have the right skills for when they start to move on to University-level education. So I think that Tirana changed a lot in the past five years. Also because cities have been sort of getting attention. So it’s been a fantastic ride!
Wow, I can’t wait to see this all for myself and especially the tech hub that you’re describing sounds very exciting. We have many tech hubs that sound a little bit similar in Chicago. If you’re not familiar. Well, I hope you can come visit Chicago someday soon after Covid, but there’s one in particular that comes to mind called 1871 and I’ve been there a few times myself. So if the one Tirana is anything like that, it’s very exciting for the city, and I think for the whole country, probably. Thank you for sharing all of those projects. I want to move into my favorite topic, which is the UN sustainable development goals. And considering that the sustainable development goals were actually designed for national governments at the United Nations, why do SDG’s matter for cities?
You know, I think that, especially in the past decade, we’ve seen all over the world, the importance and the increasing responsibilities that local government has been taking over from central authorities. So in a way, I think it’s only fitting that we have to look at the SDGs through the the lens of the urban and through the lens of the cities, of course.
Even in looking at some of the most important SDGs, you look at number one. No poverty: we’ve been saying it for decades and I want to mention this fantastic book by Doug Sanders called Arrival City and it speaks about how cities are poor by design. If a city is successful, if a city works well, it attracts the people who are less well off. Because it’s a cradle of opportunity, so there’s huge potential and therefore even though let’s say a city like Berlin maybe statistically poor, the story changes, if you look at the finer grain, if you look at the relative change of fortunes that happen in a city like Berlin and therefore what you see in the city is sort of a social and economic elevator, and therefore if you want to tackle poverty, if you want to address poverty, I think that structurally the best way to do it is to often dedicate attention to the cities. If you look at some of the other SDGs, decent work, economic growth, industry, innovation, infrastructure. I mean the thing that comes to mind is again cities. They produce 85% of the global GDP and in this context of growth and prosperity, I think it’s an accepted fact that if we want to see change, we have to look at cities and we had to dedicate our attention to cities. And finally one that is extremely important: climate change, climate action and then responsible production and consumption. I think again, the environmental impact of urban regions is outrageous, which is good, but it’s also bad. I mean, cities account. I think for 75% of natural resource consumption and is between 60 and 80% of greenhouse gas emissions. So if we don’t address these issues in cities, what’s the point in looking at the SDGs, and therefore I think it’s more than important focus the matter and also look at it through the lens of cities. And I think that we’re going to talk a bit later about the voluntary local review processes which in a way address, exactly these issues.
Well, very well put and I agree a lot of things that take place in cities can be challenges, but I like to see the glass is half full. Always so I do see them as opportunities as well and hopefully like you, I believe all 17 goals matter in cities. And that’s why we’re talking to each other today. Nonetheless, I do want to draw your attention to a very specific goal, which is number 11 sustainable cities and Furthermore target number three, indicator number two; which measures success by the proportion of cities with direct participation structure of civil society in urban planning that operates regularly. So do you think Tirana is achieving this and how does your office at City Hall engage with everyday citizens and community groups?
I mean we’re trying. I don’t think we’re achieving it, and I don’t think we’re fully checking the box, but we’re definitely attempting for the past years to try and be as open and inclusive as possible. We have a lot of in-situ public hearings, so we’ve moved a bit away from having people come to City Hall and we try to actually go to the neighborhoods where we have a project, and try to hold the meetings in-situ. We do a lot of co-designing, especially for smaller neighborhood scale projects, playgrounds and small parklets. We have the community come out, especially children and young people. They come out and they try to help us, give us their ideas. In a way identify the genius loci, the spirit of the place; which we don’t know as planners living or working out of City Hall, but people who live in this neighborhoods they know much better than us, and therefore it can tell us where they feel it’s more appropriate to have a certain bench or even to have a small pedestrian walkway in the neighborhood.
I think it’s interesting because we often - getting a bit more theoretical here on this issue - but I really want to mention it: there is this famous concept in planning from a fantastic US based social-worker / journalist Jane Jacobs of eyes on the street. This idea of people improving their community by being active on the ground floor. And I think whenever people think of Jacobs, they have this idea of bottom up processes and that’s where it ends. But if you look at one of the most interesting chapters in The death and life of Great American Cities, which is aptly named “The kind of problem a city is”, she deals with issues of organized complexity. So she deals in how eyes on the street, how these singular elements really create a complex system we can’t fully understand yet, we maybe can’t measure it. But it’s beyond the qualitative. It’s in a way something quantitative, but above our understanding.