Elton Stafa, NALAS – Network of Associations of Local Authorities of South-East Europe
Citizen engagement plays a fundamental role in strengthening good governance, promoting local democracy and facilitating community empowerment by enabling citizens to participate in decision-making and increase government accountability. While Albania has developed a sustainable legal and institutional framework to facilitate people’s participation in local decision-making, still citizens’ participation remains very low, hindered by endemic lack of trust in government in general and in consultation processes in particular. The genuine commitment of institutions to involve and not just consult their communities in local decision-making is the main factor that determines whether citizens will participate and engage in the policy process in a proactive manner.
The practice we analyze focuses on the elaboration of a Development Strategy for the Village of Kanina through a series of participatory urban planning workshops engaging the local community in the development of their own community. The practice is developed within the ‘100 villages program’ also called the ‘rural renaissance program’, which is a national rural development program launched by the Government of Albania to promote a sustainable, integrated and multi-stakeholder approach to rural development in Albania. The program aims to develop a new rural development model for 100 villages based on three main criteria: (i) public infrastructure development and revitalization; (ii) local economic development through the diversification of economic activities (in particular different forms of tourism for/in rural areas; and (iii) the development of the human and social capital, aiming at fostering the creation of rural networks, local action groups and civil society in rural areas.
The practice involved participatory urban planning and the development of a guide for small towns on how to develop urban strategies with place-based solutions. This methodology was tested in the Village of Kanina and then replicated in other towns and villages through this methodology guide. The practice focuses on a civic engagement model for a key local government function (urban planning), while having direct implications on the structures of local governments, and builds on successful intergovernmental dialogue and consultation.
The Village of Kanina (part of the Municipality of Vlora), was selected by the Albanian government, based on a project proposal by the municipality, as one of the beneficiaries of the ‘100 villages program’ which is a national program aiming to support the development of rural areas in Albania. Kanina is a village with a significant development potential, based on a strong culture and historical background and its proximity with the City of Vlora, one of the major economic hubs in Albania. To make sure the new development strategy of Kanina could build on the local community and its development potential and priorities, the National Territorial Planning Agency in Albania (NTPA), partnered with the Municipality of Vlora and the community of the Village of Kanina. A series of participatory urban planning workshops were organized with the local community, with the technical support of superwien urbanism and the support of the BACID fund – Building Administrative Capacities in the Danube Region.
In two days of workshops targeting Kanina’s different interest groups, different tools were used, based on the concept of place-making and techniques of civic engagement in urban planning, in order to activate the local economic and cultural actors including local businesses, citizens, activists and representatives of national and local cultural institutions, in the development of the village and create common strategies to trigger economic development and foster sustainable tourism. Place-making is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design, and management of public spaces. It capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well-being.
The participatory urban planning workshops, organized by the NTPA, included several activities to get to know the roles and expectations of the influential stakeholders and specific interest groups, to identify intervention areas based on citizens’ perspectives, to identify challenges and opportunities and map goals; to learn about the past history so that it can inform the future development; to get feedback from citizens and mapping activities. The key emerging topics included the utilization of the cultural heritage, revitalization of the central square, tourism development, water infrastructure/supply, road infrastructure, youth migration, natural landscapes and local products.
The results of the workshops and focus interviews led to the definition of Emerging Topics and Development Goals that were included in a concrete action plan, prepared by superwien urbanism and the NTPA, and endorsed by the local community stakeholders and the City of Vlora. The action plan included five main clusters of development goals, including fostering the cultural heritage as an economic asset, the creation of attractive public spaces for locals and visitors, boosting tourism development, protection of the ecology and natural landscape as well as improving quality of life through improving basic local infrastructure.
On a more general note, while there have been improvements in the policy framework and enabling environment for citizen participation in decision-making, the strong legacy of repressive institutions continues to have major implications on citizens’ trust in institutions and participation in decision-making. There is a significant gap between the provisions of the laws for participation and their actual implementation and citizens are very skeptical about the concrete impact of their involvement in decision-making. On the other hand, there are successful practices of citizens participating in decision-making at both urban and rural levels as demonstrated by the practice on Kanina.
The key objectives of the practice were to engage the local community in the co-creation of their own development strategy, based on their needs, priorities, and potential. This involved the implementation of participatory and co-creative approaches and at the same time provided an opportunity to get as much information as possible from the local community on their challenges and opportunities. Engaged citizens representing the local community as well as representatives of local businesses clearly delineated that the central square of the village, including historical buildings and the Castle of Kanina, although currently abandoned and left over as a result of three decades of transition, have a strong development potential and provided their own ideas about the future of the central square. Ultimately, the results of the workshops included the development of a clear strategy, developed by superwien urbanism and the NTPA, focusing on the re-design of the main square, including the introduction of commercial and non-commercial zones, and the renovation of the historical stone buildings, with the goal to activate the square and make it more attractive for tourists as well as residents.
The participatory urban planning workshops piloted in Kanina were replicated throughout the country by the National Territorial Planning Agency within the 100 villages program, creating a new practice of citizens’ consultation in rural areas. Ultimately, the practice we analyze addresses one of the core challenges to people’s participation in Albania – trust in participatory processes and the impact of their contribution in the early stages of development of policy documents – as opposed to only being presented the draft prepared by national/local authorities on their own. The practice shows that when institutions are really committed to participatory development, citizens are committed too and participate in the process, as they clearly understand the importance of the process.
Government of Albania decision no 21/2018 on the Integrated Plan for Rural Development – the 100 Villages Program 2018-2020
Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications:
BACID – Building Administrative Capacities in the Danube Region, ‘100 Albanian Villages: Civic Engagement towards Urban-Rural Linkages’ (BACID.eu, 24 March 2020) <https://www.bacid.eu/100_Albanian_Villages:_Civic_engagement_towards_urban-rural_linkages>
Berisha E, ‘Albania declares 100 Villages for The Integrated Rural Development Program’ (World Architecture, 17 February 2018) <https://worldarchitecture.org/articles-links/cmhpz/albania_declares_100_villages_for_the_integrated_rural_development_program.html>
Government of Albania, ‘“100 Villages” program, a Rural Renaissance Model’ (Prime Minister’s Office, 2018) <https://kryeministria.al/en/newsroom/programi-100-fshatrat-nje-model-i-rilindjes-rurale/> Superwien, ‘Atelier Kanina’ (Superwien, 2019) <https://superwien.com/portfolio/atelier-kanina/>
 Government of Albania decision no 21/2018 on the Integrated Plan for Rural Development – the 100 Villages Program 2018-2020.
 Superwien is a studio for urban development and sustainable architecture based in Vienna, Austria.
 Financed by the Austrian Development Agency (ADA) and managed by the Austrian Association of Cities and Towns (AACT) and KDZ (Centre for Public Administration Research).