Rich in cultural heritage, serene landscapes, and their inhabitants’ hospitable nature, Balkan countries are being increasingly discovered, explored, and promoted as hidden gems. Dotted with remains of history that document Roman, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian presences in the region, and of cultures which predate these conquests, the heritage of the developing countries of Southeast Europe, however, is increasingly at risk, from a lack of investment, will to preserve historical monuments, and also because of a trend in sacrificing the old for new constructions aimed at ‘revitalising’ public spaces. The latter has not been acuter recently than in Albania, where local authorities prioritised new construction projects at the expense of the country’s rich cultural heritage in Durres, where a new plan for the regeneration of part of the port area, namely through the construction of a giant concrete sail, led to activists protesting, and even taking legal action against the local government and mayor, Vangjush Dako.
Following a shady and contested procurement agreement, the winning construction company’s work on the site led to the discovery of several ancient ruins, close to the protected area dominated by the city’s Venetian Tower. Citizens from all over Albania raised concerns over the project and the damage it could cause not just to the existing monument, but also to the new archaeological discoveries. A court order demanded that construction works in the protected area cease, but this has been mired in controversy, both because the original court statement had been slightly modified since its delivery and because it was not respected.
Despite winning a court case which halted the construction is the protected area and enabled the public to protect their cultural heritage, the battle concerning the protection of the city’s tower and recent archaeological discoveries was far from over. Works at the site continued, under the supposed supervision of site archaeologists, but citizens documenting the work took photos that portrayed damage to the discovered underground ruins.
When asked, archaeology experts believed that they uncovered Ottoman ruins, which are dotted in the area, but which had also been severely damaged back in the 1920s when an earthquake struck Albania. Back in February 2017, the director of the Albanian Archaeology Institute stated: ‘The situation is under control! No one can damage them!’
The local government however missed to address the issue and provide any further information on how the ruins will be investigated or indeed, protected in the course of the Veliera project, while the works intensified and new structures were being added in the area. Further developments on the Veliera project did not comply with the orders of the Durres prosecutor. In practical terms, the work continued at a fast pace in most areas of the square. Civil society representatives demanded that the project stopped in order for archaeological excavations to take place. Whilst in other countries, century-old archaeological finds are cherished, researched, and protected, the local Albanian mayor seemed to be more invested in covering these discoveries up, both figuratively, by avoiding to discuss them, and potentially literally, by covering them up with blocks and pillars of concrete.
Fast-forward some months to July 2017, and the activists reported that the archaeological findings had been in fact covered up by concrete. According to official decisions, the construction company responsible for developing the works had to leave ‘holes’ with glass covers so that the structures would be visible. When inspected, the concrete square did not seem to contain these. Citizens of Durres and beyond led a march in July, again protesting and though late, this time to shine a light on had actually happened to the cultural heritage of the city.
The response of citizens, which involved documenting, protesting and even legally challenging the project’s damaging potential, is in no doubt a result of a tipping point in Albanian urban planning strategies advanced by the ruling parties. Endless plans for fast urbanisation and constant building permits have, and still threaten to take away public spaces, inch by inch, especially in the capital city. Durres did not escape this trend either, as it is a coastal town that has been gradually filled with high rise buildings that block the sight of the sea; when driving past the city one would hardly guess beaches lie beyond the tall apartment blocks. One intriguing dimension of the city’s explosive, concrete-based urban development aims, is that most such buildings lie empty, and with an emigration trend on the rise, it is unclear who this fast-paced development serves, in the given situation where none of Albania’s cities is experiencing housing crises or struggling to cope with an influx of tourists looking for short term accommodation rentals. While the centre for Tirana, for example, is becoming more exclusive and expensive, the suburbs have many new, empty homes that can hardly be owned or rented, due to lack of infrastructure, such as public transport, and services. Whatever interests lie at hand, it is becoming clearer that such constructions may not have to do much with public interest, and the case of Durres is amplified by the fact that Vangjush Dako seems ready to sacrifice the country’s common history and cultural heritage to make space for more concrete pouring, in all, a less than ideal choice of material for a small Mediterranean city on the Adriatic coast.