As urban areas expand across the Balkans so do more investors seek to identify prime locations for the development of physical buildings, whether residential or commercial in nature. Local governments have shown their desire to work with developers, but in this context, we find one key problem that spans the entire region: the space required to build so much construction as well as its availability in desirable areas is limited, therefore, publically managed green spaces in the Balkans have been targeted.
In this process, we can observe worrying trends, namely, sacrificing green spaces, such as local parks, for new physical developments. Such is the case of Tirana, in Albania, which is in dire need of expanding the green areas, yet where parks are either being entirely destroyed, or diminished to make space for private interests. Most recently, the Centre Municipality of Sarajevo, announced that a park and museum located in a prime location would have enough space to build a 6-floor commercial building, complete with underground parking. The entire eleven thousand square metres for the park were meticulously included in this analysis. While residents protested the destruction of urban green spaces, in Albania their actions were repressed even with the use of police violence, while in Sarajevo, the authorities responded saying that well, erasing the park could happen, but it doesn’t mean it will? The concerns were not addressed, implying it was merely a possibility, nonetheless, a very carefully considered one.
In light of demographic changes, increased mobility from rural to urban areas, and the disastrous effects of climate change, not only the protection but also expansion of urban green areas needs to become a top priority if cities want to become resilient and cope with future environmental challenges. The World Health Organisation is advocating and advising cities to increase rather than reduce green infrastructure in urban areas, and among the key reasons for cities to pursue such goals we find: the ability to protect and maintain biodiversity, reducing hazards such as air pollution and noise, mitigating the impact of extreme weather (heat waves, flooding), and improving the health and well-being of urban residents.
When it comes to the management of green spaces in urban areas, most research points to a recurring finding: that public participation in decision making related to green infrastructure is key to the sound development of cities. In our region, we not only find that local governments do not invite the public to participate in the decision making but sometimes, do not even respect studies and expertise related to environmental and urban planning issues. The European Commission promoted a study which found that successful policy related to urban green spaces depends on adequate participation from the public. Yet, our local governments, in practice, ignore those recommendations.
Despite the fact that most studies in the field point at the correlation between public participation and an increase in the quality of green spaces in urban settings, the problem we face is more radical than that: it is based on the ability to ensure the survival of existing green space at the expense of endless construction, and if possible to expand the areas so that residents can enjoy the bare minimum of the amount of green space a city should have. The participation so far has been manifested in protests and voicing dissatisfaction with local governments’ decisions to reduce the amount of public green space. Despite the fact that Albania signed the Aarhus Convention, they have proven to continuously disregard the legal mechanisms through which they are meant to govern.