The city of Tirana is a case of an urban post-communist transition that has undergone a drastic transformation from public-space centred to an indiscriminate use of space for private interests. During the transition the occupation of public space has been gradual, intense, disregarding the rule of law, and causing problems that still affect the well-being of its residents, especially due to overpopulation and high pollution levels. All of this has been developing with the tacit compliance, or ignorance of the authorities and several governments.
Historically, the new democratic state of Albania inherited all of the public spaces that helped shape and propel the ideology of the ruling communist elites, led by the former dictator Enver Hoxha. Back then, each Tirana resident had 15 sqm of green space within the city. The transformation that led to the decrease in public space such as parks, pavements, squares, and residential green areas, was in part fuelled by a considerable increase in migration to the capital. Today, Tirana is home to nearly a third of the country’s entire population. Uncontrolled construction and occupation of land were common some 20 years ago, a phenomenon still very much felt today by the fact that many residents do not have property documents for the land they occupied. A fast-paced construction frenzy is still ongoing, with disputed permits for new buildings, and also without a sound consideration for sustainable urban development.
The current local government of Tirana has pledged to pursue a much needed organisational strategy of creating order in a city that is nothing short of chaotic. In order to tackle the ‘illegal occupation’ of public space, the municipality began ‘cleaning’ the city, demolishing structures, buildings, and in an effort to clear the public pavements within the city, make businesses owners who had occupied pavements retreat into their own property, and rid themselves of an inconvenient informal practice in the city: low-income street vendors that sell small amounts of produce, and who operate within the grey economy.
The campaign involved police targeting the vendors, administering fines, and suppressing those who were unable to comply with the orders to pack up and leave. Old men and women who sold a few tomatoes or pomegranates were made to pay a steep price for selling a few kilograms of produce each day to make a living. This coercing approach, however, is not sound due to many factors, some related to much bigger problems. From an economic point of view, there is both a supply and demand for produce, with many of these sellers unable to make an income from other sources due to lack of jobs or infrastructure that would allow people to develop businesses. The relocation of vendors to markets with stalls is generally an option for more established vendors who source larger quantities of produce and are able to rent a space. The social status of the people in question also needs to be considered, as the street vendors, rather than entrepreneurs, are average citizens coming from some of the most vulnerable and poorest strata of society. When their products are confiscated, the government auctions them in exchange for profit, therefore not only denying low-income citizens a chance to make ends meet, even if barely, but also affecting their dignity and profiting off of the work they have struggled with in order to produce something of value.
Cities are complex systems, but the right to public spaces goes beyond appearances. In its complexity, many factors lead to their healthy development and sustainability, and its human inhabitants play a key role in this. A policy that treats human activity as an obstacle that needs removing or ridding of will never be efficient. In other cases too, the more authorities have attempted to criminalise the actions of street vendors the worse the situation has become. For example, in Barcelona, the local government tried to resolve some of the issues of vendors by implementing a job training programme, but as the vendors are considered ‘criminals’ it was all too difficult for many to be integrated into the formal job market, and that in the case of a city that does have economic opportunities, and where jobs are available.
In the larger scheme of things, any local government must first deal with identifying the causes of congestion and occupation of public space, and in the Albanian context, for many years, these causes are social, economic, and cultural in nature. Using force to remove street vendors will only make their social status worse, and lead to a larger scale poverty. When the street vendors of Barcelona formed an unrecognised union, their spokesperson declared: “They say our work is illegal, we consider it disobedience. We are disobeying hunger. We are disobeying unemployment. We are disobeying borders. The very idea that some people can go and work wherever they want while others can’t. The very idea that some people have human rights while others don’t.” In the end, street vendors’ illegal activities in Tirana portray the bigger picture of a state that has not yet developed enough to ensure the survival of its residents, especially those from suburbia and rural areas. Tirana will not be modernised overnight, and when it does it will not be a result of cleared streets, devoid of poor people asking the passersby to buy a fruit, a couple of vegetables, or some cigarettes, but instead a result of state that has managed to provide the economic and social opportunities for people to make a living within the formal economy, without the need to occupy public spaces to ensure their survival.