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Regular assembly: Urbanisation and the right to the city

On the eve of the first local referendum in Macedonia to preserve the original look of GTC (City Trade Centre), we address the significance of the present moment in which the citizens will be directly shaping their city. Over 43.000 citizens residing in the Centar municipality will be voting in favour of or against the preservation of the original modernist look of GTC. A referendum campaign held in April and a recent publication familiarised the citizens with the significance of preserving the building’s original architectural style.

Arguments in favour or against the referendum question revolve around the function and the significance of GTC. On one hand, supporters of the planned makeover suggest that GTC, fenced off with walls and secured from bad weather conditions, will become a more pleasant space for shoppers. In contrast, various citizen initiatives and the Association of Architects argue that the proposed changes will transform GTC from a space open to diverse – not consumer-only – experiences to a big-box mall.

We here build on existing arguments around the planned makeover, expanding the debate towards the wider concepts of urbanisation, and the possibility and/or necessity for citizens to directly shape their cities. The local referendum is an alternative to public consultations, a mode of participation that is common for urban planning in Macedonia, and is for most part either symbolic or it disenfranchises citizens. Deciding directly about the processes of urbanisation, citizens claim their right to the city— the right to remake collectively the environment that they inhabit. What possibilities, spaces and relations, then, emerge when citizens make direct decisions about the processes of urbanisation? How is this achieved through urban planning and architecture? Can architects, urban planners and institutions in Macedonia support the planning of a city of all and for all its citizens?

Five contributors responded to these questions:


Assembly co-ordinators: Mila Shopova and Leonora Grcheva

Photo credits: Leonora Grcheva

A city for all: Utopia or possible reality?

Part of the regular assembly “Urbanisation and the right to the city”. Author: Ana Aceska

The referendum about GTC democratises the process of urbanisation of Skopje in a particular way. Faced with this for the first time, it is necessary to ask again what is a “city for all” and whether the institutions in Macedonia can provide it.

GTC, like the shopping mall Biser or the small open market in Butel, or like any other building in any other city, cannot be a place for all people in any context or at any time. But that is exactly the essence and the beauty of cities: they are places in which people with different identities, habits, needs, and tastes dwell, who come from different places and speak different languages. In the ideal city, they all have an equal access to resources and privileges, live in solidarity, togetherness and mutual understanding, and it is in the city where they can obtain justice. But cities are never that perfect. Ironically, the diversities that are inherent to them and the complexities of their systems make them vulnerable and fragile. The good city, therefore, relentlessly reinvents and changes itself in order to come as close as possible to a “city for all”.

Skopje is not a good city. The Skopje city dwellers have been discriminated in many ways for decades, they do not have equal access to infrastructure, resources, and information, and they are faced with an unjust privatisation of property, imbalanced power and lack of justice. The so-called “Project Skopje 2014” is avoiding to address not only these issues, but any other urban principles and logics, and it is completely wrong. Skopje, moreover, is facing the problem of a lack of basic understanding about the processes of social and structural inequality of all actors that are involved in its planning and rebuilding. For example, not only in the common thinking, but also in professional responses, Skopje is observed only in dichotomies: this and the other side of the river Vardar, centre and periphery, one way of “urban” living and many “other” ways, one truth and many lies. The ethnic and class divisions are considered as normal. It is being perceived mostly in metaphors and straightforward reactions freed from the dominant narratives are rare. An example for this is the statement widely present in the public discourse that “the city had a soul (just one?!), which was taken by others” which became an unassailable dogma that legitimises the inequality in the city in any sense. Thus, the question: do those others, the different ones, with different tastes and needs have a right to the city as well? Or: what about those city dwellers for whom the soul of the city (regardless of how we define this term) is different and linked to other spaces? Skopje is not perceived in other ways, and its sociological dimensions are not known nor researched.

The structural and social inequalities are created and reproduced by the state, but the city is very important in sustaining them. The city is not only the place where big social and economic processes happen, but a large part of the conflicts that are produced by those large processes directly influence the everyday life in the city. These processes are reproduced in the city and there they create new forms of inequality which are not only state-made, but become inherently urban – that is why the right urban policies should be directed exactly at this micro level. The future urban planning in Skopje, therefore, should be freed from the symbolic dimensions and directly face the structural inequalities.

That is one more reason why we have to defend GTC from the plans to give it a “baroque” façade and support the events and debates that are dedicated to it. GTC will never be a place for all, not now or ever. But if we truly face the questions and the problems of inequality and if we try as hard as possible, exactly at this referendum we should start the long battle for a “city for all”.