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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

The urban planning legislation as a tool for citizen marginalisation

Part of the regular assembly “Urbanisation and the right to the city”. Author: Leonora Grcheva

Urban planning gains popularity in the public debates whenever there are new announcements of the “Skopje 2014” project, or when students are beaten up on the square, or when the corrupted urban plans are the topic of the opposition’s ‘bombs’ or, these days, when the first citizen referendum for GTC (City Trade Centre) is being held. But the systemic consequences of the commercial and political intrusion into spatial planning are much wider than the already destroyed central area of Skopje.

A vast part of the changes in the planning legislation in the past eight years have been either motivated by personal real estate gain of the politicians in power, or passed with the purpose to create conditions for smooth and legally unobstructed realisation of the “Skopje 2014” project. However, the laws apply equally throughout the republic and these overly frequent partial changes of the planning legislation – from 2006, the Law on Spatial and Urban Planning has been changed twelve, and the Law on Building seventeen times – leave catastrophic consequences in all cities, villages, and natural areas. For instance, the law changes passed in order to enable the transformation of the green hills of Vodno into building parcels, at the same time legalised the destruction of green and forested areas throughout the entire country.

But maybe one of the harshest consequences of the hasty law changes has been the gradual abolishment of the civil right to participate in the decision-making processes regarding our own environment. While the planning practice on a global scale is transforming into a localised, inclusive discipline that actively engages citizens, in Macedonia the reverse trend has been developing: centralisation of the decision-making in urban planning and marginalisation of the citizens. The basic tool for participation in local planning, since the beginnings of independent Macedonia, has been the public survey. In the public survey, after a short presentation, the detailed urban plans are exposed, and the citizens have the opportunity to leave written remarks that are then reviewed by a professional commission and eventually, accepted into the final plan. It has been common practice that the plans presented on the public surveys are graphically complex and chaotic, difficult to read even for professional planners, and nearly undecipherable for common citizens. Experience has shown that the turnout on these public surveys is very low, and the percentage of accepted complaints even lower.

Instead of offering the necessary upgrade of the public survey and the introduction of contemporary methods of citizen participation, such as workshops, interactive discussions or debates, the law changes have been vigorously taking away the decision-making power from the citizens and professionals, and handing it over to the city and municipality mayors, or to the Minister. Accordingly, with the changes in the Law on Spatial and Urban Planning, the public survey was shortened from 15 to 10 days for the cities and 5 days for the villages and uninhabited areas. After a successful Constitutional Court initiative in 2010, asking for the annulment of the non-legitimate Detailed urban plan for the central area of Skopje, where the “Skopje 2014” is focused, mechanisms for quick plan-making procedures have been implemented, shortening the dedicated time for professional and general public debate. Furthermore, new unconstitutional forms of urban planning documentations have been introduced, enabling the Government, the Minister or the mayors to make unlimited changes in the urban plans, skipping the common procedures and regulatory frameworks. Responding to the protests of the citizens of central Skopje that would not allow for the ‘baroquisation”’of their buildings’ facades, with the Law on Building, the city and municipality councils were given the power to make detailed decisions regarding the facades of buildings, regardless of the citizens’ feedback, if deemed ‘of importance for the municipality’. In order to encourage the Skopje 2014 ‘baroque’ style for new buildings, on the other hand, investors that build in the architectural style chosen by the municipalities are relieved of 50% of the communal taxes!

All these decisions and law changes progressively centralise the decision-making power regarding the spatial planning and development of our environment, and are gradually completely shutting off the citizens as a decision-making factor. On the day of the first authentic infiltration into the discriminatory urban politics – the local referendum for GTC, we must not forget that the thorough restructuring of the planning legislation must be an inevitable part of the process for re-democratisation of the country and the building of an inclusive society where the citizen participation in the creation of spatial politics will be not only enabled, but actively, legally encouraged.