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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.

Open versus closed society

Part of the regular assembly “Urbanisation and the right to the city”. Author: Dijana Omeragic Apostolski

Affected by the current events regarding GTC (the City Trade Centre , the central mall), I found myself strongly inspired to write, as this building is not only the work of one of the most significant Macedonian architects, Zivko Popovski, but also a certain (allegorical) thread connecting and uniting the centre of Skopje. As these events delegate serious responsibility to the citizens of the Municipality Centar, it seems appropriate to discuss the meaning of this building for the Municipality Centar, and for Skopje. Thus, the focus of this article will be but one of the qualities of this building, or (should we say) of this work of art, a somewhat discrete and sensitive quality – the meaning of its current open versus the meaning of the proposed closed space.

If we employ an etymological approach, we will find the word open (adjective) enfolds ten basic definitions (interpretations) and some of them are: “[space] which is not fence, through which one can freely pass”, then “that works, that functions”, “accessible, free”, “honest, unhidden, public”, etc. As expected, its antonym – the word closed, includes the following definitions: “[space] which is limited, fenced from all sides”, “which is put in jail”, “for color – one which is not bright, which is dark”, “for person – one which is withdrawn, quiet”. This approach insinuates no further demand of supports and claims for the choice of an open mall (typologically), as opposed to the proposed closed mall. However, the difference between these two types of malls, and their meanings for and in urban tissues, becomes ever-vibrant if one takes a look at some influential global trends in spatial planning and architecture.

Specifically, the current trends in architecture today revolve around the opening of the malls, mostly due to the importance of integrating the urban tissue in cities. Cities with a longstanding experience with closed malls have already concluded that the insertion of edifices of mass consumption mostly results in the development of segmented city cores. Standing opposite the closed malls – the open city malls have proven to be spaces of complex heterogeneity and movement, and according to John Montgomery, these are the preconditions for the creation of long-term vital urban spaces. This process of integrating the city cells, that seemingly function separately, has been explicitly called: “de-malling the world”. The practice of building monumental shrines of consumerism, closed and isolated from the outside world, that exist for the mere purpose of stimulating consumption (as a concept), is rapidly becoming outdated in the cities that care for their citizens. What is certain is that the open urban spaces and public buildings stimulate interaction between the visitors, nurture community interaction, and propose opportunities for contact and proximity. Shortly, open urban spaces focus on involvement and inclusion instead of segmentation and exclusion.

Buket Kocaili in her study “Evolution of the Shopping Malls”, concludes that today the city malls are spontaneously and/or intentionally being “again transformed into public spaces”. In the case of Skopje’s GTC, we already ‘own’ a public space. Its passages and pedestrian streets offer more than simple connections, they deliver spatial integration, vistas towards the park and the river, and they most importantly provide honest, unhidden, accessible, free spaces that function! What is presently missing is a single legitimate reason to transmogrify its current state and seal GTC for his city.

Skopje and the neoliberal city

Part of the regular assembly “Urbanisation and the right to the city”. Author: Aleksandar Shopov

David Harvey has characterised the neoliberal city as, among other things, a space where the creation of new forms of city governance and of a partnership between public and private sectors leads to ‘improvements’ that are cosmetic, while actual living conditions and services such as education or housing are unaffected or decline. The goal is to create spaces for increasing consumption.

In the centre of Skopje this new partnership has taken on especially dramatic forms. The baroque facades ostensibly meant to transform the city into a European capital have been used to justify the construction of private office and housing spaces on land formerly owned by the state. One of the first fruits of such a partnership was the Ramstore shopping mall (Koç Holding), for which state land was sold at a discount through an agreement between developers and the government, creating at the same time a new form of city governance. The partnership was advertised as beneficial for the citizens who would gain, the developers assured, a modern space suited to their needs. In the decade since the Ramstore deal, more state-owned land has been sold in Skopje, in the centre and elsewhere, through partnerships forged between the city government and investors. The national government also plays a role in such deals by redirecting public funds to developments, even if the use and ownership of the land is passed on to private entities. One example is the gated community Sonchev Grad (‘Sunny city’), in whose construction the government is currently investing tens of millions of euros while preparing the grounds for the foreign corporation (Cevahir Holding).

In the neoliberal city the violence from these partnerships is distributed to already marginalised communities, the victims of this urban ‘progress’. The Albanian residents of the village Patishka Reka, on the slopes of Karadjica Mountain, are seeing their water appropriated for use in Sonchev Grad. Development would also be a catastrophe for the hundreds of families in the Topaana neighbourhood, inhabited by Roma people, which would be squished between the new U.S. Embassy and the proposed international financial zone that it set to replace the neighbouring military base; the historic Roma neighbourhood will then be threatened by developers competing for more space. Urbanisation in Skopje’s municipality of Aerodrom is taking the form of open racial discrimination as Roma dwellings are destroyed to open space for parking lots and parks. Dispossession, which Harvey analyses in “The Right to The City” and which is occurring in cities all over the world, looms on the horizon for many of the inhabitants of Skopje.

The privatisation of large tracts of state-owned land in Skopje could not have been possible without the creation of a new architectural aesthetic, the neo-Baroque look applied by the government to their redesigns of the centre. Moreover, the construction of dozens of monuments privileging ethnic Macedonians over other ethnic groups is in large part actually aimed at marginalising those ethnic, racial, and religious communities which stand in the way of the new urban process.

The urbanisation of Skopje is a class phenomenon. In Novo Maalo, car repair shops and their workers who constituted part of the history of the neighbourhood were evicted by force to open the space for the construction of the corporate shopping mall Vero, just across from the National Bank. Neoliberalism has increased the class power of the rich in Macedonia and the world by weakening the ability of the rest to resist their own economic exploitation. Even the park-forest Vodno has fallen victim to the neoliberal city and urban planning. In light of this situation, the struggle to protect the facade of the historic Gradski trgovski centar (City Trade Centre) from the planned neo-Baroque redesign, which would entail yet another public-private partnership, should form part of the resistance against the neoliberal city and the newly established hegemony.

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”.

The right to the city and the referendum on the GTC (City Trade Centre)

Part of the regular assembly “Urbanisation and the right to the city”. Author: Mila Shopova

The phrase “the right to the city” has been part and parcel of the referendum campaign to preserve the original look of GTC, perhaps Skopje’s oldest post-war commercial complex. The right to the city was brought up in debates, publications, and interviews. It was used with reference to public policy, individual rights and awareness. What does “the right to the city” entail when we think about urbanisation?

The sociologist Henri Lefebvre coined the phrase in 1968 when he called for a radical transformation of social relations in capitalism, to achieve social equality by reorienting toward urban inhabitants control over decisions that shape urban space. Forty years later, the geographer David Harvey adopted the right to the city as a political ideal to call for widespread resistance against the financial capital that frames the urban process today. Lefebvre and Harvey agree that for the most part liberal democracy under capitalism has failed to achieve social rights like housing, education, and health.

Both applied the phrase when dramatic transformations of urban space were unfolding before their eyes and social rights were under attack. In the sixties, when Lefebvre was writing, old neighbourhoods were being destroyed in Paris to give way to high-rise buildings and citizens were organising a campaign to stop the construction of an expressway along the left bank of the Seine. In the countryside, agricultural land was being repurposed for leisure. In New York, Harvey observed the consequences of the 2008 sub-prime mortgage and housing asset-value crisis when over one million citizens lost their homes. Low-income households, African-Americans and households of single women were squeezed out from the city centre. Harvey explains this as a process inseparable from attempts by city authorities, backed by financial institutions, to create new urban lifestyles. Central parts of the city, like Manhattan, are turned into tourist destination and places where only the affluent can live.

The right to the city applies to Skopje. The power of decision about the urban process has been placed in the hands of state-private elites and the changes in laws and regulations have increasingly concentrated surplus in private corporate hands. Under the aesthetic guise of facades, enlarged boulevards and reconstructed ancient-era warships-turned-restaurants lurks inequality and discrimination. On April 2015, over 150 workers of the state-owned Eurokompozit protested in front of the Government building, now adorned with a new facade, for which they were hired to produce a bulletproof wall. The failure of the government to deliver payments had left the workers without income and social benefits for months. It is clear that these workers participated in the construction of the Government building without any compensation for months on end. Similarly, the planned makeover of the GTC is of major concern for present owners, renters and workers in that space. Announcements about changes to the ownership structure of the publicly owned building overlap with decisions to change the facade, showing that the aesthetic make-up of the city hinges upon economic processes that reduce the ability of users of the space to enjoy workers’, ownership and other rights. Parallel to these changes in the city, agricultural, green and protected land is being rezoned and taken away from local communities. One example are the projects under way in Ohrid, Lazaropole, and Mavrovo to build marinas, tourist development zones and hydropower plants.

The urbanisation underway in Skopje and other cities is a symptom of structural inequality, the concentration of capital in private hands and its attempt to conquer spaces to reproduce. Seen this way, urbanisation is not just a process for shaping urban space but an attack on the right to the city. Hence, the real referendum question is in fact whether we are against structural inequality, violence, and the reckless sale of state-owned property for the benefit of ever-increasing private capital. Will we collectively take control over an urbanisation process that is making these inequalities entrenched or even permanent? The citizens’ struggle for a different Skopje and social relations, which has been growing over the past few years, now takes the form of a local referendum to preserve the GTC, one of the first steps in returning the city to its citizens.