Pocket Garden | 020: A pilot project of Tactical Urbanism within the informal fabrics of Tirana

by the SpaRe.Life IIT-Team

Tirana is the capital of Albania. Similar to many capital cities in the region emerging after the fall of the socialist regime, it is still undergoing significant transformation — a deep transition process with the main aim of “modernisation” with the city built in the image of an ideal European model. An official strategic vision focused on the development of the “representative city” within the “formal city” and aimed at re-shaping the process of Tirana’s city-forming but risked covering up a massive part of it: the “informal city”. The “other city” remains beyond the screens of the high-rise buildings and main-axes precincts. The pilot project was focused precisely within the internal part of these “inner precincts,” confined to the Tirana super-blocks in which the city comes together — internal with respect to the strong axial network that shapes the current city’s footprint.

Taking care of this “massive” part of the city (50-80%) was the overall objective. This was to be achieved by supporting the final beneficiaries in managing the historical and post-socialist informality through a demo-project. This project aimed to show and establish, with both the city’s communities and places, a true moment of local awareness and animation, fleeting but realistic. It was able to trigger interest in regenerating the dormant collective activism, even before regenerating the physical components. This overall vision can be split into three specific objectives:

  • Citizens’ Participation and Co-responsibility: Empowering the inhabitants to self-manage their urban space in a bottom-up process, dealing with the issues arising from fast and erratic growth, and also giving suitable solutions to address the lack of common reference codes.
  • Inner Alternative Mobility: Increasing the role of pedestrian and bike traffic, in a perfectly walkable city like Tirana, by recovering the physical organic pattern of narrow streets and alleys, based on the preservation of “social memories” of pedestrian activity from the recent past.
  • Pocket Greenery and Living Places: Enhancing the value of urban open spaces by regenerating the pocket voids within the super-blocks and by protecting the socio-cultural values (both material and intangible) of the city.

The area chosen for the pilot project was selected from Tirana’s super-blocks. It is an area of 406,526 sq. m within which we can find three main typologies of urban fabrics that can be traced from the past to the present transition stage: the Ottoman urban fabric; the Socialist blocks and the informal urban fabric. A high density area in the first line of buildings along the main roads and axes, which hides in its interior, a series of intact spaces, shaped by the unstructured living adaptations, was created during the years of the city’s evolution.

The aims of the pilot project “Pocket Garden | 020” cater to the local inhabitants of these inner areas and address the “living city” as spontaneously adapted by its dwellers in answering their daily needs. They are focused on creating a) alternative and complementary facilities and services; b) suitable and cozy living places; c) enhanced and coherent social interactions; d) networked, microeconomic formal and informal activities; e) protected urban environment and landscapes; and f) safeguarded social and cultural features (behaviour).

Video documentation of the design and implementation process (Source: Video – the SpaRe.Life IIT-Team; Music – Ready for Summer by Roa https://soundcloud.com/roa_music1031)

“Pocket Gardens | 020” pilot project started from these aims to pursue the goal of a better quality of life inside the marginal urban contexts by preserving and regenerating the socio-cultural creativity of the living city. It has been implemented by a number of urban, temporary and/or permanent micro-actions of “ephemeral design”. This is in line with most recent experiences in Tactical Urbanism, carried out under the conviction that such interventions may be read as a sequence of pop-up actions capable of conferring to the margins of fragile urban spaces a “meta-real” form of the desirable effects that urban transformation could achieve in a real implementation, even when temporary. It might be considered as a set of merely “virtual implementations” but, in our view, these are fully capable of activating a virtuous process of re-appropriation of spaces and places, and a reinstatement of the functions of missing or potential neighbourhoods. The on-the-field experimentation has been carried out through co-design and co-implementation actions by involving students, children and adults, in both framing and implementing the final output. The main challenge was to bring into play the small dimension of the pocket urban spaces, the organic network of narrow streets and paths, the spontaneous micro-economic activities and the richness of socio-cultural and historical heritage so that they could be adapted to the living needs.

The project was implemented in September 2019 as a pilot of Ephemeral Design in Tactical Urbanism within the “inner part” of the designated super-block. The selected target groups were both local dwellers and city managers who were involved since the early stages of development through co-design and co-implementation. Given the peculiarity of the participatory design process, the pilot was to be tested as a connection system that has merged three diverse physical and social fabrics within the super-block context. An area of 1000 sq. m was involved in the design-implementation process, inside which three pockets have been chosen. The Pocket Garden | 020 Pilot Project consists of a system composed of three pockets linked through a semi-pedestrian path (with limited vehicular traffic). It aims to strengthen the values of informal development, raising the quality of the living at ground-zero-level and enhancing the social, microeconomic and environmental features. The posters show the design/implementation process and the final results in terms of co-design and people participation.

Fig. 1: The Initial Stages (Source: the SpaRe.Life IIT-Team)

Pocket one (364 sq. m) is located in a neighbourhood built in the socialist period. Originally, this site was regularly shaped and used exclusively for residential purposes. However, nowadays several small informal houses and building extensions have occupied most of the free spaces between the buildings by invading common courtyards and open spaces. Urban spaces have become unofficial parking lots. The spot chosen was large enough to accommodate different outdoor activities. However, there was an urgent need to transform this space into a pocket green space that belonged to the residents (and not their cars!). The shared actions implemented in this pocket have been designed under the proposals, “Old Patterns, New Colors”, “More Parks, Less Parking” and “Back to the Roots”. The enclosed nature of the pocket immediately gave the feeling of being in a protected and cozy public space, cured with small actions such as painting the facades, adding playful elements for the children and planting.

Fig. 2: Co-design Process (Source: the SpaRe.Life IIT-Team)

Pocket two (416 sq. m) is located in proximity to the Embassy Road, a well-known road in Tirana for its diplomatic residents and also for its proportional ratio between built-up and public spaces. The street acts as a strong inner element cutting the whole area in two parts. However, outside of this physical and perceived boundary, the neighbourhood consists of one of the most interesting containers of past Ottoman urban heritage. The thematic issues are the usual ones, homogenised by the post-socialist messy growth: informal parking, private use of open space and abandonment of public areas. In this pocket, the historical heritage value is the strength from which the proposal comes together, by changing the ground-zero uses through the addition of small shops and workshops. The shared actions implemented in this pocket have been designed under the proposal “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and… Repeat”.

Pocket three (220 sq. m) is sited in a peculiar location, very close to the city centre (Scanderbeg Square) in a mixed neighbourhood with buildings from the Ottoman era to contemporary styles. Small family homes located close to high-rise buildings, in proximity to the pocket as well as the newest tower under construction, give an idea of the real nature of the local urban fabric. The surrounding buildings are of different typologies and uses and this provides a representation of the picturesque mosaic that characterises Tirana. As a result, a vibrant, dynamic, layered and enriched urban atmosphere is created. The thematic issues addressed in this Pocket were mainly devoted to the non-use of the public and open places even though their dimensions are very small. These spaces have been forgotten by the locals. The shared actions implemented in this pocket have been designed under the proposal “Bring People Back to Public Spaces”.

Fig. 3: Before/After (Source: the SpaRe.Life IIT-Team)

This article has been authored by the SpaRe.Life IIT-Team, led by Fabio Naselli. Other members of the team include Edmond Manahasa, Nevin Bilali, Odeta Manahasa, Artan Hysa, Artemis Hasa, Desantila Hysa, Mohamed Khalil, Ina Dervishi, Sokol Dervishi, Francisco Serdoura, Marta Serra, Christina Thanner, Reino Veenstra, Anna Yunitsyna, Egin Zeka, Camilo Osorio, Sindi Balla, Rexhina Basha, Mirjana Pali, Valentina Sapio, Valentin Promberger, Karina Ruseva and Joshua Lorenz.
Fabio Naselli is an architect and senior lecturer in Urban Design & Planning at Architecture Department of Epoka University (Tirana) who also holds a PhD degree. He is a full-time faculty member and CORDA research member. He also serves as the Director of the SpaRe.Life International work Schools, a member of the INU Sicilia Board, and as a Professional and Advisor in urban planning and design and architectural design. He has strong experience in international exchanges, teaching and programmes and has authored a number of articles, papers and books. Fabio has also participated in international research projects in the fields of urban planning and urban design focused on rural-urban regeneration, open spaces design, tactical urbanism and alternative tourism.

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