Building in the Wild: The New Prishtina

by Kai Vöckler

Intervention by KFOR (Kosovo Force) in 1999 put a halt to the war between Serb troops and the Kosovo-Albanian Liberation Army (UCK) in Kosovo. At that time the Albanian majority of this former Yugoslavian territory was highly isolated from normal life and society, the result of persistent repression by the Milosevic regime which had begun in 1990. Also a large portion of the (mostly younger) Kosovo-Albanian population had moved to Western Europe, mainly to Germany. To the remaining Kosovo-Albanians the arrival of international troops felt like liberation. As an expression of this mood, building activity increased markedly. This is a typical characteristic of post-war urban development, as one can also observe under different conditions and with other consequences elsewhere, in Kabul for example. This took place simultaneously with a quickly increasing urban population fueled partly by migrants from the countryside looking for new opportunities in the city and partly by returning refugees. Germany, for instance, returned those Albanians to whom they had given refuge to Kosovo without much ado. As a result, a large portion of Kosovo’s urban population consisted of people who had still to find or rediscover their place in life. The consequential housing shortage gave local investors the opportunity for quick returns and substantial profits. Yet part of the building boom was based on family investments, for during the Milosevic era Kosovo-Albanian families amassed substantial savings abroad, savings that were now invested in family homes. These families have constructed and continue to construct mostly large two- or three-story houses on agricultural plots at the city’s edges.

These building activities in Prishtina have taken place without supervision or control. Although the regulatory plans developed between 1967 and 1990 are formally still valid, as a result of the lack of administrative clarity no one takes notice of them. At present Kosovo is being run by a transitional administration (UNMIK – United Nations Mission in Kosovo) and a provisional government (PISG – Provisional Institutions of Self-Government). As in other crisis regions, the UN had to rebuild institutional structures while construction went on unhindered. As a result, some 75% of the city has been reconfigured by new buildings, for instance in informal suburbs. Remarkably, this effected Prishtina’s destruction after the war, since the city had suffered hardly any war damage. According to the city development service, 10 new buildings are put up every day. The historic city with its typical one-storey, square houses is being transformed by multi-story buildings, mostly offices, hotels and commercial buildings clad in typical blue-glass facades. Even listed historic buildings have disappeared overnight. Public squares and parks are being neglected, streets are in poor condition, the electricity supply is notoriously unreliable and drainage systems are overtaxed.

In 2000 Prishtina’s leading town planner, Rexhep Luci, tried to stop the destruction and had students document illegal building. He was shot. In response to this murder the UN administration issued an ordinance to regulate building activities (UNMIK regulation 2000/53) which specifically asked the local government to enforce building permits. In fact, these have been issued once again only this year and it is virtually impossible to get information on the necessary procedures from the authorities. Both the current UN authorities and the local administration have avoided dealing with this politically explosive topic. Recently UN-Habitat made a workshop with all stakeholders, but sees itself only as a mediator in this process.

With the aid of German planning offices (and in less than four months) the urban administration has produced instead an ‘Urban Strategic Plan 2020’ which is now the basis for all future construction. This document is an astonishing urban vision based on unreliable data. As the European Stability Initiative (ESI) showed in a recent report, the population growth envisioned in the Strategic Plan is unrealistic. The Plan estimates the number of inhabitants at half a million and predicts double that number in 2020. Yet given the number of households connected to the water system and taking into account the average size of a household, the current figure should be in the range of 200,000 to 250,000. This still constitutes twice the population of the 1981 census. The growth rates and numbers in the Strategic Plan make the huge city extensions with apartment blocks and large scale road infrastructure more convincing. Where the money for these measures should come from has not yet been made clear by the town planning authority. In old Socialist tradition, trust has been placed in funding from the European Union and other international donors. The assumption that Prishtina will continue to be the destination of rural migrants is not very likely given the current unemployment rate of 40%+ and the worst economic growth figures in the region.

That the Strategic Plan does not explicitly address the problems that have arisen in any way is a serious matter. So is the fact that large portions of historic Prishtina have been and still are being destroyed, fundamental safety standards regarding fire and earthquakes have been ignored, infrastructures including the water supply and drainage have failed or are currently overburdened, and the social problems caused by unregulated building activity (e.g., obstructing neighboring views) remain unaddressed. Realistically counting on a much lower population growth, it would be wiser to qualify the existing situation than develop megalomaniac visions of the future.

For these reasons urgent intervention in this process is needed to restore a sense of public responsibility for both victims and those in charge.






















Kosovo Force (KFOR)
European Stability Initiative (ESI)
United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK)