Documenting initiatives on urban transformation in South-East Europe


Florina Jerliu1 and Bujar Bajçinovci 1, *




Rapid transformation of cities and urban spaces in South-East Europe (SEE) since 1990s is closely related to the common experience of post-socialist and/or post-war challenges in the region. Among pressing issues identified as a common challenge in the region is the trend of self-regulation or unchecked urban development, which contrasts the pre-1990s conventional central planning and development format. This has drawn the attention of a wider Europe, which resulted in a number of initiatives, both governmental and nongovernmental, been created to jointly initiate regional projects that aim at developing urban solutions. The emerging criticism developed by such initiatives has played and important role in raising the awareness about the complexity and the need to address the SEE context within the context of Europe as a whole. This paper introduces the nature of urban transformation in SEE through the example of capital cities; it further documents commonly identified urban development challenges by two regional initiatives, NALAS and Archis SEE Network, from the perspective of authors, the first being a member in both networks. Results suggest that the way forward is to foster national legal frameworks in SEE by taking into account the contextual inputs for urban interventions, in terms of both urban policy and case study projects, developed through regional and international cooperation.

Keywords: South East Europe, regional initiatives, urban transformation, self-regulation, unchecked development, urban intervention

1   Introduction

As of 1990s, former socialist countries that make the region of the Southeastern Europe (SEE), and especially those that emerged out of wars in the former Yugoslav Federation have gone through rapid political, social and economic transitions. The most visible effects of such changes are found in capital cities while most complex emerge those being subject to the operations of international processes carried out by the UN.[[1]] Despite contextual differences, the European agenda ranked high in newly formulated state policies, as it guarantees support in overcoming challenges of multiple transitions and investing in economic growth, social wellbeing, as well as acquiring the free movement within European Union countries. As alleged by the EU, all these countries “share the European perspective”,[[2]] which leads to the thought that with all SEE countries becoming candidate, and consequently, member states, the synonym of regional transition would nominally come to an end. However, the ever-growing regional cooperation and networking in SEE has disclosed the fact that the transitional period takes longer, and that the fulfillment of the EU accession criteria doesn’t guarantee the aspired linear, uniform, and successful transition from the former single communist party system and centrally managed state-owned economy, towards a democratic society and market based economy. [1] What is certain is that the development benchmarking and the EU support in this process is highly needed given the fact that the delay in overcoming transitions in SEE shall by default affect European agendas in issues which are crucial to the common institutional, physical and cultural environments.


Among challenges identified through networking initiatives in the region is the rapid transformation of physical environment. Descending practices in shaping urban areas, in many cases to the detriment of agricultural lands, and misuse of natural resources, remain a common denominator for the SEE, regardless of the EU membership status. More specifically, the unchecked urban development has been identified in almost all post-socialist and/or postwar countries in the region, and as such, it has drawn the attention of a wider Europe. Commitments that the SEE countries have taken in this respect, have been addressed and are gradually being met through model projects and initiatives coming from governments and the civil societies. Examples of such engagements are given in this paper in order to document findings and common challenges of urban transformations in SEE.

2   The context of urban transformation in SEE

Although the geographical division of the South-East Europe (SEE) itself is not formally defined by UN [*] [[3]] the term itself has been widely adopted to identify the project designation area by co-financing initiatives and regional networks as a substitute to the geographical and historical term for the Balkan, with the aim of coming closer to the united Europe’s cultural and political orientations. Despite of the number of countries (see: Figures 1-4) that do fall under this region, which commonly varies depending on the cooperation projects or networks, SEE shares rather common challenges in terms of urban regeneration and development issues.


Unchecked urban development has been identified as an issue in majority of SEE countries. The urban self-regulation, commonly referred to housing development without seeking building permit, has been associated with urban growth caused by massive migration of rural population to urban centers. In the case of Kosovo, it is estimated that only during the first two years of the post-war period (between 1999 and 2001) the percentage of urban population increased from 37% to 44%. [[4]] The increasing demands for land for housing in major cities have therefore subsequently affected their outskirts, landscapes and environment in a larger scheme.

This trend has been notable in almost all SEE capital cities. Variations derive depending on the inherited context, mainly being attributed to pre-socialist development level, and infrastructural capacities of cities to accommodate the needs of migration flux, as well as their latter institutional maturity to manage rapid urban changes.



From the left: unchecked development in the outskirts, and urban densification / unplanned construction of the inner-city

While the Adriatic coastline is experiencing new spatial metropolitan-rural interaction and the public space is suffering as a result of this development process, Tirana (Fig. 5) is struggled with consequences of newly formed informal settlements in public land, and Prishtina (Figure 6), Belgrade and Sofia with buildings erected without construction permit. On the other hand, Bucharest is challenged by collective dwellings built in the socialist times, which today are in a critical state in terms both of their structure and social function. Skopje, in the other hand, engaged in building of a new image of the city through an urban plan for city center which has been criticized for its improper neo-nationalistic character. Adding to this the issue of privatization of public space and facilities, which is shrinking and transforming the space in cities, SEE countries are kept in between anticipated modernization/Europeanization trends in one hand, and in the other hand, fragmental and unchecked transformation of urban spaces, which resulted in unsustainable development. Urban solutions therefore are needed for each local context, while looking at possibilities to replicate solutions in both, national and regional terms. In this context, initiatives to document the trends of urban transformation and research scenarios for improvement of urban situations in cities have proved to be helpful in the sense that they provide the ground for collaboration and transfer of knowledge among professionals and decision-makers throughout the region.


3   Regional Initiatives: ‘NALAS’ and ‘Archis SEE Network’

Among initiatives that involved in issues of urban transformation are those launched by the Network of Associations of Local Authorities of South-East Europe, NALAS [[5]], and the Archis SEE Network [[6]]. These two networks are discussed in this paper from the perspective of the member in both networks, which have made possible for the author to expand the initiated strategies for urban regeneration in Prishtina, capital of Kosovo (started in late 2006) resulting in formal cooperation with the city administration, as well as in dissemination about the process and practices, to the local authorities is SEE.


From the left: the map of NALAS member (source:; the map of Archis SEE Network members (

3.1 Network of Associations of Local Authorities of South-East Europe (NALAS)

NALAS is a network which currently unites 16 full members from South-East Europe. At the heart of NALAS are the Task Forces which bring together experts from the region, competent association staff and professionals employed in the local government administration. The Task Force for Urban Planning tackles the issues common in the region, such is integration of informal settlements, inclusion of more stakeholders in the urban planning process and collection and analysis of the right parameters in what is known as ’urban economics‘ [[7]].

Common challenges identified by this Task Force during its meeting sessions since 2009 are generally associated with law enforcement. While urban planning legislation in NALAS member countries are drafted against the European legislation model, provisions that regulate instruments for implementation of urban plans and their management are still being devised. Hence, the identified ‘common challenges’ (Table 1) were analyzed against individual contexts and were used to lay the ground for common recommendations and model projects for the member associations.

Source: Working document: “Common Challenges” (2009) available online for members in NALAS Knowledge Tree (document management system)


As it may be noted from the table above, there are evident problems in urban planning and management issues in SEE countries, which require determination of the local authorities to address the gaps in respective legal frameworks and intervention instruments. In this endeavor, NALAS initiated comparative analysis in the different member associations and resulted with the publication entitled “The Legislation and analysis of the implementation of spatial and urban planning in Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, BiH and Turkey as compares to the case of Denmark”, published in 2009.[[8]] Recommendations that were drawn through this initiative (Table 2) were used to develop specific recommendations for improving relevant national legislative frameworks.


Source: The table is a simplified form of presentation of general recommendations provided in the document NALAS (2009) “The Legislation and analysis of the implementation of spatial and urban planning in Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, BiH and Turkey as compares to the case of Denmark, developed for the purpose of this paper


First two recommendations on the local government role suggest that countries must undertake intense reforms, especially in the area of spatial and urban planning, as they are obliged to provide conditions for sustainable development of communities. In other words, the ongoing decentralization process, including fiscal decentralization should generate mechanisms and means that would enable to meet the needs for the social and economic prosperity. The set of recommendations concerning legal framework on implementation of urban and spatial plans suggest complementation by new laws and by-laws that regulate ownership, illegal settlements and illegally built facilities, as well as protection of cultural heritage sites. The problem of ownership and illegal development has been commonly acknowledged by NALAS member associations as the most striking issues that need urgent attention and regulation. Another concern identified as to being problematic in maintaining proper planning and monitoring system is the frequent changes to the legislation concerning the type, content and direction of plans. The quality of plans and public participation in the planning process are also critical in many countries, as it is the quality of services delivered by the planning authorities. In this context, urgent need for fostering municipal capacities and creating competent planning authorities is addressed by NALAS members.

The NALAS cooperation projects have proven to be important as they directly involve local authorities, whose performance is crucial to the future planning systems. In this context, regional initiatives play an important role in creation of the grounds for faster and more equitable socio-economic development and securing improved standards of living in SEE.


3.2    Archis SEE Network


Activism and independent initiatives of architects, urbanists, artists, sociologists and other professionals from the civil society and academia has become quite noted in the region. The idea to bring together these initiatives within Archis SEE Network (created in 2008) has made possible the exchange of knowledge and best practices in coping with various political and social dimensions of the urban environment, as well as to integrate the issues discussed in international discourse on urbanism. About 27 local initiatives have made their projects available through this network, and have gained a wider audience in SEE and beyond. In doing so, local initiatives have maid possible the exposure of their findings about trends and challenges of urban transformation in local level, as well as their involvement in regional projects.

Figure 5. Study on Prishtina: prototypes of illegal buildings  – illegal buildings constructed after 1999 are indicated with red color. (Courtesy of: Archis Interventions /AI Prishtina)


The criticism about urban occurrences in SEE coming from the civil society plays and important role in relevant information exchange and in shaping opinions about the context of transition in SEE countries, and the challenges they deal with, in the process of internationalization. Furthermore, their active involvement in devising solutions for certain urban issues in local level that may apply in a wider regional context, have raised the awareness of developing agencies and professionals from other parts of Europe.

Among local initiatives that gained attention of the international discourse through documenting informal building trend in the post-war context and providing strategies and problem solutions, is based in Prishtina.  Projects that involve documentation of descending urban trend in the city were initiated in cooperation with European partners,[†] and were jointly developed with regional partners and the local administration in Prishtina. Urban analysis and strategies devised through the local initiative were adopted by the municipality of Prishtina and the model of intervention in Prishtina’s case was disseminated and considered by the SEE local administrations’ network.

The major contribution of this initiative was the launching of the process of legalization of buildings erected without building permit.  The process was based on the qualification of prototypes of uncontrolled construction (Fig. 5, Table 3), [[9],[10]] which later evolved into a set of minimal standards for legalization [[11]], later on incorporated in the Kosovo Law for Treatment of Constructions Without Permit.[[12]]

  1. Conclusion

The context of the post-socialist and post-war associated with unmanaged growth in which the built environment was shaping during the last decades in SEE, have negatively affected the cities’ structures, as well as the perception about their future prospect. This has been identified through documentation of local cases of urban transformations by regional initiatives such are NALAS and Archis SEE Network. Studies and recommendations produced through regional networking highlight the need for upgrading the legal framework and complementary implementation mechanisms. In order to achieve this objective, a fostered planning administration in SEE countries is strongly needed. Also, the institutional commitment and the public awareness to treat the existing illegal buildings and their surrounding by means of qualification and treatment must be firm. In this respect, attention should be given to local initiatives and their researches and projects that more often than not provide urban solutions which can be implementable in a specific context, but can also be replicable in the national or regional context. The illustrated case of initiatives in Prishtina, capital city of Kosovo, has shown that taking into account case study projects coming from the grassroots level may directly affect the fostering of national urban policies and legislation, and beyond.



[*] There is no formal recognized geographical division of the Southeaster Europe. The Division provided by the United Nations defines regions in Europe into Eastern, Western, Southern and Northern Europe. The division created in late 1990s is programmatic and is linked with development co-funding such is the EU initiative called the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe. The use of this term has grown and is gradually substituting the historical and geographical term of Balkan by the pretext of diminishing the negative connotation that has been generally associated with by the western European countries.

[†] The local NGO Archis Interventions/Prishtina was founded in 2005 as part of the Archis network, together with Archis Interventions/Amsterdam and Archis Interventions/Berlin. Author of the paper is a co-founder/manager of the Prishtina branch.

[[1]] F.E. Ian Hamilton, Natama Pichler-Milanovi, and Kaliopa Dimitrovska Andrews. (eds.). 2005. Transformation of cities in central and Eastern Europe: Towards globalization, United Nations University, p.11, 13

[[2]] South East Europe / Potential Candidates, in:

[[3]] Composition of macro geographical (continental) regions, geographical sub-regions, and selected economic and other groupings. In:

[[4]] Kosovo Environmental Protection Agency (KEPA), Report on Environmental state 2006–2007, p.20

[[5]] Network of Associations of Local Authorities of South-East Europe (NALAS), in:

[[6]] Archis SEE Network, in:

[[7]] NALAS / Urban Planning, In:

[[8]] NALAS Task Force for Urban Planning (2009). The Legislation and analysis of the implementation of spatial and urban planning in Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, BiH and Turkey as compares to the case of Denmark. In:

[[9]] V. Geci, F. Jerliu, (2007). Archis Interventions The new Prishtina. Volume Magazine, edition 1. Amsterdam. p. 80-93

[[10]] Archis Interventions (2007). The New Prishtina, European Forum Alpbach, In:

[[11]] Archis Interventions Prishtina (2009) Manual on Legalization. In:

[[12]] Law for Treatment of Constructions Without Permit, Law No. 04/L-188, In: