After several decades behind the Iron Curtain, Albania’s capital Tirana is enjoying a new lease of life. At the heart of the city’s mission has been incorporating children into its decision-making; reconstructing nurseries and kindergartens, freeing public space for parks and playgrounds, and getting young kids involved in the community.
Apolitical spoke to Erion Veliaj, the 37-year-old Mayor of Tirana who’s been spearheading the city’s child-friendly policies.
What does it mean to use children as agents for social change?
In a traditional society like ours, the reverence towards the child is somewhat mythical; they are literally seen as the holy creatures that God gives the family. So we might as well get these little gods to give orders and commands, and get the family to do things.
When we held focus groups, we asked parents what the most important thing was in their life. 100% of them said “my children”. Then we asked, if children are the most important thing in your life, does that mean that you spend most of your income on raising your children? One hundred of them said absolutely, of course – that’s a no-brainer.
“Wait a minute, is there a price tag to this love affair with a car that is surpassing that of your own child?”
But then we gave them the result of how much they were paying to get a car, to pay for insurance, to pay for parking, fuel and a mechanic. It turned out that, on average, they were spending more on their car than their child, and many of them were shocked.
That really got us going. We said: “Wait a minute, is there a price tag to this love affair with a car that is surpassing that of your own child, in a society which brags about how children are important?”
We’ve been provoking a public debate which has got a lot more people aware that you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is. Eventually, it really changed the conversation in the city.
How have you gone about doing that practically?
First of all, we have changed the narrative of the city administration. Usually, in politics, you always worry about the next election – but we’d won by such a landslide that as long as we’ve done the right thing and served the people, it would not be a problem. So we could take the conversation to the next level – how do we worry about the next generation, rather than just the next election?
We have a children’s local council, we have daily open hours where different classes come to the city to see the mayor or one of our directors, we have high-schoolers who once a month take over the city administration – one becomes mayor, others directors of this and that. This is fantastic because every month up to 150 kids become senior managers. Any of them who leaves city hall after spending the day as a city official goes back to the classroom and becomes an evangelist for how the city is run.
“People are saying: well look, it’s not like he’s doing it for his own children – he doesn’t even have children!”
Once the administration started giving children – a third of our population – a third of our time, a third of our effort, a third of the decision-making and thinking, then it really changed the city. What was seen with suspicion from a lot of the political elites has become a fascinating social experiment.
Why are so many cities looking to Tirana as a model?
They’re finding out that you can do more with less. Cities spend so much money inviting architects and urban planners, getting things that are defunct. They create great infrastructure but there is no life.
The whole concept of ‘build it and they will come’ is not necessarily true. Because if you build it without them, they will not come. And how much does that good feeling contribute to how you measure how good a city is for children? What are the consequences?
We are closely monitoring 15 playgrounds we have built in neighbourhoods. One of our top social networks had this little kid who was four, who had the cutest plea going viral about why he also needs a playground in his neighbourhood.
We’ve found there’s much less vandalism in the areas we’re monitoring. A playground attracts grandparents mostly who watch over children, who then become guardians of the local property there. There’s always wear and tear, but there were no blatant acts of vandalism that were typical only a few years ago.
The reduction of the level of vandalism is outstanding – it’s because people feel like they own it. Teenagers feel like they have their space with a street corner, while their younger brothers and sisters have their own space.
Monitoring social media, for the first time we have a trend of Albanians who live abroad, posting pictures and events saying: “I can’t believe this is going on, it’s time for me to come back”. At a playground, we met kids of Albanian immigrants who had come early to spend the summer here, simply because we have a lot more playgrounds than a lot of their neighbourhoods in the UK.
All of a sudden, for the country where Plan A was to leave it as soon as possible, now it’s become an exciting place to return. Not because the economy is booming, but because cities are looking nicer and kids are having a lot more fun than before.
And is the comparison with the communist era a useful one to make?
I’m probably the last generation to remember, but communism was a very nasty affair. The Communist Party decided whether you went to university based on your family biography and how loyal you were. Once you went, they decided based on quotas what you should study. Once you graduated, they decided where you went to work. You had no choice over your life.
Not only that, you had to get party approval for who you were going to marry, and once you got married they decided where you should live. They even decided what type of furniture – whether it was class A or B or C furniture – that you would get.
“For the first time children are saying: when I grow up, I want to be a mayor”
Imagine this for 45 years. When people came out of this, they hated the state and anything that was public. One way people took out their anger against the state was violence against public property. This is the psyche behind the havoc that was created in urban planning in recent years.
So how do you introduce a love affair, not with the state, but with something that is public – not necessarily state-owned – and belongs to the community as a whole? Making this transition was a key success with a lot of these interventions.
Could you give an example of success in changing people’s relationship with public ownership?
I don’t have children, so in a place where cynicism is the national sport, people are saying: “Well look, it’s not like he’s doing it for his own children – he doesn’t even have children!” Many of them see that this is a no-strings-attached relationship.
The dinner table is now a place for raving conversation about the municipality. We’ve got all these children who before, if you asked them what they wanted to be when they grow up it would be football player, Formula 1 driver or fireman, the typical stuff. For the first time, children are saying: when I grow up, I want to be a mayor.
The job of the politician, one of the most hated stigmas in society, all of a sudden has become fun for kids to aspire to. Because in their mind it’s mostly about making children happy. To find that half of the children want to become mayor when they grow, I think is a very exciting shift.
There were violent protests in response to creating that playground in an old parking space. Why was there such a backlash?
For several reasons: one, because the opposition group in this protest was from the party of the previous mayor, who had a reputation for doing close to nothing in the city. Some of them were so violent that there were literally scuffles with workers at the construction site; they were tearing out the machinery and breaking it. One of the members of parliament from the opposition even brought his own gun.
Second, there were a lot of groups from very sceptical civil society, who in those early days had legitimate questions: is this just another politician who’s going to enter into a park and build a high-rise. It really became the most heated political debate, when you have members of parliament, the president of the country, the environmental community, all looking to destroy this park.
They’ve now become our great allies, but in the beginning, they questioned whether this was going to be political camouflage for a monstrous thing. The bottom line is, the huge resistance also turned into a huge opportunity to share, to explain and show a narrative that people understand. The process became a lot more democratic.
Now it’s a given that whatever estate we free from cars, people know we’ll give it back to kids.
(Picture credit: Municipality of Tirana)