Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Planning and Heritage in Post-Conflict Kosovo

Ben Eley of Alsop Verrill is a heritage planner who was lucky enough to be offered the opportunity - courtesy of the EU and a combination of PEM Consult and Swedish NGO ‘Cultural Heritage without Borders’ - to take part in the first ever Beledije Regional Restoration Camp in Prizren, southern Kosovo.  This took place in the first Regional Cultural Heritage Centre in the Balkans.

Having declared independence on 17th February 2008, the new generation of the world’s youngest country, Kosovo, probably have bigger issues -  such as the small task of building the infrastructure of a peaceful society in the aftermath of ethnic conflict - than political wrangling over the merits of express permission for first-generation ‘super conservatories’. 

Closer to home, the Post-Big Society agenda has its own unique tensions as local communities are set to become divided along lines of outlook, privacy and right to light; yet this is somewhat put into context when compared with the enormous economic, social and environmental re-build faced by the newly crowned 'Kosovars'.

Beledije Regional Restoration Camp
Firstly, in the likelihood that you have never considered a trip to Kosovo before, Prizren is a beautiful city.  It is an ecclesiastical smorgasbord; a real melting-pot of east meets west where the minarets and church towers of the Ottoman and Orthodox townscape  compete with the wider renaissance architecture of pastel colours and terracotta roofs. All of this may be appreciated from the imposing medieval fortress which overlooks it.

The course introduced young architects, planners, craftspeople and historians to the holistic nature of heritage planning: from the theory and philosophy first espoused by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), to contemporary theory in planning for the historic environment which has been developed, over time, by institutions such as English Heritage.  It combined seminars with work on site and left a new generation of young professionals ready to champion the cause of planning for better places.

Notwithstanding the much broader ‘place-making’ issues of building a new country; the provisional Kosovo Assembly took action soon after the 1999 war when they passed the ‘Law on Spatial Planning’ (Law number 2003/14) and adopted it for the purpose of:

‘‘ensuring rational spatial planning and development, achieving balance between development and preservation of open space and protection of the environment and bringing the spatial planning regime of Kosovo into consistency with European and International standards.’’

Under Article 14, all Municipalities are to prepare Urban Development Plans for all urban areas within their territories and these are to be strategic, multi-sectoral and determine long-term development projections and management of urban areas.

It all sounds very familiar.

The Prizren Conservation and Development Plan is a rather comprehensive document encompassing everything from strategic vision to socio-economic profiling including very detailed matters of land-use and urban design (such as the type of use acceptable and the length of fascias on individual buildings).  Despite multiple issues in actually implementing this plan, the intention is clear – that there is a desire for town planning and a realisation from above (rather than from below) of its importance to the future sustainable growth of Kosovo.   

Restoration in process

As one perambulated around the town one observed recent (largely UN, EU and US funded) initiatives of urban regeneration proudly indicated on signs erected by the Ministries of Culture and Urban Planning.  There was a very Mediterranean feel, with vital and seemingly viable shops spilling out onto the streets and squares and a general ambiance which, I for one, did not expect from a place emerging from deeply rooted ethnic conflict.

Despite this, at the time of writing, the unemployment rate in Kosovo is 45%, the highest in the Western Balkans; 37% of the population live in poverty and 17% in extreme poverty. Additionally, ethnic tension is again raising its head in Mitrovica, a region in the north with a significant Serbian minority. 

However, it is becoming evident, and it was my experience, that there is a genuine belief that planning and heritage will be fundamental to driving future growth and investment into the new State.  There are those within the built environment profession and in Government who, rather than seeing their inherited legacy as a hindrance to the need for economic growth, in fact, see it as part of the answer.

There has been much good come about through planning in Britain; we have been at the forefront in both the consideration  and the conservation of the historic environment.  Countries, such as Kosovo, look in our direction for guidance.  However, should they look today, they may be excused in thinking that sustainable growth owes more to the unimpeded proliferation of over-sized U-PVC conservatories and attic extensions.

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