New Urban Topologies

Urbanism and society

New Urban Topologies in Skopje


    On 16–18 November 2011 Färgfabriken in conjunction with its Macedonian partner Press to Exit carried out an extensive program on urban topologies in Skopje for Swedish and Macedonian city hall representatives, architects, urban planners, academics, students and other interested participants. The aim of the initiative was to identify ways to strengthen culturally positive values and transform some of the many challenges facing the city of Skopje. An important goal was also to create a platform for an exchange of experiences among the participants.

    Background
    The city of Skopje is a mix of different styles and cultures. In recent years, the city centre has undergone a great change. Parts of the old town has been demolished and replaced with modern architecture. However, this has led to big demonstrations and expressions of dislike. The city is divided by the river Vardar, where one side consists of mostly Orthodox Christians and the other of the population with Albanian and Muslim background.

    The Skopje seminar
    The starting point of the New Urban Topologies (NUT) project in Macedonia was a reception at the residence of Swedish Ambassador of the Republic of Macedonia Anders Wahlund where city hall representatives, architects, urban planners, artists and academics were invited. The four-hour long seminar the next day, were students also were present, took place at the Plenary Hall of the City of Skopje. At the opening Yane Calovski of Press to Exit expressed his gratitude to the Faculty of Architecture at University St. Cyril and Methodius in Skopje for bringing in their research into the Färgfabriken method. The Faculty had come to the conclusion that Skopje is not a divided city, as often stated, but instead a city that should be looked at in the context of urban fragmentation. Yane Calovski said that two municipalities had been chosen for the Skopje NUT project, namely Centar and Chair.

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    Swedish Ambassador of Macedonia Anders Wahlund said he was very happy to take part in the NUT project. He described his history working in the Balkans since the 1990s and said when in Skopje 2002, the city was much more divided than today and that the present situation is much better, even if he would like to see more efforts to improve the condition of the old town in the city, The Old Bazaar.

    NUT Project Director Thomas Lundh gave an introduction to NUT and its background with ten years of experience working with urban issues since Färgfabriken launched the project Stockholm at Large. Since then, the method of Färgfabriken has been to gather different kind of professionals and stakeholders from many countries for a more fruitful exchange of experiences and ideas.

    Christoffer Carlander, Urban Planning Strategist from The City Planning Office in Stockholm described the structure of his institution and the City’s latest comprehensive plan, The Walkable City, and its focus on strategic nodes, connecting districts and participatory processes. The aim of the planners has been to reach out to the inhabitants and meet them on their own terms, when and wherever they wanted. After he finished, the audience had many questions regarding visibility, transparency and tools to integrate the thoughts of the citizens as well as the visions of the City into the strategic plan.

    Architect and Educator Bojan Boric from the Urban Studio of the Royal Academy of Technology discussed the growing trend of environmental and social sustainability and how the school takes this knowledge into many exchange programs with other schools around the world in order to achieve a comparative perspective. He also described a project where his studio in collaboration with Habitat for Humanity worked with Roma people in Skopje. Furthermore he notified the audience of the student project in Chisinau earlier in fall 2011 – a project sparked by his involvement in NUT – and the gap between the planning office and the society there.

    Ognen Marina, professor at the Faculty of Architecture of University St. Cyril and Methodius in Skopje, explained how the geopolitical context historically has affected the city and stated that a general problem always has been a top-down planning system. Together with PhD Candidate Jovan Ivanovski he then presented the research Skopje: Fragmented City. The conclusion of this study was that Skopje is not a divided city but should to be described as a complex stratification of different layers and fragments that should be seen as parts of a holistic image of Skopje. Furthermore, the informal use of urban space should be seen as an asset and a tool for bringing in different concepts, not solely a problem. They also underlined the importance of keeping what already exists in Skopje and not create an entire new city, which might be about to happen. The fragments have valuable authenticity.

    Aljosha Shopar, Deputy Head at the Urban Planning Department, City of Skopje, told the audience about the present process in making a new master plan. One of the goals is to make use of the unexploited spaces and by doing so connecting the city. Among the present problems are the lack of infrastructure, the fact that 80-90 percent of the land is privately owned and the future of the existing and potential public spaces, as the inhabitants seem not no care about these spaces according to him. In line with this, democratic participatory processes and strategies also need to evolve so that the planners can use these strategies properly and not only see them as obstacles. In addition, he said that he hoped that the NUT project and the collaboration with the university would result in something the planning department could use in the future.

    The Skopje Tour – impressions and aftermath
    After the seminar, the plan was to visit a number of areas and places in the municipalities of Centar and Chair in order to get an understanding of their structure and the urban fragments that were identified by the Faculty of Architecture in their research. After the tour was finished the participants gathered for dinner in The Old Bazaar. Färgfabriken had prepared a sheet with possible themes and sub themes, based of the presentations during the seminar, the preparatory work of the university and informal discussions with the Macedonian participants. The sheet sparked many discussions and was modified collaboratively. The final version had the following themes: 1. Unidentifiable Spaces (Mapping relations of areas; Contextualizing; What narrative by whom?; Specific qualities; Level of intervention; Potential uses and possible danger; Designing an interface.) 2. Spaces of Publicness and the Process of Dialogue (Access to the decision-making processes and public debates; Green spaces as ecological and environmental asset in the city as well as public space; Communication between professional actors, the public and the decision makers; The thoughts and preferrings of citizens.) 3. Identifying the City (The multiplicity of the city and complex urban identities within; Opportunities and energy of the city; Values that promote the communication and collaboration among citizens; Architectural values of the past – how to measure architectural heritage; Choosing a strategy for the future; Construction of identity or strengthen authenticity.) 4. Public Values versus Private Ambitions (Urban regulations policies; The long term planning; Dynamics between the private property development vs. public interest.)

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    The team members that that focused on unidentifiable spaces described a situation with many mainly unused spaces that people have difficulties to relate to as they have unclear boundaries. Among them is the space under and on top of the train station, areas that they choose as case study. The station is seen as a barrier between neighborhoods. It has two large elevated tracks that have never been used and large empty spaces underneath, some used for parking. The areas are seen as unattractive and shady and are used only by some “outcasts”. The group suggested a transformation “from empty spaces to social spaces”, as a skate park, restaurants, etc. The visions of the group were an inclusive process of planning and a greener city where the tools of architects are better utilized. The way to achieve this, they thought, goes through cheap urban interventions executed through participatory processes including the academia, planners and inhabitants. It could also be so called guerilla actions, as painting parking lots all over the main public square or putting traditional market bookstands where new commercial buildings are planned to be raised. This would raise the attention of the public and so create pressure on politicians.

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    The participants who discussed ways to identify the city saw many identities that are not part of the common language describing Skopje, among them is the Roma neighborhood. The group underlined the importance of accepting that the city has many and complex identities, visible and invisible, and that the planning of the city should be performed in accordance to this. They pointed out some good and bad aspects, among them a diverse coexistence, a unique city center, bad infrastructure, and nationalistic architecture. The participants were also worried that the politicians now try to construct a single identity for the city and its inhabitants, raising new historical large statues, among other things. In this process the team members recognized the value of preserving and evaluate architectural heritage and sites of memory – and the danger in destroying these in order to construct something new.

    A story to be continued
    The last day the participants from Sweden met with Ognen Marina from the Faculty of Architecture, Yane Calovski from Press to Exit, and Aljosha Shopar from the Urban Planning Department. He explained the challenges that the City is facing. Skopje has a lack in infrastructure, of investments, and a problem with privatization. The Planning Department is loosing its tools to act and influence the decisions regarding the city, but hopefully, with the new master plan, perhaps things can change.

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    The following discussion led to a comparison to the Stockholm planning strategies, and the existing and non-existing collaborations among different stakeholders in Skopje, as NGO:s, architects, officials, and the academia. During the final discussion at the NUT workshop Thomas Lundh concluded that the lack of communication between different stakeholders is a crucial aspect in the city of Skopje.


    Participants and contributors in Skopje:

    Macedonia: Press to Exit Project Space; Urban Planning Department; City of Skopje; Urban Planning Department; Municipality Centar; Urban Planning Department; Municipality Chair; University St. Cyril and Methodius in Skopje; Faculty of Architecture; Line Initiative and Movement; Coalition for Sustainable Development.

    Sweden: Färgfabriken; The Swedish Embassy in Republic of Macedonia; The Swedish Institute; The City Planning Office in Stockholm; The Royal Academy of Technology in Stockholm


    The text is an shortened, and partly re-written, version of the report "New Urban Topologies Skopje" by Rebecka Gordan.