Interview with Erion Veliaj, Mayor of Tirana
Cities will have a key role to play in the aftermath of COVID19. In this series we ask the mayors of several European cities about the measures they are taking to boost resilience for future shocks and ensure a recovery that is both social and green
Addressing urban inequalities is essential to ensuring that the COVID-19 response is inclusive. What measures is your city taking to mitigate the social and economic Impact of the pandemic, particularly on the most vulnerable?
Erion Veliaj: For Tirana, the COVID-19 crisis came almost right after two other disasters, the devastating earthquakes of last year in September and November. However, this pandemic was unlike any other crisis my mayor colleagues or myself had ever experienced. No one had any instructions manual on how to manage it! Prompt and effective action/adaptation was the best way to go.
Under these circumstances and a tight budget, we had to come up with creative ideas that worked.
Throughout this period, the engagement of citizens, youth, and volunteers was unprecedented and pivotal in helping the city to overcome this crisis and become more robust and resilient.
Since we took office in 2015, our priority was to develop an effective social assistance program that would serve as a safety net to assist vulnerable groups living in Tirana. Additionally, we created a new database of 36,000 families, not part of the social assistance program, caught in between the earthquake disaster and the pandemic crisis. They were aided through delivered groceries, medicines, or daily meals through an in-house delivery network of social service workers and community volunteers.
The Municipality of Tirana also initiated the "Adopt a Grandparent" initiative were youngsters volunteered and supported their lonely elderly neighbors by sharing a home-cooked meal or offering to deliver their groceries and medicines.
During the pandemic lockdown, our main concern and priority were children.
The Municipality of Tirana offered 24/7 telephone hotlines and online platforms for psychological counseling or to address inquiries, concerns, complaints, and other needs for aid.
During this crisis, the Government of Albania and the Municipality of Tirana engaged in closer coordination and cooperation to introduce economic relief measures to support households and protect the business. The Municipality of Tirana introduced its support measures to the local economy by exempting businesses from tariffs payments for the use of public space for April and May. The deadline for the payment of local taxes and fees for all entities was postponed from April to June 30, 2020, and the accommodation tax for hotels is suspended until September 2020.
How is your city ensuring that the COVID-19 recovery is also a green one that meets climate change goals?Erion Veliaj: Since we took office in 2015, we engaged in drafting a roadmap for Tirana’s innovative transformation and repositioning it in terms of sustainability and resilience. Tirana joined the Green Cities Framework, and together with EBRD, we developed the Green City Action Plan (GCAP). In my first mandate, we worked in many layers to tackle mobility issues in our city.
During the pandemic crisis, some things have changed for good and turned out to our advantage.
We were able to receive more community support for sustainable mobility during these five months than we did for the last five years.
People have realized that the air in the city is much cleaner and the city itself much quieter. They now understand that in a town with no heavy industries, the most prominent pollutants and the real enemies are cars. They also comprehended that walking or cycling is possible and much healthier to reach a one-kilometer destination.
We turned the pandemic crisis into a golden opportunity by using the widespread support that recognized car-free streets as an ordinary reality to speed up projects that beat the dominance of cars in favor of pedestrians and cyclists.
We added new pop-up bike lanes on side parking spaces and were able to stretch our current bike grid from 35km to 45km quickly and cost-effectively. We set a new target for this year alone to double the existing bike network, and extend more sidewalks to encourage more cycling and walking as a green and safe alternative to commuting in our city. The citizens’ response was fantastic during the COVID-19 crisis; bikes sales surged, signaling that we already are on the right track.
Therefore, in cooperation with the central government, we have decided to make Sunday a day without cars for Tirana’s central districts for limited hours of the day from autumn 2020 until spring 2021. This initiative will serve as another test of our citizen’s behavior. If well accepted, we might extend it permanently as an excellent alternative for a sustainable Tirana.
What long-term investments are required to increase your city’s preparedness to future pandemics and boost its resilience to shocks?
Erion Veliaj: In 2050, children born today will reach the age of 30 – ready to run our cities. How we raise and educate them will impact the resilience of our cities in the next 100 years. I firmly believe that a nation that invests in knowledge is a nation with a future.
Two earthquakes and the pandemics crisis made us realize that we can lose belongings and possessions in the blink of an eye, but what we have in our heads cannot be taken away by any misfortune or crisis. Also, we noticed that countries that were more knowledgeable and smarter rather than rich manifested more resilience in dealing with the crisis through creative measures, agility, and professional skills.
Therefore, I judge that the most significant investment and the most valuable asset for a city is education and knowledge, which can help build mentalities that embrace challenges, change, and progress.
The Municipality of Tirana has already committed to this viewpoint by investing in child and education infrastructure, including state-of-the-art playgrounds for children and transforming the Pyramid of Tirana – formerly a symbol of communism- into a centre for creative technologies targeting for young people.
Tirana was also announced the winner of the title European Youth Capital (EYC) for 2022. I believe this will be an excellent opportunity for many young Europeans to visit Tirana and participate in projects or events that embrace youth engagement, EU values, and diversity.
Partnerships and collaborative efforts are critical to support local leaders in the COVID-19 recovery. What do you expect from the cooperation with national and European actors?
Erion Veliaj: Seventy years ago, Robert Schuman laid the foundations of the European Union, intending to bring lasting peace and solidarity among member states after World War II. And it is precisely solidarity that in difficult times is bringing the European Continent back together. As we experienced with the earthquake disaster but also with pandemics crisis, partnerships and collaborative efforts among cities and nations can help overcome challenges. Therefore, I am very confident that these difficult days we are going through have strengthened the spirit of cooperation and solidarity between the European Union and Albania.
I am proud that we are building bridges of solidarity and cooperation among us. I hope that the day will not be far when the European Union and Albania will be integrated into a single space.