Picture a cross between Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron, add in a bicycle as an accessory, and you’ll have Erion Veliaj.
A 39-year-old former parliamentarian and cabinet minister, Mr Veliaj became mayor of Albania’s capital city, Tirana, as part of a leftist coalition that swept municipal elections in 2015. He very much represents the fresher face that Albania would like to show to the world – and to the EU, of which the country is seeking membership.
A member of the ruling Socialist party led by reformist prime minister Edi Rama, Mr Veliaj studied in the US and the UK (with a postgraduate degree in European integration, at that) and did humanitarian work in developing countries before returning to Albania and entering politics. In 2003, he founded the MJAFT! political protest movement.
Having won in a close race and operating in the context of a heated national political climate, Mr Veliaj finds himself under pressure to deliver results, and quickly. Part of this means creating a new look for the city he leads as well: there is a raft of urban renewal and architectural projects on the go and a flurry of construction activity, set against more mundane but necessary clean-up tasks in a city that was not typically known as one of Europe’s more attractive or liveable. It is changing.
Tirana was listed in the top 10 places to visit in Europe in 2018 by travel guide Lonely Planet, and received an award in June 2018 for having the best public space in Europe from the Centre for Contemporary Culture of Barcelona. “Tirana is not modern, it is not ancient, but it is cool, and I think that we are betting on being cool and young,” says Mr Veliaj, who is regularly seen cycling around town. Part of his plan for the city is to make it more bicycle and pedestrian friendly.
He is also prioritising housing in the face of a population boom. The city is growing at a pace of about 30,000 people a year: a combination of inbound immigration mixed with internal migration from the countryside or smaller cities and organic demographic growth. Tirana is the youngest capital city in Europe, with an average age of 27.
“Tirana is the place to be, not only for Albanians in secondary or tertiary towns but also for young students coming here from neighbouring countries. So Tirana is the capital of everything in Albania: culture, art, music, finance, economy, production, telecommunications – and we want to keep it that way,” says Mr Veliaj. “Most mayors shy away from this, because they are afraid for this demographic growth, but if you can't stop it, you might as well [embrace] it.”
Some fear a reduction of green spaces in the city due to increased development, while others decry the efforts to reduce car use, but Mr Veliaj argues: “We could go through the intricacies of red tape, like in London or in other places where housing crises in general become a nightmare. Or we move very strictly with an urban plan that allows growth but avoids sprawl, so we are aiming at high-quality density, where people can walk within 500 metres to their barber, to their baker, to their grocery shops, to their health clinic.”
Conscious of the constraints of time, the mayor has an app that counts down days backwards from the next local elections in 2019.
“A Rolling Stones song says ‘time is on our side’ – no, time is not on our side, time just runs by," he says. "People have to have a very healthy urgency, and when people ask what is the metaphor for this city, I say this is city is a chicken. It is a chicken that has to lay an egg every day, sometimes two, three, but every day we have to do something. The public has to see at least one thing that was not there yesterday; that gives the people a sense of progress but also a sense of hope.”
As for his own sense of urgency to remake the city into a modern European capital, “I call it ‘obsession’… a healthy one,” laughs Mr Veliaj. And with that he wraps up the interview and heads off on his bike, off to visit one of the development sites.