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Albania's Capital Struggles With Booming Population

Few places in Europe have experienced as explosive a growth in population as Tirana, the once small and now vibrant, sprawling capital of Albania.

During the harshest of Albania's communist rule that persisted until 1991, people could not own cars. They were reserved for party officials. As recently as 1993 there were more bicycles and horse carts than cars on Tirana streets.

That all changed with dramatic suddenness. Today, Tirana is often choked with motorized traffic. Horse carts are long gone and only the bravest dare navigate by bicycle.

U.N. Development Program team leader Eno Ngjela says Tirana's growth was completely unplanned. When restrictions on people's movements ended, they came to Tirana.

"No one thought [during communism] at the time there would be cars or anything, or a major need for electricity or air conditioning, or central heating from electricity," he said.

By the late 1990s Tirana's population had doubled to at least 300,000. With little regulation, development was chaotic. Illegal kiosks and restaurants went up in every available space.

That changed in 2000 when Edi Rama, a young artist, was elected mayor. He removed illegal squatters and developed an urban plan.

Today, Tirana sparkles, its new high rises and modernity stunning even to a frequent visitor. Rama, also the head of Albania's opposition socialist party, has a list of the city's major challenges. Progress, he says, is held back by a central government run by his political rivals.

"Electricity is a central government responsibility," he said. "Housing is a local government responsibility, but without central government coordination, this becomes impossible because of restrictive laws. Sanitation is a disaster and it is a central government responsibility."

These complaints are rejected by Prime Minister Sali Berisha. He promises no electicity cuts this coming winter and says housing regulations are much improved. He says corruption, rampant under the Socialist government he succeeded one year ago, is now less of a problem

There are estimates that Tirana's population will reach one million within the next few years. Albanians continue to move to the capital, where wages are at least twice as high as in rural areas.

Planners say growth is so rapid that soon Tirana and the port city of Durres, 35 kilometers away, will become a single urban area comprising about half of the country's population.

UNDP official Ngjela says Albania is developing in two directions.

"Some areas of the country like Tirana, Durres and some tourist areas in the south are developing quickly," he noted. "And the rest of the country is just staying there [still] and lagging behind."

With explosive growth continuing, what will Tirana look like in 10 years?

"I do not know," said Edi Rama. "I do not know. The most interesting thing about this country is that you can never predict the future."

Mr. Rama, 42, says being mayor of Tirana is the most exciting job he could have. On a national level, he says he wants to create a political party that is responsive to people and can facilitate generational change.