International Connections: Seattle Urban Planning Expertise Aids Albanian Officials
Recently, the World Affairs Council hosted an international visitor group from Albania to explore best practices for urban and regional planning and sustainable development. The visitors, all of whom work for the national government, came to the United States as part of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program. They spent three weeks in the United States visiting five cities including Washington DC, New York, Louisville, Corpus Christi, and Seattle. Their visit comes at an interesting time for Albania’s governance structure. After the fall of Albania’s communist government in December 1990, Albania endured a frenzy of reactionary decentralization: Albanian lawmakers redistributed governing power from the formerly strong central government into smaller regional authorities. The country, which is about the size of the state of Maryland, now has 370 local municipalities and local governments. In the last few years, Albanian politicians have introduced and approved a territorial reform initiative to consolidate these 370 local governments into just 61 entities. The hope is that these larger governments will be able to provide a wider range of services, and be more efficient and effective in planning economic development.
Many of these visitors had never visited the United States before, and one of the delegates only knew of Seattle as the home of Amazon and Boeing. The Seattle World Affairs Council introduced the delegation to Seattle’s innovative urban planning sector, which is one of the most successful in the country at combating urban sprawl and showcasing sustainable development. The visitors reported that the highlight of their Seattle visit, and indeed their entire U.S. trip, was their meeting with Mr. Darren Greve, the manager of King County’s Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) Program. King County’s TDR program exists to conserve local rural and resource lands by steering urban development growth into already urbanized areas. The program facilitates a process through which rural landowners and farmers sign easements, promising to never develop their properties, in exchange for Transferable Development Credits. Urban developers purchase the TDR credits from the rural landowners to develop properties in designated urbanized areas at greater densities and heights than zoning laws would typically allow, although there are maximums that cannot be exceeded even with TDR credits. For example, a developer may use TDR credits to build a twelve unit apartment building in South Lake Union, where previously he or she would only have been able to include eight units. King County’s TDR program is one of the most successful in the country. Since 2000, the program has protected more than 220 square miles of rural and resource lands, enough space for six and a half Lake Washingtons.
Albania has laws on the books that allow for TDR activities, but at this point no such program has been effectively implemented. At the same time, Albanian urban planners and conservationists are struggling to limit extensive development along the country’s scenic coastline. The developments endanger coastal resources and wetlands and put too much stress on Albania’s municipal infrastructure. Many of the new developments do not have access to utilities like water, electricity, and waste management. The Albanian visitors envision newly consolidated municipalities using TDR programs to shape development away from coastlines.
Mr. Greve offered in-depth technical assistance to the visitors. He outlined King County’s use of a TDR “bank,” which streamlines the transaction between the landowners and the developer by preemptively buying TDR credits from rural landowners in high priority areas and then holding the credits until a developer purchases them. The visitors were excited about the opportunities for TDR programs in Albania and enthusiastically invited Mr. Greve to travel to Albania and work with them further. Mr. Greve responded, “Sure, that sounds fun!” The World Affairs Council eagerly awaits hearing more about their collaboration.
Over the next month, the World Affairs Council will be hosting many exciting programs, including a group of youth leaders from New Zealand and Australia here to learn about environmentalism, and a regional program from Asia focusing on international maritime law. More blog posts to come!
-Cory Rand, International Visitor Program Assistant