Pristina Mayor Shpend Ahmeti: ‘We’re not too small’ to influence climate change response
Pristina is Europe’s newest capital city, a status it earned in 2008 when Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. Pristina is also one of Europe’s youngest cities, in terms of the age of its roughly 350,000 residents.
Shpend Ahmeti has been Pristina’s mayor since the end of 2013. A Harvard-trained economist, he previously was a public policy professor at the American University of Kosovo. The Guardian once called Ahmeti “Europe’s bravest mayor” for taking on corruption despite an apparent plot to assassinate him.
Ahmeti displayed some of that determination at last week’s Climate Action conference in Washington. On a panel with the mayors of Montreal and Miami, Ahmeti boasted that even a small and relatively poor city like his is planting trees, buying buses and taking other steps to slash greenhouse-gas emissions. “A lot of people said we’re small, we can’t influence climate change, we’re too poor so let’s leave it to the big countries,” he said. “We’re not too small. We can influence it. It doesn’t matter how poor you are, we’re all in the same boat.”
I caught up with Ahmeti after his talk to hear more about how he’s leading Pristina. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Christopher Swope: What was your election like?
Shpend Ahmeti: The movement that I belong to, they convinced me to run for mayor. It was a surprise victory. Because I ran against an incumbent who was mayor two times, for six years. We ran against the party that was involved 14 years, and we just created a movement of young people.
50 percent of the population is younger than 25, and 70 percent is younger than 35. Basically the younger people wanted a change, and they did it. It’s their victory, it’s not mine. Now I have a bigger responsibility towards them, basically, to make the change.
Q: What mandate did these young voters give you?
A: Basically to make the city more livable. Pristina is a little bit chaotic, we have a lot of illegal construction. But it also has a wonderful cultural life, night life. We sell the biggest amount of macchiatos — coffees — per day. About one million coffees per day.
At the same time, we are one of the most underdeveloped countries. We have high unemployment, high poverty rates, and we are one of the most polluted cities and countries in Europe. We’re trying to make the city better, more attractive. And I think we’re getting there, but we still have a lot of work.
Q: What’s an example of something innovative happening in Pristina that other cities could learn from?
A: We have about 60,000 people in the city connected to a district heating grid. We used to use oil to heat the water, but we now use the existing power plant. It was a big project, €37 million. The power plant generates electricity and also heat. We send the cold water to the power plant — the heat is already there — and get hot water back. The cost is now minimal and people have 24-hour heating during the winter. We’re expanding this network to about 120,000 people, and we will reduce energy consumption by 20 percent during the winter.
We’ve planted 2,000 trees. We’re buying 51 new buses to declare war on cars. Just in the last three years, we built four new parks in the city. We changed all the lighting to LEDs. Also we’ve done some innovative digital things that I think other cities will be doing.
Q: Like what?
A: For example, before if you wanted to get a marriage certificate, a birth certificate, a death certificate, you would go and wait in line for hours to get them. Now we’ve made the process digital. There’s a machine, it’s like an ATM — you put your ID card on it, and it tells you what documents you can get. You put in one euro and it prints the documents for you. You can do this at 2 am if you want. Other cities in the region are now taking the formula from us and doing the same thing.
We’re making other services available digitally. For example, if you want to build on your land, you can check online what are the criteria for building on that land. We’re moving to an online permit system for buildings very soon. We’re trying to make use of the changes in information technology, and I think we have an advantage because of the young people that we have in our city.
Q: What can other cities learn from Pristina — and are there things you’ve learned from other cities?
A: What I’ve realized in the last two years is no matter how big the city is — you can have 10 million people, or 300,000; you can have a budget of 50 million, or 5 billion — the problems are more or less the same in nature. For example, I was in Berlin a month ago, and I found out that there is a petition there to have public utility for electricity, which is the same as in Pristina. The scale is completely different, but the way they’re organized, the way the city has dealt with it is almost the same.
Another thing is town hall meetings. We did 50 town hall meetings last year. I would encourage every mayor to do as many town hall meetings as possible. These are very difficult things, because nobody comes to a town hall meeting to tell you that you’re doing a good job. Everybody comes with a complaint. But that’s where you learn what the problem actually is.
We’ve forgotten a little bit about meeting people in town halls. When you think about politics some 15-20 years ago, it was different from what it is today. Today it’s about Facebook, emails, and communicating, and being online. You do that, you do the digitization, but don’t forget about meeting people and understanding their problems.