Lowline is one of the developed projects that came forth of a collaboration between the University of Leuven, the municipality of Tirana, architect studio 51N4E and granstudio. The goal of the project was to study new mobility solutions for the Tirana-Durres area.
The interplay between Tirana and Durrës is to a large extent characterized by the prominent highway connecting both cities. This road has become a dense spine for large businesses and their typology of big boxes. The landscape shaped by this development is entirely focussed on the principles of profitable economy and thereby neglects all social relations of the nearby dwellers. The small villages and townships that now happen to be at the backside of this linear infrastructure sometimes enjoy surprising qualities, but stay dominated by this infrastructure, and largely dependent on car-use. The goal of this project, covering approximately half of the highway length, is to offer an alternative in terms of mobility and social spaces in the form of a valuable complementarity between highway and flanking villages. For developing such a complementarity, an opportunity can be found in an old railway track that runs parallel with the highway and is temporarily out of use. Even with sufficient funds, the present track can by no means reach a high standard level: it is so strongly embedded in the urban tissue that an extended service will disrupt the urban life around it. What is needed is exactly the opposite: a device that connects along and across the urban rupture. A carrier that is low-profile, has both feet on the ground and tackles simple necessities.
An abandoned railway track
Even in the actual condition in which there is no train anymore, the track itself is still heavily used. Children use it to walk to school, adults to walk to their work. Since it is one of the scarce places where king car has no access to, it is not only used in a functional way. Playing games on the tracks, climbing in the trees along, enjoying the sun on a nice evening or simply stroll along are common practices. These forms of movement and activity already generate small businesses along the line. Commerce like food stalls, bars or small shops can find themselves on the tracks but more likely in spaces where the line gains a bit of thickness: on crossings or open spaces along the tracks. These locations give a hint of the possibilities that can be further developed when transforming the track into a lowline. The environment in which the track finds itself is very diverse and covers everything from the densely urbanized outskirts of Tirana to the vast open fields in-between two urban poles. Regarding typical typologies, the duality between highway and hinterland could never be more clear. The big boxes along the highway conceal a variety of qualitative dwellings behind them.
An opportunity in complementarity
The highway and the lowline are each other’s parallel complement. While the highway focusses on the big scale with its fast movements and large numbers, the lowline provides a valuable softer alternative and ensures the social coherence in and between the communities not only by connecting them, but also by reaching out sideways and creating nodes in which flows and activities group together. There are three different types of landscape through which the lowline runs. The first condition is the one closest to Tirana, where the former track is densely embedded in the urban fabric. Communities loosely organized along the line represent the second condition. The third condition is one of absence: apart from a couple of houses and big boxes, agriculture and nature is the prevalent landscape.
Apart from the diverse conditions the lowline runs through, it also encounters different political landscapes. On the 20 kilometre long strip between Tirana and Vorë (the closest still functioning train station), none less than 5 different administrative municipalities are crossed. This has as a consequence that the actual implementation of the lowline will not be an easy task. To this purpose, the project defines some minimum shared requirements but offers for the rest a flexibility for the municipalities (and inhabitants) to develop certain zones, elements and functions at will. When reaching out from the main line, a lot of interesting spots of all sorts can be found: schools, markets, sports facilities: they are all embedded within the network of the lowline. Therefore it is important to reach out and connect the line not only with these sites, but also with other networks, like the highway or the local road network.
Scopes of the project
The lowline is not only a line: it is about linking people and places, existing and new. The lowline unites a complex mixture of elements. But what is this lowline actually? It is a complement for the highway and all what goes with it. It reaches out and connects the communities along the line, gives them an address - a distinct identity - and links their most important public features. The line itself is structured through new intermodal centres: places where activities are grouped together. These nodes are strategically located and at reasonable intervals.
A new type of vehicle
If the lowline truly is the complement of the highway, it needs to be paired on the level of mobility too. The typical road users of the highway are lorries, buses, taxis and cars. But that does not mean that the lowline is only a place for pedestrians or cyclists. The project assumes a new type of vehicle that is complementary with the conventional highway users. A scheme analyses different aspects of vehicles and complements them with a set of parameters to which the new vehicle should be designed.
Apart from the listed parameters in the scheme, the vehicle should also be able to perform in a well-designed operating system. The vehicles will be primarily available in strategically located nodes and can be cheaply rented out like an urban bike system we know nowadays. That means they can be rented from and returned to different sharing points. In an Albanian context where renting is often seen as a waste of money and material investment attributes to the status and pleasure of people, it might be wise to not limit the system to renting only. Vehicles should be up for sale too, allowing more freedom of property and flexibility. The sharing points in that case can act as cheap and reliable charging stations to power the electrical engines, a sustainable solution since electricity in Albania is primarily generated by hydro-power. Domestic electricity in and around Tirana is quite unstable due to branches and tappings of all sorts. A fast and stable charging point that has an individual solar buffer provides a solid answer to this problem . In a country where filling your car with petrol is a social activity, why would charging your battery not be one? New businesses based on mutual coexistence might pop-up, similar to the classic trio petrol station – carwash – bar. The sharing and charging stations in the suburbs and communities will be operated by human agents. On the more remote countryside, a simple smartphone app can take over the role of this agent. The same app can provide pooling services or geolocate the nearest fully charged vehicles. The biggest sharing points can be provided with a service station to maintain the vehicles.
The realisation of projects can be challenging in Albania. To speed up the process, five essential elements are listed that should be available on every node along the lowline:
- Vehicle sharing point
- A place to sit down
- Availability of water
- Public toilets
Each of these features is provided in a different way according the condition the node finds itself in. The three main samples each have their own characteristics in which they respond to the minimum requirements.