In a recent visit to Sofia, Bulgaria, I had the pleasure to meet with Aleksandar Slaev, Associate Professor, Varna Free University; Sonia Hirt, Professor and Associate Dean at Virginia Tech University and soon to be Dean of the School or Architecture at the University of Maryland; Georgetta Rafailova, Architect and Spatial Planning Expert at OP Sofproect OGP; Zdravko Zdravkov, Chief Architect for the City of Sofia; and Vesselina Troeva, Professor and Director of the National Center of Regional Development (National Center). The tours and discussions with these leading Bulgarian planning experts gave me new insights on planning structures and institutions in Bulgaria in the post-socialist period and the complex problems that planners in Sofia must confront, including the pervasive problem of urban sprawl. Addressing urban sprawl, of course, is the focus of TURAS work package 5 and includes partners from Varna, Belgrade, Rome, and Sofia.
Planning to address urban sprawl in the post-socialist period must now be performed under the Bulgarian Regional Development Act. Following the directives of the European Union, the Act divides the area of the country into six planning regions. Regional Development Councils for each planning regions are composed of the District Governors of the districts within the boundaries of the respective region, one representative of each of the municipalities in the region and of the Ministries involved in the application of the state policy with respect to regional development.
Under the former socialist system, the national Unitary Spatial Development Plan and many of the regional Spatial Development Plans were prepared by KNIPITUGA – then the premier planning institution in Bulgaria. This had obvious advantages. As the dominant player in the national and regional planning process KNIPITUGA developed extensive planning capacity, employed over 300 staff, and compiled much of the data that undergirded the planning process. Today that National Center for Regional Development (NCTR) has supplanted the KNIPITUGA, but is a shadow of its ancestor. It must now respond to planning tenders and compete or cooperate with other public and private planning agencies. It still wins many of those competitions, and most recently won the contract to prepare the next Bulgarian National Concept of Spatial Development. But it now has only 30 staff and often must look elsewhere for the data and planning expertise it needs.
Like many features of the Bulgarian economic, social, and political landscape these changes in planning institutions illustrate some of the costs and benefits of transition from a socialist to a market system. The capacity to plan and to integrate plans over larger and sometimes competing jurisdictions was probably greater under a centralized planning system. No surprise. But the new forms of competition have created a leaner and perhaps more efficient planning agency, one sharpened through competition and better able to access specialized planning expertise.
Planning for the Sofia metropolitan area is led by the City of Sofia, the centre of the Southwestern Planning Region, which comprises 5 districts and 52 municipalities with a total population of 2,098,800 people and a total area of 20,306.4 km2. Under the leadership of the new Chief Architect, Zdravko Zdravkov the City of Sofia is about to embark on a new master planning process, only the second in the post-socialist period. According to Mr. Zdravkov the major challenges the plan must confront include the containment of urban sprawl and the targeting of growth to places where infrastructure is already in place, including transit oriented development near the stations of its sleek new metro system.
The challenge is formidable, however, as described by Aleksander Slaev Though sprawl in Sofia tends to be denser with more multifamily units than other European cities, many Sofia residents prefer to live near the urban periphery and in the hills that over look the city. As private property rights in Bulgaria continue to emerge, many land market efficiencies are likely to emerge, but the addressing sprawl in its capital city will become even more formidable.