Urban Belgrade

Extra-legal, urban planning, layers, state-driven, perspectives

Mode of travelling

Urban exploration

Ljubica Slavković

Tačka komunikacije

Belgrade building by Ljubica Slavković, Some Call Us Balkans 2021. CC BY-SA 4.0

Stream of Research

Cultural heritage and Cultural Practices

Cross-Cutting Issues

The commons / encompassing the topics of right to the city, ecology


надоградња (nadogr̩adɲa) - a building extension, an add-on. A part of the building that was built subsequently and in most cases completely stands out from the rest of the building (visually, construction-wise, logically etc). Example: “Malo smo nadogradili.” (“We extended it (the building) a bit”).

екстра-легално (ɛkstr̩a lɛgalno) - extra-legal. A coinage referring to something that occurs in the gray zone. Example: Nije ni legalno ni ilegalno, to je ekstra-legalno. (It is neither legal nor illegal - it is extra-legal)


Myth 1: Informal, illegal and extra-legal construction in the Balkans is so widespread because the newcomers are coming to our cities, building as they please and not obeying the rules. Informal, illegal and extra-legal construction in the Balkans is so charming because something as wild as that could never happen on this other side to that uncivilized periphery. 


Humoristic Visuals, Tours, 
The extra space of Belgrade.


Taming the Wild: Leap into the Extra-Legal Building Practice in Belgrade

Ljubica Slavković

The Balkans have a complex history of extra-legal construction. It is not only a Balkan phenomenon, but it does have its Balkan touch. It is not anything new or unexpected. In fact, in a way, it became a local tradition, a manifestation of culture, a way of life. It attracts many. Its irregularity, unpredictability and uncertainty may shock you. Its spite and defiance may provoke you. Its creativity and freedom of expression may trigger you. And almost certainly, its peculiarity will engage you.

The perspectives of urban informality are changing globally. The settlements that develop outside the scope of “legal” are most often defined by poor-quality houses and low living conditions. However, in the last decade, the global scientific community is addressing many characteristics of informal settlements as positive: vibrant communities, creative housing solutions, flexibility, efficient land use patterns etc. Informal construction is not merely seen as illegality or transgressions, but as a bottom-up development that has a lot to show. Unless, that is exactly the opposite of what it is. 

For over three decades, spatial transformation in Serbia has occurred in the informal, illegal and extra-legal field, almost as equal to the legal and planned construction. According to the latest official data from 2017, the number of illegally constructed buildings in Serbia was over 2.05 million i.e. 44% of all built footprint. The informal practice in Serbia dates back to when the first urban plans were implemented. The planning processes were always accompanied by the non-planned construction. It began to be massive during the socialist times in the 1960s, in the “right to housing” period and practice and its failure to provide for everyone. It continued to grow in the 1980s, but its wildest forms developed in the 1990s, the civil war period that was characterized with almost a complete lack of urban planning. However, it has continued after the democratic changes of 2000s and up to this day, under a regulatory neoliberal regime, it is still a widespread practice – but it may be argued that it has become a lucrative field, reserved for those who have an open door to the top shelf of power.

Belgrade 1965, 1975, 1985 by Ljubica Slavković, Some Call Us Balkans 2021. CC BY-SA 4.0
Belgrade 1990-2000 by Ljubica Slavković, Some Call Us Balkans 2021. CC BY-SA 4.0
Belgrade 1985-1990 by Ljubica Slavković, Some Call Us Balkans 2021. CC BY-SA 4.0

The wild architecture of the 1990s has also attracted the West. Belgrade is often seen as an interesting urban playground – it is located in Europe and easy to access, but the minute you find yourself in it you have a feeling that you have left the old world and stepped into an exotic, distance land of breaking and bending the rules in a way you will never meet in “civilized Europe”. An urban safari of a kind, a perfect place to immerse yourself in the wilderness and the opportunities of its lack of boundaries and yet, from a safe distance. Perceived as a cultural `and geographical periphery, but of Europe.

On the local level, the transgression, the illegal and informal, the rudeness of breaking and bending the rules and building more, constructing taller and wider buildings and going kitsch is also supposedly done by The Other. A newcomer, a refugee, a gastarbeiter, a “peasant”, someone of other origin and/or nationality, portrayed as aggressive enough to occupy the space in ways no one around has even thought of doing so before. A newcomer, and yet, rude and powerful enough to not fit in, not even in the limits of local laws and rules. 

Of course, it is all a myth. The wild construction in the past two decades is actually anything but wild. In fact, most of it erected in the last two decades, is in possession of a permit of some sort. Under the regulatory processes of neoliberalisation, the set of laws and legal remedies has been implemented through the past decade. It includes a magical Law on Legalization, enabling one to build illegally and then legalizes post-factum. It may be argued that this has become one of the most frequent mechanisms of building, enabling most of the illegal, informal and extra-legal construction to be incorporated into the permanent urban fabric and quite often, the only way to build.

But what does all of this mean to us? First of all, there is nothing sexy about the informal, illegal and extra-legal construction. It has become a lucrative field for those close to power to gain more profit, while the rest of the population is struggling to obtain decent housing. It reveals a lack of adequate policies and the lack of political power to properly solve the housing issues of many, while a few profit from it. It does not strive for the exotic freedoms of the wilderness – it is a well-constructed parallel system that feeds on implementing the neoliberal demands and democratic policies in order to meet the EU, joining demands (and funds) without an actual will to execute them. Of course, it is easiest to blame the ones on the dead end, to feed xenophobia instead of changing the system. And it all flourishes on myths and misconceptions.

The recent development documents of Serbia and international reports in the field of spatial planning, ecology and the rule of law, point out illegal/extra-legal/informal construction as one of the main problems in improving the quality of built and unbuilt environment and the rule of law. Generated by inadequate policies, it may be argued that today, the legislative and urban planning framework is encouraging the practice of extra-legal building practice. At the same time, interpreted as a transgression of individuals and not as a systematic issue, the common public attitude contributes to deepening the problem.

The research focuses on the genesis of a specific practice of transgression in urban planning and spatial development in Belgrade, Serbia. Although widely spread across the city as a spatial phenomenon, they remain in the blind field of institutions and the professional public, so the insight into perspectives of different actors is crucial in demystifying this phenomenon and shifting the narrative.  Authorities in the field refer to informal buildings as “usurpation”, but no deeper research on key characteristics and differentiation has been made.  Consequently, “the smaller actors” are being hustled out of the process of acting within the legal framework, meeting their needs or even practicing their rights. By researching and presenting information on the extra-legal building practice, the research contributes to the demystification of the origins and processes of informal, illegal and transgressive construction and shifting the mainstream narrative.  This is a vital step for further understanding the processes behind the extra-legal practice, as a fundamental step in developing adequate housing and urban planning policies.

Extra-legal construction has a lengthy history and deep impact on society, but to date remains an issue hardly discussed, disentangled and does not provide productive approaches and solutions. Above all, the citizens involved in extra-legal construction are hardly heard by professional actors, or regarded as necessary participants in resolving some of its most pressing impacts. By expanding knowledge, the project aims to create a safe place for people to share their experience, network and empower their participation.

The research consists of mapping and presenting, in an artistic and easily understandable way, the genesis of extra-legal construction. By doing so, the research findings contribute to demystifying the procedures of building extra-legally, better understanding its origins and mechanisms, and sparking a public debate so as to shift the public climate needed for a systematic change to be made. By deconstructing a myth, the research aims to contribute to constructing a more just and higher quality urban surrounding.

Belgrade 2012-2021 by Ljubica Slavković, Some Call Us Balkans 2021. CC BY-SA 4.0

Literature references

Petovar, K. (2010) Grad bez građana. Tako se gradi(lo) u Beogradu i Srbiji. Beograd: Republika, br. 484/485; 1–30 septembar

Petovar, K. (2003), "Urbana sociologija: Naši gradovi između države i građanina", Geografski fakultet Univerziteta u Beogradu, Beograd  

Sekulić, D. (2012) Glotz nicht so romantisch!: on Extralegal Space in Belgrade, Zurich: Verlag Scheidegger & Spiess      

Slavković, L. (2020) „From a Blind Field into a Modus-Operandi: Legalizing the Wild City“ , Kosec, M., Tomšić, N., Bricelj Baraga M., (Eds) Grabar N.(Ass.Ed), Nonument!, (pp.36-49), Ljubljana: MoTA – Museum of Transitory Art

Diener, R, Meili, M, Topalovic, M,  Müller Inderbitzin, C. (2012),  Belgrade.Formal/Informal. A Study on Urban Transformation, Scheidegger and Spiess   

Dzokic A, Topalovic M, Kucina I, Neelen M (2003) Belgrade: Fragments for Wild City. Beograd - Den Haag, About the Impossibility of Planning

Online references

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