Estonian Urbanists´ Review U

The first time the Baltic states exhibited a joint pavilion was at the Paris World Fair of 1937. This was also the first time that the three Baltic states had been invited, but the decision to take part was not an easy one – local businessmen feared that the investment would not pay off. However, after year-long discussions, it was decided that their participation was a matter of national importance and funds were found for a temporary pavilion and exhibition that mostly focused on applied art. The magnificent Baltic pavilion won many awards and plaudits, and for the first time, at least according to the local press, it was possible to show the three small states as unique and non-Russian. However, the stars of the show were the German and Soviet pavilions, located opposite each other with the Eiffel tower in the background, Leni Riefenstahl’s film The Triumph of the Will exhibited in the former and the latter boasting Vera Mukhina’s sculpture “The Worker and the Kolkhoz Woman” on its roof, standing 25 metres tall.

The next major joint efforts by the Baltic States were born from the initiative of smaller active groups, and were spurred by the need to show the strength of their peoples under conditions where their states no longer existed: for example, by creating the Baltic University in exile (a joint university for Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians in a German refugee camps, in operation between 1946 and 1949), or by joining hands and standing in a line to achieve the restoration of independence. This unity in times of trouble helped us: in the early 1990s, we became Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania again, without any affixes, and had the chance to go our own way – Estonia to the north, Lithuania to the south, Latvia… to the west? It was obvious that no one wanted to stand still – here in the East, in post-socialism, where, looking from Europe, everything was grey and simultaneously outdated and raw.

However, now it seems that the post-socialist condition, this transition from one system to another, where people attempt to deal with a difficult past and build a new future at the same time, leaving the present unattended, is gradually coming to an end. It seems that we are all slowly getting back – to here, to the Baltics. The younger generation which has grown up in an independent Estonia with the (Western) world open to them, are rejecting the narrative of the Eastern European as somehow a stigma, instead seeing the Baltic states as a special place, and looking at the socialist heritage as a peculiarity of the region (see the article on soft urbanism in this issue that attempts to define the urban social movements of the last decade, led by activists born in the 1980s and later).

One of the seminal events in the rediscovery of the “Baltness” that had always existed was the Baltic states’ joint pavilion at last year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice, which was curated by young architects and theoreticians from three countries. The decision to move the pavilion from Arsenale to the Palasport sports hall that is brutally stuck in the middle of Venice, right next to the main exhibition area, served to underline the (aspirations to show the) unity and the extraordinariness of the region. Yet the eclectic exhibition tried to demonstrate the diversity of the region – we are one, but also three separate ones (or a hundred, if you will). The exhibition carries the spirit of the younger generation, accepting of the Soviet heritage, because, in this context, it is on a par with the beatings of Baltic German overlords – it is all one history, the pain of which they have not felt personally.

Both last year’s Baltic pavilion and the webzine Deep Baltic seem to have the same clear vision of the region’s new image – the Baltics are young, yet ancient; exotic, yet familiar. It is the attractiveness and relevance of these two endeavours that moved U, all too often centred on Tallinn, to join forces with Deep Baltic and explore the urban issues of the region.

Because it is, after all, fascinating to explore how the Balts are once again finding unity at a time when new and clear lines of political power are forming worldwide. The Baltic region has always been just a pawn in this game of chess. In this number, Deep Baltic’s editor Will Mawhood and journalist Edward Lucas discuss the current situation and future of these three countries in advance of a possible restructuring of NATO. After all, their slightly desperate attempt to exist for the West in all conceivable ways (to be in the picture, to be a brand) is understandable, as is the wish to be connected to Old Europe in a physical, even iron-clad way. Discussions on the construction of Rail Baltica, a railway track through the three countries and the biggest joint infrastructure programme in the history of the Baltic states, are much too often concluded with a post-reindependence formulation: if you do not want what we are currently planning (and we know there are errors), then, basically, you should be prepared for a Russian invasion. This use of fear-mongering to push through a badly conceived mega-project without due consideration is particularly sad considering the longevity of such structures.

The Baltic Pavilion was accompanied by a wonderful compilation of articles by different authors, entitled The Baltic Atlas, and in this issue we republish an essay from it by Ines Weizman along with the photo series “Ground” by David Grandorge and Jonathan Lovekin. Ines’s essay and the photographers’ images of Baltic landscapes draw our attention to the nodes of our region’s infrastructure network, the structures that runs below and across the untouched nature and colourful medieval Old Towns of the Baltics shown in tourism brochures, merging old and new, nature and technology in a common network of man-made scars on the surface of the Earth.    

This analysis places the forthcoming high-speed railway, which ends at the Polish border, in today’s landscape, because physically it is all the same – whether new or old, looking to the West or looking to the East – just one expanse of ground messed up by humans.

Despite the fact that here we often call ourselves the forest people, appreciate living in harmony with nature, going mushrooming and living in a countries that are among the richest in the world when it comes to forests, there are processes going on around us that go unnoticed by people who value our forests but live in cities. One of the leaders of the Estonian forest protection movement, Linda-Mari Väli, publishes a piece of reportage about the double standards of Estonian national forestry policy and this same issue of the forests is continued on a regional scale by Kārlis Bērziņš, who uses visuals to show how land use in the Baltic states has changed since the end of the Soviet Union.

And the local forest people are indeed becoming urbanised. However, urbanisation does not automatically mean that all our cities are doing really well now, with people flowing in and everything growing. Instead, the status of cities is determined by demographic and geographical factors and processes, which are not very favourable for most cities today – in the Baltic states, only a small number of cities have a growing population. What a Baltic city has to do to be called a success – no matter what kind – is explored in this issue through a number of “city portraits”: the Latvian port town of Ventspils as a “company-theme park-playground” (“A Tour of Ventspils” by Owen Hatherley); Lithuania’s second city Kaunas trying to break out of Vilnius’s shadow (portraits of activists there in the series of profiles “Kaunas: Preserving, Redefining, Reviving Lithuania’s Former Capital”); Valga trying to shrink in a smart way (“On the Possibility of Life in a Shrinking Border Town” by the town architect of Valga Jiri Tintera); and the small Latvian city of Cēsis putting a great deal of effort into creating a dynamic, fresh, creative image for itself (Will Mawhood exploring the background to the Cēsis hype in Latvia in his article “Cēsis – Latvia’s New Urbanism Capital or Gentrification in Action? ”), creating an assortment of possible modes of existence for the Baltic cities. Another urban story is offered by Jonas Büchel and Will Mawhood in their visual and literary journey along what would have been the first metro line in the Baltic states, in Riga. It was planned but never built, just as we have not been able to witness a blazing rebirth of Riga, the once-magnificent regional centre with a population of nearly a million. 

Like the Baltic Pavilion, the U of Deep Baltic is a colourful affair. Baltic cities are still located in a thicket between the West and the East, connected to Europe through the Baltic Sea, and forever tied to Russia by land. Arriving here mentally will take time but we have started somewhere. So congratulations to us all, because soon we will be at the centre – right between east and west! You should also be congratulated on obtaining a very special collaborative magazine, because this is the first printed issue of Deep Baltic and possibly the last of U. A round of applause, please! We take a bow and bow out.

U19 – Deep Baltic editorial board



A Tour of Ventspils

Ventspils is popularly imagined to be the best managed city in Latvia. Outside the capital, which does have its concentration of big businesses and tourist draws, this is unusual. For Latvia, as the poorest country in the Baltics, one of the poorest in the European Union, as one hit extremely hard by the financial crisis – and whose return to growth owed a lot to driving down living standards – this means a lot. What if there was a future other than managed decline and emigration? Frequently, in discussions with people about the depopulation and decline of their town, and what they can do about it, they will point to Ventspils as an example of what could be done.

Simultaneously with being considered the best managed city, it is considered to be the most corrupt city in Latvia, with its long serving Mayor and former head of the local Communist Party, Aivars Lembergs, seemingly perpetually under investigation for dubious deals and kickbacks, although it has never resulted in him actually being prosecuted – or losing an election. Although Ventspils has a relatively small Russian minority, Lembergs has been unexpectedly sympathetic towards the erstwhile imperial overlord, claiming that the presence of NATO forces could lead to a military occupation of Latvia, and recently jetting over to Russia for talks with Dmitry Medvedev – especially curious given that “de-Sovietisation” of the city's aesthetic has been part of his programme as Mayor. I had the unexpected pleasure of a tour of the city from its city architect in summer 2016, a surreal experience of a city managed as a combination of industrial company town, theme park and children's playground. If being more like Ventspils is a possible solution to the rather sad, worn look of many Latvian towns, it is worth finding out exactly what the alternative is – and how they managed to fund it.

Ventspils' history can be read in the glossy guidebook published by the city council, a contemporary equivalent of the Progress Publishers Guides that would tell you about the achievements of the Soviet republican capitals. The current edition, Ventspils – 700+25, begins with a valedictory foreword from Lembergs: “we have built ourselves a city, a city where we and others feel good ... we carefully consider all new things and choose only what is best for our well-being, convenience, comfort, urban aesthetic and growth”. The history told therein is the usual attempt to create a monoethnic narrative out of Kurzeme, once the multicultural imperial province of Kurland, shifting between the land of the ancient Livonians, to the Grand Duchy – a German governed autonomous part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, whose fleet once claimed colonies in West Africa and the Caribbean – though the Russian Empire and independence. More controversial matters are avoided, from the 1905 revolution, when Ventspils – Windau, Vindava – erupted, like all of Kurland, in a ferocious socialist uprising, before being brutally pacified by Tsarist troops – to the brief 1919 Latvian Soviet Republic. The silence extends to the Holocaust, when Kurzeme's large Jewish population was exterminated, largely by the Latvian Auxiliary Police. However, it does take time out to note the “genocide of the Livs”, apparently caused when the Soviet army forced the Finno-Ugric speaking Liv population out of their fishing villages when they militarised the Baltic coast (undoubtedly a bad and cruel thing, but an odd one to consider more important than the murder of almost every single Jew in the city). History then leaps from 1944, and the flight of the liberal Latvian Central Council to Stockholm, to the 1980s environmental movement that would lead, uniquely, to independence. As a narrative, there's nothing in the story that Ventspils tells about itself that could possibly offend a Latvian nationalist.

That mention of the environmental movement, however, is crucial for understanding what has made Ventspils the strange “success story” it is today. In the 1970s, an oil terminal was built here with the assistance of the American investor Armand Hammer and his company Occidental Petroleum, for the export of fossil fuels from the Soviet interior through the Baltic to northwestern Europe. The large Free Port of Ventspils is still based around this, and it has been a Special Economic Zone since 1997, during which it has become a highly profitable capitalist enterprise. It is the Oil Terminal that first makes it obvious quite what sort of a town you are in, on arrival from the bus station. Nearby is a small square, built around the Lutheran Church, a diminutive piece of Petersburgian classicism, and an ensemble of little houses, wood and stucco, leading down to the historic market square. As you step down towards the market, you can't help but see the Terminal – a continuous metal conduit, stained red and black, suspended on tiny little metal struts, connected by pipes and gantries to domed containers, leading further to spindly, rusty cranes, and in the middle of all of this, dwarfed, a couple of grimy, late 19th century dock buildings. The sudden shift from the Lilliputian scale of the houses and the church to this Constructivist monster is the most remarkable thing in the town, and a constant reminder of what exactly it revolves around. In front of it, dotted along the quayside promenade, and the passenger port that can take you to Sweden, North Germany, Denmark, is a series of fibreglass cows. They have been decorated in a variety of costumes. Suitcase cow, decorated with stamps and stickers from foreign destinations. Riot police cow, with shield and armour. There's also a little group of souvenir shops, where you can buy a mug with the face of Aivars Lembergs.

I'm not here to look at the port, rather as one of a group of writers taking part in a residency in nearby Kuldīga, on a visit to the “Writers House” opposite the Lutheran Church; you can tell it is the writer's house, because there is a giant sculpture of a quill outside, another example of the public art that has been bestowed upon the city in the last ten years. Here Daiga Dzedone met us, the chief architect of Ventspils, who in that capacity has been responsible for much of the makeover the city has received. Very kindly she offered us a tour of the city, so we could see how it had been transformed, as she described, from a depopulating and extremely polluted industrial port, its very air poisoned by ammonia, with a town centre people would actively avoid due to the proximity of the dirty, filthy dangerous industry, to a local tourist draw with a blue flag beach, a public art programme, and very unusually for Latvia, a growing population. She avoids taking us around the oil terminal, but it is clear this is where the money for it all has come from – that, and the European Union structural funds that have been ploughed into the country since accession, which are much more conspicuous here than in the pot-holed, half-decrepit, financial crisis-stricken boulevards of other Latvian cities. Some of the new work has taken place in the town centre; next to the Writer's House is a neat little Municipal Library designed by Juris Poga, which bridges between a historic building and a new, mildly modernist wing with wooden slats; nearby is the Samrode Building, a very decent little office block by architects Krists Kārkliņš & Arhitektūras Birojs, in a knobbly, Hanseatic brown brick. In front of these is a hilariously walrus-faced statue of a Red Army general, Jānis Fabricuss, one of the very many Courlanders to throw in his lot with the Bolsheviks. Its survival is surprising, but then the Red Riflemen do still stand guard in the centre of Riga. The strident working class politics that the riflemen stood for is harder to find.

Rather than lingering here, Dzedone whisks us off to the Jūras Vārti House of Culture on the other side of the docks. It's an area dominated by tiny wooden houses, which, at the turn of the century could be built here at a discount, as a means by the Tsarist government to attract residents to an area that, even then, was beset by pollution, with the prevailing winds blowing in precisely this direction. The result is a little fragment of the sort of villagey townscape you can find in somewhere like Kuldīga: winding streets, recently repaved with EU money, between modest, one-storey clapboard houses, painted yellow, red, blue, green. She doesn't linger on these, though – the point is the new building, which is in fact a remodelling and expansion of a typical Soviet House of Culture, with the same sort of multifunctional high culture you'd have got in one those – classical music, opera, theatre, maybe a bit of panto to bring in the receipts, and some very bad painting exhibited on the walls. The no doubt worn and creaking Soviet structure has been overlaid with shiny but cheap-looking materials, everything bright and wipe-clean; we get a rather too extensive tour, shown everything about it from the mechanism that lowers and raises the stage to the small and large dressing rooms (the latter for stars, the former for dancers and the like).

The “humanisation” of the Soviet legacy exemplified by the House of Culture is one of the main concerns of the town architect – several districts of Khrushchevki have been renovated, in the manner common in Poland or the Czech Republic, with pastel colours and garish patterns, which seldom happens in Latvia – “apartment buildings are transformed entirely, as traces of Soviet legacy in the architecture of Ventspils are wiped away by a more modern, better-looking design”, says Ventspils – 700+25, but the spacious, parkland layouts are untouched by new construction. The landscaping of the green strips between with fountains and lots and lots of flower arranging feels very Soviet though – the place it most resembles in the region is the Baltic states' apparent antithesis, for its institutionalised Communist nostalgia – Belarus. Affluent, clean, conformist, fully employed, and run by a very popular big man. 

There are un-humanised parts of the city, particularly one big housing estate of untouched panel slabs, which could be absolutely anywhere in the USSR – these, Dzedone tells us, are known as the “Belarus Station”, as they originally did house workers from the slightly more southerly Soviet Republic. The streets have been repaved, but the seams between the panels here are visibly coming loose. On the other side of the Free Port is another large Soviet estate of the 1980s, and a much more interesting one – the standardised type, but the Latvian SSR standard rather than a generic Union one, and superior to it both functionally, and, with their expressive brick details, visually. Dzedone tells us this one is soon to get the styrofoam and lime green paint treatment, and here, if nowhere else in the town, it would be a shame.

Oddly, however, the sense we get from the city architect's version of the city is that buildings don't really matter. What she wants us to see are things like the camp-sites in the woods, which apparently have a several months-long waiting list, and are indeed very attractively designed, in lightweight, crisp little chalets under pines. She wanted us to see the endlessly sprinkling fountains and incredibly literal sculptures – around ten giant anchors, on all the entrances to the beach, a big chair made up of chains by the car park. The several sports centres, and a seemingly interminable quantity of playgrounds. Cynical local opinion puts these down to Lembergs having recently sired. No child, apparently, ever has to queue for a slide or a swing in Ventspils. The huge amount of children's infrastructure – from a ski-jump to a genuinely rather delightful children's railway running between the beach and the woods, which doesn't quite compensate for the closure of the city's railway station – helps make the place feel a tad infantile, as if it were planned not to accommodate children, but just for children. For them, too, there is little space for surprise or discovery – everything is spelled out.

Architecturally, some of the new work in Ventspils is excellent, especially by contemporary Latvian standards. The City Council itself is housed in an eco-friendly HQ (in an oil town!), with a subtly drizzly, green screen draped across it; it's placed in a very affluent looking villa district, with wooden terraces and the rangy Arts and Crafts houses of the disappeared Baltic German bourgeoisie. Today the area is apparently popular with Russian émigrés. Similarly interesting is the suburban Pārventa Library, in a workaday area of renovated tenements. Two brittle curved steel and glass curves interlocking around a multi-storey atrium over benches with beanbags, to a competition-winning design by INDIA architects – this one even made its way into the English-language architectural digests. The confidence of the design is somewhat contradicted by the awful paintings of nudes and landscapes on the wall, the sort of stuff a street-corner tourist painter might think twice about exhibiting; it all feels oversized, the readers made tiny by the space. With a big EU funded concert hall slated to supplement the Jūras Vārti House of Culture, there's almost a sense of over-provision of culture here, more than a town of 40,000 people could really need. There is a lot of cultural spending, but no sign of the “creative class” or anything remotely bohemian or “alternative”. In this too, the town resembles a Baltic Belarus; Lukashenkaism without the need for the KGB. 

It is hard to resent them this city – the boom ended, as it always would, but at least they have something to show for it. You can mock it quite easily. “A city that is also a brand!” say some excited people in Ventspils – 700+25. The head of MALMAR steel says, as well he might, “we liked Ventspils the most” of all towns in Latvia. “The industrial charm of the terminal is praised even by artists”. There is in the book, and the investment in industry in the town, an unlikely emphasis on factories and the people who work in them – no wonder that Ventspils won “European local government of the year 2012”. What has made this a “success” is the way in which just enough of the cash made here – it is no coincidence that Lembergs has become one of the richest men in the Baltics, significantly enriching also his family – has been put into the town, and enough to make people grateful, perhaps because they know that in many other towns not very far away, they won't even get that trickle. “Thank you Ventspils,” says one schoolgirl in the town's promotional book, “for making me so happy. Ventspils, always stay ahead of the curve!”

Owen Hatherley is a writer based in London and the author of eight books, most recently Landscapes of Communism (Penguin 2015), The Ministry of Nostalgia (Verso 2016) and The Chaplin Machine (Pluto Press 2016), which is based on his PhD thesis.


Searching for Baltic Urbanism – From ad hoc Planning to Soft Urbanism*

* Due to the geographical position and experiences of the authors, this opinion piece is inevitably largely informed by an analysis of the Estonian context, but we believe that these conclusions and ideas can be applied to the wider region. 

1. The conclusions and presentations of speakers at the “Vacant City” seminar can be accessed on the website of the Estonian Urban Lab.

2. In addition to the Estonian Urban Lab, the Hungarian Contemporary Architecture Centre and temporary use agency ZwischenZeitZentrale from Bremen also celebrated their 10th birthday.
The seminar “Vacant City”, held at the Telliskivi Creative City in Tallinn in the spring of 2016, brought together representatives from non-profit organisations, think tanks, etc., from the Baltic states and Eastern Europe that specialise in urban space. Many participants were surprised to realise that several of the organisations celebrated their tenth birthday last year.2 It seems that around 2006, there was an intense period when number of young urban space activists, researchers, recent graduates from urban-related specialties and officials no longer wanted to confine themselves to the conventional definition of an urban planner, geographer, architect or activist, and instead began creating their own platforms to enable them to have a say in the development of the city – ideally transcending their field and including a wider range of interested parties. But where do the roots of this new inter-disciplinarity and desire to have a say in spatial issues lie? It seems that the change in thinking brought on by the westernisation of the younger generations is not characteristic of Estonia and Tallinn alone; similar developments can also be seen in the capitals of Latvia and Lithuania as well as in other post-socialist countries. We will attempt to discuss the developments that have taken place in the field of urbanism in Estonia and the Baltics over the last ten years, their relationship to some symptomatic social developments after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic crisis of the 2000s, and the possible peculiarities of this “Baltic urbanism”. To illustrate our analysis, we will look at  three organisations in the region, the Estonian Urban Lab, Urban Institute Riga and the Vilnius Laboratory of Critical Urbanism.

The development of urban planning in the post-socialist space

The 1990s have recently become a trendy subject again. The insane and often indefinable situation following the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the concomitant freedom and the chance to dream engenders a certain nostalgia in our post-economic-crisis world. The 1990s saw the emergence of new power structures and the articulation of social ideals in former Soviet countries, often in a reactionary manner and in opposition to the former regime, and obviously following the example of the neoliberal market economy that was prevalent in the West at the time. While the relationship to the Soviet era has now changed somewhat – the tendency to romanticise the West and the need to distance oneself from the East is not as evident now – these initial processes still greatly affect the present day of post-socialist societies.

When it comes to urban planning, a more in-depth look at the developments in Estonia and Tallinn in the 1990s is offered by Sampo Ruoppila. 3. See Ruoppila, Sampo. 2007. Kaks linna – kaks projekti. Projekti SVING linnauuringu projektiosa aruanne.

4. Read more in Feldman, M. Justice in Space. The Restitution of Property Rights in Tallinn, Estonia. Ecumene 6(2), 1999.

5. Ibid.

6. Unt, Anna-Liisa; Travlou, Penny; Bell, Simon 2013. Blank Space: Exploring the Sublime Qualities of Urban Wilderness at the Former Fishing Harbour in Tallinn, Estonia. Landscape Research, DOI: 10.1080/01426397.2012.742046.

7. Martinez, Francisco 2016. Wasted Legacies? Youth and Repair after a Troubled Past.

8. Read more in Ruoppila, 2007. 
Transitioning into the market economy also meant the birth of a new planning system. The changes in the spatial power lines were also affected by wide-ranging property reform.4 Several authors – Ruoppila5, Unt, Travlou and Bell6 as well as Martinez7 – have pointed out that the years following the restoration of independence were characterised by a certain euphoria of freedom. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why urban planning, which was perceived as restrictive by the construction industries, was seen as a rather negative phenomenon.

Two main stages are usually discerned in the development of post-socialist planning processes. Up until the late 1990s, minimal interference were the keywords in planning and this led to the coining of the term “ad hoc planning”. It centred on the idea that space should be shaped by the market.8 For example, Tallinn did not have a masterplan in those years. A weak relationship between the private and public sector was also characteristic of the period. In spatial terms, the most recognisable legacy of this era is increasing urban sprawl and the appearance of new business hubs in the city centre. The second stage began in the late 1990s, when planning became more considered: for example, the notion of strategic planning gained importance and relevant legislation became more specific. Another milestone for the Baltic states was their entry into the European Union. This period gave birth to several vision documents, like Tallinn 2025 9. Tafel, K., Terk, E. 2004. Tallinn: Strategy 2025: the Trends and Choices of Tallinn for the Next Twenty Years. Tallinn: Eesti Tuleviku-uuringute Instituut.

10. Read more in Ruoppila, 2007.
and the Tallinn Masterplan10.

We argue that we could define, in retrospect, a third stage of post-socialist urban planning, beginning in the mid-2000s with “alternative” approaches. This stage is mainly defined by the birth of an active civil society that speaks up on spatial decisions and whose activities are guided by thinking outside the box and a desire for a culture of cooperation, and also by experiments and urbanism built on the “laboratory” format.

Panu Lehtovuori and Sampo Ruoppila have a vital role in articulating alternative approaches to the development of Estonian planning culture, drawing attention to the unique conditions that enable the birth of a new kind of urbanism here, as well as in other post-socialist cities. In 2001, Lehtovuori wrote: “I believe a rare opportunity exists right now to really renew Tallinn and its urbanism. Almost anything can happen in a city void of fixed rules, fixed forms, or delivered atmospheres.”11  11. Lehtovuori, Panu 2001. From Privatopia to Liquid Urban Landscape. Maja 1-2001, p. 25.

12. Lehtovuori, Panu; Ruoppila, Sampo 2012. Temporary Uses as Means of Experimental Urban Planning. Available here, p. 33.
Eleven years later, in 2012, Lehtovuori and Ruoppila reaffirmed this belief, noting that post-socialist cities have enormous potential for creative regeneration.12 This was a period when temporary uses and the regeneration of former industrial areas were gaining momentum. 

Perhaps the 2000s were a period when people were beginning to get over the shame of “being backward”, and started to note the potential offered by a fragmented urban space. The new generation who is involved in urban developments is mostly born in the 1980s and 1990s and the Soviet period is more like a vague childhood memory instead of a heavy burden of recent history. For example, the strange landscapes of Tallinn, like its coastal wastelands; wooden slums, Kalamaja and Kopli; and its former industrial districts are more like playgrounds, not places that must be quickly filled with modern apartment buildings, or conversely, razed to the ground. The new generation is ready to experiment and will take their time in doing so.

The peculiarities of Baltic urbanism

Questions about what kind of cities are good to live in and about fair and sustainable communities were raised as arbitrary keywords in the masterplans and strategy documents of the early 2000s. Perhaps this is why “liveability” is an important keyword to describe the aims of the three Baltic urbanist organisations – the Estonian Urban Lab, Urban Institute Riga and the Vilnius Laboratory of Critical Urbanism. This is true despite the fact that all three organisations function in slightly different social and political environments. The meaning of liveability in the context of the three Baltic capitals is something that is impossible to determine definitively, which is why it is a central problem when interpreting all kinds of urban issues, both in the initial period of “seed bomb” experiments,1313. This is a reference to the early days of the Estonian Urban Lab, when it engaged in urban gardening, and to the mainstream media coverage of its “seed bomb” activities (see here). as well as today, when they have been invited to sit at the same table with custodian organisations, associations of specialists, representatives of local and national governments, private owners and developers. Additionally, searching for liveability always requires questioning the perspective of the person interpreting the word – liveable for whom? The desire to offer critical interpretations of the evolution of urban space and to influence it has spurred the organisations engaged in urban space into action: above all, they view the evolution of the urban space as a process, but bizarrely, the lack of definitive answers is also the source for the peculiarity of Baltic urbanism.

The social dimension of Baltic urbanism and the argument for self-assertion

The organisations involved with urban activism have now become valuable agents in their field. Their new role could partly be explained by the economic recession of the late 2000s. In the urban landscape, the economic crisis was expressed through a standstill after the development of the boom era. A general lack of resources inevitably drove the local governments and other public institutions to find alternatives when it came to expertise, and often it was the “urban labs” which had not only the necessary knowledge, but also enough courage to experiment. It was during the period of “not building” that the labs first became a presence for the public sector; at first, this was uncomfortable and annoying for them, but they went on to evolve into valuable partners. The range of interests in the field of spatial subjects also began to grow during that period – in addition to architecture and urban planning, universities introduced programmes that saw urban space and creating space as a broader interdisciplinary field;14 14. In 2004, the Urban Studies programme was launched at the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning of the Estonian Academy of Arts. This was followed by a cyclical study programme for Urban Governance at the Institute of Humanities of Tallinn University.   for example, more attention was paid to the issue of mobility (with communities of cyclingenthusiasts springing up) – notions of architecture and urban space gained additional meanings.

We can only wonder whether, had the boom continued and had the labs not gained the approval of the public sector the urban space activities labs might have taken a bolder or more radical direction. Post-socialist grassroots urbanism/urban activism has often been criticised for its relatively weak social dimension. For example, none of the organisations listed above have long-standing commitments to very complicated and specific urban problems like homelessness, social exclusion, integration, violence on the streets, the usage of urban space by different generations, accessibility for people with disabilities, etc. Instead, they “participate in the processes of space creation” and create visions; the methods they employ are based in the social sciences, but veer towards formal analyses of space instead of research that centres on the individual. Perhaps they intuitively feel that societies in transition do not respond well to radicalism, and that, when operating in small societies, one must avoid stepping on people’s toes? This may be the reason why the range of issues covered is limited to creating (engaged) communities, empowering people at a grassroots level and moving towards an indefinable “liveable” city. These methods can easily become tools for gentrification, because some people are always left out from these processes.

Even though these labs were born out of a search for alternative approaches, their activities cannot be described as a critique of the status quo (including capitalism), because they operated and partly still do operate in a planning system that intrinsically opposes socialism and is neoliberal, yet full of corrupt planning practices. They described themselves as offering alternatives to the existing system and new solutions and this remains one of the main justifications for their existence. In some ways, this state of early Baltic urbanism is still characteristic of Riga, where the old methods of urban planning of this shrinking Baltic capital have been slow to adapt the aims of urban labs, and where the lack of a partnership with local government has resulted in flirtations with more radical slogans. One of them is “Free Riga”,15 15. Free Riga began as an urban movement, springing up in 2013 as a counterbalance to the mainstream programme of Riga as a Capital of Culture in 2014, with a group of young Riga residents drawing attention to the fact that one building in every five in the city was vacant, and yet there were still not enough venues for grass-roots cultural events. In September 2013, they printed out 5,000 stickers with the slogan “Occupy Me” as part of the festival Survival Kit, organised by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, and, on social media, shared their manifesto for marking vacant spaces – they ran out of stickers within a day. This intervention was followed by work on mapping vacant spaces and a change in their message. During the year of the Capital of Culture, the organisation bore the name “Free Riga 2014” (when the year drew to a close, they got rid of the date). Today, Free Riga acts as a mediator of vacant spaces – in other words, after drawing attention to the problem, they enthusiastically set about solving it themselves. alluding to the spatial problems caused by the shrinking of Riga, but also turning these into positive opportunities for development, which in turn justifies their existence. These soft tactics are the next common trait that connects post-socialist urban social movements in general: attention is drawn to a social issue, but instead of loudly demanding solutions from the authorities, they direct their forces to an alternative, more subdued middle ground, offering innovative solutions for improving the situation. We think that in addition to the social dimension, Baltic urbanism is also characterised by compromise, which is why we call it “soft urbanism”.

In addition to this spirit of compromise, the Baltic urbanist organisations are also often faced with a dilemma: how can they prove their importance and indispensability in the field of urban planning as partners while also acting as a watchdog for the field?

Labs as connectors of civil society? What has been the role of these organisations in post-socialist societies in general?

It has been fairly difficult to articulate the importance of urbanism and “engaging” urban space in general to the wider society. For example, it is very hard to explain to a family owning several cars, living in the Viimsi municipality and going to work/school in Tallinn every day why urban design is an important change that would benefit them – or, for example, of the need to build a cohesive network of cycling lanes when no one in the family cycles, etc. Whether this is a shortcoming of the field or a boon for activists is a different matter altogether. In practice, both the Estonian Urban Lab and Urban Institute Riga include representatives of various fields and work in an abstract space somewhere at the intersection of architecture, planning, local government, the private sector and civil society – and have set themselves the task of bringing these various parties together. Additionally, several members of these organisations actively speak out for the development of civil society.

The institutionalisation and professionalisation of urbanist organisations has certainly been spurred and influenced by financial support from various funds, including the structural funds of the EU, which are aimed at improving civil society. Several organisations are legally non-profit organisations and their sponsors aim to strengthen the civil society through NGOs. Thus, adopting new methods for urban design and the organisation of society in general is related to the activities of organisations that sprung up in the mid-2000s and later. Urban movements and other activities initiated by activists have matured and they are now increasingly involved in urban planning (see, for example, the thematic plan made with the contribution of the Supilinn neighbourhood association in Tartu);16 16. In 2014, Tartu City Council validated the thematic plan “Specification and supplementation regarding the terms of protection and use of the built-up area of cultural and environmental value of the Supilinn district and the general terms of use and construction of the district’s land and waters”, initiated in 2007 and drawn up based on the principle of participatory planning. Read more here.

17. An overview of the current state of communal safety in Estonia is given in the 2016 guide, published by the Esotnian Urban Lab under the title “Communal safety” (Lippus, Vihma, 2016). Find it here.

18. See Will Mawhood’s article about the regeneration of Cēsis in this issue.

19. See documentary “RUUM/Soo tänav” by Marta Pulk for the Estonian National Broadcaster on the renovation project of Soo Street and the city residents who took part of the process.
partnership between the public and non-profit sectors are growing, with the latter increasingly playing a central role (for example, in projects of communal safety)17 and interventions in urban space contribute to transforming the image of a city (the various art and urban festivals connected to the regeneration of Cēsis and the use of minor urban interventions in re-imagining the Cēsis brand)18. It is likely that through these issues, which are local and softer but bring together various social segments, these organisations have made an important contribution to the transition to a more democratic political culture in post-socialist societies. Among other things, these organisations have proved the advantages of citizens getting involved with local government affairs, aiming to achieve better results (see, for example, the case of Soo Street)19.

Apart from “soft urbanism”, this role of a connector is the next shared trait of Baltic urbanist organisations, which, in turn, is the reason why none of them can be defined in certain terms nor connected to a specific section of the job market. What are we talking about when it is not architecture, it is not planning, it is not real estate development or any other activity that can be measured by a professional occupational standard? Nevertheless, urban issues have somewhat surprisingly become one of the key adhesives of civil society, even if their indispensability is sometimes not fully grasped by people – we are, after all, connected by urban space.

Destitute institutionalisation

A great share of organisations, including the three listed above, got their start with a group of people who were idealistic, wanted to work and have an effect on the community with their visions. They aimed to challenge existing models and ask whether existing urban design is sufficiently fair, inclusive and sustainable. The Estonian Urban Lab, Urban Institute Riga and the Vilnius Laboratory of Critical Urbanism are all united in their vision of a more coherent and communal urban space.

Organisations that spring up due to the enthusiasm of a small group of active people characteristically have lifespans that follow the natural “maturing” of the group. This maturing includes an established institutional position and inherent logic, but this is not always supported by a growth of financial means or stability. It seems that there is an inherent contradiction in these organisations: if you want the organisation to engage with a million urban issues where the organisation plays the role of connector, it is difficult to focus on a specific section of the urban-related market, e.g to become a consultancy offering specific services or to become a spokesperson for a particular urban social issue. This means that these “soft urbanism” organisations remain a career springboard for their members or contributors, or a stopover outside the system, despite the fact that the organisation itself is considered important by society. This is also evidenced by the fact that none of the three organisations listed offers consistent full-time employment and everything operates on a project-by-project basis.20 20. The Laboratory of Critical Urbanism (LCU) was founded as a research platform to accompany the master’s specialisation in Critical Urbanism at the European Humanities University (established in 2012) and therefore it's members are institutionally attached to the MA programme. Read more about LCU from next article.

Speaking and thinking about urban space is a growing trend: for example, the major political parties in Tallinn are already preparing for the upcoming local elections in 2017 by trying to define the city of the future. The approaches to space, such as temporary use, that the labs imported during the economic crisis, often from the West, have reached the sights of the private sector and planning offices, and the regeneration of industrial areas is going through new phases. For example, issues of mobility are sure to remain a heated source of debates, which, in turn, requires the role of a connector who could bring together various interest groups in a conscious and skilful way, taking advantage of the possibilities of participatory democracy. In other words, the question about the institutional location of the centre of competence of participatory democracy in relation to urban space has become more urgent. If people are currently riding the wave of participatory planning, then who could be able to organise it more efficiently? Will the local governments, who have the legal authority to do so, go through a qualitative leap in their management structures? What kind of additional services do they require and could these very labs be the ones to offer these services? Formal urban participation has evolved into visions and a desire for a bigger picture,21 21. Compared to the period of ad hoc planning, several cities have come up with a vision, with smaller local governments (Kohila, Saue) looking for alternatives (spatial plans) to their conventional development plans. Currently, the greatest site of competing visions is the Tallinn seaside, where the interests of nearly all sectors are represented (developer, the Port of Tallinn who owns the land, the city of Tallinn, specialist organisations etc). but existing examples indicate that their influence is yet to penetrate the broader urban planning discourse; they are an “additional task”, just like they are currently an additional task for the employees of local governments. This inevitably moves one to wish that soft urbanism would toughen up.

Softly onwards?

In January 2017, we contacted the urbanist organisations of all three Baltic States to enquire about their plans for the future and ask them to explain which direction they felt they should be going in and how they could position themselves in society. None of them had a clear vision for the future, which brings us back to the peculiarity of soft Baltic urbanism. Larger urbanist organisations have made a significant glocal impact: they import Western examples and practices and adapt trends. The Baltic “right to the city”, using the freedoms provided by the internet and the economic crisis, has achieved its aims of demanding a liveable city, learning and contextualising their role models from elsewhere. In the current new reality and state of political uncertainty, their ideas have become part of the mainstream; “a good living environment”, “a liveable city” are already in opposition to outdated neoliberal ad hoc planning, which is admittedly still felt in the Tallinn of Keskerakond (the Estonian Centre Party), but even this may change soon.

Although there is a clear audience for radicalism in society (one only has to look at the emergence of left and right-wing radicalism on the political scene in recent years), does radicalism still repel in the field of urbanism because of a fear of taking these organisations back to their initial positions, i.e. rather marginal ones? Is there a fear that the role of a connector that has been earned the hard way in the past ten years will drop to the ground and will be picked up by someone else, or does the root of the problem lie in some kind of special Baltic order?

We argue that today, urban labs in the Baltic states are facing a choice: to continue beating the drum of a liveable city and and inevitably become mouthpieces for populist mainstream political parties, or to refuse to go down that road. Allow us to explain the relevance of the dilemma. For example, the parties in the current Estonian coalition government are looking for ways of becoming more radical, in order to “grasp the mood of the electorate and limit the number of votes lost to extremist forces”.22 22. Which may have a completely opposite effect, because the fine-tuning of one’s positions may inadvertently legitimise the messages of radical parties and make them acceptable to voters. See here.

23. “The Faculty of Architecture of the Estonian Academy of Arts is launching the large-scale urban studies project UNFINISHED CITY in collaboration with the City of Tallinn with the kind support of E.L.L. Kinnisvara. Over the span of three years, E.L.L. Kinnisvara and Merko Ehitus will altogether contribute half a million euros to the collaboration project. This is an unprecedented private contribution for the Estonian Academy of Arts.” EAA web page. Estonian Academy of Arts, E.L.L Real Estate and Merko combine forces to advance Urban Planning in Estonia, and launch an extensive research project. 
This is currently evident in the call for ideas for the upcoming local elections, with activists and urban researchers being wooed by political parties with invitations, job offers etc., and big businesses supporting departments of architecture with significant sums of money.23 This is a new stage in capitalist adjustment. Thus, soft urbanism has a chance to go back to the beginning, assessing its endeavours and asking for possible new critical practices, which, in turn, may mean a withdrawal from a specific section of the market (the same question about which institution will become the centre for competence of urban participation).   

Urbanism based on labs has a chance to critically define its role and, if necessary, correct it over time. A plurality of institutions is very important for the development of “liveable” communities. It is important to understand that the kind of cities we are designing depend on different perspectives and the aim is not a super-model that would be a non-stop producer of working solutions for urban problems. Urban design is a continuous process, and decision-makers and spatial qualities; ideals and systems generation; and, above all, people themselves all play a role in it. If we wish to define something that could be called Baltic urbanism, it would be a pleasure to continue to highlight various options for creating new knowledge and for innovative networking of this knowledge, never seeking to set any particular format in stone.


Keiti Kljavin is urbanist and member of board at Linnalabor.

Kaija-Luisa Kurik is urbanist and PhD student at Manchester School of Architecture.


Let us Introduce: The Laboratory of Critical Urbanism

The Laboratory of Critical Urbanism (LCU, established 2011) at the European Humanities University, Vilnius, develops projects based on research into the changing meanings, organisation and everyday life of post-socialist cities, towns and rural spaces.

Why was your organisation created?

The Laboratory was founded as a research platform to accompany the master’s specialisation in Critical Urbanism at the European Humanities University (established in 2012).

What challenges have you faced in the course of your work and what have you achieved? 

The primary challenge is a problem of resources, both in terms of finances and personnel: there are more ideas and issues to work on than possibilities to realise them. It is also difficult to integrate the results of short-term group research projects into the longer time frames and relationships needed for urban development, and to the pressures of teaching cycles. These challenges are exacerbated by the Laboratory's spatial displacement: the Laboratory of Critical Urbanism is based at the European Humanities University, a Belarusian university in exile in Lithuania. The students at the university are almost exclusively from Belarus, while the members of the Laboratory are scattered between Berlin, Warsaw and Vilnius. While this makes a comparative element naturally a part of the Laboratory's work, it also makes the continuity of ongoing projects more complicated.

Another challenge is connecting academia and urban planning/politics/activism. The Laboratory is based in social science and humanities approaches to thinking about spaces, and we see a multi-disciplinary approach as a key to understanding the changes currently under way in cities. However this, in turn, creates challenges of how such work can be translated into projects that can be useful for cities, and into career paths that can be helpful for students. This issue overlaps with the challenge raised by the current tendency of urban themes themselves becoming trendy. City authorities attempt to find ways to encourage us to, for example, “Fall in love with Warsaw”, encouraging a measure of social participation, while at the same time limiting the field of possible political questions and occluding more awkward issues of social justice. Trying to develop ways to work at a time of a constraining socio-political framework is an issue that critical urbanism seeks to engage with.

The Laboratory has managed to establish Critical Urbanism as a lively part of EHU's activities and to produce master’s studies' graduates, a number of whom in continue to be active in the field, whether in professional, activist or academic terms. In collaboration with partners, especially in Vilnius, but also in other locations, the Laboratory has organised summer and winter schools, workshops, discussion groups and developed publications and projects for urban development.

Could you describe three projects that you are particularly proud of?

1. A book "Mapping Vilnius: Transformations of Post-Socialist Spaces"
At an international winter school in Vilnius in 2014, participants experimented with critical cartography as a methodology for researching two districts of the Lithuanian capital. The first district, Lazdynai, is a former prize-winning socialist modernist sleeping district now fallen into disfavour, while the second, Šnipiškės, is an area of pre-modern wooden housing directly adjacent to the skyscrapers of the new business and administrative centre of Vilnius. The idea of working in depth on these very different districts was to expand and question the monolithic understanding of what a post-socialist city is. The resulting mapping projects formed the heart of a book published in 2016 by Vilnius Art Academy Press that also included texts exploring a variety of issues emerging from reflections on mapping and post-socialist urban spaces.

2. Reprogramming of the Visaginas Public Library
In 2015-2016, a number of workshops and summer schools were held in the formerly mono-functional town of Visaginas in the northeast of Lithuania, built originally in 1970ies to house the workers of the nearby Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant. As a result of Lithuania's entry into the European Union, and following the Chernobyl accident, the Ignalina Power Plant is gradually being decommissioned, and the town's future is unclear and lot of people, especially youth, have decided to leave the town. As a result of the first summer school in Visaginas a book Mapping Visaginas: Sources of Urbanity in a Former-Monofunctional Town (Vilnius Art Academy Press: 2016) was published. The 2016 summer school developed a project for revitalising and reprogramming the Visaginas library. This combined the redesigning of the library building and developing a new concept for animating the currently underused 2nd and 3rd micro-rayons, with a programme for linking the library with other active groups and institutions in the town. This project is currently being discussed with the Visaginas city administration and various other actors in the town to find out how it would be possible to actually realise it.

3. Students’ Master’s Research Projects
The Laboratory of Critical Urbanism is tightly connected to the Master’s Specialisation in Critical Urbanism at the European Humanities University. The courses aim to involve students as co-researchers in exploring new cases and ideas. Thus, while the master’s projects of students at EHU are not, strictly speaking, the product of work by the Laboratory, they constitute a significant body of work that has grown out of the Laboratory's activities.

A number of master's projects have been written on themes related to Vilnius, on topics such as “Evolutions in Vilnius Urban Journals”, “Changes in Modes of the Organisation of the Night Club Economy in Vilnius”, “Implications of the Use of Four Square on the Tourist Experience of Vilnius” or “Gentrification and Inhabitants' Perceptions of Value in the District of Šnipiškės”. Other projects, meanwhile, have been developed about Minsk or other Belarusian cities, such as “A Comparative Study on Urban Activist Organisations in Lithuania and Belarus”, “Children's Play-areas in Molodechno” or “The Development of an Eco-Village in Belarus”. This research constitutes an interesting base that the Laboratory is seeking to develop further.

What does your organisation do that is unique in general or in your region?

LCU can be inscribed to be part of a growing interest in developing multi-disciplinary ways to work with cities that can be witnessed both globally and in the region. The LCU attempts to connect the research of particular local cases with analyses of wider structural conditions, in particular reflecting on the differences and similarities between urban change within the EU and urban change outside it.

How does your organisation function?

The organisation is connected to the European Humanities University. It thus benefits from but is also challenged by the institutional framework of the university in exile. The Laboratory relies largely on the extra-curricular enthusiasm of the lecturers connected with it, but, thanks to its ties with the university, it can also apply for support for research projects through international competitions.

How do you envision your future?

Early 2017 is a challenging time to be asking about the future! We have a summer school in Visaginas planned for this summer, where we will seek to further develop our work with partners in the town to further test the relation between academic research and developing ideas for future scenarios for Visaginas. In general, we would like to keep developing a network of contacts with other organisations working in the field in order to attempt to develop longer-term research projects.


Kaunas – Preserving, Redefining, Reviving Lithuania's Former Capital

When asked for their opinion on Lithuania’s second metropolis, residents of Vilnius not infrequently respond with a little rhyme: “Šūdas ne sviestas, Kaunas ne miestas” (“Shit is not butter, Kaunas is not a city”). This is not at all fair, but nonetheless Kaunas may indeed have reason to feel somewhat hard done by and neglected – it’s been made very clear a number of times that it is very much Lithuania’s second choice. After Lithuania lost control of their ancient capital of Vilnius to Poland in the extraordinary complicated three/four-way struggle for territory at the close of World War I, Kaunas, up to that point a ramshackle, strategically located garrison town set inside a ring of forts, became the de facto capital – although it was never referred to officially without the compulsory adjective “temporary”, lest the Lithuanian government give the impression that it had accepted what had gone on in Vilnius. Greatly expanded and gifted with boulevards of grand civic architecture to house the government buildings and embassies that this kinda-capital suddenly required, the next twenty years were Kaunas’s golden age – and its Art Deco and modernist heritage from this era means that it is still on many architects’ itineraries. But the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 saw Wilno renamed Vilnius and reassigned to Lithuania – or, rather, to the newly-created Lithuanian SSR; there has never been any question of Kaunas getting back its title.

Kaunas since has been seen as gritty, often rebellious, sometimes nationalistic – a mirror to the country’s pretty, indefinable capital. It was here that Lithuanian student Romas Kalanta burnt himself to death in 1972, putting the blame for his suicide on the regime and prompting some of the most intense anti-Soviet riots anywhere in the union that decade, and hundreds of arrests. In the wild ‘90s, it gained further attention – and notoriety – for its high crime rates and ruthless gangs – the Doctor’s Gang (Dakterai), the most feared and famed criminal organisation in Lithuania, were based here. Its proximity to the attractive, historic capital (a little under two hours away by train) has made comparisons inevitable, and some have not been favourable. Still, with almost 300,000 people, it’s easily the biggest city in the Baltic states that isn’t a capital, and it has the spirit, energy and imposing architecture to go with it. Being more than 90% Lithuanian – in contrast to multicultural Vilnius, where Poles, Russians and Belarusians each make up a very considerable chunk of the population – it’s also in many ways more useful in getting a quick shortcut into Lithuanian culture. As another, more affectionate rhyme about Kaunas, puts it “Vilnius yra rusų, Kaunas yra mūsų” (“Vilnius is Russian, Kaunas is ours”).

And now Kaunas seems to be on the up again, buzzing with new bars, clubs and creative projects, and increasingly embracing its strange history – a super-militarised fortress town, a reluctant capital, a sometimes dangerous but always compelling place.

We spoke to four people who are, in different ways, involved in Kaunas’s rebirth, whether preserving aspects of its history, getting people to look at it in a different way or promoting the city internationally. Ovidijus Jurkša (who is spearheading the regeneration of the Third and Fourth forts – once part of one of the largest complex of fortifications in Europe) and Richard Schofield (a British photographer who runs a project to preserve the city's Jewish heritage). Evelina Šimkutė (who runs a number of projects in the huge Soviet-era Šilainiai district ) and  Kotryna Lingienė (who edits the Kaunastic blog, part of an endeavour to promote the city within Lithuania and internationally).

Kaunas’s once formidable forts rise again

with Ovidijus Jurkša

Among the most unique features of Kaunas are the once formidable, now crumbling ring of forts that encompass the city. Nine in total, they were built in order to protect the western borders of the Russian Empire, between 1882 and 1915, turning Kaunas into the most militarised cities in all of Europe – one that was literally surrounded by barbed wire. Kaunas was of great military significance even before that – Napoleon’s doomed invasion of the Russian Empire began with his Grand Armée crossing the River Nemunas – but it was the construction of the forts that cemented the rough-and-ready reputation, which it still holds in certain circles in Lithuania. The forts eventually covered an area of 65 square km, ringing the city; as its commandant wrote at the time: “there is no city of Kaunas; there is only the Fortress of Kaunas”. Certain of the forts have subsequently attained notoriety – most obviously, the Ninth Fort, which was the scene of Nazi atrocities against local Jews during World War II; but in recent years most have been abandoned, left to decay and decompose. We spoke to Ovidijus Jurkša, a local man whose grandfather was involved in building the Third Fort. He has masterminded the slow revival of the Third and Fourth Forts on the southern fringes of the city, which is currently in progress, though still at an early stage. 

How did you first become involved with the forts? Can you tell us a bit about their history and what they were previously used for?

The renovation of the Third Fort started two and a half years ago when I became the elder of the district. The fort was overgrown by bushes and fallen trees and it was impossible to walk around there. I, together with my brother Andrius Jurška, decided to gather the local community and begin the tidying of the area with the intention of restoring the place for Saint Jonas' Festival (Joninės, celebrated on June 24th). We had a lot of places and things to take care of: getting rid of bushes and Sosnowsky's hogweed; we cut a lot of hawthorn. We fought back what nature had claimed for the purposes of the festival and at the same time we tried to clear the entrances to the buildings underground. From the start we were aware that we were not tending for just any site, but a very important one: the Third Fort is breathing with cultural and military heritage. This fort is also a theriological reserve – a place where bats live and are taken care of and should not be disturbed. We organised groups of local volunteers of all ages (even youth) and took great care of the place. I organised plans for the revival of the fort, with the help of local residents who were born and lived near the Third Fort.

While we were cutting down and getting rid of the wildlife which had consumed a lot of the fort, we saved and took care of all the valuable and culturally important plants and trees, like birches and oaks. We did that not only for spiritual reasons, but also so as not to anger the environmental protection organisations. The work bore fruit and in the summer we managed to organise the festival in there. Also our national festival Užgavėnės [Ash Wednesday, held on the seventh week before Easter] was held there later, and a lot of other events and festivals that are now coming to be a tradition.

What are the biggest challenges involved in working with the forts?

The biggest challenge at the third fort was fixing the fort itself – it was overgrown and run-down. No one had been taking care of it and it was full of trash. The ventilation and drainage systems were damaged. There were also a lot of different plants growing there, and this didn’t make our job any easier. They were lush, big and a lot of them had thorns that stung when they came into contact with skin. The drainage wells were completely covered with rocks and industrial waste. The area of the fort is very steep and hilly, with very deep holes and there are a lot of places where water gathers. In the summer it‘s really hot and humid in the defensive trenches. There were a lot of dangerous holes and spaces, which needed to be found and marked on the map.

We needed to make a restoration plan, which was a really hard job, because there was a lot of wildlife. The forts are a very important cultural heritage site, protected by the government. When you are taking care of such places, it’s really important not to damage key fragments of the culture and destroy the authenticity and save what is remaining. We don’t have a lot of archives and most of the documents about Kaunas’s defensive history and plans are in Moscow, and Russia and Lithuania are not on good terms. Getting to Russia is complicated, but we managed to get some of the documents. But with the help of locals and volunteers who gathered to help, we achieved great results. The forts started breathing and showing their true beauty to us. They are popular with locals and tourists all year round. We have started holding a lot of different events inside.

What do you hope for the future for the forts?

We believe that if we take care of the Kaunas stronghold sites, we could repurpose them and give them new life and they could serve the community’s needs. They could be visited not just by Lithuanians, but by tourists from other countries as well. Once we have taken care of the core buildings of Kaunas fortress, we could make a complex where in addition to the forts, there could be hospitals, sanctuaries, barracks, bridges, roads, railway and other infrastructure parts. A lot of different events could be held in those buildings: exhibitions, educational courses for children... We have high hopes and ambitions that our fortress will become a new tourist attraction and face for Kaunas.


Keeping the memory of Jewish Kaunas alive through photographs

with Richard Schofield

During the interwar period, more than a quarter of the population of Kaunas were Jewish, but now only a few remain – more than 95% of the city’s Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. In the modern city, only traces of this rich history can be found – abandoned synagogues and graveyards, the odd monument. The Kaunas-resident British photographer Richard Schofield recently started the International Centre for Litvak Photography, which collates images of Litvak (Lithuanian Jewish) life, after making an accidental discovery in a museum of over a hundred images of the same mysterious Kaunas family.

Can you talk me through what led you to set up the project?

I arrived in Lithuania in June 2001 as the newly appointed Editor-in-Chief of Vilnius In Your Pocket, an English language print guide to the city that supposedly prided itself on its independent editorial voice. In it was a two-page section called Jewish Vilnius, which, when I read it for the first time ― in particular the few lines about the Holocaust ― set off an alarm bell which I now know was triggered by what’s generally referred to as the “Lithuanian Narrative”. You can still see this at work in the guide’s sister publication in Riga, where the Holocaust is depicted as an event perpetrated by the occupying Nazis with no participation from the local population. I soon fixed this problem – I edited the original texts wherever necessary to make it clear that the perpetrators of the Holocaust in Lithuania were not only the Nazis but also there were willing Lithuanians involved – and I have been encountering and fighting this childish and damaging narrative ever since.

Having been nominated for awards for my work [including an award in the “Cultural Leap” category of a 2015 photography competition organised by the Lithuanian Jewish Community, and a nomination for the 2014 Sugihara Citizen of Tolerance Award] and after taking a Lithuanian to court for drinking in a bar in Kaunas dressed in a full Nazi officer’s uniform, I combined my humanitarian instincts and my professional training as a documentary photographer and set up the International Centre for Litvak Photography in May 2015.

What are things you're particularly proud of achieving?

Living in Lithuania for 15 years deserves a medal, although I’m not sure if this is something to be proud of. Pride is a sin after all, right? I guess I’m most pleased with the fact that I haven’t strangled anyone. I’m also obscenely happy with what we’ve achieved with our magnum opus, The Kaunas Requiem. The Kaunas Requiem is a wildly ambitious project with many tentacles, all of them connected to a 75-year-long piece of experimental music I commissioned last year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Kaunas Ghetto. The music, by the young Ukrainian composer Anton Dehtiarov, is in three movements. The first, six-day-long, movement, Overture, was performed live in September 2016 inside an abandoned synagogue in Kaunas. The second movement, Schtilkeit (the Yiddish word for silence), is a 1082-day-long section of silence. Listen hard and you can hear it inside your head. Really. It’s a long, diverse and beautiful thing that’s still got over 74 years to run.

The musical element has been really interesting so far, although the story of the photographs that inspired the project and the fact that with the help of a new generation of young Lithuanians we were able to return them to the family, is by far the most rewarding thing we’ve achieved.

Taking permanent possession of an abandoned building in the city is the next achievement we need to tick off the list. We’re currently involved in two separate negotiations concerning abandoned synagogues in the city and I hope to have some good news in the near future.

What is the impression that people in Kaunas have of the city's Jewish history? Are most people aware of it?

That’s a difficult one to answer. Let’s start with what the question actually means. In 1941 there were over 30,000 Lithuanian Jews living in Kaunas, a city whose total population numbered around 120,000. Today there are almost none. Although there are eight remaining synagogues (of which only one continues to be used as such), plus scores of other buildings and places built and used by the city’s former Jewish population, the contemporary ‘Litvak footprint’ is almost invisible. Buried in unmarked graves by the Nazis and their willing local collaborators between 1941 and 1944 and culturally erased from history by almost five decades of Soviet occupation, it’s not surprising that the impression and awareness you refer to is far from impressive. This is another reason why my organisation – which is fundamentally a memory project – exists. Come back and ask me in five years and I hope to have better news for you. It’s a very sad state of affairs, and in terms of city regeneration, the failure to recognise Kaunas’s diverse history is arguably one of the biggest problems we face at the moment. I’m not suggesting turning Kaunas into a Jewish theme park, but the local authorities really do have a huge humanitarian cash cow staring them in the face and continue to walk around with their eyes closed. 


Playground. Photo by Evelina Šimkutė

Rethinking a neglected sleeping district

with Evelina Šimkutė

Much like all other large cities in the Baltics, Kaunas was very different at the start of the Soviet occupation from at the end. Soviet planning moulded, reshaped and greatly expanded the city, and their parting legacy to the city was the sprawling residential district of Šilainiai. Constructed in the ‘80s on a hill remote from the city centre overlooking the River Neris, its towers provide a home for over 70,000 people. The district, like many Soviet-era projects elsewhere, is often dismissed and demonised by those who focus on its grey, frequently dilapidated appearance and impression of monotony and neglect. But for artist Evelina Šimkutė, who was born and grew up in Šilainiai and has recently returned to live there after more than a decade in London, it's an inspiration and a muse – and making the most of the creativity of the people who live there is her passion. As well as using the district in her artworks, Šimkutė organises photo walks and workshops for local people, and has recently started a residency programme, enabling artists from elsewhere to spend time working in Šilainiai.

Can you talk me through what led you to set up the project?

I grew up in Šilainiai and as an artist I have always been inspired by the site. I was documenting life in Šilainiai for eight years via photography and, whilst living in London, I also made series of sculptures, installations and videos about it. Each time I went back I saw changes and felt it was important to capture them. Nobody else was doing it.

So I started talking to the local residents. Senior residents were happy to share their eye-witness accounts of what the site was like before Šilainiai district was built, and those life-changing stories encouraged me to “dig deeper” – capture, archive, present, and start a conversation. Before the development of the panel-housing district in the '80s, Šilainiai was considered to be a countryside on the outskirts of Kaunas, with small villages and two large townhouses (Linkuvos and Sargėnų dvaras) with vineyards and beautiful gardens. Noblemen of the time used to spend their summers there.

I knew that if I didn‘t do something, very soon these stories would be lost. So I started running photography workshops in local schools and held public photo-walks in Šilainiai, where I met a lot of incredibly talented and driven young people. I learnt about the lack of encouragement and appreciation for their creativity, lack of platforms to share their work and ideas. Also, people who lived in Šilainiai for many years, expressed the wish for “somewhere to go locally”, and for accessible cultural activities in the area where they lived.

There are about 55,000 residents in Šilainiai, but no cultural centre. The library is the only non-commercial place to meet. As a result, this summer I set up a series of activities both in public space of Šilainiai and in the library: artist talks, screenings, performances, walks, exhibitions, poetry readings... Artists from different parts of the world came to live and work in Šilainiai. And so the project started.

What are things you're particularly proud in achieving?

I am particularly proud of the conversations that have been developed with the local community. Some extremely important themes have surfaced, starting with notions of home, emigration, value of creativity for self-identity. I hope to delve into them deeper next year. Also, I feel very humbled that the project has inspired creativity among the local community.

A series of brand new works – paintings, poetry and other texts have been created. And most importantly – I am very happy for the new connections made – between myself and local residents, as well as connections between different creative people in Šilainiai, Kaunas and nationwide. It is very special to observe new friendships or creative partnerships forming. 

What is the impression that people in Kaunas have of Šilainiai? How are you trying to change that (if you are)?

I guess people in Kaunas might see Šilainiai as a grey sleeping district with lots of shops where nothing much happens.

I am genuinely curious about the district: what was here before it was built? How did it look like? Who lived here? What was going on? Who lives here now? How is it changing? Why? What is happening now? What is not happening? Why? How can we use this site for creativity? What work does it inspire? And so on.

What can Kaunas offer that other cities in Lithuania (or elsewhere) can't?

Kaunas can be old-fashioned and progressive at the same time, there are a lot of clashes of ideas, styles and layers of history, it is a little bit quirky and raw and that’s what makes it unique. It is honest and real. It is surprising for those, who take time to know it. It takes time to know it. It is grey and green. This constant state of flux, the vibrancy and the urgency makes it inspiring.

I get a sense that Kaunas is reviving after a long period of being in Vilnius's shadow. Would you agree with this?

I do remember having to constantly travel to Vilnius to see movies or exhibitions and it did seem that the cultural investments were made into the capital “by default”. Young people wanted to move there to study, work and live. But the situation has changed dramatically in the past ten years. There are a lot of progressive, innovative and creative people living in Kaunas who know the town inside out, who are embracing and reviving it. It is very exciting to be in Kaunas right now.

Kaunastic Kaunas

with Kotryna Lingiene & Kęstutis Lingys

Kaunas's image within Lithuania has, at times, left a lot to be desired – dirty, dangerous, grim, grey. Internationally, it's faced a different problem, summed up most obviously by the word “where?”. But in recent years, the city has attempted to reinvent itself as a tourist destination, stressing its creativity, unpredictability and unique and often bizarre history. Kaunas-born Kotryna Lingienė and her husband Kęstutis have made it their goal to popularise a new word to describe the city – they run the Kaunastic blog, which now appears on the official Visit Kaunas website. Updated every couple of days, the blog entries try to make visitors aware of everything that's going on in the city, as well as frequently unearthing bits of history from the city's turbulent and strange few centuries of existence – anything that shows just why the city is so “Kaunastic”. Recent posts have introduced readers to the characterful, imaginative advertising of interwar Lithuania, the sites of embassies once located in temporary capital Kaunas and posed the culinary question “is Baltic the new Nordic?” 

Can you outline how you first got involved in the project? 

Like many great things in life, this was also a pure coincident. While strolling down Laisvės alėja on a November night in 2015, Kęstutis and I misread the sign of Kaunas Tourism Information Centre (Kaunas TIC) as kaunastic, and that rhymed with purely fantastic. Some time later we met an illustrator who had already done some things on Kaunas and wanted to work together on a map. We pitched the Kaunastic – the mix of marvel, discovery, nostalgia, spontaneity and audacity – idea to the tourism office in the municipality and they gave us the green light. The map turned out really nice so we pitched an idea for a blog. We’ve now published three maps (the main one, a Japanese version dedicated to the legacy of Chiune Sugihara, and a Christmas version) and the blog has been running for six months. Next up are a foodie map and a map dedicated to the pre-Christian heritage. It’s all very interesting for us in the first place, and we hope the facts and stories we find will be interesting for others, too.  

What have been the biggest challenges you have faced with the project? 

It’s very important not to offend anyone and not to miss out on important things or facts. Kaunas and Lithuania in general has a pretty diverse history (the role of the country in Holocaust, for example), so empathy is the key. We believe we’re still learning. We don’t want to get too cliche and touristy as well – like, we could totally only post aerial pictures of the Old Town and snapshots of people relaxing in cafes, but that’s what everyone else does too, isn’t it so? Defining what kaunastic actually is – this is an everyday challenge.  

What achievement related to the project are you proudest of? 

The green light from the municipality, most probably – it’d be nice to be independent, but it’s awesome to be able to publish the map in quality and distribute thousands of copies. It’s also always very pleasing to see the hashtag #kaunastic being used on Instagram – especially by foreigners. Maybe we really have created a new word! 

You feature quite a lot of historical articles on the Kaunastic blog – do you think the city's unusual history gives it a different character? 

Absolutely. For 50 years during the Soviet occupation Kaunas was shaped to be an industrial city with leisure and culture served up on a plate by the government and the past carefully locked away. There’s a lot to learn for everyone including people born in Kaunas. The interwar period is fascinating because a lot of layers are still uncovered. Jazz, architecture, diplomacy, food – you name it! 

Editor’s note: KAUNAS ART DECO: REMINDERS OF LITHUANIA'S MODERNIST INTERWAR CAPITAL. For more about what Kaunas can offer to international visitors, this Deep Baltic article from George East about Kaunas's unique interwar Art Deco architecture combines an account of the city's history with some moody black-and-white photos.


Will Mawhood is the editor of Deep Baltic.


On the Possibility of Good Life in a Shrinking Border Town


Population decline

Estonia and Latvia are among the EU countries whose population is decreasing due to migration and low birth rates (see Figure 1). The general speed of population decrease in Estonia is comparable to other Eastern European countries; however, the decline is somewhat slower compared to the other Baltic states. It is important to acknowledge that the rate of population decline varies greatly according to region (see Figure 2). In addition to the effects of international migration, a more important role is played by domestic migration in areas where the decline is faster; people are moving to bigger cities (Tallinn, Tartu, Pärnu) and from there to neighboring municipalities. These donut parishes are one of the few types of Estonian regions to have growing populations. Communities in other regions are losing population at a varying pace, depending on their size and location. Smaller communities that are further away from Tallinn are likely to shrink more quickly than the average. Latvia is experiencing similar population processes (urbanisation, urban sprawl and decline), but the changes are somewhat quicker.

Valga is located 267 kilometres from Tallinn and with its 12,500 residents constitutes a medium-sized city for Estonia (placed 12th out of a total of 47 cites). Valka with its 4,850 people is the 32rd biggest city in Latvia out of 76 and is 159 kilometres from Riga. How do the processes described above affect Valga-Valka? The population of Valga declined roughly by 12% and the population of Valka by 19% between the last two censuses in 2000 and 2011. These indicators are not significantly different from those of other cities in the region (Põlva -11%, Võru -15%, Viljandi -16%). If current population trends continue, Statistics Estonia predicts that by 2040, Valga will have around 9,000 inhabitants – and even with that outlook, Valga’s fate is comparable to other Estonian cities in the region.

However, Valga’s situation is distinctly different. There are many abandoned and underused buildings in the city, and real estate prices are among the lowest in Estonia. Historically, Valga has undergone two periods of rapid growth and during other periods, the city's population declined. The first period of growth was in the last decade of the nineteenth and the first decade of the twentieth century; whereas in 1881, the city’s population was 4,200 people (at this time, the city was called Walk), by 1913 it had ballooned to 16,000. This growth was the result of the city joining the railway network and the concomitant growth of industry.

The second period of growth was in the 1960s and 1970s. Estonia and Latvia had been incorporated into the Soviet Union and the entire Soviet market was open to both. As well as this, the border between Valga and Valka that had split the city in two after Estonia and Latvia gained independence in 19201 had disappeared again. The twin cities became an important industrial hub and a military base again. Both sectors had a tangible effect on population growth: whereas in 1959, the populations of Valga and Valka were 13,354 and 4,872 respectively, by 1979 they were 18,474 and 8,023.

After Estonia and Latvia regained their independence in the early 1990s, the 1920 1. According to the 1922 census, the population of Valka (the Latvian part of the city) was 2,964 and two years later, the population of Valga (the Estonian part) was 9,455. border was restored and the city was again split into two separate urban centres; the larger section became part of Estonia and the smaller one part of Latvia. This was also a period when exports to Russia took a dive. However, in 2007, both countries joined the Schengen area and border barriers were once again removed from the city.

The first period of growth is represented in the city today by two-storey wooden apartment buildings, the second period by four and five-storey brick or panelled buildings.

The restoration of independence and the events of the early 1990s also resulted in the removal of Soviet troops and the demise of industries that relied on the Soviet market. As a result, the population of the Estonian part of the city fell by 3,150 people during the period from 1989 to 2000. The loss of these people is the reason why Valga’s situation is more complicated compared to other small towns in southern Estonia.

The consequences of decline

The size and number of residential buildings, shops, public buildings and streets in Valga still corresponds to the needs of 18,500 inhabitants, however, the actual size of the population is now smaller than this by a third. Out of all the useable plots in Valga (plots that are developed or have been deemed to be developed according to the city’s masterplan), only 80% are in use. Since the area of brownfields and unused plots is larger than the average for Estonia, only 72% of useable plots are currently in use. This clearly indicates that a city that has lost a third of its population cannot find active use for a third of its territory.

This problem is most urgently felt in the occupancy rate of apartment buildings. Out of a total of 379 apartment buildings of Valga, 45 are deserted and 34 of them are less than half-occupied. The abandoned and underused buildings are usually from the first period of growth – two-storied wooden houses that are often without central heating, bathrooms or sanitation. The panel houses built during the second period of growth have more occupants, because after the Soviet troops left in the early 1990s, many apartments were left empty and people moved in droves from old wooden houses to these newer flats with amenities. Wooden apartment buildings are located all over Valga, but the largest concentration is in the city centre, in the heritage conservation area. Only 64% of plots located in the heritage area are in use, and when it comes to buildings under heritage protection, the number is even fewer – 53%.

A negative demographic change is always accompanied by the same phenomenon – a decline in economic activity and the concomitant deterioration of the living environment. A large share of unused residential and business properties results in a fall in real estate prices. In 2015, the average price of a flat was less than 100 euros per square metre. A low price prevents owners from selling their properties, since renovation is not lucrative and new apartment buildings are not being built. The result is the domination of low-quality living premises, and in the case of wooden houses, the conditions can become critical. If the number of empty flats reaches a certain level in a building, the rest of the inhabitants also move out if possible. This leaves owners with the lowest income who cannot maintain the building and continue to live there even after it has become uninhabitable.

In addition to the spatial consequences of these economic and social processes, the psychological consequences of a changed environment are also significant. The greatest capital of a city is always its residents. The psychological link between the people and their place of residence has a significant effect on their activity in their communities and an unattractive environment impinges on that relationship. A city centre full of deserted and underused buildings has an adverse effect on the attitude of residents towards their home; they may lose pride in their city and this in turn leads to a lack of initiative to improve their city. This results in a meagre number of small enterprises – no new cafés, hairdressers, small shops.

Adapting to population decline

Most of the factors influencing the movement of people lie outside Valga and these cannot be changed at a local level. When planning for Valga’s future, one has to learn how to adapt to the effects of population decline, and this means accepting the phenomenon of decline. In the context of Valga, this means giving up hope that the population will once again reach the level of 25 years ago. Understandably, this is difficult on a personal level; many residents still remember the Valga of 30 years ago when it was difficult to find a flat, there were plenty of jobs available and cultural life was flourishing. Thus it must be hard to admit that everything has changed now and there is little hope for improvement in the near future. It is easy to become bitter and this does not help with adapting to the new situation. Accepting decline is the sticking point for many communities with a similar fate. However, when it comes to Valga, it seems that the city government has at least noticed and accepted the problem.

Valga city authorities have come up with a strategy for the shrinking city, attempting to adapt it to the needs and expectations of its current 12,500 residents. This can be achieved by increasing the attractiveness of the urban space and the amount of greenery, and paying attention to the needs of the ageing population. The city must become smaller and more compact. Some buildings need to be demolished, some plots need to be converted into green spaces or returned to nature; the city centre must be revitalised. Only the happiness of current residents can stop the decline of the city’s population. People who believe in the city’s future are more active and more likely to create jobs for themselves and others.

The city's actions

There is no easy solution to the problems that a decreasing population entails; decline is a multi-faceted process and adapting to it requires actions on several issues. In Valga, the following necessary activities emerged:

Firstly, the basic document of the city’s spatial development had to be revisited; the masterplan. The plan currently in force was approved in 2007, i.e. the period of an economic boom – it details new residential and industrial districts to be built in the fields and forest areas on the city’s outskirts. Developers often prefer building on fields because the plots usually have a more uncomplicated structure of ownership, construction does not entail the expenses of demolishing existing buildings and infrastructure and potential contamination is not a concern. Unfortunately, some public institutions also often behave in the same manner. For example, the largest investment in Valga in recent years was made by the Ministry of Education in order to build the campus of the Valga Vocational Training Centre. The state owned a greenfield site at the edge of the city; by Valga’s current masterplan it was possible to build there and in 2011, two modern buildings were completed: the school and the student dormitories. The complex meets all the day-to-day needs of the students and they have no need to go to the city centre. The buildings previously occupied by the training centre at the heart of the city were left empty and are falling apart. In the spring of 2016, the Valga City Council initiated the writing of the Valga Masterplan 2030+ and approved the founding principles of the plan. The aims of the plan are described in the following terms:

Taking into account the declining population, the Valga masterplan currently in development aims to adapt the Valga urban space to turn it into a compact, high-quality, finely functioning and economical living and economic environment, with an emphasis on reinvigorating the city centre, updating residential buildings and reusing business and production areas. Urban planning must also prioritise entrepreneurship and individual initiatives, take care of the needs of an aging population and direct the development of the city towards densifying and concentrating the city.

The plan is being developed with the Association of Estonian Planners and it is currently the only masterplan in Estonia that aims to adapt to decline.

Abandoned buildings
As a preliminary step before the writing of the masterplan, the Valga City Government conducted a survey in the autumn of 2016, asking the residents of the city centre for their opinion on the present and the future of the city centre. According to the survey, the most pressing reason for moving away is the disintegration of buildings – that is, for residents, the empty buildings stick out like a sore thumb. The abandoned and underused buildings symbolise the general degeneration of the city and have a negative effect on the city’s image.

In the past year, three of the ugliest abandoned buildings have disappeared from Valga and more empty buildings are being demolished. Residents have generally responded well to the demolition works and these activities have been covered in the local newspaper in a positive way (Valgamaalane editorial, “It Is Not Only About Beauty”, 10 September, 2015). The demolished buildings have been replaced by low-cost temporary public green areas.

Residents would even welcome more rapid demolition works, however, this is delayed by the complicated ownership relations of the abandoned buildings. The buildings are privately owned and often co-owned, and in the case of apartment buildings, there may even be dozens of owners. The property is often mortgaged; part of an insolvent estate, or the owners may live abroad. All this requires time-consuming and complicated negotiations.

Depending on the circumstances, the city government offers one of the following options to owners of abandoned real estate:

• The owner gifts the plot with the building to the city. Many owners of buildings that have been empty for extended periods are no longer interested in their property because its worth is negligible or negative. They are also often burdened with property tax and city directives on the technical conditions of the building. For example, in the winter of 2014, the city demolished the building of a former shop on Vahtra Street that had been gifted to the city.

• The city government makes a bilateral agreement with the owner of the building. The owner transfers the building rights of the plot to the city government for 10-15 years and the city demolishes the existing buildings, covering all relevant costs, creates low-cost open green areas or temporary structures. During this period, the city maintains the plot and exempts the owner from property tax. At the end of the period, the owner can decide if he or she wants to use the plot or extend the agreement. For example, in the summer of 2015, the city demolished the former dormitory for railway workers on Pikk Street as a result of the building rights being transferred.

• Flat owners living in under-occupied apartment buildings (i.e., where more than half of the flats are empty) are offered a chance to exchange their flat for another of similar worth, located in a building with a better outlook. People living in buildings where only a few flats are still inhabited are happy to take the city government up on this offer. In 2016, a dozen such exchanges took place.

• If the owner is currently not living in that building, the city generally does not offer an exchange. Instead, the city draws up a technical expert assessment, which declares the building unserviceable, takes away the right of use, and commissions an expert assessment of the building. Usually the value of the flat in a building without a right of use is nearly non-existent, and the value of the plot does not exceed the costs of demolition – thus, the value of the property as a whole is negative. In that case, the owner of the flat is left with two choices; to gift the flat to the city or to pay a proportional share of the demolition costs. In the latter case, the owner would remain a co-owner of the plot. In 2016, Valga authorities took away the right of use from three apartment buildings.

• In special cases, the city buys the property from the owner at market price, which is not high for buildings set for demolition. This option is usually employed for real estate that is part of an insolvent estate, because current laws do not allow the bailiff to give away property for free. In 2015, the city used this method to demolish a former apartment building on Haru Street, and in 2016, the city bought a monument on Riia Street that was encumbered with heritage conservation regulations (a former municipal building from the 18th century).

However, not all abandoned buildings should be demolished. The entirety of central Valga is a protected heritage site and it is complicated for demolition works to take place there. Also, abandoned buildings in other parts of the city are often of significant historic and architectural value and important elements of the urban landscape. In order to save at least some of these buildings from complete ruin, new uses must be found for them, which is more difficult than demolition. Unfortunately, revitalising them remains a distant dream in the context of a shrinking Valga – it does not pay for the private sector to invest in municipally owned real estate, which leads to a situation where there are no high-quality rental flats on the market, even though there is no lack of demand. Both public institutions (the city government, the hospital, schools etc.) and entrepreneurs have been complaining for a while now that there is a lack of specialised labour. However, it is difficult to attract specialists to Valga because there are no high-quality living spaces on offer. In order to alleviate this problem that is hindering the city’s development, the public sector – i.e. the local government with the help of the state – must interfere at least temporarily with the free market. Creating city-owned rental flats would help transform the sad fate of several of these abandoned buildings.

The cultural sector and the activism of citizens in general also carry great potential for revitalisation of buildings. This applies to both short and long-term use. Activities that are well known from larger cities, such as pop-up galleries, cafés, workshops and community gardens slow down the deterioration of the technical conditions of buildings and keep them active in the mind map of residents. All these activities are based on the activism and initiative of people; sadly, however, one of the consequences of decline is passivity. Thus, every dedicated person with a spark in their eyes is a great asset to the city. And keeping or attracting these people is essential for the development of the city.

Public Space
The majority of the abandoned and underused houses that bother the locals are privately owned. The city (with the help of the state or EU funds) cannot directly invest in them; however, the city does own the areas between these buildings – public space. If the surrounding environment is improved, the value of these buildings also increases, which in turn allows the owners to sell them at a higher price (meaning that new owners with new ideas and initiatives may arrive) or invest in them.

The quality of public space in the city centre is important for locals too. The chance to walk around in an attractive city centre with guests or business partners, to sit in a café or visit galleries is important not just for guests but, above all, for locals. It increases one’s pride in one’s home city and bolsters hope in the future. Despite requiring a lot of resources, investing in urban space with its straightforwardly positive agenda is one of the easiest ways to improve the development of a city in decline.

Two large projects are currently underway in central Valga. An architectural competition for redesigning the central square of Valga has been held, in co-operation with the Estonian Association of Architects and its project Good Public Space, aiming to reinvigorate the old town. The task of the competition was to create a new cosy square in the underused public area between the three oldest streets of Valga (Riia, Raja and Sepa Streets), where people could sit at outdoor cafés in the summer, go to the market during the warmer seasons, enjoy culture and admire the Christmas tree in the winter. The competition was won by Italian architects Franchi+associati (see Figure 3). The design process is almost finished, the application for EU funds has been approved and the square should be completed by this autumn.


The spring of 2016 also saw an architectural competition for joining together the urban space of Valga and Valka. The competition was organised by the city governments of Valga and Valka with the Estonian Association of Architects and the Latvian Association of Architects. Both local governments were looking for ways to unite a city that was cut in half decades ago – above all, through spatial design, because the physical barrier is no longer there. The winner was the Spanish firm Safont Tria Architectes (see Figure 4). Their work built on the architectural design of the winning entry of the city centre competition. The winning entry, entitled “Cross-Border Strands” envisions a pedestrian street being built between the Jaani Church in Valga and the Lugažu Church in central Valka, linking the new main square of Valga with the biggest square in Valka. An application for funds has been submitted to the Estonia-Latvia Programme of the European Regional Development Fund. If everything goes according to plan, by 2018 you will be able to visit a market in Valga-Valka where some of the stalls are located in Latvia and others in Estonia and where the regulations of two different countries apply to goods, although at first glance this will perhaps be invisible to the buyer.


The Estonian population is becoming urbanised at a rapid pace – we are becoming a city state in a way. This process is mainly spurred by economic considerations; concentrating people in one location is more efficient in every way.

Tallinn is in direct competition with other urban areas in the region (Helsinki, Stockholm, Riga, Vilnius, Kaunas) and thus, the development of the capital is vital for Estonia. The private sector understood this long ago. Banks operating in Estonia mostly give out loans for developing Tallinn and Tartu regions, 89% of all new apartment buildings that were granted the right of use are located in Harju and Tartu counties.

If we want there to be life outside the Tallinn and Tartu areas in the long run, Estonian society as a whole must make an effort. We must accept decline as a population process and understand its causes and consequences. We should begin with defining the regions that are declining and then come up with various methods for developing them. In declining regions, the public sector must at least temporarily take over some of the tasks usually performed by the private sector. This requires active local people and helpful partners in the capital.


Jiri Tintera is a trained architect and the City Architect of Valga. He holds a Master’s Degree from the Czech Technical University in Prague, specialising in Building and Architectural Engineering (2007). He is a PhD student at the Tallinn University of Technology and his research interest is declining cities and brownfields.

The Baltic Atlas Project

Infrastructure unplugged

In the years leading up to the millennium it was feared that a computer bug could create global technological chaos on an enormous scale following the breakdown of computers in every sector from banking to medicine to military controls. In February 1999, the International Y2K Cooperation Center (IY2KCC) was created under the auspices of the United Nations with funding from the World Bank to promote increased strategic cooperation and action among governments, peoples and the private sector to minimize the adverse effects of the Millennium Bug on the global society and economy. In Bulgaria, such a regional center was created especially to monitor the countries in central and eastern Europe and in central Asia. Particular precautions were taken to ensure the functioning of nuclear power plants, both in the East and the West, as they depend on external events and interfaces with electrical power systems, telecommunication systems, and other supporting infrastructures.

Preparations were underway across the world: an estimated $400-600 billion was invested to fight a potential error that occurred in digital documentation and data storage systems when a four-digit number was reduced to two digits, due to the fact that when computers were built in the 1960s, years such as 1998 were denoted as 98 to save memory. 1. Evan, William M.; Manion, Mark 2002. Minding the Machines: Preventing Technological Disasters. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall PTR, p 77.

2.CNN 1997. Reference in: Fava, Sergio 2013. Environmental Apocalypse in Science and Art: Designing Nightmares. London: Routledge, p 61.
Warnings about what would happen if computer programs represented the year 2000 as 1900 or 19100 steered apocalyptic technophobia and end-of-the-world prophecies. Even the United States Deputy Secretary of Defense, John Hamre, in 1999 described the Y2K problem as “the electronic equivalent of the El Niño and [that] there will be nasty surprises around the globe.”2

Scientists tried to update these data structures in good time. It was a manageable task for programmers, but precautions were still taken. On the day of the transition, seaports were locked, planes were grounded, ATM machines were closed, surgeries postponed, rollercoasters in fun parks remained stationary, the monitoring systems of nuclear power plants were closely supervised and nuclear missiles were taken off “hair-trigger alert”. To prevent a worst-case scenario, scientists, politicians and policy-makers managed to switch off an enormous global digital infrastructure network. Even if only for a few hours and not completely, the wires and nodes that held global digitized networks together were tied up. The united efforts to tackle the threat from automated machines and robots that were conceived at a time when the year 2000 seemed like a utopian dream, presented a remarkable episode that still offers spatial activists and environmentalists assurance that it is possible to challenge the immanent destruction within pervasive global data systems.

As such, the “power cut” was also a moment of record-taking. The International Atomic Energy Agency was overseeing 425 nuclear power plants that were in operation in 31 countries worldwide advising on intensive diagnostic and corrective activities that had to be conducted to “find and fix” their Y2K software and equipment problems, supplemented by contingency plans. The bug suddenly managed to create a universal enemy – an imagination that embraced the vulnerability of the entire world, connecting the ecological and the digital, bytes and atmosphere. The episode corresponded to a previous moment, just 28 years earlier, in which a photograph of the Earth – catalogue number AS17-148-22727 – was captured by NASA’s Apollo 17 crew on December 7, 1972. Laura Kurgan writes about the public impression of the first image of Blue Marble:

“The 1972 photograph, no doubt because it both offered the viewer the whole Earth and seemed to remove any viewer from the picture, became perhaps even more of an icon, not only of totality and unity but likewise singularity and freestanding vulnerability.”3 3. Kurgan, Laura 2014. Close Up at a Distance: Mapping Technology, and Politics. New York: Zone Books, p 10.

In its own way, it combined the digital image with analog Earth.

In 2016, 438 electric nuclear generators were in operation worldwide and 67 new nuclear plants were under construction in fifteen countries. A network of potential disaster hubs spans the globe; they exist among us, though usually out of sight. The enormous power they are able to generate feeds a huge energy network that sets in motion both a material and immaterial infrastructure. Data flows entangle humans and nature into an informational complex. Nature has already lost its “wildness” and “inviolacy”, it has become man-made, while human decision making is being replaced by faster, more reliable and efficient semi and fully autonomous robots and machines that manage and negotiate data, which in turn, shapes contemporary global infrastructures. Information flows of a financial, legal or military nature congeal into a wide array of strange “spatial products”, extraterritorial “zones” and building nodes. Keller Easterling describes this “infrastructure space” as itself a medium of information: “The information resides in invisible, powerful activities that determine how objects and content are organized and circulated. Infrastructure space, with the power and currency of software, is an operating system for shaping the city.”4   4. Easterling, Keller 2014. Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space. New York: Verso, p 13. Today, every bit of landscape has to be suspected of being in some ways under the control of a machine. Connected through the ground, the air, through wires, radiation, fluids or dust particles, infrastructural systems, technologies and natural world intersect in an aggressive and destructive way.

The London-based photographers David Grandorge and Jonathan Lovekin set out for Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia to research a region – the Baltics – that since the political upheavals of 1989 has undergone far-reaching transformations during which the region gained renewed significance and new cultural allies. Their photographs document a critical understanding of material processes and fossils, derived from a complex dynamic infrastructure of industries, transport logics, urban waste and demand.

The Baltics are historically shaped by a multiplicity of actors and a plurality of spaces that do not necessarily overlap. Researching and identifying their boundaries and meanings requires exploratory methods and alertness to almost imperceptible symptoms. To be clear, these photographers are not the type of people who mean to “capture” a site. In addition, they are not necessarily thrilled by current photographic tropes, such as images of decay from the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe. They don’t read their objects and landscapes as a return to a world that “in the West has already long gone and here is still fully intact” – a connotation for which color photography can at points be misunderstood. Buildings decorated with propaganda paraphernalia, housing estates with prefabricated panels typical of 1970s and 1980s planning in socialist countries, factories, industrial sites and sublime scenes of enormous man-made mountains where excavated materials are piled up– for Grandorge and Lovekin these do not represent the sites of past infrastructures unplugged from power. They are not taking us back into the future of the past, into a nostalgic – that is, wrongly remembered – utopia. Rather, the cables and wires of the objects and infrastructures in their photographs are alive – still hot, still connected to the power circle, and still longing to be reinstated. Their gloomy vampirism only seems to hide the autism of animated matter.

The photographers ask for universal measures to be taken for understanding these manufactured landscapes by means of revealing the very objects within the infrastructure, as the nodes and hubs in which data and energy flows are produced, exchanged and distributed. As such, the photographic series in which they are investigated and documented represent pieces of an enormous puzzle, a map – or an atlas of sorts that offers the type of architecture that can represent the complex regional formation of the Baltics, in which political, linguistic, ethnic, religious, economic, and social boundaries overlap.55. See Editor's note below. This map also seeks to open up the Baltic countries beyond the touristic representation of the region through healthy forests, lakes and freshly renovated historical city centers such as those in Vilnius with its colorful baroque buildings and Catholic churches.

In Paris, in the late 1920s, Fernand Braudel was researching his doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne. The topic – Philip II, Spain, and the Mediterranean in the Sixteenth Century – was planned to cover the king’s lifetime between 1527 and 1598 and his reign over an empire that included territories on every continent known to Europeans.6   6. Eric R. Dursteler and Fernand Braudel (1902-1985), In: Philip Daileader, Philip Whalen (eds) 2010. French Historians 1900-2000: New Historical Writing in Twentieth-Century France. London: Wiley-Blackwell, p 65.

7. Braudel, Fernand 2001 (1998). Memory and the Mediterranen. New York: Vintage Books.
For his study, Braudel visited archives in Spain, Italy and Yugoslavia, where he recorded thousands of archived documents on film rolls (he is often described as the inventor of microfilm) which he, along with his wife, and a team of assistants, later studied and filed until the late 1940s. In 1935, he accepted an offer to teach at the newly established university in Sao Paolo, Brazil, a chance to break away from French academic life. He later claimed that it was in Brazil that he became intelligent.7 His work was interrupted while teaching in Brazil, and in 1940 he was drafted to fight in the French army. His service ended in Prisoner of War camps in Germany – first in Mainz and after 1942 in Lübeck – from which he was only released in 1945. Apparently in the POW camp in Mainz he was able to do some research in a library, and in Lübeck even managed to write the first draft of his manuscript about the Mediterranean into exercise books while imprisoned with twenty prisoners in a small room. Based on those notes and having memorized his previous research, he was able to immediately continue his writing after the war. However, in all likelihood, his experience of the war and the distance from his homeland of France caused him to see the Mediterranean from different geographical angles and shift the focus of his research, renaming his work The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. When the book was published in 1949, it was no longer about the narrow national context of Spain and the tight temporal constraints of the seventy-year lifespan of the ruler; rather, it offered a panoramic reflection on the Mediterranean Sea, which Braudel understood as a “vast, complex expanse” that included the surrounding mountains, plains and deserts, and on the impact that geology has on cultures connected by the sea. To grasp the connections and repeating patterns between culture and cultural possessions, Braudel argues, the study of world history must be total: “One can say, for example, that a civilization (or a culture) is the sum total of its cultural assets, that its geographical area is its cultural domain, that its history is cultural history, and that what one civilization transmits to another is a cultural legacy or a case of cultural borrowing whether material or intellectual.” 8. Braudel, Fernand 1995 (1993). A History of Civilizations. London: Penguin Books, p 8. To capture this totality as a history he introduced a structure of three timespans: the longue durées, which described slow and imperceptible changes to climate and environment; the shorter durations of empires, civilizations and social groupings, which the former was compared to; and a third category of timespans, that of people, events and political upheavals that pierced and disturbed the others. In fact, he considers the actors and revolutionaries belonging to that last histoire événementielle as too weak and insignificant – or perhaps simply too short – to be relevant in his totalizing vision of history..

At the center of his theory are objects, statistics, and all sorts of details about the everyday that provide evidence of a certain persistence of conservative habits under the surface of the kind of transformations that conventionally attract the historian’s attention. Although a Marxist, he is less interested in the historical materialism that illustrates class struggle; rather, he hopes to undo the rules and inner logic that seem to keep the world system stable. His universal reading of history does not need biographies and monographs to reveal the larger configurations that hold world history together. Certainly, he does not reject the research on people, but he does reject the attempts of historians to focus on characters in depth without seeing the larger continuities in time and their relations with other disciplines.

In his recent book The Baltic: A History, Michael North embarked on a history of the entire Baltic Sea region from the ninth century to the present day. In the opening pages, he notes that Baltic studies lacked an interdisciplinary approach of the sort that Fernand Braudel had pioneered for the Mediterranean. Certainly, the interest in writing the cultural history of regions such as the Baltic or the Balkans also has to be understood as a historiographical project that aims to take an emancipatory stand against the logic of the expansion of the European Union – or that of the Russian Federation, which threatens to revert to some of the power politics and borders of the Soviet Union. (Vladimir Putin’s dive in the Black Sea in August 2015 – a well-mediatized mini-submarine expedition to an ancient Russian shipwreck – marked out very clearly national interests and claims of ownership over that part of the territory.) However, North rejects the idea of a history of the Baltic à la Braudel “because it would presuppose an all-powerful nature that ineluctably determined the physical setting in which the peoples around the Baltic Sea lived their lives. But there is no such thing as a single Baltic. Rather there are many Baltics, which, from Adam of Bremen to Björn Engholm and the Baltic Sea strategy of the EU, have been constantly reinvented and reconstituted by trade and cultures and by the merchants and artists who have embodied these historical trends.”9 9. North, Michael 2015. 8. The Baltic: A History. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, p 2.

Michael North captures the history of the Baltic in a fascinating study of the various political regimes and ideologies that formed today’s Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, in relation to the history of Poland and the former Soviet Union – of which they were part at different periods – and today in relation to the Russian Federation. With similar intentions, albeit using very different aesthetic means and methods, Grandorge and Lovekin embark on a reading of the cultural history of the Baltic – not as a regional survey, or as specific characterization of national differences, but on the contrary, as a study of objects and spatial settings that have become the nodal points of an infrastructural network that crosses both temporal and geographical borders. While rarely pointing their camera towards the waters of the Baltic Sea itself, they detect what North called “an all-powerful nature that ineluctably determines the physical setting in which the peoples around the Baltic Sea lived their lives.”

The photographic series that Grandorge and Lovekin titled Ground, in its very crafting and composition, refers to schools such as the one started by the photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher in the 1970 and 1980s, and to seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painters. Both saw their motives analytically, documenting architectures and landscapes from ground level or from an only slightly heightened perspective at eye-level. But Ground is also a cartographic project of sorts, one which points out transport arteries such as train tracks, roads, pipelines, high voltage transmission lines, or the cable conduits and freight corridors that make the Baltic a trans-national and trans-border entity.

The series of images of Ignalina, the location of the only nuclear power plant in Lithuania – shut down in 2009 with the support of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) as part of the EU Baltic Strategy Program – shows an industrial site that still seems able to operate. The switches and diagrams showing the flow chart of the energy production process of the two reactors and the danger zones in the building, and the emergency procedure notices, would appear only to require only a dusting off before going back into production. The danger of switching on a new nuclear power station in Visaginas, was reverted by a public referendum in 2009, which effectively endorsed a nuclear phase-out in Lithuania and the Baltic region. Following the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, which had similarities in reactor design to the Ignalina nuclear power plant, a robust anti-nuclear national mobilization stopped the construction of a third reactor and eventually influenced the process of decommission.10 10. Hindmarsh, Richard A.; Priestley, Rebecca (eds.) 2016. The Fukushima Effect: A New Geopolitical Terrain. London: Routledge, lk 134.

In addition, the images of the railway tracks document a new pan-Baltic project that is largely supported by the European Union. The new Rail Baltica project, planned to start in 2020, will expand the existing railway system to link the Baltic States with Poland and Finland, and eventually, Central Europe. This railway project will help to shift heavy freight transport in the region from motorways to rail and will expand the logistics of cargo services. But the expansion of the new railway network also includes some technical problems that might have political implications. Because of the different development of railway networks in nineteenth-century Europe and in the Russian Empire, and later in the former Soviet Union, including the Caucasian and Central Asian republics, trains run on different gauges from the Finnish border all the way to Mongolia and China. The hard-earned political independence of the Baltic states from the centralized state apparatus of the Soviet Union after 1989 and 1990 demanded gestures to be made in all areas of culture, right down to the width of the train tracks. Apparently, one of the first political gestures made by Estonia following the restoration of its independence from the Soviet Union, was to redefine its track gauge to match Finland’s, in order to be different from the Russian gauge. Although the Rail Baltica project, according to the EU regulations on unified standards, envisions the introduction of a standard gauge for all member states, for financial reasons the current plans might only allow for an upgrade (rather than a replacement) of the existing Russian gauge rail between Tallinn and Kaunas. However, in October 2015 the completion of the first phase of the Rail Baltica project was celebrated in Kaunas, inaugurating the 125km extension of the standard-gauge track from the former break-of-gauge at Šeštokai to Marijampolė and Kaunas in Lithuania.

The uppermost layer of the Anthropocene

The photographers manage to document the uppermost, thinnest layer of the Anthropocene; snow-flakes, clouds, dust, mineral deposits and slowly trickling water that gently cover much deeper man-made geological strata seen in scars on the surface of the Earth. Open-pit mines and quarries, water channels scratched into the terrain, disused industrial water basins and sites of chemical leaks present open wounds, human-inflicted injuries on nature that destroy, modify and mutate matter – organic or inorganic – into a poisoned and poisonous new artificial land. In some images, the fragments of infrastructure begin to blend into each other. The gray of the ground has become part of the same spectrum of gray as the birches, the concrete façade of a cement factory, the dusty machines and the background of gray mist and dusts that constitute the very pixels and pigments of the photographic prints. The colors represented in this sick and contaminated ground appear to be of the very same chemical constellation as the chemical color pigments of and on the photographic paper. The dramatic color spectrum of argent-stained birches, cinereous concrete walls, amaranthine brickworks and viridian-green and chrome-blue industrial waters are imprinted on the paper, making it tactile and almost possible to smell for the viewer. This form of mediation between the territory, its scars, its drains; and the waste sites, side-effects and residues of production, and the almost direct transportation of its substances into a new, though reflective production for yet another infrastructural project – involving cultural understanding and collaboration between sites – is to be taken both metaphorically and literally.

We are looking at matter, at the end of a chain of processes – waste material, remnants of still active industrial processes that have turned matter into energy, data and dust.

Chemical leaks, residues of industrial processes, colored earth turned over and carved out are the remains of social, economic and chemical events and processes that are now past, but whose afterlife represents a burden and duty of care for this new Baltic Sea region. An accident looms in these photographs, interrupting the flow of information and data, and creating a knot in infrastructural systems like the next Unix Millennium Bug, predicted for 2038.

Ines Weizman (PhD) is professor of architecture theory, director of the Bauhaus-Institute of History and Theory of Architecture and Planning and director of the Centre for Documentary Architecture at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar. Ines trained as an architect at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar and the Ècole d’Architecture de Belleville in Paris, the Sorbonne, the University of Cambridge, and the Architectural Association, where she completed her PhD thesis in History and Theory. In 2014, her edited book Architecture and the Paradox of Dissidence, was published by Routledge. The book Before and After: Documenting the Architecture of Disaster, written together with Eyal Weizman was published in the same year by Strelka Press. In 2015 she edited with Jorge Otero-Pailos the issue 'Preservation and Copyright' for the journal Future Anterior (University of Minnesota Press). Her articles have appeared in books, magazines and journals including AA Files, ADD, Bauhaus Magazin, METAPHYSICS, ARCH+, BEYOND, Displayer, Harvard Design Magazine, JAE, Perspecta, Volume, Jill Magid, The Proposal, (Sternberg Press, 2016), Experimental Preservation (Lars Müller, 2016), The Baltic Atlas (Sternberg Press, 2016), Stefan Koppelkamm, Houses Rooms Voices (Hatje Cantz, 2015), Exhibiting Architecture (Lars Müller, 2015), The Sage Handbook of Architectural Theory (Sage, 2012), StadtHeimaten (Jovis, 2012), Agency (Routledge, 2009), Urban Transformation (Ruby Press, 2008) and Dictionary of War (Merve Verlag, 2008). The installation “Repeat Yourself: Loos, Law and the Culture of the Copy” was shown as part of the “Museum of Copying” (curated by FAT Architects) in the Arsenale at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012, and in 2013 as solo-shows in the Architecture Centre Vienna and the Buell Architecture Gallery at Columbia University, New York. Earlier research and exhibition projects include “Celltexts. Books and Other Works Produced in Prison” (together with Eyal Weizman), first exhibited in Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turino (2008, 2009, 2014, 2015).








The Baltic States in a Post-NATO Environment – An Interview with Edward Lucas

The British journalist Edward Lucas is currently a senior editor at The Economist and one of the best-known writers on Eastern and Central Europe. A correspondent in Moscow in the late '90s, he has been a ferocious critic of the Putin regime for many years. His 2008 book The New Cold War exposed the criminal and internationally destabilising activities of the Russian state at a time when many in the West saw conflict with Russia as a thing of the past. More recent books like Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West and regular articles for British and international publications have developed the theme: Putin's regime is a corrupt kleptocracy deliberately undermining western powers, NATO and the EU and endangering the balance of power in Europe and beyond. He has urged higher defence spending and tougher sanctions against the Russian state and officials, and prioritising cyber security to a great extent.

Lucas's links with the Baltic states run deep as well. In 1990, having flown to Vilnius without a Soviet visa, he was issued with the first official visa from the restored Lithuanian state, and from 1992 to 1994, he was managing editor at The Baltic Independent, an English-language paper published from Tallinn, which later merged with another publication to create The Baltic Times. He has been among the most vocal supporters of NATO membership for the Baltics and of stationing significant numbers of troops here to deter Russia. In December 2014, he became the first person to be issued with a digital identity by the Estonian government, which he described in the following terms: “it is user-friendly. It is transparent. It is exciting. In short, it exemplifies everything we estophiles like about Estonia!”. We speak to him about Trump, Putin and NATO, and what recent events mean for the Baltic states.

Do you think that the Baltic states can survive without NATO?

I think we are moving into a post-NATO environment, so we jolly well need to be able to survive without NATO. The security assumptions of the past 25 years have been fundamentally undermined by the combination of, first of all, low defence spending in Europe, and now what I call the “Trumpquake” in America. So we need to find regional and sub-regional security arrangements which will allow us to defend ourselves.

What would be a basis for such an arrangement? Would that be an alliance with other nations in Eastern Europe or something else?

The clearest thing is the Nordic-Baltic axis because, as I argued in my report The Coming Storm, the Nordic-Baltic-Polish economies combined have a bigger GDP than Russia’s. Nordic, Baltic and Polish defence spending combined is about 40 billion, and Russia’s is about 80 billion – and Russia has to run a strategic nuclear programme to defend itself against China whereas the NBP9, as I call them, only need to worry about defending themselves against Russia, which means they can cook with what they have in the kitchen. If we add in also a nuclear power – Britain, ideally France as well, although that may be more difficult – you’d have a really formidable North European sort of mini-NATO. But the problem is not in means; it’s the coordination of political will, which at the moment is lacking.

You’ve written about Russia as being “military weaker but mentally more resolute”, and that this means that it “has a decisive advantage”. What exactly could NATO do – or any kind of post-NATO security arrangement – that would not antagonise Russia to a dangerous point? Or do you think it’s not possible to antagonise Russia to the point whether it would actually do anything decisive?

I don’t think we should run our security policy on the basis of whether it antagonises Russia or not, because it’s up to Russia whether it chooses to be antagonised, and this then means that Russia has the psychological initiative. They can complain about anything you do and say “you’ve antagonised us and therefore we’re going to react”. What we need to do is to build in very strong tripwires and speed bumps, have excellent situational awareness so that Russia doesn’t take us by surprise, have credible reinforcement plans and have a credible deterrent. I think that will actually de-escalate, rather than escalate the situation. I think that the most dangerous way we can run our security arrangements with Russia is to be weak and ill-prepared, which creates the opportunity for Russia to come in and do something unpleasant.

You’ve written a whole book about Edward Snowden [The Snowden Operation, in which Lucas suggests that Snowden may be a Russian operative, and defends the powers given to the US National Security Agency and other Western intelligence services] One of the criticisms I've seen of the defence you’ve made of the policies of the NSA and Western security forces is that considering the amount of power given to them, it could be rather dangerous if someone comes to power who is not someone who will necessarily respect democracy. Is this not something that’s now happened with Trump?

Yeah, it’s a reasonable fear. I mean first of all, you said the policies of the NSA – I think these are policies of elected governments. It’s worth remembering that America has the toughest system of intelligence supervision in the world – way tougher than France, tougher than Germany. No one else has this combination of a court with judges who are not appointed by the government, who are appointed by the Supreme Court. You have congressional scrutiny – and it may well be that Congress is in different hands from the party that holds the White House – plus you have executive power in the White House. And then you have a very strong professional code within the NSA. What we have seen from the Nixon experience was this: when Nixon tried to politicise the CIA, trying to overrule it, trying to politicise the FBI, it ended in disaster. And I think that although the American record over the last 50 years certainly has some black spots, I would far rather live under the American system of intelligence oversight than I would under the French. So I think we should all learn from the American system and try and copy it. And actually I think the Swedish system’s pretty good, the Estonian system’s pretty good. I’m not saying that others are bad, but it simply isn’t the case that the president can sit there at his desk and start ordering the intelligence services to break the law, spy on his political opponents, for example. I’m far more worried that if Marine Le Pen becomes President of France, she as president could do things with the French intelligence services that I do find troubling.

You’ve written a lot against criticisms of American foreign policy, using this idea that the West has a kind of moral weight. Many people would argue that bearing in mind how Western powers have behaved in many situations, many places in the past, it has no moral weight. Why would you disagree with that?

People are entitled to believe that the West has no moral weight, but it’s a bit like people who think that Israel is a hellhole. Which other country would you rather live in? I think that for all of its faults, the West provides a very decent life for about a billion people in the world, and most young people in the world, if they had the choice, would prefer to live in the West. Another thing is that I think the Western system basically works. And I think that certainly the Western system has a self-correcting power: if we have a bad president, like President Obama, people vote him out, and they may vote him out for someone even worse like Donald Trump, but there are fundamental corrective forces, whether it’s the ballot box, the media, NGOs, the courts or public protests, all of which can be brought to bear on decision-making authorities when they make mistakes. And that’s the fundamental point about the West – in countries like Russia, none of those work. You can’t see the government, you can’t run against the government in elections, you can’t have independent media that holds the government to account, you can’t run NGOs, and if you protest, you’ll be thrown into jail and your family will be punished on your behalf. I think it’s very easy to slip into a kind of self-hating position where you see the flaws of the West very clearly, but there are also fundamental virtues and I think we shouldn’t lose sight of that.

You fairly recently had an exchange of articles on the website First Things with [right-wing British political commentator] Peter Hitchens. I was interested to see that Peter Hitchens’s piece had this kind of thought experiment or equivalence between the US and Russia: how would America feel if the US had broken apart into different states in the '90s, people were forced to adopt Spanish names in certain former American states, Canada forming an alliance with Russia, etc. This is something I’ve heard from a number of people, in the UK and elsewhere, and there are many flaws in this analogy, obviously, but this does seem to be one that is quite powerful with a lot of people. Why do you think that it is and how do you think you can best combat it? 

Well, I don’t know why people think this; it’s clearly a false equivalence, where you take two things that are actually different and say “let’s pretend they’re the same”. I’ve argued with Peter very frequently about that. If America treated Canada the way that Russia has treated Ukraine, relations would be very different. America is strong because it has more allies than any other country has ever had in the history of the world. Russia doesn’t have any allies because it treats other countries very badly.  

Although it does have some allies, in certain parts of Europe especially.

I think it’s very hard to find a country where there is a deep, sustained alliance, of the kind you have say between Britain and America or Canada and America. You have some client states – some client narco-states, like Tajikistan; some satrapies like Belarus; you have some odd-bods on the other side of the world, like Ecuador, who are just allied with Russia because of anti-Westernism. But these are kind of opportunist allies. I can’t think of a country that is a Russian ally in the same way that Britain and France have been allies for more than a hundred years, or Britain and Germany are friends, or that America and most European countries are friends.

In an interview that came out in December 2016 in The New Statesman with Jeremy Corbyn [UK Labour Party leader], who you’ve been very critical of, he comments that although he would criticise Putin, he does say that “I want to see better agreements made with Russia”. Do you think it is possible at this point in time to make better agreements with Russia, or is it a country that fundamentally can’t be dealt with?

I would caution you against when interviewing, taking someone they profoundly disagree with and asking them what they think of a statement – that I think that is not necessarily very productive. I think Corbyn is a disastrous leader and I disagree with him about almost everything. So I’d be happy to get onto some other questions.

But the principle of whether basically an agreement can be made with Russia?

I think you could have very good agreements with Russia where we say that “we’ve got your money, if you want to see it again, back off”. That would be a very good agreement. We could say, “we’ve identified 100 million dollars’ worth of money that has been stolen from the Russian people; we’re going to freeze it now, and potentially seize it. We’re also going after the bankers and lawyers and accountants who help in the West, so get ready for a very uncomfortable ride; these are things we need you to do very quickly.” I’m all in favour of agreements with Russia, but we should be drawing up these agreements bearing in mind our overwhelming superiority to Russia in terms of size and the abominable way in which the Putin regime has behaved in the last fifteen years.

A lot of people have commented that with Trump as the president-elect, someone who prides himself on being a “deal-maker”, that there will be some kind of deal in the pipeline with Putin. Do you think that there is actually anything that Putin can offer America? And do you think this is a potential danger?

I certainly do, and I've written about it. I think that there are two big dangers from a Trump administration: one is a crisis, either the collapse of NATO or starting a nuclear war with another state, and the other is that he does a “grand bargain”, particularly because things probably won’t go very well for him at home and he will need a foreign policy success: he has an early summit with Putin and comes out with some kind of showy deal, which is very bad for the security of frontline states. So yes, I am worried about that. Putin can offer Trump cooperation on terrorism; he can offer cooperation on Syria. I think both of those are essentially nugatory, and if there was any real willingness to cooperate, they would be cooperating already, so you don’t need a grand bargain to have cooperation on that. But he can offer it; he can also offer some kind of deal on the front line: for example, taking missiles out of Kaliningrad in exchange for America cancelling its missile defence programmes, and possibly also going even further: Russia pulling troops back from its western military district and America pulling its forces out of the frontline. I think that would be absolutely catastrophic. So there are different levels of importance in this grand bargain, any of them bad.

You were in Moscow in the late ‘90s working for The Economist. Do you feel that the West bears any responsibility at all for what has happened in Russia? In that a lot of people see Putin as a reaction to the chaos, of various kinds, of ‘90s Russia.

No, I think we were far too soft in the ‘90s. We were kind of naïve – we colluded with the Yeltsin regime in election-rigging, we allowed corruption to become rampant in Russia. Corruption in Russia would never have got anywhere if they hadn’t been able to put the money in the West and so we opened our financial system to corrupt Russian officials in the ‘90s, thereby discrediting everything we came to stand for. We took our eye off the ball as far as Russian espionage was concerned and sacked a lot of people who understood Russia all over government. So I think we bear huge responsibility; our Russia policy in the 1990s was incredibly naïve – naïve and cynical and optimistic all at the same time.

I wanted to ask about the media portrayal of the Baltics and particularly the impression that I get that a large amount of Baltic coverage is basically uninformed, written by people who have been here for maybe two days. What do you think the Baltics can do to push their story or at least to ensure that their viewpoint is given equal weight to the Russian argument?

Take it more seriously. Hire good officials who know how to do media. Information policy, international security policy. Actually, I think the Baltic states get a pretty good press and I wouldn’t be too worried about it. I think it’s better and better press. Most foreign coverage is pretty weak these days because people who do foreign coverage don’t have any money. I think President Ilves was particularly good at this – the Estonians probably have an edge on this over the other countries, but I’m very impressed by what the Lithuanian Armed Forces have been doing there in displaying their capabilities on information warfare. The NATO Stratcom Centre in Riga is very good. But whatever you do it will never be enough, but I think they’re doing plenty already. But yes I also think they should do more.

You’re well known for being the first person to become an Estonian e-resident [in 2014]. Do you feel that as a journalist you can objectively commentate on Estonia if you’re invested in the country in this way?

Well, I’m not really invested in it. I actually got it free. Normally it’s 50 euros, so I got a free 50-euro card from Estonia, and I was very honoured to receive that. I think as a journalist you should try to find out about the things you write about, and it’s much better to write about e-residency once you are an e-resident because you can see how the system works, and I’m very interested in Estonian e-government. I say critical things about Estonia as well, and in recent years I’ve turned down medals from the governments of the three Baltic states. I did get a medal back in the 1990s, but that was for my work on the independence struggle, which was slightly different. I’m aware of the danger of being seen as a cheerleader, which is why I don’t just cheer them; I sometimes boo them as well.

Do you see any reasons for hope in the region over the next few years? Are there any positive signs at all?

I think there are many positive signs. I think that the economies are continuing to move up the value chain, so we’re seeing more impressive start-ups and moving away from the old model of doing low-value manufacturing and low-end tourism. I’m particularly interested in some of the high-end niche products that are coming in, and the way that the quality of tourism has improved. I think the quality of political writers is pretty good. I’m impressed with some of the new politicians who are coming along – I could mention several by name, but I think that President Kaljulaid in Estonia is a very worthy person to be on the list, as are people in the Lithuanian Parliament; the quality of public servants remains high.

The economies are all growing, and to be on the map 25 years after regaining independence is pretty good. And I think that also the Baltic states have shown that they really matter. Estonia was very nearly Country of the Year for The Economist, and it came second after Colombia, which I think is probably justified, because Colombia has just ended a 50-year civil war.   But I think the Baltic states are on the map; they’re on the mind map, but that’s a pretty good place to be, given how small they are and how the odds are stacked against them. There is nobody now, even the pro-Putinists in the West, who would say that “the Baltic states would be happier under Russian rule” – that wasn’t the case 20 years ago. So I think if we can get through the next few years, which are going to be difficult from a geopolitical point of view, I think the Baltic states have a very bright future; I’m very optimistic about them.


Cēsis – Latvia’s New Urbanism Capital or Gentrification in Action?

Cēsis is Latvia’s thirteenth-largest city, a pretty, slightly rough-around-the-edges place, built, for defensive reasons, on a ridge above the enveloping pine forests and sweeping valleys of the Gauja National Park. Cēsis has changed rather a lot in the last few years, probably more than any other single town in Latvia, and the best place to get the measure of these changes is Lielā Skolas iela, one of the exits to the main square. It’s a little alley barely wide enough for two cars to pass, that runs to the back of the city’s medieval church, which is itself a bit of a microcosm of the city – somehow at once picturesque, imposing and raggedy, its walls are the colour of sandpaper and look rather like a great deal of sandpaper has been taken to them.

Lielā Skolas iela is where I start my morning in Cēsis, interviewing a city council worker in Melnais Gulbis cafe, a cosy, three-table place on the corner, where coffee prices are Riga prices and a rockabilly CD loops endlessly. When I’m done, I stroll a few paces down the road, passing a just-opened health food shop, Ķimene, and find Skola6, a co-working space in a mustard-yellow, rambling former school building. Founder Dita Trapenciere gives me a tour, showing me how people have made the building’s cubby holes and enclaves into their own to make and sell their products; some in particular stick in my mind – a great unattended loom is draped with a half-sketched web of threads; a miniature hairdresser’s is set up in another. Then I write up my impressions right next door in Mala, a low-slung wooden house, its weathered planks a spectrum of black and grey, which hosts a cafe, bar and design shop.

Everywhere I visit is charming and welcoming on the street, but thrown together and slightly dilapitated. At Skola6, the neglected school that once was is still palpable; little has been spruced up or repainted. It has been left relatively unrenovated deliberately, Dita tells me, in order to avoid prospective contributors feeling unwelcome or intimidated. A hand-chalked sign on Mala’s warped wooden door urges visitors to “push harder!” and when I visit it's barely warmer than the street outside – the stove, the only way of heating the space, is in the process of being repaired by a couple of animated chimney-sweeps.

Afterwards, I head down to where Lielā Skolas iela joins the city’s widest thoroughfare, Valmieras iela. It’s there that I find Izsalkušais Jānis, a polished eatery in a revamped fire station. On its serif-shaved website, it describes itself as "an open-type restaurant in Cēsis with an emphasis on local, seasonal products", and the food is indeed excellent, somehow both hearty and light, and requiring quite a few more adjectives and adverbs to describe it than is typical on rural Latvian menus. But this did all come for quite a bit more than I had been hoping to pay on my jaunt to the countryside.

Check Google Street View for Lielā Skola iela, and you won’t find Melnais Gulbis, nor Skola6, nor Mala. On there, it’s just an unremarkable backstreet with a couple of standard beauty salons and supply shops. On Valmieras iela, Izsalkušais Jānis is a staring-eyed, roughed-up derelict. And that’s because Google Street View were here in summer 2012.


Quite a change

The previous autumn I had made my own first visit to Cēsis. In October 2011, I had just recently moved to Riga and was accompanied by a new Latvian friend, a local who had relocated to the capital. She had told me, only semi-jokingly, that Cēsis was the greatest city in the world and that she would move back there as soon as she was able to. She also spent a lot of time light-heartedly deprecating its neighbour, and rival for tourists’ attention, the small town of Sigulda. After the best part of a day in Cēsis, I felt a bit confused by all this.

It wasn’t that it wasn’t a nice place – it was. I liked the crumbling old town, with its undulating, cobbled streets winding unevenly through like a staggering drunk. I liked the towering, sombre church, with its centuries-old graffiti scrawls in the belfry. I liked the expertly-placed lake, backed by castle ruins, filled with gliding swans and looking out onto thick, misty pine forests. There was a mood of cheerful, benign neglect to the whole thing, an appealing sense of “why bother”, but it did seem small – very small – and oppressively quiet.

We went to both of the castles that the small town boasts – one medieval, and preserved only in outline, and the other a 19th-century concoction built alongside its ruins. We went up to its turret and posed for pictures against the forests sweeping off into the horizon; it rained in moody bursts, then the sun sort of came out in a crack of light, spectacular over the firs. Life seemed elsewhere. After that, we went to what I was given to understand was the sole happening place in Cēsis – Cafe Rīga, a convivial place where the buffet seemed inexhaustible and the toilet was done up to resemble a forest glade. Cēsis seemed a place where the scenery had been put roughly in place, but the actors were still practising and the play was yet to begin.

I visited again in the spring, and then not for another three years. During this time, Cēsis was often mentioned to me as one of the cutest or most picturesque or happening or whatever town in Latvia. I didn’t roll my eyes exactly, but again, I did feel a little confused. I also noticed a small but steady trickle of people who I had thought of as eminently urban and sociable either discussing moving to Cēsis or actually going ahead and doing it. Again, strange behaviour, I thought. But my several trips last year convinced me that the town is actually catching up with the perception people had of it.

What has made the difference? Several people I speak to mention Toms Kokins and Evelina Ozola, Latvia’s most prominent urbanists and the impetus behind a number of visible projects in Riga, who relocated to Cēsis from Riga three years ago. A number of festivals and cultural activities have also started up in recent years – in addition to a well-regarded art festival – Cēsu mākslas festivāls, there is LAMPA festival, a several-day celebration of discussion. Many others give credit to mayor Jānis Rozenbergs – elected in 2013, he is one of the youngest city representatives in Latvia, and is perceived as unusually dynamic and imaginative for a Latvian politician; no one I speak to has a bad word to say about him.


The new Cēsnieki

Those who have relocated in the last few years are relatively small in purely numerical terms, but often prominent in their fields, and unusually active and motivated. The vast majority have previously lived in Riga, even if they are not originally from the capital. I canvass a number about why they’ve moved to Cēsis – why here specifically out of all the towns in Latvia? – and I find the same kinds of themes coming repeatedly – “the green heart of Latvia”, “natural”, “genuine”.

It’s not mentioned by anyone I speak to but Cēsis does have a certain power in the Latvian mind, exemplifying a certain kind of Latvian-ness. The Latvian spoken here is reputed to be the purest, the most literary, of any dialect in the nation. At the Battle of Cēsis in 1919, a joint Latvian and Estonian force routed German troops (the Baltische Landwehr) who had intended to halt the two countries’ independence and create a German puppet state under Baltic German administration. It was quite probably the turning point in the struggle for Latvian, and Estonian, thereof, independence. It is generally believed that it was near Cēsis that the blood-red stripes of the Latvian flag were first flown, by a proto-Latvian tribe battling the German crusaders, and it was at Cēsis Castle in 1988 where it was first openly flown again following the illegal Soviet occupation. In one of the jokes that history often plays with ethnicity and identity, the settlement surrounding one of the most powerful castles of the Livonian Order, created to firmly stamp down the barbarous forest-dwelling Baltic tribes, has become among the most ethnically homogenous and coherent in Latvia (Cēsis is 83% ethnically Latvian), a country where most cities are multicultural, and Russian is very often heard in the street more than Latvian.

In a country that often seems to be engaged with multiple crippling identity crises, Cēsis appears confident both of what it currently is and of where it’s going – officially, at least. An indicator as to both of these answers might be found in Radīts Cēsīs (Created in Cēsis), a glossy booklet on all that Cēsis is doing and making right now. Published with assistance from Cēsis City Council and the Latvian Cultural Capital Fund, and edited by Evelina Ozola, it’s designed in a tasteful, restrained style, expensive-looking despite being given away for free, and featuring what seems to be its own special logo on the front, an odd kind of contorted origami pattern. There is parallel text in Latvian and English.

What does this tell us about how Cēsis sees itself, how it wants others to regard it? Well, Cēsis is home-made; Cēsis is well-made; Cēsis is tasteful; Cēsis is quirky – one small clothing company featured concentrates primarily on stamping outfits with deer emblems; Cēsis is outdoorsy – another page highlights cabins in the trees or on stilts; it’s sustainable, again in a quirky way – a feature highlights a local company that offer outdoor pods to charge your phone, powered by solar energy. Cēsis is also strikingly young according to the booklet – it’s a shock half-way through to come across two pages on an elderly woman who weaves elaborate Latvian belts using traditional folk methods. It’s a place where your dreams can be realised, so long as they’re sufficiently small-scale – most of the businesses showcased are run by just one or two people. It’s both cutting-edge and curiously backwards-looking; as one says, with rather questionable historical veracity, “we are not an industrial country; we are a craftsmanship country”.

I talk to Dita from Skola6 about the changes Cēsis has seen lately. She is also a transplant, although one of rather longer standing than most – she moved from the industrial southern Latvian city of Jelgava eleven years ago. Then, she tells me, the town was like “a sleeping beauty” – “there were no interesting cafes, restaurants, no alternative cultural places, etc.” Clearly the last decade has effected quite a transformation. Now she estimates that roughly half, or perhaps slightly more, of those using the spaces available at Skola6 are locals, the rest being recent incomers. One mentions a recent meeting at Mala around twenty strong – when the question was put of whom among them was born in Cēsis, only one person raised their hand.


Gentrification or hipsterisation?

But are these new people who have moved in, most often from Riga, hipsters? It’s an oddly topical question in the country – the word ‘hipster’ was only very recently officially accepted into the Latvian language by the gatekeepers of the tongue, although in a slightly modified version, hipsteris, so that it conforms to the language’s grammatical norms. An article I find from eDruva – a website covering Cēsis and the surrounding Vidzeme region – asks “kas ir hipsteri?” ("what are hipsters?"), and illustrates its answer with a snap of Mala’s weathered wooden door.

The well-made, non-mass-produced, organic, biodegradable products, in the Radīts Cēsīs booklet could easily be characterised and dismissed as simply things that hipsters and other semi-moneyed, broadly irritating subsets of young people with various annoying and expensive accessories like. But this list of adjectives isn’t something bad in and of itself, is it? And Cēsis as it is today, in the right light, in the right type of weather, does seem paradisiacal: a miniaturised settlement stripped of most things that you don’t need, equipped with most that you do, somewhere you can be away from the traffic and bullshit of the city, be a lazy ramble away from genuinely wild countryside, and yet still get a good cup of coffee and go out for a decent, well-made meal once a week, and for much less than you’d pay in Riga. If there are a disproportionate number of cultural events happening while we concern ourselves with all that, who is complaining? However, it’s clear that a number of the city’s residents – quite probably the majority – are off-message, if not actively dissatisfied.

Conflict at the forum

On one of my several recent visits to Cēsis, I went to Cēsu iedzīvotāju forums (Cēsis Residents’ Forum), a Saturday open for all Cēsnieki [people from Cēsis], whether long-standing or recent, to discuss how to move the city forwards. The logo projected onto the screen behind looks wipe-clean and stylish, like it could be promoting a cool new coffee shop or a temporary exhibition at some cutting-edge museum – sharp, pale-shaded lines stretching their way towards and away from letters. I’d estimate around 50 people turn up to this mass problem-solving.

During one of the introductory speeches, concerned with listening but also somewhat self-congratulatory, we are told – “Cēsis ir zīmols” – Cēsis is a brand. The man speaking is animated, with flurries of movements; and a strange hurried patter, which makes people laugh but which I struggle to follow with my makeshift Latvian. When he’s finished, we’re split into three groups and each given an approximate theme which we are to consider over the next few hours.

When we arrive upstairs, we’re divided further, and asked to identify a number of things about the city that we think could be improved. Aside from myself, the vast majority in the group appear in their forties and upwards, and a few are clearly of pensionable age. Shepherding and directing the discussions and conversations, choosing themes, keeping people on point, are a small group of patient, encouraging volunteers in their twenties and thirties. It seems to me at points that they are speaking slightly slower than they usually would, but that may just be me projecting. Initially, at least, those townspeople attending seem patient, biddable – perhaps not surprising, considering they’ve given up their Saturday to improve the city. People readily acquiesce to the initial instructions, and obediently discuss what they are told to.

I can’t contribute much, being a non-resident who has visited a mere handful of times, and I feel a little sorry for Viktors, who is lumped with me as a discussion partner. I do listen and learn, however. The concerns brought up are practical, everyday, mundane: roads, affordability, education – no one mentions culture or the many events that the city puts on. Viktors tells me that he is mostly bothered by the confusing management of traffic on Rīgas iela, one of the main entry points to the city, as well as that there aren’t enough playgrounds for children – well, there are, he says, correcting himself, but they are not sufficiently well advertised by the council. But when I lead him off the set topic and get him to tell me some things about life in Cēsis, he immediately mentions that it is ‘the culture capital’ – although this is just stated as a fact and it’s hard to know if he feels there is much to be proud of in it.

When we have reached our quota of problems, we present them to the group – or, at least, Viktors presents them to the group, and I stand awkwardly alongside – then stick them on the board, and at the end the group votes with a provision of stickers for which we feel are the most pressing. Themes develop: as well as being vaguely dissatisfied with the amenities offered by the city, they are concerned about rising prices and the increasing lack of availability of living space – that Cēsis is becoming unaffordable for its people. One woman, who must be over 80, complains about about the impossibility these days of getting a meal that is simultaneously under five euros and tasty in Cēsis. During the ensuing discussion, Melnais Gulbis, where I had my morning coffee, comes up, and it seems significant of the kind of town Cēsis still is that when one person doesn’t know the still-new cafe, a few participants rush to clarify using the owner’s first name. There are relatively few real back-and-forths – one calls for Rīgas iela, the central route through the Old Town, to be pedestrianised, but another retorts, in fierce tones, that streets die when cars are diverted away.

Some complaints seem directed at problems some way outside the council’s remit: one elderly woman rails angrily for some minutes at the tendency of many people to only clear the snow away from the immediate locality of their driveway or housefront. The audience responds “tā ir Latvijas problēma” (meaning, more or less, that is a general problem everywhere in Latvia). No one mentions culture or the way that the city is marketed – the closest is a sense that it isn’t dynamic enough in winter.


Differences in values – and in motivation

Does this speak of a conflict – or at least a fundamental incompatibility – between the residents born in the city, and those drawn there by its liveliness, creativity, wildness? Lelde Strazdiņa, who runs a pop-up shop below Skola6 and is originally from the town of Saldus, more than a hundred kilometres west, agrees that there are differences, but says she doesn’t see this as a problem at all – the two groups can teach each other – although she does say that I have only a couple of friends who were born and grew up here. The main difference she feels, is psychological; the newcomers have a keener appreciation of life in Cēsis, perhaps connected to a broader experience of life, usually being better educated and travelled – ‘[we] appreciate the ‘nature’ that is everywhere in and around Cēsis – clean air, fresh drinking water from a spring (for free!), forest goods at hand’s reach, low prices on the local market for fresh, organic, local produce’. Like others, she sees a gulf in not only taste and outlook, but also levels of motivation between the two groups – ‘where the locals have maybe already seen ten failed attempts, we see possibilities.

Evija Taurene, who relocated from Riga a couple of years ago, has thought a lot about the differences between the cultural and lifestyle preferences of the two groups: I think most locals consider themselves very simple, modest and conservative people.” She lists a few examples of how these different tastes are expressed: “When they go out with their family they would much rather choose a place with potatoes and pork chop on the menu, instead of slowly cooked guinea fowl breast, carrot puree, lingonberry sauce... when [local] youngsters are searching for something to do, they choose Fonoklubs and a local DJ, not weird hipster music something at Mala.” These people tend to be more dissatisfied with the state of Cēsis, but she says, although they feel that they deserve something more, but they are mostly not ready to put their own time into improving the city. Or they do not believe in change at all.

Cēsis does appear to believe in change, however, and has set on achieving it not only through attracting artists and small business owners, but also through large-scale prestige projects, of which probably the most obvious is that concert hall which Evija refers to – the Vidzeme Concert Hall, an impressive, still box-fresh 800-seater venue (into which almost 5% of the town’s population could fit at once), which represents not only a statement of intent and self-esteem, but also a cheeky one-up to nearby, significantly larger Valmiera, traditionally thought of as the capital of Vidzeme Province. Mayor Rozenbergs didn’t initiate the concert hall, but he did strongly support the construction, describing it in a 2013 interview with the Latvian website NRA as “the most significant project in Cēsis in the last 100 years”. Despite being in a relatively small provincial town, it has attracted increasing numbers of concert-goers from the capital itself, many taking advantage of the new Riga-Cēsis/Valmiera express service, which shaves more than half an hour off the usual journey time – another project pushed by Rozenbergs, and one of only two express trains currently in operation in Latvia. Things to attract people from Riga, and means to bring them there.

But it’s worth mentioning that it’s not only locals who have qualms about the way the city is heading. Jānis Ķīnasts is an urbanist and the founder of the placemaking team Nēbetjā. Originally from the city of Liepāja on Latvia’s Baltic coast, he spend eight years in Riga before, together with his wife, a Cēsniece [person from Cēsis], he made the decision to relocate here a couple of years ago, attracted by its peacefulness, unspoilt setting and the promise of “less stupid people around me”. Initially he commuted to Riga every morning, but has now cut down to just one day a week. He stresses that he still loves living in Cēsis and is “a huge believer” in the city, but that he is concerned by some of the longer-term trends.

I’ve been wary of using the “g” word, not wanting to generalise or make people think I’m putting them in a box, but as soon as I start to sound it out, Ķīnasts jumps right in there – telling me “it’s a gentrified city in the making”. He sets out the standard process – a geographically attractive location, “content” brought in from elsewhere. And what are the standard results? “You fuck up the pattern” for the local inhabitants; “they don’t need these fancy Riga-style restaurants”, he says, making reference to Izsalkušais Jānis. If the focus on creative industries are not supplemented by attention to industrial and commercial jobs (here he specifies a number of more unglamorous jobs, harder to put in a glossy magazine – fixing cars, selling construction parts, growing vegetables), he foresees the city declining and its population dipping below 10,000 – at which point, he points out, it’s very hard to recover due to erosion of the tax base. He sees a likely consequence of what is going on in Cēsis as being the growth of nearby, grittier, less pretty Valmiera, which has more extensive infrastructure and a significant industrial base.


A History of Gentrification

Gentrification isn’t a foreign phenomenon in Latvia. Indeed, browsing the internet, I find references to ģentrifikācija going back well over a decade. The emerging, gradual trend for bars and clubs to migrate from the increasingly glossy centre of Riga, over the River Daugava to the rickety but cheap and easily accessible suburb of Āgenskalns is a manifestation of the process visible today. What is definitely the case is that it’s generally been more chaotically handled in Latvia, more ineptly directed, compared to the other Baltic states. If Telliskivi Loomelinnak (Telliskivi Creative City) in Tallinn is the flagship of Estonian gentrification, an industrial site containing a selection of hipster eateries and drinkeries, shops selling handmade products and workshops, which manages to operate as an – admittedly pricy and exclusive – self-sustaining community, Latvia’s most prominent equivalent would be the Andrejsala project, a concentrated attempt a few years ago to enact gentrification-by-attracting-artists focused on a a semi-inhabited, post-industrial peninsula on the outskirts of Riga’s centre.

Today, there are few signs that any of that ever happened. In 2004, it prompted a series of excitable articles from the local press, as it became a creative free-for-all; artists relocated there, tempted by the favourable rates, and quirky enterprises, dirt-cheap hipster bars, art spaces and idiosyncratic hostels started up and won devotees. But the onset of the economic crisis in 2008 hit it hard, and soon after it was earmarked for corporate development and everyone interesting was forced to leave. Today it is gentrified by some definitions, but it does appear to have skipped a few stages in the process – few of the regeneration projects once intended for the district (a contemporary art gallery, most ambitiously) have come off, and now it's a mostly silent, deadened sort of space of anonymous offices and semi-converted factories. Its most significant contribution to the counter-culture in recent years has been the legions of beer-swigging youths who line up, legs swinging, at the distant tip of the peninsula on sunny days, away from all the gentrification, where you can watch the ships go by.

Other local residents express doubts that are more tentative, while still having a basic faith in the project and those manning it. Sanda Salmiņa has lived in Cēsis all her life and says “the only things that cause me concern are whether the city’s image is too much in advance of the real conditions, because we are still lacking effective solutions to practical things like buying or renting living space, waiting lists for kindergartens, the state of the city streets – and a lack of places to work, because not everyone can be self-employed”. But, despite this, she expresses a high degree of confidence that they can be dealt with.

A broader point is: even if Cēsis is a success, can it really serve as an example for the rest of the country? Jānis Ķīnasts refers to Cēsis not only as the cultural capital, but also as the “future urbanism capital” because of the presence of Ozola and Kokins, who have been involved in a number of schemes to make the city more attractive and liveable. But there are questions here too. However attractive, self-sustaining and content Cēsis becomes, it’s dubious whether the experiences of a settlement of barely 15,000 people can really be of much use when considering how to regenerate and redefine very different cities like Jelgava, Liepāja, Daugavpils, the kind of places where most of the population lives, industrial cities several times the size of Cēsis, developed to a large extent under the Soviet Union. This is without mentioning Riga, the biggest city in the Baltic states, which even after 25 years of steady population decline still has at least thirty times more inhabitants than Cēsis.

A few days before we speak, I notice that Ķīnasts has retweeted an interesting map, which shows the proportion of the population resident in the capital for each European country. Latvia’s figure, 36.1%, is the highest on the map, ahead even of micro-nations like Liechtenstein and San Marino – and that’s without considering the fact that if you include the towns that ring Riga and the line of seaside towns of Jūrmala, it’s more like half. Riga dominates Latvia in every way, sucking everything towards itself – the unquestioned centre for absolutely anything of importance in Latvia. For this reason, Ķīnasts sees the mere fact that people are moving out of Riga, no matter where they are moving to, as a positive, a way of wearing away at this intimidating, unbalancing statistic. Cēsis City Council has the aim of growing its population by at least 8,000 by the year 2030, although it’s not yet entirely clear where those people will live – a lack of living space is mentioned by many people I speak to – or what they will do.

Whatever the case, there seems no doubt that the broader economic process affecting Latvia is roughly comparable with what is going on all over Europe, the world even. The country seems not so much to be either sliding downwards or reviving, more to be polarising, splitting even more into winners’ and losers’ camps, those that will adapt and those that won’t. The 2008 financial crisis was crushing and traumatic in Latvia as anywhere in the world, slashing its GDP by more than 20% in a single year, and briefly making as many as a quarter of the population unemployed. Latvia’s statistically strong recovery from that devastation within a couple of years has been much vaunted, not least by Christine Lagarde, but how convincing the plaudits are really depends on where you go. Districts of central Riga and Jūrmala feel dynamic and busy, bubbling with new cafes and bars, shops for people with significant disposable income; they are places that people move to rather than think about how to get away from.

But much of the country does not feel like a place in recovery – I’m not really talking here about the larger cities mentioned earlier, despite their many, possible insoluble problems, because their size means they will always retain a residual core of businesses and entertainment centres to keep jobs around and ensure a kind of identity and pride remains. Where things are quietly desperate is in the mid-size regional centres that aren’t quite pretty or close enough to Riga to benefit from the process which is helping Cēsis – places like Alūksne, Rēzekne or Lelde’s hometown Saldus. They are struggling, often depressing places where it’s tricky to find anywhere to eat after dusk, let alone a health food shop or co-working space. The problems Cēsis is facing are real and significant, but many towns in Latvia would sacrifice a lot to be dealing with them.

Will Mawhood is the editor of Deep Baltic.



Forest Cover Dynamics

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 triggered a major change in land use in the former Soviet republics. Much of the population that had previously inhabited rural areas fled from the countryside, following the trend of rapid urbanization of major regional centers – and this also happened in the Baltics. When state-owned agricultural fields were given over to private owners, marking the end of Stalinist collective farming, large areas of previously cultivated farmland were abandoned. This created the largest man-made carbon sink of the last few decades.  

The changes in the land use of the Baltic states can be seen in the change in forest cover. While generally, the former Soviet countries have witnessed forest growth over abandoned territories, supporting carbon sink in locking and storing carbon dioxide, the Baltic states have witnessed a contrary phenomenon – a decrease in forest cover since 1991. With the opening of new markets, the demand for timber products increased radically, resulting also in the increase of logging activities – a more than threefold increase for Estonia and as much as fourfold for Latvia compared to the Soviet period. Even during the years of the global economic crisis – between 2007 and 2012 – the Baltic states were among the few European countries where the level of logging activity didn't drop.





Kārlis Bērziņš is an architect and co-curator of the Baltic Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2016.



Double Standards in Estonian Forestry Policies – Preaching Sustainability, Practicing Industry

Photo by Ingrid Nielsen

A crisis of trust

16 December 2016. More than a hundred people have gathered in front of the Ministry of the Environment. They are protesting against amendments to the Forest Act that aim to lower the rotation ages of spruces without adding compensating mechanisms that would preserve biodiversity.1 1. Metsaseaduse muutmise seaduse väljatöötamine 2015-2017. Read here. The citizens are demanding a more sustainable forestry policy. An older woman is holding a photo collage of a sacred grove before and after clear-cutting. A young man with a bobble hat complains to the environmentalist organising the demonstration that his home parish has been cleared of trees and that the local government doesn’t give a damn about the protests of local residents. The protesters are drawing attention to a deepening social crisis and one of its indicators is the growing concern about Estonian forests among forestry researchers, environmental organisations and citizens. Although the state claims its forestry policies are balanced, environmental organisations2 2. Read article in Estonian here.

3. Read article in Estonian here.
and rural residents3 claim that they are being actively pushed out of the decision-making process and that the forests are no longer being managed in a sustainable way. The citizens are asking whose interests the state is actually representing.

Warnings of the National Audit Office

21 September 2007. The National Audit Office publishes a troubling audit that states that “since the State Forest Management Centre (Riigimetsa Majandamise Keskus, RMK), having an economic stake in the proceeds of forest sales, is the one making inventories, planning, cutting and selling state forests, the continuation of this situation could endanger the preservation and sustainable management of state forests”.4. Raiete planeerimine Riigimetsa Majandamise Keskuses, Tallinn 2007, p 2. According to the State Audit Office, the RMK’s calculations are incorrect and the cutting has been planned based on data that has made the area of growing forest seem larger than it actually is. The Ministry of the Environment agrees to the proposals, promising to provide additional assessments on the management and cutting calculations of the RMK.

A year later, on 4 June 2008, the State Audit Office publishes a new audit, which states that the Natura 2000 network has serious shortcomings, specifically in the protection of forest types. “The deterioration of habitats demonstrates a poor performance by national conservation bodies,” the audit states. “In the State Audit Office’s view, the failure of the Ministry of the Environment to efficiently coordinate and monitor the Natura process from the very beginning in 2000 is the main cause of current problems.” 5. Ibid., p 2.Again, attention is drawn to incorrect data. “The information of the Ministry of the Environment concerning the location of forest habitats considerably diverges from reality. Inventories of Natura areas are uneven in quality and often incorrectly indicate the locations and scope of habitats. The analysis commissioned by the State Audit Office showed that when it comes to old near-natural forests, the data of the Ministry of the Environment concerning the boundaries and areas of habitats is correct only in 50% of cases.”6   6. Ibid. The Minister of the Environment agrees with the State Audit Office and notes that 80% of Estonian forest habitats are not in good condition.

Two years later, on 14 September 2010, the State Audit Office Publishes another audit, which bluntly states: “It is the view of the State Audit Office that the RMK is not managing state forests in a sustainable way, therefore endangering the opportunities of future generations to utilise state forests.”7 7. Ibid., p 1.  The audit draws attention to the fact that, in the last decade, the RMK has carried out clear-cutting on larger areas than before.8  8. Ibid. “The root of the problem is the fact that as the manager of state assets, the Ministry of the Environment has not analysed the sustainability of state forest management, nor has it created a legal framework to ensure sustainable management,” the audit states.9 9. Ibid. “They have repeatedly lowered the rotation ages of trees fit for clear-cutting and even now, increasingly younger and thinner forests are being cut down.”10 10. Ibid.

The former Minister of the Environment Jaanus Tamkivi rejects the proposals of the state controlling authorities. “Implementing the suggestions made by the State Audit Office would mean changing the long-term goals approved by the parliament, which is why the Ministry of the Environment does not consider it possible to apply them,” Tamkivi says.1111. Ibid., pp 38-39.

The state ignores protests

In 2011, prior to the approval of the new Forestry Development Plan,12  12. Eesti metsanduse arengukava aastani 2020. Tallinn 2010. which called for an even more intense management of forests, the State Audit Office proposed that it should be rejected. Journalists, environmental organisations and ordinary citizens speak out, but the protests fall on deaf ears. According to the Ministry of the Environment, the analysis of the State Audit Office focuses only on the better commercial forest managed by the state and transfers the ecological role of the forests to the ministry – however, the ministry thinks that the entire block of forest should be taken into account, because the forest is not managed as intensely everywhere. “We cannot agree with the claim that the very character of the RMK rules out its ability to sustainably manage state forests,” the expert assessment by Paavo Kaimre, an associate professor at the Estonian University of Life Sciences notes.

At the same time, the media is highlighting the fact that Andres Talijärv, one of the people in charge of drawing up the development plan and the former head of the Association of Estonian Forestry and Timber Industries, is closely connected to the interests of forestry and timber industries.13  13.  Parlament vilistas riigikontrolli soovitusele, Postimees, 15 February, 2011. Read here. The Ministry of the Environment does not acknowledge such connections and two years later, Talijärv is promoted from the position of vice-chancellor to chancellor of the Ministry of the Environment. In November 2012, the then-vice-chancellor Talijärv talks about his important contribution to Estonian forestry policies.14  14. Tee Metsa, 2/2012, pp 2-3. “I was involved in drawing up all forestry-related regulations up until 2001,” Talijärv says, explaining that he and his colleagues laid the foundation for the development of local forestry industry. According to Talijärv, when fleshing out the model of Estonian forestry, they took a lot of ideas from the models of Finland, Sweden and Denmark. However, in these very countries, this intensive forestry model has caused increasingly urgent environmental problems.

A bad example

5 May 2008. The environmentalists of Finland and Sweden send a public letter to the Estonian government and parliament, warning them about the dangers of the Scandinavian forestry model. “We [...] want to express our deep concern regarding the situation of the Estonian forestry,” the representatives of five different environmental organizations write.15  15. Daleus, L.; Nordström, L. E.; Nummelin, L.; Yliportimo, P.; Sulkava, R. 2008. Public letter to Estonian Government and Parliament. In their view, changes to Estonian forestry-related legislation demonstrate several alarming tendencies, and they highlight the shortening of forest rotation periods and establishing clear-cuts as the main method for forest-cutting. “Some of the trends mentioned above have already been realized in our countries,” the environmentalists write. “As a result we have witnessed long-term negative impacts on our forest environment.”

The government and the parliament ignore the letter. Six years later, Kaarin Parts, the forestry specialist of the Estonian Nature Fund, recalls the letter and draws attention to the concomitant dangers of the Scandinavian forestry model: “The biodiversity of Swedish forests is now in grave danger: [...] the 4,127 red list species include 2,131 forest species (51.6%), and these, in turn, include 1,787 species (43.3%) that are completely dependent on forests. The main threat to species is forestry practices [...] Due to intense forestry, 70% of forest habitat types in Finland are endangered and according to an assessment made in 2010, forest species make up 36.2% of known endangered species. In Estonia, the corresponding indicator is 24.7%.”16  16. Eesti Mets, talv 4/2014, pp 30-33. 

In Finland and Sweden, the situation has escalated to a point where the state must spend increasingly large sums on creating dead wood and mushroom substrates in order to restore biodiversity and environment in forests. “According to the Finnish Forestry Department, around 29,000 hectares of protected forest areas need restoring, costing in excess of 30 million euros. Additionally, more protected districts with an area of 10,000–20,000 hectares will be created,” Parts writes.

At the same time, another amendment of the Forest Act is being planned in Estonia with the aim of further increasing the area of clear-cuts, cutting down limits on logging and lowering the rotation age of spruce woods in rich sites by up to twenty years. The latter changes would have been acceptable to environmental organisations, provided the state ensured the protection of the most endangered types of woods: nemoral and mesoeutrophic forests. Since the state backed out of this guarantee at the last moment, having stalled it for fifteen years for various reasons, a wave of opposition is unleashed, making social media teem with the protests of thousands of unhappy citizens. This general opposition culminated in the demonstration held in front of the Ministry of the Environment last year.

New methods

20 December 2016. Four days have passed since the demonstration. The results of the Estonian Statistical Forest Inventory (Eesti Statistiline metsainventuur, SMI) are presented at the Ministry of the Environment. The Environment Agency has made changes to the methods of calculating forest increment and this has resulted in an unprecedented number – 15 million cubic metres instead of the previous 12 million. There are not enough chairs to seat all those attending. Allan Sims, who was in charge of changing the methods, tells his audience that it was not possible to calculate the exact increment volume based on the SMI data for the first (1999–2003) and second period (2004–2008). “Thus, we used the best method available at the time – the increment model included in the forest survey guidelines,” Sims explains. “It was only after the third measurement period (2009–2013) that we had a sufficient volume of repeatedly measured trees to be able to use the data that corresponds to our actual forest growth and reach completely reliable results.”

The seminar drags on for longer than anticipated. Several elaborating questions are asked and one of the audience members proposes that the data of SMI’s field work is published. This way, other specialists would be able to assess their methods better. Questions touch upon various forestry issues, eventually arriving at the Forest Act amendment. At this, a suited man in the front row jumps up and, without introducing himself, proceeds to speak for the officials of the ministry. It is the leading specialist of the RMK, Veiko Eltermann. 

“We cannot delay the passing of the Forest Act for one more second!” Eltermann announces, explaining that unless the rotation age of spruces is lowered, the trees will simply keel over in the forest and rot away pointlessly. He claims that the amendment would have a negligible effect because it would affect only 4,200 hectares or 0.2% of our spruce forests.

However, the Ministry of the Environment has failed to explain that these 4,200 hectares are open for immediate cutting. This constitutes a failure to consider the long-term effects, as if forest management is only a short-term activity. Since the majority of rich spruce forest sites are owned by the state, it becomes increasingly likely that the amendment is necessary for increasing the cutting volumes of the RMK. This theory is supported by Veiko Eltermann’s statement at the ministry’s public seminar.

Double standards

25 June 2013. RMK is presenting the management plan of the Alutaguse forest district: it is where the last permanent habitats of Estonia’s most endangered animal, the flying squirrel, are located. The population of the tiny animals, who have lived in our forests for millennia, is decreasing with every passing year and environmentalists see them as a kind of canary in the coal mine – a sensitive creature which indicates the deterioration of our forests. In the early 1990s, the habitat of flying squirrels covered 3,180 square kilometres, but this has now shrunk to 550. Therefore, the habitat of the protected species has decreased by more than 80% over twenty years – there are currently less than 40 nesting places of flying squirrels left.

Flying squirrels are not mentioned at the seminar introducing the management plan. The audience is briefed on the managerial side of forest districts: the volume of thinning is on the rise in the coming decade, because forest districts will receive nearly 18,000 hectares of new forest land. More extensive regeneration cutting (clear-cutting and shelterwood cutting) is also planned, because a large proportion of forests located in designated areas have matured to a sufficient degree. The RMK also considers it necessary to stress the extent of the losses that are made in Alutaguse forest districts due to conservation limits: according to specialists, across a 16,000-hectare area, strict conservation limits have resulted in the loss of around 454,000 euros in annual tax revenue and in 120 jobs not being created in the forestry sector.

“The RMK understands the importance of these forests and protective measures for preserving nature and variety, but we consider it important to highlight the cost and economic effect of these measures,” Koidu Simson, a forester in Alutaguse, explains.”17 17. Metskonnad tutvustasid tulevikku, Põhjarannik, 26 June 2013, p 4. Read here.Yet the purpose of this analysis is unclear, and the highlighted data is not compared to the revenue generated by the accommodation and leisure services that highlight the recreational functions of the forests of Alutaguse. When it comes to recreation areas, the RMK only draws attention to the fact that “all cutting planned in the zones of recreation areas will be done in accordance with the landscape [and] timed in such a way as to cause a minimal amount of inconvenience to hikers and minimal damage to the recreational environment.”18  18. Alutaguse metskonna metsa majandamise kava aastani 2022, p 47. Thus, the people on hiking trails will not see that increasingly intensified cutting is taking place in state forests.

At the same time, in its campaigns aimed at the public, the RMK presents itself as the keeper and protector of Estonian forests. Hikers are reminded of the freedom to roam, which means that the right to walk about freely in the forest is accompanied by the duty to take care of it. Various reasonable pointers are given, such as the recommendation to move carefully on the landscape to preserve the soil, and without making unnecessary noise, to avoid disturbing birds and animals. They also advise people to pack their food in recyclable packages and avoid using fossil fuel vehicles to reach camping sites. They attempt to inspire people with the slogan that the state forest welcomes everyone.

Closing ranks

22 December 2016. Government press briefing. Margus Tsahkna, the chairman of the coalition party IRL (Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit), talks about how his fellow party member and Minister of the Environment Marko Pomerants is fighting against some unexpected forces that are, in his view, very well-organised and malevolent – this is how the parties opposed to the state forest management model are described. “The fact of forest-cutting is part of our economy,” Tsahkna says. “Now some anonymous analysts and experts are saying crazy things! This is not a green worldview – it is a spiteful attitude towards one’s own property!”

Incidentally, these “anonymous analysts and experts” include Raul Rosenvald, who is the Senior Researcher of Silviculture at the Estonian University of Life Sciences; Raul Rosenvald, who moderates the working group of the FSC’s Estonian Sustainable Forestry Standard; Asko Lõhmus, who is the head of the Chair of Natural Resources at the University of Tartu and also serves on the National Forestry Council; and Kaie Kriiska, who is a PhD student of landscape ecology and co-author of the Estonian development plan for adapting to climate change, and who had published an in-depth article on non-sustainable logging only a week earlier.19  19. Rosenvald, Raul; Lõhmus, Asko 2016. Tartu teadlased: keskkonnaministeerium varjab mittesäästlikku metsaraiet. Postimees, 14.12. 2016 Environmental organisations, too, have been speaking out for years about forestry issues in Estonia, but they have previously not received enough coverage to affect the government. The strengthening of the forest protection movement is above all related to the declining biodiversity of forests and the increasingly visible clear-cuts across our landscape.

A little over a year before Margus Tsahkna’s statement, his wife, Anna-Greta Tsahkna, founder and director of the startup Timbeter, recounted how she became involved with the timber industry. Her startup specialises in developing timber-measuring software; however, the idea was conceived by team member Vallo Visnapuu, who owns a sawmill and has been involved with the timber sector for fifteen years.

“It seemed to me that I had to try it then, otherwise I would never be able to walk past a pile of timber without a pang of regret,” Anna-Greta Tsahkna recounts, listing the reasons why she abandoned a steady job for the uncertain world of startups. According to her, this decision was greatly facilitated by the support of her husband. “Margus [Tsahkna] told me immediately to go and do it and get this thing going. I cannot imagine having made this decision without support at home.”20 20. Anna-Greta Tsahkna: kindlalt palgatöölt oma startup’ini – kuidas see käib, Director, March 2015.

First rays of hope

17 January 2017. The public session of the Environment Committee of the parliament21 21. Watch here the recording of the session. focuses on the protection of Estonian forests. The session takes place thanks to a public call for the protection of forests by ordinary citizens and cultural figures and increasing displeasure about the developments in forest policies. Asko Lõhmus, a research professor at the University of Tartu, reminds the members of parliament that Estonian forestry policies are based on the sustainable forestry model, which means that the society must function within the limits set by the environment, and the economy, in turn, must function within the limits set by society. In reality, however, an intense timber industry overrides both environmental as well as social interests.

Mikk Link, head of the Estonian Private Forest Union, talks about the benefits offered by private forest owners, which, in addition to timber, include oxygen and birdsong. According to Link, several countries reimburse the social and environmental benefits provided by private forest owners. However, the nature tourism entrepreneur Bert Rähni explains that there is another aspect to the economic benefits of forests, aside from the profits made from the timber sector – nature tourism. In Rähni’s view, nature has a great role in attracting tourists to Estonia, which is why, in the long term, preserving and protecting forests may yield bigger profits than cutting.

At the same public session, Allan Sims, the leading specialist of the Environment Agency, presents yet another new method of the Statistical Forest Inventory (Statistiline metsainventuur, SMI), which resulted in an unprecedentedly large estimate for the annual increment of Estonian forests – 15 million cubic metres. After a request to elaborate by Rainer Vakra, the head of the Environment Committee, it turns out that the increment of managed forests is actually only 11.8 million cubic metres. The issue of cutting volumes is raised unexpectedly. Since there are disagreements about calculating the cutting volumes of Estonian forests, it is actually unclear whether or not the volumes remain within the limits of increment. Asko Lõhmus proposes settling the issue of cutting volumes once and for all with modern scientific analyses; otherwise it will remain unclear whether cutting volumes correspond to increment. None of the MPs supports the scientist’s proposal.

Only a day earlier, on 16 January, the Forest Council finally approved the protection plan for nemoral and mesoeutrophic forests due to increasing societal pressure, and can finally go ahead with the amendments to the Forest Act. Protecting nemoral and mesoeutrophic forests in order to preserve the biota has been put off for fifteen years for various reasons – and during that time, the RMK has simply cut down nearly 40% of nemoral and mesoeutrophic forests.22   22. RMK aladel on viimastel aastakümnetel maha raiutud ligi 40 protsenti salumetsi, Delfi, 12 January 2017. Read here. Now we finally have a plan, which, if implemented, would solve an important problem in the preservation of biodiversity in Estonian forests. According to environmental organisations, the follow-up process should prioritise the further elaboration and implementation of the protection plan.23 23. Metsandusnõukogu heakskiidu saanud metsade kaitse tegevusplaan vajab elluviimist, Delfi, 17 January 2017. Read here.

However, a crowd-sourced Facebook page includes a daily stream of sad stories about patches of land cleared of trees by the state or private owners. It is mid-winter – cutting season. Ornithologists publish worrying data that Estonia loses about 60,000 bird couples a year;24 24. Eesti metsadest on kadunud 60 000 linnupaari aastas, Eesti Ornitoloogiaühing, 18 January 2017. Read here.this announcement comes as a shock to many. Yet there is some optimism that perhaps now the state will begin functioning democratically and the those opposed to the circles of forest industrialists will get a say too. The nemoral and mesoeutrophic forests protection plan has been finally approved thanks to pressure from society. The popular movement is becoming increasingly organised. For the first time in a long time, citizens are feeling that their voices may matter. However, this is only the beginning of achieving a balanced forestry policy in Estonia.

Linda-Mari Väli is a freelance journalist. In recent years, she has focused mainly on researching Estonian forestry policies, which has resulted in her becoming one of the leaders of the popular movement Eesti Metsa Abiks (For Estonian Forests).


Comment by Asko Lõhmus*:

A Schizophrenic Situation

* Asko Lõhmus (born 1974) is the Head of the Chair of Natural Resources at the University of Tartu and a member of the State Forestry Council. His research focuses on the biodiversity and structure of forests, the choice of habitats for endangered species, the scientific grounds for protecting these habitats, the condition of Estonian wild birds and how they are monitored. He is the recipient of several academic honours and awards, including the National Science Award in agricultural sciences, the Badge of Honour of the University of Tartu and the Young Conservationist Award. He has participated in the writing of the Estonian Red Book, the Estonian Forestry Development Plan, the Estonian Conservation Development Plan and the Estonian Standard for Sustainable Forestry. He has reviewed manuscripts for around 40 international peer-reviewed journals. Since the restoration of independence, those planning Estonian forest management have tried to take two paths simultaneously: increasing timber production and adhering to agreements about sustainable development. During the first decade, the problems were hidden, because both required the organisation of forestry institutions and the creation of a legal framework, but after this, the paths separated. We have now reached a schizophrenic situation where current policies promoting intense logging are clearly out of step with the source documents, which proclaim sustainability. Unfortunately, state institutions cannot solve this problem because, far from being democratic and dynamic, they are designed to be above all cost-effective and subjugated to party politics. The head of the State Forest Management Centre, which holds a FSC certificate for sustainable forestry, has publicly stated that he is turning the state forest into a money-making machine. Looking at the landscapes ravaged by this machine, I am afraid that Estonia has gambled away its natural preconditions, inherited from the Soviet occupation, for leading the way with sustainable forestry.


The Metro That Never Was – Station by Station Through Riga

The Soviet occupation was a time of rapid growth for Riga, as large-scale industrialisation and high immigration pushed the population of the Baltics’ largest city ever closer to the million mark. Soviet cities that reached that mark got a metro, and previous decades had seen systems constructed in Tbilisi, Kharkiv and Tashkent, as well as a number of provincial Russian cities. So, in the mid-‘70s, plans started to be drawn up for Riga to join them, becoming the first city in the Baltic states to have an underground mass transit system. Opposition from many in society was immediate and fierce, and the objections took a number of forms: fears about environmental degradation, concern about possible damage to the historic buildings of the Old Town, that Riga’s water-logged soil would make the project unsafe. But perhaps the most pressing was the suspicion that the immigrants who would be needed for construction of the enormous project would finally tip the population balance to make Latvians a minority in the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic (after decades of high immigration from the rest of the Soviet Union, they formed just over half of the population by the late '80s, and considerably below that in Riga).

Riga would have been one of the more ambitious and complex Soviet metro systems – three long lines were planned, forming a slightly wobbly six-pointed star extending to almost all corners of the city. If the original plans had been stuck to, construction would have started in the early ‘80s and the first stations would have opened in 1990. But what 1990 actually brought was renewed Latvian independence, and the project ground to a halt, seemingly forever – its revival has never been seriously discussed. Despite this, it remains an object of fascination for many, in the way that large-scale alternative histories tend to be – a vision of a more tightly integrated, reconceptualised city, affected by shifted forces, considerations and realities, where you could zip from one side to the other in a matter of minutes. Today, Riga is the largest capital city in the EU without a metro system, although its population has receded rapidly from the million mark since escaping the Soviet Union. 

But the abandoned project left a lot of residue, to the point where it can be more or less reconstructed in imagination by those interested. Detailed route maps survive, showing clearly how the colour-coded lines would have woven together below the modern city, making the distant suburbs accessible from the centre within a handful of minutes; the exact locations where they would have poked through to the surface. The designs for the interior of the metro stops – many of which have also survived – are striking, showing a tactile, sweeping lines, futuristic and monochrome, station names picked out in neon, all looking wipe-clean – the distant future, as envisioned in the distant past. Could the Riga that remains: a sprawling, often traffic-choked city, with trolleybuses stretching around narrow city centre corners, have benefited from such a form of transport?

Latvia-based writer Will Mawhood and photographer Jonas Büchel visit the site of every proposed station on the first line, for a project that will tell in text and images the story of the ghost metro that runs below the city, the Riga that could have been and the Riga that we have.

An exhibition of photography and prose from the project will be held in the near future in Riga. U/Deep Baltic has the exclusive extracts and photography from three of the metro stations visited.



If [previous metro stop] Zolitūde was purpose-built, Pleskodāle feels unintentionally-left. It’s a strange, in-between place, just a short stroll down Anniņmuižas iela from the previous projected metro stop. It’s broadly speaking, an area of private housing, although there’s little in the way of coherence and character – they’re from all over, all time periods, built from all materials, for all reasons. It seems like a place to drive through, at speed, and the buildings here seem like weeds caught in a car tyre, strewn about with little real design. I’ve never heard anyone say they’re from Pleskodāle, or that they are going there, or that they have any opinions about it; I’m not sure I’d ever heard it spoken out loud before. It seems a little hard to understand why the metro stop was planned here, unless it was necessary to break up the journey; perhaps the metro station was planned to serve an adjunct to the neighbouring, newer district – was a greater Zolitūde intended by the Soviets? 

Besides the vehicles thrumming past the crossroads, a house built out of sensible dark hardwood is decorated by big banal yellow letters reading “LOVE HOME PEACE”. They take up an entire floor. Partly out of boredom, we take a right off Anniņmuižas – and find within rough gravel roads, shaggy hedgerows, spacious gardens, vegetation providing infill, a few strategic rubbish dumps. It could be quite a bit further out from the city than it actually is – a kind of countryside is permitted to remain here, seemingly due to oversight or indifference.

The place where the metro station building and most of the exits would have gone, I guess, is on a sizeable patch of greenery where Anniņmuižas and Jūrkalnes meet – I hesitate to call it a park, because it’s not really possible to walk through it and it’s barely cared for, mostly overgrown and encircled either by private houses or by convenience stores. Now, where commuters would have ascended from underground trips to the centre, there is a Super Netto, a branded square on a cocktail stick announcing its presence. On the other side of the road, a pretty, ochre-coloured wooden house peers forlornly over a ragged screen of foliage, which rises above the wire fence in front. Shivers run through the weeds as the cars pulse by, and a couple of rows of shipping containers in the garden complete the image of indifference, casual chaos.



Unlike many of the other projected metro stops we visit, Zasulauks already is a transport hub of at least moderate significance – it’s the place where the day-tripper’s railway line from central Riga to the seaside town of Jūrmala, one of the busiest in the country, meets the lonely, neglected freight track north to the industrial town of Bolderāja. This is where the underground would have linked up with the above-ground railway, allowing people from certain districts of Pārdaugava to get to the seaside little bit easier. Despite all this, the flyover at one end still makes it seem overlooked, neglected.

Above the tracks, tangled knitting of wires; alongside, a confusing jumble of stop signs for different vehicles, different situations. In the middle distance a factory chimney rises.

The station building is a pre-war confection, mildly grand, spreading its arms out along the platform; “Zasulauks” is emblazoned across in a curious violet shade, slightly bleached by time but looking like it aspires to luminosity. The structure probably would have served its modified purpose quite effectively.

We walk past and over to the other side. There we find a collection of not particularly coherent buildings. There is a trikotāža, selling knitwear via a blank-eyed family of mannequins. It’s the quintessence of grey, topped with a curious roof – or series of roofs – that brings to mind a zagging profit graph. A tram creaks to a halt nearby – this is the terminus for probably Riga’s least-used tramline, Number 2 – and a single person gets off. To our left is a wooden house, this one a pale honey-yellow, and penned in extremely tightly by a perimeter fence, even though it’s surrounded by a large, apparently public green. Jonas tells me that the wooden house and others around it probably would have gone to make way for one of the exits, even if this were not strictly necessary to construct them.

The Soviets had it in for these buildings, and particularly the pretty, mostly wooden district of Āgenskalns, which this is arguably a far-flung corner of. In the same way that the Latvian educated classes strove to ignore the Russian neologisms that filtered through to Latvian, they valued those buildings that looked like Latvia once had, and many together clustered in Āgenskalns. But, of course, anyone who has lived in a Riga wooden building (I have) can tell you just how draughty, dangerous and prone to mysterious (conveniently timed) fires they often are. I remember that this metro was stopped by people waving banners protesting Russification.


Alfa (Šmerlis)

From the shores of Lake Jugla, and the eponymous terminus there, it’s a big jump to the next projected stop. We take a tram down Brīvības gatve, which is what Riga’s central thoroughfare, Brīvības iela, is called once it has stopped having any of the generally understood characteristics of a street and simply become a means of transporting large quantities of traffic in and out of the city. The length of the jump is quite understandable – this is where Riga becomes increasingly loose and ill-defined, large chunks filled in by patches of forest like the sinister, spreading Biķernieki, once a scene of mass shootings. It’s the kind of area which estate agents tend to edge into neighbouring districts. The metro stop here would have been named Šmerlis, after a nearby patch of trees – but now, at least on the website we’re using for reference, it’s referred to by the name of the giant shopping centre that has taken its place – Alfa.

The shopping centre itself is hard to avoid: all public transport deposits you directly outside, but we decide not to head straight there but scope out the surroundings a little. This spacious, amorphous district has always been a district characterised more by big, sprawling institutions and facilities that people visit temporarily rather than somewhere people set up home – a sports college, Rīga Kino Studija, a huge ice rink. A metro probably wouldn’t have made much difference to this. We walk slowly past a complex of factory buildings on an adjacent street; they seem technically abandoned – silent, neglected, still, their gates wide before a deserted car park. But an unseen worker sees us taking photos and the corrugated gates start to shudder ineffectually shut, running out of energy half-way across.

We start to head slowly towards Alfa, along the pounding traffic of the two-lane road passing us by. We cross over and find an unexpectedly delicate, angular bus shelter, I assume of Soviet vintage – all tilts and planes, geometrical lines leaning on each other to improbable effect. At the back of the bus shelter, we leave gravel and asphalt and break into the trees beyond, taking a short cut towards the shopping centre through the semi-tended patch of wasteland between; an admin worker inside an office behind the bus shelter sees us on the wrong side of the road and scoots over to the window to observe us. Beyond, the trees are not thick enough to mask the road beyond or muffle the sound of traffic. There are paths beaten into the undergrowth, lightly strewn with litter, but there are wild flowers growing there too – sudden inconsistent flashes of colour. This route should not be here – the layout of the shopping centre and its attendant car parks makes no acknowledgement of any accessible hinterland, but the paths look well-worn nonetheless. The bright red Alfa building, defining the skyline, seems like something that sucks colour and energy out of its surrounding areas. Then we enter the shopping centre, constructed like most with no windows or reference to its surroundings. I quickly forget anything around me, my bearings, which way I came in, all that is around us; I am directed the way they want me to be.



U19 – Deep Baltic Credits

U19 – Deep Baltic editors

Andra Aaloe, Keiti Kljavin, Will Mawhood (Deep Baltic)

Translation and proofreading

Kaisa Kaer, Andra Aaloe, Will Mawhood, Piret Karro


Vera Naydenova, Maria Derlõš, Andreas Wagner


Owen Hatherley, Kaija-Luisa Kurik, Keiti Kljavin, Will Mawhood, Ovidijus Jurkša, Richard Schofield, Evelina Šimkutė, Kotryna Lingienė, Kęstutis Lingys, Jiri Tintera, Ines Weizman, David Grandorge, Jonathan Lovekin, Kārlis Bērziņš, Edward Lucas, Agnese Reķe, Linda-Mari Väli, Albert Truuväärt, Jonas Büchel, Andra Aaloe, Eitvydas Kinaitis, Ingrid Nielsen


Johan Tali, Evija Taurene, Maros Krivy, Lumi Paakspuu, Lewis & Bob McGuffie

Cover image

Laugus I (2016). From the series "Ground" by David Grandorge and Jonathan Lovekin


Publishing the joint issue of U & Deep Baltic was supported by Cultural Endowment of Estonia and Estonian Ministry of Culture.