CIVIC VISIONS

  • 2007-11-21

cartoon by Jevgenijs CHeKSTERS

The conference on the future of Tallinn illustrated many of the issues the Estonian capital must resolve, and the diverse opportunities it must choose from, if it is to achieve the ambition of becoming a metropolis capable of competing with Helsinki, Copenhagen, Oslo and other northern business centers.
Speakers at the conference, which included current and previous civic leaders, did not come empty-handed; they tossed around ideas left and right. One suggested making Tallinn a regional financial center. Another went for broke, proposing to make the English language the lingua franca of business and government in the Estonian capital. If Tallinn were an English-speaking beehive of commerce, the capital would receive an enormous boost in competitiveness, said Toomas Vitsut, deputy chairman of the City Council. Judging by the success of the Nordic capitals, his proposal deserves consideration.

One development model for Tallinn often mentioned involved merging the city's administration and public services with those of Helsinki. As the cities converge in terms of costs of living, and labor deficits require increased effectiveness, this option might also look more attractive.
While gazing into the distant future, civic planners shouldn't lose sight of everyday municipal headaches; before running, one must learn to crawl. In the modern world, the problems of cities boil down to trash and traffic. Tallinn is shackled by automotive bottlenecks; zoning laws are woefully ignored; and too much infrastructure development depends on EU money. At least these are the pessimistic conclusions confirmed by city architect, Endrik Mand, at a recent British Chamber of Commerce seminar. As he explained, Tallinn authorities now prefer to regulate traffic 's the ubiquitous curse on civic development throughout the world 's through inertia, or by letting traffic work itself out. "Drivers will learn to avoid certain areas. If we widen certain roads we just invite drivers," Mand said, and quite correctly.

Former Mayor Tonis Palts, who spoke at the conference, highlighted a fundamental necessity for any long-term vision: it must have broad popular support. Tallinn residents must understand where their city is headed. When everyone is thinking in the same direction, Palts stressed, the transformation will be less resisted and better facilitated. Granted, getting a majority of people to agree on anything is well-nigh impossible, particularly if the long-term development of their home town is under discussion, but the vision must be shared if it is to succeed.
In this sense the Tallinn conference also raises questions about the future of Riga and Vilnius. Understandably, each city sees itself as a hub for tourism, banking and service related sectors, as well as value-added production of high-tech goods. Tallinn and Riga have their ports, but Vilnius has Kaunas, a city of 400,000 just an hour's drive away. Together the two cities could create a bona fide European metropolis. Riga has the population and nearby seaside resort towns (not to mention the Baltics' best nightlife, much to the disappointment of residents).

It is easy to see how the three Baltic capitals will continue to compete with one another, and their Nordic counterparts. The Balts, to be sure, have the benefit of hindsight, and can learn from other cities' mistakes. They can retain the competitive edge by keeping taxes low, minimizing red tape and reacting quickly to regional and world trends.
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