Average citizen, not government, leads Riga’s development

  • 2012-08-22
  • By Dorian Ziedonis

STREET SMART: Future transport means more dedicated high speed bike lanes throughout the city.

RIGA - “Fifty percent of commuting will be done by bicycle by 2015,” announced Lord Mayor of Copenhagen Frank Jensen in his opening remarks at the Committee of the Regions conference this spring. That may seem an outlandish claim, considering today’s era of the ubiquitous automobile, but for Danes it is all part of a realistic process of working towards a more energy-efficient and smarter economy. After all, bicycles are already an important mode of transport, ridden by 37 percent of commuters on an average workday in Denmark’s capital.

Copenhagen residents breathe cleaner air, have less noise pollution, burn less fossil-fuels, are more productive with less time on the road (though bike congestion is increasing), and are healthier with greater exercise.
The city, therefore, was the right venue to hold the conference titled “The European Urban Fabric in the 21st Century,” focused on how to combine ‘smart’ economic growth with sustainable living in an urban environment comprised of greener, socially inclusive cities. Politicians, regional planners, architects and others gathered for two days, from March 22-23, for the 5th European Summit of Regions and Cities in the Danish capital.

Targets are high. Approximately 75 percent of Europe’s population, or 375 million people, live in urban areas, and this number is growing, straining resources. Europe 2020, the EU’s growth strategy for the coming decade, projects the EU becoming a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy, complete with ambitious objectives - on employment, innovation and education.

The Committee of the Regions (CoR), a little-known European institution, is one of its most important. It is where much of the success, or failure, in reaching these goals will be determined. Set up in 1994, CoR is the 4th key EU decision-making institution, joining the European Parliament, the Council of the EU, and the European Commission. No major initiatives are supposed to be made by the other institutions without consulting CoR - the people’s voice in Brussels.
CoR consists of 344 members, representing cities and regions from around the EU, who meet regularly to share ideas to make the EU a better place to live.

Cities as talent magnet
Innovation is a complex process, not one that can be directed from Brussels. It happens mostly in population centers – that’s where the people, capital and ideas are. “It’s the role of towns and cities to make the investments,” announced Claude Jacquier, from research center CNRS, at the conference. “Seventy percent of investment comes through them,” he added.

Copenhagen is a leader in merging sustainable living with innovative industry; this wasn’t always so. It took a conscious decision to affect change. The “car invasion early in the last century led to a worsening of the quality of the city,” said architect Jan Gehl. “In 1962, it was decided to ‘pedestrian-ize’ Copenhagen. This lowered congestion, improved the aesthetics. It doesn’t always need lots of money. Much of this was done when the city was poor,” he noted.
Green initiatives went hand-in-hand with economic development. Investments into sewage treatment have led to a cleaner harbor, supporting the revitalization of the city center and increasing property values. An integrated public transportation network, a one-ticket-for-all-modes of transport, and technology has given motorists a better alternative to the car.

Recycling and waste-to-energy power plants have drastically reduced the need for landfill space. City district heating is powered by waste, straw, coal, and wood pellets.

Green means jobs
Electric cars zip around Copenhagen. Wind power accounts for 22 percent of Denmark’s total electricity consumption, and set to be 50 percent by 2030. The push to a green environment serves as the driver for innovation in technology. Jensen claims 25,000 jobs have been created in Copenhagen in renewable technologies alone.
Across the Oresund, the Swedish city of Malmo touts itself as ‘the first modern city.’

In the 1990s it lost one-fourth of its jobs as it sunk into stagnation. The city turned itself around, transitioning from an industrial base to a ‘city of knowledge.’ Investment has gone into public transport, the Northern Harbor port renovation, brownfield reclamation into new offices and housing, a new university.

Malmo’s wants to be world no. 1 at sustainable urban development by 2020, reads the city’s Web site. By 2030 the municipality is planned to run on 100 percent renewable energy. Wind farms today electrify 60,000 households.
Two innovation incubators targeted at ‘high knowledge’ industries, such as digital media and life sciences attract talent. Around 50 companies work out of these offices. One incubator, MINC, focuses on nano technology, and says 250 startups a year apply to get in. Another, the Cleantech Business Center, opened in March.
Malmo’s entrepreneurial spirit has seen a 25 percent rise in new jobs over the past 15 years.

Slow start
Architect Alfonso Vegara in Copenhagen spoke of having a “culture of innovation [as the key] strategy for sustainable” development, for future competitiveness. The city is a “living laboratory to attract leading companies,” he says.
This may be true elsewhere in Europe, but Riga seems stuck in neutral. The National Development Plan (for 2014-2020) is expected this year, says Gvido Princis, deputy director at Riga’s Development Department (he is now director/Riga city architect).

This should lead to better direction in the city’s development, give it a strategy, he adds. (The first draft of the Plan was just released for public discussion).
What is Riga’s plan to develop as a ‘knowledge’ city? He says, delicately, that economic development comes first, as financing is limited.

Much investment is needed just to undo the damage to infrastructure from the Soviet years.
Anda Kursisa, director of the board at Passive House Latvija, is more critical, saying simply that “The residents in Riga do not see any great efforts to make the city more sustainable.”

Self-initiative wins
Rigans aren’t waiting for the government. It’s the grass-roots initiated ideas that are getting going, not grand plans.
Take the ‘Creative Quarters’ concept (Radosie Kvartali). Nine neighborhoods around the city have been designated for development, each promoting a unique theme. The idea got its start, during the crisis, as a way to find a use for the growing number of empty store fronts.

The neighborhoods offer fashion design and clothing shops, cultural activities and cafes. Architectural and Web design offices, an innovation incubator on Andrejsala, add another layer to their draw among the entrepreneurial and creative classes. If not yet producing mind-blowing inventions or global technologies of the future, they serve, nonetheless, as meeting places for generating and sharing ideas.

The urban development project Radi Rigu has as its goal, its Web site mentions, to use public space as an instrument to bring about social renewal. It’s led “by creative types, architects,” says landscape architect Ilze Janpavle. Riga’s development office has agreed to help, such as with providing technical information, she adds.
Radi Rigu was launched in January last year. Five neighborhoods were selected for development out of 25 proposals.
One project, Bolderajas/Daugavgrivas, strives to bring together 2 groups - the Latvian and Russian communities - through improvement to the outdoor connecting space. Students assist architects with ideas in the design and implementation.

In making the community a place that is attractive to live and work in, “Money is not needed, good neighborhoods are,” says Janpavle. “Public space is a tool, it’s what people see,” she notes.

Two wheel commute
Cycling is rapidly developing as a mode of transport, as many leave their BMWs and Mercedes in the garage and hop on the saddle. It’s at a seminal stage. Most bike lanes are simply narrow strips on sidewalks marked by weathered paint. Cycling infrastructure still needs to be developed, says Princis.

Riga has narrow streets: there’s not enough room for everyone jockeying for the same space. Marija Abeltina, Riga City Council Development Department PR head, says that “in the historic part of the city (especially the UNESCO zone), with its limited space, there could be enough room for cars, bikes and pedestrians if we change our attitude to private cars as the preferable mode of transport and reduce [the number] of cars in this part of the city.”

Reckless habits have migrated from the car culture to some in the nascent biking movement, as seen by those who weave carelessly along crowded sidewalks as if they are a slalom course. There’s little understanding of respect and safety for others by cyclists.

Preparing for the future
City planning and green construction have matured around the globe in the past 50 years. Talented and forceful personalities in government are now needed, ones who understand the complex issues in designing public space. The question is whether Riga’s planners/architects will have the necessary skills.
Architectural student Andra Odumane says “My architecture studies in Riga Technical University offer one lecture course, about building construction, covering sustainability and reduced energy consumption.” There are optional lecture courses, “One of which is about green architecture,” she adds.

Green buildings cost less to operate, though initial construction costs are generally higher than conventional design. But even during the economic boom years green buildings were not in fashion in Riga. “Of course, while designing projects we need to think about sustainability, but it is not the first [concern at school]. Outside of school, we attend additional lectures on different topics,” says Odumane.

But the new crop of architects is looking ahead. “From my perspective Riga is developing, and Latvian architects and students take part in different events where together they carry out projects… offering suggestions for important public spaces [for Radi Rigu] and on how to improve them in terms of planning and design, optimization of transportation, increasing pedestrian safety,” asserts the architect.

Jobs vs. environment
Breathing clean air is certainly important. So are jobs. Imposing stiff environmental rules is costly for industry. For some regions of Europe facing weak economic growth, the talk in Copenhagen seems a luxury. It does not automatically follow that a city has to be ‘green’ to attract investment.

TBT contributor and consultant Charles Cormack says “In my view, green is a nice to have, [but is not] a ‘must have.’ When we work with inward investors they want to know if there are skills, is the cost base low and sustainable, is the government on hand to help and support the process. If a city fails on any of these then it does not matter how green it is, it will not get the investment. Having said that, the quality of life argument does play a part, especially if ex-pat staff is to be based in the business, but again that is quality of life, not ‘greenness.’”
The Basque region capital Vitoria-Gasteiz is the European Green Capital for 2012. Mayor Javier Maroto says the award sends a signal to investors about the lifestyle benefits of choosing a medium-sized town as a base for industrial operations, reported the Financial Times.

Urbanization over the past 50 years “has been in a more thought-out way,” he says. What attracts investment is the air quality, public transport, the number of parks and the recycling of waste. With a population of just 260,000, companies including Mercedes-Benz, tire manufacturer Michelin and aircraft parts maker Aernnova have moved in to set up shop.
Green need not be an end in itself, but rather a means to improve the quality of life. Urban living can be enhanced by “improving the way cities are managed, in policies for urban planning, housing design and efficient public transport, as well as provisions for walking and cycling,” writes the European Environment Agency.

With infrastructure, where substantial investment is needed, government needs to lead. Modern cities constantly evolve, but “political will is needed,” for direction, says Janpavle.
Riga’s Mayor Nils Usakovs needs to focus his energies on developing Latvia’s capital city, and not spend it on issues at the national level. This is what residents expect.

Otherwise, as we see, his government risks becoming more irrelevant to the local scene as the average citizen, not waiting around for nothing to happen, is already working to move this city forward.