My previous visits to Riga were in the winter. Fading light on gloomy afternoons, sleet and snow chilling the soul, forcing me to seek the refuge of a warm bar or café. Now I am here in vibrant springtime, with a crescent moon in a crimson night sky after a day of warm sun. Suddenly, light green leaves have burst the grip of the long, bare winter. There is a promise of better days ahead: this great European city looks to the future with new confidence.
A great European city
Riga is the biggest city on the Baltic between St.Petersburg and Hamburg. It was a Hanseatic port where east met west, trade was done and craftsmen thrived. Once the town’s ramparts were demolished in the mid-19th century, there was a bold plan to transform that land into a circle of green space and boulevards, as in so many German-influenced cities. This legacy is still enjoyed by citizens and tourists: high value land close to the city used for public enjoyment rather than private profit. The city then spread with style beyond this ring: the extent and quality of the Art Nouveau architecture testifies to the wealth and culture of Riga before the First World War.
Riga’s physical fabric suffered surprisingly little damage from the horrors inflicted on Latvia during the Second World War (occupation by Russia, then by the Nazis then by Russia again). Riga became a Soviet city. The stamp of Stalin is still evident in the townscape, not just in the skyline “wedding cake” of the Academy of Sciences, Moscow’s familiar fraternal 1950s gift. The main built environment legacy of Soviet era is the suburban panel-construction flats from the 1970s and 80s, enduring signifiers both of the old regime’s losing battle to nurture acceptance and of its determined importation of ethnic Russians into Latvia.
After Latvia regained its independence, and embraced market forces, Riga produced a ten year development plan in 1995. Heritage preservation was a key aim. As a review of the plan reports, the policies and principles were not always “consistently observed in practice”. The historic environment in the city centre “has not been adequately protected against unfavourable development tendencies”. City development policy became “secondary or even non-existing (sic)”. Development pressures mounted, there was no time to prepare detailed plans for the historic core, frustrated developers lobbied local politicians, and decisions became politicised.
Mixed use had seemed an exciting new concept in the heady days of 1995, but the failure to carry through into Building Regulations basic controls on illumination, noise, air pollution and traffic generation created very practical problems. There was a tendency to set planning policy aside in favour of the economic benefits that a development would bring, not least to the local authority itself. Eventually there was a public backlash, led by the Environment Protection Club, and a moratorium on development pending the adoption of a plan.
In fairness, the location of some of the largest commercial developments was on the periphery of the historic core, and a credible case could be made for them. The Origo shopping centre adjoins the Central Station on a site intended for the railway’s passenger terminal in the 1995 Plan; nearby the Stockman complex of shops and cinemas developed on land planned for “transport infrastructure”. However, there has also been loss of green space for car parking and an extension to the National Theatre.
Given the numerous edge city retail parks, the lipstick on the urban collar of consumerism, the city centre shopping galleries look functionally sensible. So many of the users are the multitude of young women working in the new service industries in the historic centre, their jobs and appetites for shoes, clothes, coffees and mobile phones unimaginable to the elderly men who ran the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Overall my impression is that Riga’s planners have done a better job, all things considered, than in some of Europe’s other post-socialist cities. The World Heritage status of the centre remains justified. Tourists flock to see it. There are delightful narrow lanes adding intrigue alongside the grander ecclesiastical squares. The grassy banks of the city canal provide repose despite the heavy traffic nearby. Where there has been new development within the once-walled area, existing building heights have been respected, though elsewhere the egotistical architecture of big business is making its mark on the skyline.
In all of this it is important to remember that Riga has undergone strong economic growth over the last 15 years, notwithstanding the serious slump that hit in 2008. Latvia as a whole has lost an estimated 300,000 of its 2.3 million population to international migration, but Riga, by far the prime city, has kept the national economy afloat.
Regional imbalance and rural decline
However, the scale of the regional imbalance and the pace of depopulation in the remoter rural regions in the east of the country are creating a different crisis. I was speaking at a conference on regional growth, in the town of Valmiera, about 90 minutes drive from the capital through woods and forests.
The event focused on the “9+21” development strategy proposed in the Latvia 2030 sustainable development strategy, and endorsed in the new National Development Plan that was adopted last year. In essence this proposes concentrating public investment (notably EU Structural and Investment Funds) on 9 main towns and 21 smaller ones. The rhetoric is that these places will function as regional growth poles, spreading the benefits to their weaker rural hinterlands. Predictably, there were expressions of anguish from representatives of the villages and small local authorities. Civil servants in Riga visit such about as often as government officials from London make a trip to South Shields.
Latvia represents today’s global development challenges in microcosm. The young and able, especially young women, are moving to the cities, where there are education opportunities and service industries demanding their skills and offering the lifestyle to which they aspire. Urban land is needed for offices, apartments, logistics centres, leisure complexes and shops perpetually re-stocking designer-ware and gadgets as last year’s models become obsolete. Riga today is more like Paris, New York or Shanghai that it has ever been, economically, socially and culturally, and its planners and designers have to keep up with the pace.
The secondary cities – places like Valmiera – hang on, often with distinct strengths; in the case of Valmiera, an excellent local brewery and a university committed to being an active partner in regional development. But beyond them, in the fields and the forests, fewer and fewer men labour, and the villages lose their means and reasons to exist. I doubt that the 9+21 strategy will be able to save such places.