Communicating Transitions in Valga, Estonia

Communicating urban transitions in Valga, a the city with a decreasing population, requires a communicative strategy on local, national and European level. In this interview with Jiri Tintera, Chief Architect of Valga and contributor to the Estonian Pavilion for the Venice Biennale 2020, we also find out the role of destruction, emotions in urban planning and the need to abandon growth-oriented policy as the only possible solution for towns with a decreasing population. Jiri Tintera requires a re:orientation in how we talk, understand and plan for these towns.

Are there any key elements in urban planning to be considered by small towns with decreasing populations?

I feel that shrinking municipalities need to concentrate mainly on the quality of life of their residents. And the attractiveness of urban spaces is important to achieve this goal. Therefore, the goal of planning in the context of depopulation should be a smaller but nevertheless viable town. Urban space interventions which shrinking communities can use to achieve this goal are, for example, building construction, demolition, an active housing policy, historic building restoration and urban space revitalisation.

How should we understand the concept of “revitalisation” in the perspective of a small town with these conditions? 

My findings underline the role of sentiment in urban planning, as well as local economy and heritage protection, just as in other aspects of urban development. Therefore, I see urban space revitalisation as a tool to encourage the local residents to take pride in their hometown. Following this argument, urban space revitalisation could be understood as the improvement of the attractiveness of the residents’ living environment.

Obviously, there are no easy solutions. However, the identified solutions in the case of Valga show that the population will not grow, and that the town needs to develop a new urban definition and design relevant for its current community. But in order to do this, you also suggest demolition of empty buildings. What kind of communicative challenges have you come across when identifying and implementing your plan for revitalisation? 

In Valga’s case, the proposed demolitions have not been difficult to communicate to the local residents. In general, there has been a good response among the residents, and the activities have been covered by the local newspaper in a positive way.  Especially the first wave of structures removal was seen as a symbol that something was starting to change. The residents would probably welcome an even faster pace of demolition, but this is often limited by complicated ownerships of empty houses. The buildings may have several owners, apartments may be mortgaged and indebted, and the owner sometimes lives abroad. However, the main obstacle in the demolition process is the lack of human resources in the town administration for these time-consuming negotiations. The communication of the demolition process to the heritage protection specialists is even more complicated.

Were there always positive reactions? Even from the beginning? If so, why? If not, what were the challenges? I remember you mentioning how difficult it was to discuss and accept the fact that the population actually is decreasing, and that something must be done? How did the town respond to these challenges? What kind of communicative strategies were or could have been applied?

Yes, the residents’ reactions to the demolition works have been mainly positive from the beginning and they still are. In fact, the problem is the opposite. There is strong pressure from the locals for extensive demolition also in the town centre. People tend to see demolition as a way of getting rid of ugly buildings around the new square, and they are urging our politicians to act accordingly. But these particular buildings are important to protect, as they convey the urban structure and history of the town centre. To be able to withstand the pressure from the politicians became a real challenge for me. 

To make the local residents and the politicians accept the reality of the situation became the main communicative challenge. Most of the factors underlying migration cannot be influenced at the local level. When planning the future of a shrinking town, it is important to learn how to adapt to the respective impacting factors, and accept the phenomenon of shrinkage as one of these. In the context of Valga, this means abandoning the idea that the town population could once again increase and reach the same level as three decades ago. At an individual and personal level, this is may of course be difficult to accept. People still remember life in Valga 30 years ago, when it was difficult to get a flat, and there were many jobs and a thriving cultural life. It isn’t easy to admit that everything has changed, and that there is not much hope for improvement in the near future. It is easy to become bitter which definitely does not help people to adapt to a new reality. Population shrinkage is a fact which many communities, who are facing the same future, sometimes fail to realize and accept.

To be able to communicate the need for change, you need to get an overview of the size of the problem. The local authorities conducted a survey in 2015 including visual assessments of the real use of each plot (both with and without buildings). The results showed that 80% of the plots were used. As the abandoned or underused plots tended to be larger than average, only 72% of the surface area of the plots was used. This clearly showed that in a town that has lost around a third of its population, also about a third of its land area may not be used. These are key figures in the communication of the need for change, both locally and nationally. 

And what possibilities do you see in communicating this conceptual and physical transition of the urban space of Valga? We all agree that this is also a historical space associated with tradition and sentiment.

The easiest way to communicate the demolition of a particular building is usually to highlight the necessity of eliminating any hazards in the form of dilapidated buildings. The removal of ugly demolished buildings will improve the attractiveness of the urban environment. Moreover, the aim of adequate long-term demolition is to adjust the availability of housing to the needs of the current residents, while at the same time increasing the value of the remaining properties.

To be sure, demolition means that something disappears – for good. Especially older buildings tend to convey distinct historical, architectural and sentimental values, and the decision to have them demolished should not be taken lightly. Nevertheless, demolition should remain as one of the tools available to local authorities in order to enhance positive urban development as a whole.

From a communicative perspective, what does it mean that the case of Valga is the Estonian contribution to the Venice Biennale 2020?  

At the national level, the communication of Valga’s (and other small shrinking towns’) needs to academics, stakeholders, officials and politicians have been quite successful, and the choice of Valga to represent Estonia in Venice proves it. I hope that the exhibition will help us reach a broader public.  If in the long term, we wish to make life possible also outside Tartu and Tallinn, the decision must be backed by the Estonian general public. Population shrinkage as a demographic process must be accepted and its reasons and consequences understood. Therefore, we need to define the shrinking areas and present various measures for their development. At the European level, I hope that the exhibition will help us to establish relevant contacts with architects, scientists, researchers and municipal representatives. To sum up: If we want to solve the problems of shrinking communities, this must be supported by the will of the whole community. Shrinking communities cannot be left on their own to face powerful urbanization and globalization forces, they need help.

Does the participation in the exhibition mean that Estonia has obtained a better understanding of how to reorienting the needs of a town with a decreasing population compared to other Baltic, Nordic and European countries?

I hope so. At least the fact that this particular case was chosen to represent Estonia in Venice, shows that the community of Estonian architects is directing their interest towards the needs of small shrinking communities. This can also be observed in higher education, where an increasing number of  bachelor and master’s degree projects are addressing this topic. This definitely points  to a positive interest development among society as a whole.

I don’t feel confident to compare the situation in Estonia with other European countries, as I am not familiar with it. If we focus only on academic research on shrinking communities,  Western Europe (with Germany in the lead) is certainly ahead of Eastern Europe. 

So, what kind of communicative elements would be necessary in order to develop an active urban design for small towns with decreasing populations? 

Firstly, we need to change the perception of shrinkage. Scholars already see shrinkage along with population growth as a natural part of urban development, and they call for change in the perception of shrinkage. However, among the general public urban growth is associated with positive development, while shrinkage signals a negative development. The example of some Asian and African cities shows that a rapidly growing population brings complex problems into urban development as does a rapid population decrease, for example in some European and North American towns. Consequently, major population shifts constitute new challenges in urban development, and we should rather aim for stability than population change. Hence shrinkage, if not too rapid, is not necessarily a negative phenomenon and should be considered as a value-neutral term. We need to accept the fact of shrinking communities and abandon growth-oriented policy as the only possible solution.


Spring 2020
Photos by: Jiri Tintera and Egemen Mercanlioglu.