Wishful thinking and daily realities of rural Estonia

How, and to what extent, can regional planning and architecture address rural conditions without succumbing to the promotion of idylls of the rustic, the pastoral, or the wild? What forms and typologies have perpetuated the rural idyll , and what forms and typologies can work with the real rather than the wishful expectations as we move towards rural futures?

By Keiti Kljavin

The Estonian state has ascribed to a strategy of low-density territorial urbanised space. The  idea of a scattered City-Estonia has been conceived, where settlements are liveable and interconnected with each other and with the outside world. The extent of the daily reality can be perceived differently, characterised by  a population constituently concentrated in large urban areas, or having relocated to the outside world. The rural (settlement), denoted as the ‘other’ is  becoming an assemblage of unwanted uses, that fall outside of a normative framework created to support the scattered urban landscape. This recent  idea is composed and sustained by logistics spaces and data centres, landfills and rare earth metal mines, and, most distressingly, expendable populations forced to commute because of the implementation of placemaking strategies.

These tendencies allow us to assume that the meaning of rural living has changed. Municipalities near regional centres, while previously considered rural, are in fact more than urban. For instance, land use near cities is no longer  dominated by feeding the urban population ; – agricultural holdings have diminished and a proportion of rurality is experiencing urban recreational colonization. This has led to a rise in the ambiguities of how one also understands suburbanization (Oja, 2020). Some segments of the rural realm, such as coastal villages and culturally valued landscapes, have been transformed into imaginary respites from a hectic city life. They have been deemed a status; as locations for ostensibly non-capitalist ideals of self-realization, where engaged community experience can still be realized. Yet clearly there are social costs and structural ramifications of this urban-rural divide. How, and to what extent, can regional planning and architecture address rural conditions without succumbing to the promotion of idylls of the rustic, the pastoral, or the wild? What forms and typologies have perpetuated the rural idyll , and what forms and typologies can work with the real rather than the wishful expectations as we move towards rural futures?


The city as hinterland? (The rural as co-constitutive)

There have been discussions to create two zones in Estonia, one in the more developed Harju county which includes the capital Tallinn, and the other constitutes the rest of Estonia. This demarcation would help distinguish the need for EU-funding.What would the city-state of Tallinn do, if there was not this other side of Estonia? My rhetorical question here is – can the rural be regarded as co-constitutive when it exceeds the urban? Can we perceive the city as the hinterland of the countryside? A contemporary fascination for the changing countryside – with experimental robotic farmlands, pipelines and data centres – has gone beyond its antidote for the urbanite anxiety remedied by  a rustic-romantic retreat and brings out the rural question, irreducible in the gaze of urban dwellers. If the urbanites dream living environment is being structurally adapted to algorithms’ through technologies and intelligent engineering, then this is mutually constitutive to urban. 


Limits of competitiveness 

Regional policy in Estonian is propelled by  principles  of regional innovation and competitiveness , which  has led many small towns and rural areas to search for ways to foster local development in  a globalised world (Loewen, B, 2018). Given the decreasing importance of agriculture and heavy industry, one strategy supported by EU funding since the early 2000’s (e.g. LEADER) (1), has been the diversification of the rural economy. This has been shown through the implementation of placemaking strategies that have represented material investments in tourism capitalism, destination branding and nature economies. Historically, Estonian identity has been rooted in farming and agriculture, generating positive images of rurality and its landscape.  However, the downward spiral of post-socialist shrinkage in Estonian rural areas and small towns shows a deterioration of rural images culminating . today, whereby rural areas and small towns are less associated with agriculture and more with recreation and tourism consumption (Raagmaa, Kõiv, 2013).

While these interactions  cultivate the self-marketing of idealised rural life and nature to attract visitors and/or second homeowners, the post-socialist reality of small towns manifests in increasingly negative ascriptions equating rurality with peripherality (Plüschke-Altof, 2017). These settlements in rural centres are fixed, with their deteriorated property and land with low market value (2) – inhabiting half-empty housing in outdated public space. One can argue that the impact of rapid urbanisation and suburbanisation processes within Baltic countries affects rural communities in more pressing ways than the effect of out-migration or low birth-rates at a state level. As a result, Baltics flux internal communities are losing population, jobs and services at a varying pace (depending on their size and location). Smaller communities that are farther away from the capitals are likely to shrink more quickly, than the average settlements. Would this imply that EU-funded place-marketing has been counterproductive in rural areas, as it does not really invest in the needs and desires of who/what? By fostering the discussion of something stigmatized such as the periphery, seen as under-developed, depressed thereby neglecting the fact that this all in all is privilege of the urban centres is indicating uneven development. 

I will bring attention to two examples of spatial interventions that are related to urban-rural dialectics of semi-rural regional development and planning issues based on my observations while working with medium scale communities and municipalities (3).


Public space lost to mobility

First an interesting case of large-scale spatial intervention in rural landscapes following EU funding schemes is the establishment and construction of “bike-highways” in 2000’s, connecting rural, more rural and more than rural areas in the countryside.

Financial support for establishment of those non-motorised roads comes from EU structural funds. In rural centres the car traffic is considered lighter, but the increasing pressure to use cars is visible in the low investments of footpaths or contemporary public space. These stretched, asphalted and straight asphalt lines should offer alternatives for commuting from point A to point B, encouraging healthy behaviour. 

In cases where these linear non-motorised roads being built alongside main state highways bypass small historical towns, most likely with centres unaffected by construction or improvements  in more than 50 years. Neither public highways nor bike-ways are completing their existing spatial configuration, nor intended streetscape and building lines. Instead, they illustrate settlements which are divided, expediting a transition that is not about the place, but about passing it. Their (the roads) architectural ignorance is not slowing down motorised movement or propagating  non-motorised mobility in villages, thus becoming a counter-force for public spaces that exist for different uses. I can imagine that these connections could introduce innovative architectural elements to ruralty like vertical nodes connecting dispersed rural space, that have different local versions in different contexts of a disconnected countryside – instead of propelling central planning-decisions nudged to implementation by funding-schemes. 

For formerly rural and now suburban settlements, where non-motorised ways have become the most popular public space, this is an especially unfortunate loss. The reason being that public space in urban sprawl has rarely been introduced through a classical use of the street space. Developers are obliged by urban design standards to develop footpaths in front of apartment buildings and if the local municipality does not make a concerted  effort towards comprehensive structural management, then street ambiance is lost. Bicycle and pedestrian paths are actively used by young parents for walking with their infants and toddlers, by sports enthusiasts for running, cycling and roller skating, as well as by dog owners. Footpaths are rarely used for travelling to work or school – functional mobility for suburban residents is mainly based on cars. Suburban transport infrastructure, wide motorways, frontage roads, multilevel junctions, noise barriers and petrol stations create a large-scale transport landscape (Roose, 2020, p. 66).

Adding urban will not save rural space

The second example of regional policy effort in medium and small-scale centres of Estonia is the EV100 Great Public Space programme (4). Established as part of the centenary celebrations of the Estonian republic, the programme, in cooperation with the Association of Estonian Architects, organized a series of public space competitions in small towns throughout Estonia. As an outcome, the existing (and newly designated) central areas of 15 small towns, main streets or their surroundings are now being reorganised. The premise of the program is to utilize European Regional Development Funds to bring big city design competences to rural areas. While it sparked  discussions on the future of small towns, small towns are facing increasingly uncertain economic futures. 

In general, many of the established and built renovations have gained recognition as well as drawing criticism from state officials and local community members alike. A number of the locations participating in this campaign can be considered as either seasonal or regional destinations. This has little to do with less central or peripheral places. The campaign is found to use the language of stigmatization (again) by saying that small towns need intervention and reorganisation and that this can be solved by adding “great public space”. The architectural language is imagining squares and boulevards with symbolic and ceremonial significance which is seemingly at odds with the complexity and inequality experienced in rural life today. Adding urban, or as many locals rephrased it “stone-paved squares”, can not solely save these places.

My main concern would be that this might become another lost cause in the row of many place-marketing attempts of investment schemes aimed at increasing  regional competitiveness. It is a very delicate and complex matter, which can not be solved with a spree of swift architectural competitions in a matter of five to six  years. The competitions have received criticism for being non-participatory as they do not engage local communities and their thoughts on what is ‘great’ in their public space. What ought to be addressed in these peripheral areas is questions on the quality of life which is subjective when one regards the matter of public space and its use. My understanding is that it might be very different from the ideas of leisure, consumption and celebration in forms of boulevards and plazas found in cities, if there are few people who see themselves using such architectural elements.


This essay is part of the Countryside Unfolds program, funded by the Swedish institute and the Goethe institute.

1.  The term “LEADER” originally came from the French acronym for “Liaison Entre Actions de Développement de l’Économie Rurale”, meaning ‘Links between the rural economy and development actions’, see more https://enrd.ec.europa.eu/leader-clld_en
2.  In Estonia, 13% of households still live in housing without all modern amenities. That indicator places Estonia among the lowest among EU countries. – Kährik A., Väiko A., 2020, Modern living conditions – whose privilege? The Estonian Human Development Report 2019/2020, Spatial choices for an urbanised society, p. 73. 
3.  Mainly on consulting in strategic and participatory planning, e.g. in 2019 compiling development plan for former military island Naissaar near capital, which aim was to map the main concerns within human relations to the island as a necessary foundation for future social and political policy, drawing spatial vision for small transit town Antsla in South Estonia, assembling a guideline for re-arrangements of housing and devising decline in East Estonia. 7.  More information about EV100. Great Public Space campaign http://www.arhliit.ee/english/ev100_greatpublicspace/
4.  More information about EV100. Great Public Space campaign http://www.arhliit.ee/english/ev100_greatpublicspace/