What does a town planning expert from the United States think of Tartu? Kadri Leetmaa (Institute of Human Geography) and Ott Toomet (Department of Economics) talked to Daniel B. Hess, associate professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York.
KL and OT: Welcome back to Tartu. Can you tell us a little bit about your encounters with this city?
DH: Slightly more than a year ago I visited Tallinn University of Technology Tartu College for 6 months. I taught courses about town planning in the Landscape Architecture program and also had discussions with various professors in both Tartu and Tallinn about town planning education since this is not taught here as traditionally done in the U.K. and North America. My research during that stay focuses on preservation of historic districts in Tartu and understanding Soviet-era planning. This time I am here with 11 students from the University at Buffalo on a 3-week trip. We spend most of the time in Tartu and Tallinn and also visit Viljandi, Pärnu, Otepää and Riga. The students learn about sustainable town planning and Europe. They very much enjoy taking advantage of all the Tartu has to offer from their lodging on Raekoja plats.
KL and OT: What do you think are the most important planning issues Tartu has to address?
DH: This is an important question. I thinking strengthening the city center is an important priority. There is vacancy in some buildings and under-utilization of building space; filling this space will help bring density to the center and generate activity and diversity. It may also help reduce expansion on the urban fringe, although the demand for detached homes can be a powerful force in changing urban structure. In the same way, I see the new decentralized buildings of the University of Tartu as destabilizing the center and promoting a sprawled city. New university buildings on the urban fringe also promote travel by car, are likely to have large surface parking lots, and scatter and weaken the critical mass of students in the center.
Currently, the town center is quite lovely, surrounded as it is by parks and greenery. I think there is much opportunity to densify (in smart ways, of course) built-up areas and vacant land near the centrum and avoid sprawling, or, even worse, leap-frogging, suburban development of single-family homes. I suspect there is demand for renovated flats in the city center, and new residents would help activate the centrum on nights and weekends.
KL and OT: Emajõgi is a dominating feature in Tartu geography. However, it does not feel like an organic part of the city. It remains too "far away" from people and everyday life.
DH: Agreed. Most of the riverbanks contain greenery and public space, unlike other cities in Europe built on canals and rivers where buildings directly align with the water (think of Venice). So a lack of adjacent development on the riverbanks maintains the natural river environment, but it also keeps the citizenry at arm’s length from the Emajõgi. In some cases, greenery on the riverbanks is a direct result of bombed-out sections from World War II that contained historic riverfront commercial buildings. New commercial opportunities can be sought for bringing people to the water’s edge, especially near less developed places like the western landing of the Market Bridge. Special events and festivities along the riverbanks can reinforce access to the water for the citizenry. Future cultural institutions may seek riverfront positions (imagine the newly-opened science in a riverfront setting in which the river was used in the building and its plazas and exhibits).
KL and OT: Compared to other cities you know, how easy do you feel it is to move around and reach everyday destinations in Tartu?
DH: Deputy Mayor Raimond Tamm informed us that 40 percent of trips in Tartu are made on foot. The students were quite shocked by this high figure, as the share of pedestrian trips in U.S. cities is much lower, and lower still in U.S. metropolitan areas and suburbs. The compactness of the city, especially in the central areas, encourages walking and, to a lesser extent, bicycling. I can think of few Western cities that have pedestrianization at this high level. I consider this to be a strong characteristic of Tartu’s urban structure and its inhabitants’ lifestyles, and serious effort should be devoted to maintaining it. Of course there are many examples of automobile-scaled development (surrounding Lounakeskus, for example) that discourage walking. And I am distressed that a key intersection at the “new commercial center” of Tartu—Riia-Turu intersection—is fashioned in a way that promotes the “throughput” of vehicles but prohibits pedestrians from crossing the street. That is, vehicles are favored here at the expense of pedestrians and bicyclists, and pedestrians experience impedance in reaching shopping opportunities, institutions (the historic market building), and the riverfront. Rethinking the relationship between pedestrians and vehicle travel here could encourage more retail activity and kiosks and “activate” the streets with pedestrians.
KL and OT: You are interested in Tartu historical neighborhoods like Supilinn and Karlova. Can you put these districts in perspective?
DH: These districts are very special and the wooden houses are appealing; however, the districts are preserved not through policy decisions but through “neglect” during Soviet times. In other cities, such districts of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century “worker tenements” were demolished to make way for new development. It is no wonder that Karlova and Supilinn are cherished by residents and visitors because they remind of us simpler times and display a distinctly Estonian style of urban-rural living with wood fires, unpaved roads, cluttered courtyards and gardens, and fruit trees.
KL and OT: A large share of household in Tartu reside in Soviet-era high-rise estates. There is a certain concern that these neighborhoods will end up being socially deprived. Can we avoid such a process?
DH: When the Soviet Union disintegrated, many experts predicted that the housing estates would transform into “ghettos”, however this generally did not happen in Estonia or elsewhere. Working in the favor of the districts is a decades-old tradition in Estonia of living in apartment blocks (unpopular in the United States) and little stigma attached to the districts. What made the districts attractive in the first place was the availability of nearby services, including kindergartens and schools, playgrounds, retail and commercial opportunities, and space for socialization and recreation. To maintain the stability of the districts, I think the city must always maintain the infrastructure and services, otherwise the districts may lose their appeal, and residents may pursue other housing opportunities. This is a real danger in Estonia, as the population is shrinking although the country seems to follow some of the best-known strategies by focusing on technology and information economies, tourism, and culture.