Spatial Planning Challenges in Estonian Towns
Spatial planning in Estonian towns has followed a fairly unruly path since the 1990s, with no broader vision to guide it. This has made the towns more inefficient and lowered the quality of their spaces.
The urban population numbers have been declining steadily over the past couple of decades (except in Tallinn and Tartu). Sadly, most of the towns have not yet even recognised this problem, much less dealt with it.
The vitality of historical town centres has been harmed by a number of planning decisions whose long-term consequences have not been sufficiently analysed beforehand. The most poignant example is allowing large shopping centres to be constructed at the edge of towns. This promotes the proliferation of cars because shops have been removed from residential areas; in addition, this deals a death blow to the historical town nuclei which generally hold historically valuable buildings that the society will finds difficult and expensive to maintain when the daily life shifts to the suburbs. One of the reasons behind this problem is that towns are not in control over what goes on beyond their boundaries. The shopping centres that are jeopardising the vitality of many small Estonian towns have been built on the land owned by other local governments, which has made it extremely difficult for towns to block or manage their development.
Studies have shown that a rapid segregation process has started in Tallinn, and is likely to take off in Tartu and Pärnu as well. In Tallinn, lower income groups are being pushed out of the centre and the seaside areas. So far, the process is not yet obvious in the urban space, which is why it has not been recognised as a problem yet by the society as a whole. However, within two decades it will become a strong obstacle on the path of urban development.
Studies show without any doubt that the social cost of segregation will strongly outweigh the revenue brought in by market-led urban development. Towns must be much more assertive concerning planning on their territories. If we want our towns to be more competitive, they must become compact and heterogeneous. Both the state as well as the local governments must assess investments from the point of view of making settlements, with their ever decreasing population, more compact. From the strategic point of view, it is important to plan a socially coherent and balanced, spatially varied living environment.
Estonian local governments often lack the competence to achieve this. Sadly, the state is also not in a position to offer them help because it itself lacks a competence centre to manage developments on the national scale or offer support to the local governments. We hope that the different political and bureaucratic forces manage to come to an agreement eventually, and that we would finally see the setting up of the Land and Spatial Development Agency (Maa- ja Ruumiamet, MARU), which would have spatial planning competence.