You might have heard about a bright blue street mockup realised in Riga last year. This eye-catching intervention and its ingenuity stroked many people’s attention around the world. Evelina Ozola and Toms Kokins are the duet behind this project. Together, they created Fine Young Urbanists, an architecture and urban planning practice that aims to improve liveability in Latvian cities.
They are part of this new generation of Latvian creatives, with international experiences, who wants to bring novelty and concrete changes to their home country. They met while studying Architecture in Riga, and went abroad afterwards to complete their education and gain some work experience. Evelina studied at Delft Technical University in Netherlands while Toms attended the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Passionate about space, design, and bringing people together, they have been working on changing the mind-set of local authorities but also inhabitants towards new ways of co-creating the city.
In many European countries, participation, vibrant public spaces, pedestrian and bike friendly streets, are common principles which are systematically integrated in urban development strategies. However, in Baltic countries, the situation is quite different. Inherited from decades of soviet urban planning practice, Latvian cities are still designed according to bureaucratic zoning policies. Municipalities reproduce this Corbusian scheme of sprawled and car-oriented cities, despite its long-proven inefficiency and unsustainability.
In this context, Fine Young Urbanists propose tangible alternatives by making “provocative little actions” to redefine public spaces. They realised several projects in Riga and are now also based in Cesis, a much smaller Latvian town where they organise every year an international architecture and urbanism summer school for students and young practitioners.
What are the main challenges faced by Latvian cities and what is the vision you want to develop?
Toms — Obviously, it is shrinkage in rural towns and in the centre of Riga, and an ever–expanding suburbia. Latvia is becoming a mono–centric state with a donut–shaped capital. And that leads to traffic problems, many empty buildings and underused public spaces in the centre. Riga should draw a strict line beyond which the city shouldn’t expand anymore and resist market–driven low density developments. If people want houses with gardens, the city should provide the qualities of that lifestyle within its borders.
Shrinkage is not a problem in itself. Between the wars Latvia was a flourishing state with fewer residents than today. It is the economical aspects of maintaining a built environment that was originally built for a larger amount of people and the psychological aspects of seeing empty buildings and dilapidating infrastructure that constantly reminds us we are in some kind of trouble. Instead of talking only about one possible cure — getting more residents, I’d like to see the appearing voids as new opportunities for city makers.
You call yourself “builders”, how do you intervene in public space?
Evelina — From time to time we self–initiate, design and build something that is either useful or provocative. But the building part is just the tip of the iceberg, there is usually a bigger, slower process behind it. The Mierīgi! installation is actually part of the cycling infrastructure strategy for Riga. Alexey Square is the first public space in Riga that is co–designed with the local community. We also see these small interventions as tests for our design ideas — before something more permanent is built.
Toms — Building in public spaces has taught us valuable lessons — to be humble, to observe carefully, to make quick decisions regarding the construction, to communicate with passers–by and with the authorities, to collaborate with locals. Building is the most fun part of the work. Afterwards come endless meetings, presentations, real design work. Bottom–up initiatives should always lead to top–level political decisions and real solutions that are made in the middle level where designers, engineers, administrators come together.
How did local communities but also public authorities receive your projects?
Toms — Local communities are usually quite open to new ideas, because those are usually held together by activists and people with deep local knowledge. Public authorities don’t respond as quickly, but that really depends on the people working there. Cesis has proven to be a very friendly municipality.
Evelina — We’ve received prizes and we’ve also been hit hard on Twitter.
What are the main obstacles you are facing as City Makers?
Toms — One of the main problems is outdated legislation, especially when it comes to street design. The existing regulations are car–oriented, and no one is very keen on re–writing them. That makes designing bicycle paths very difficult, sometimes even illegal. Changes are coming, slowly. Latvia has poor public participation traditions. So with each event we don’t just propose a design for a public space, but also design the process itself.
Evelina — Ridiculously small budgets. Lack of money was the reason why we started building with our own hands.
Last year, Riga was the European Capital of Culture and organised a wide range of events and experimentations in public spaces among which two successful projects you realised, Mierīgi and Alexey Square. Since then, did you observe a real impact on urban development practices & participation?
Evelina — What I really liked about Riga – ECC 2014 was that the team of curators tried to decentralise culture. Remote neighbourhoods that are usually excluded from the “big” culture also got their share of events. That, I think, empowered many local organisations, and I can feel that participatory planning has become more visible since then. Then again, those projects of ECC that were not dismantled by the end of 2014 faced difficulties. For example, when Alexey Square was built, maintenance became a serious issue. The city wasn’t especially excited about getting yet another public space with grass that needs cutting, garbage bins that need emptying, and weird constructions that need washing from time to time. It was only a year later that the municipal service responsible for parks and forests in Riga offered to start maintaining the place regularly. Now they’ve planted some flowers too, which is nice.
What are your next projects?
Toms — I’ll be working on a traffic and public space strategy for Cesis and cycling routes in the town of Alūksne, continue the work on Riga Cycling Infrastructure Development Strategy. And we have an idea to design a collection of public chairs for Cesis.
Evelina — I’m focusing on teaching at the moment — I’m reading an urban design course at an architecture school in Riga, and I’m already planning for the next summer school.