Their name can be somewhat misleading: ‘Free Riga’ might strike you as activist, but this passionate group with a smart approach to vacancy in the capital city of Latvia is far from radical. The group contributes and acts in support of integrated projects for urban regeneration and reclamation of urban wasteland. Mapping vacant properties in Riga, mediating between civic initiatives, municipality and property owners, they even engaged in dialogue with local government about the urgency and benefits of redevelopment.
In 2014, Riga had over a thousand vacant buildings, often valuable historical heritage deteriorating due to lack of use and costly maintenance. Free Riga recognized the urgency of finding a new purpose for these properties in order to improve the liveability of the city, the lack of affordable space for social and cultural initiatives and dropping real estate values. The organization supports and promotes and integrated approach to to urban regeneration and reclamation of unused or neglected urban areas, especially through redevelopment of older buildings, factories and derelict buildings for cultural and social purposes. They mapped projects active within this domain and has an application tool for projects interested in using one of the empty buildings.
Free Riga mediates between property owners to find an affordable way for initiators of creative and public initiatives to use a building while it stands vacant. The building is revitalized for temporary use ranging from a couple of days to several years, during which the users look after the building and sometimes cover tax and maintenance costs. This is particularly interesting to owners looking for financial investment and long-term reconstruction to attract larger investors. Another added benefit for the owner is that the property increases in value while waiting for the next big commercial project. For the initiators of the project temporary use offer a good stepping stone, as they can operate within an interesting space and creative community, and pay only symbolic costs of 1/3 of the standard lease. They allow for the realization of new ideas, after which each initiative has the opportunity to switch to an agreement on commercial with the owners or develop their activities elsewhere.
Free Riga organizes tours of the city to discover the potential of vacancy in Riga and use the Latvian capital as a case study to discuss general tendencies and responses to vacancy in European cities. As part of the Urbact City Festival TUTUR on 7th May 2014, Free Riga hosted a ‘walkshop’ Creating Urban Value from the Unused Potentials of Vacant Buildings, addressing the main reasons for the abandonment of centrally located properties; administrative barriers obstructing revitalizatio; and ways in which creative and community energies can be engaged in the revitalization of public properties.