As you know Cliff, I fell in love with Latvia many years ago when I first visited. I have visited many times subsequently and still marvel at the beauty, the diversity and the history of this fascinating country. Riga is indeed a jewel and is one of my favourite cities. However, much of my time has been spent outside Riga particularly in Kurzeme, Vidzeme and Latgale (I must try and get to Zemgale more often!).
The title of your piece, challenges for urban and regional planning, could not have a more appropriate context than Latvia, particularly in relation to regional development. Years of rapid economic growth driven by the Riga capital region created some of the largest disparities within the country of any member state in the EU. The financial crisis commencing in 2008 plunged Latvia into the deepest recession in Europe and the response to promote recovery has exacerbated the internal disparities between Riga and the rest of the country even further.
National and regional development policy in Latvia have always had a tough balancing act between promoting the growth of the national economy through a buoyant and dynamic Riga and promoting more balanced patterns of development by supporting development in the regions. Latvia provides the model example of the EU wide tensions of trying to simultaneously pursue cohesion and competitiveness. In the Latvian case, the rhetoric has always focused strongly on cohesion and more balanced patterns of development whereas the reality has always focused on the competitiveness of Riga, which as a result has become increasingly dominant in terms of economic development and human resources but also in terms of social and cultural capital.
Achieving more balanced patterns of development in Latvia cannot be achieved without considerable political will and the elaboration of powerful national and regional policy instruments. The recently approved National Development Plan is the latest in a long line of strategic documents that try to promote the simultaneous pursuit of national economic development with more balanced regional development and two of the three NDP priorities illustrate this. Though it is still early days, I fear that the growth of the national economy will once again be dominant in comparison to the growth for the regions.
Institutional capacity remains a crucial issue and has been identified as fundamental to the future competitiveness of the country in the Latvian Competitiveness Report 2011. The institutional reform of 2009 has gone some way to addressing the shortcomings of the institutional system inherited from Soviet times and it is important that a period of stability now ensues so that the effectiveness of the new structure can be evaluated in a meaningful way. Ongoing institutional reform and debates about further reform creates uncertainty and an unstable context for policy formulation and implementation.
The long running debate in Latvia about the role of the planning regions needs to be resolved so that effective and stable governance structures can focus on applying more effective implementation processes and mechanisms. If they are to be effective, the institutional capacity of regional structures needs to be strengthened significantly so that they can play an influential role and help to shape their future development trajectories. The climate of austerity and budget reductions in the public and private sector is likely to prevail for much of the plan horizon for the NDP and this provides an extremely challenging context to strengthen research and education which are essential preconditions for sustainable economic growth in the medium to long-term.
The danger signs from other mono-centric countries such as Ireland provide insights into a potentially scary future where Riga becomes too congested and expensive to be liveable and its global competitiveness declines in comparison with other cities in the Baltic Sea Region and further afield. Maybe a more gradual approach to economic development that promotes more balanced patterns throughout the country would be more sustainable in the long run. It could potentially provide a more prosperous future for Latvia, its capital city and its beautiful regions.
I hope to return to Latvia many many times in the future. I have visited some amazing places and met some amazing people, a number of whom I now consider good friends. I am also considering applying to the Latvian Tourism Development Agency for some sort of commission as most of my family have now also visited Latvia on my recommendation!!!
Huge challenges remain in Latvia and the future is unlikely to be easy. It is to be hoped that policymakers in Latvia can address these challenges in a strategic manner and build on the unique characteristics that make Latvia special.
Neil Adams, London South Bank University
Thanks a lot about your insight, such opinion from "the side” is invaluable! Thanks for reminding the value of having public areas around the centrum of our capital city! Too often we forget it ourselves.
About the performance of Riga during the times of crisis – it seems that, contrary to many other European countries, Riga economically suffered more than other Latvia. City experienced the fastest decrease of inhabitants in the world (compared to other cities) and major part of Rigans left the country, only smaller part moved out to suburbs. Percentage of Riga’s input in national economy shrinked during the crisis – and to me it seems that Riga now looks more run-down than smaller cities and towns in the country. Opinion polls show that people in the countryside and smaller towns are economically much more active and ready for changes than in the city. But they lack the natural benefits of the city (population density, mutual inspiration etc.).
It seems that Riga now is less similar to Paris than it was 100 years ago. Back then locals were able to accept and use latest trends in architecture and technologies and even be ahead of time, now – not anymore.
Thank you Cliff Hague for that article. I'm a new arrival in Riga for the last year from the US. I'm a professional research scientist and solo parent of a now 4 year old. I chose to live in the Riga city center as the location most able to support my home office and academic activities and childcare support and it hasn't disappointed, especially in the ways I need: I discovered that Riga is a much more child-friendly city than other European cities I've lived and orders of magnitude more child-friendly than the college town that I just moved away from in the States. The things I appreciate: wide sidewalks ... Riga is a walkable city, beautiful parks, many with good playgrounds, super public transport .. I never need to wait more than 10 minutes for a tram/trolley/bus. You don't need a car in the city. Bicycles work fine all year round, even considering the icy periods (bikes are permitted on the sidewalks). My Latvian is just in the beginnings, so language is an issue for me, but many speak English. Economically: you can see the struggle with the turnover of new shops, cafes. Culturally, the city is very active. There are celebrations and festivals of one kind or another every couple of weeks. Theatre, orchestra, ballet, with components for child entertainment, and if a parent like me needs more: year-round circus. year-round puppet show, Riga Zoo, Natural History Museum. Curiosity Museum, Sun Museum. Huge recreational area of Mezparks. To help parents out, I've noticed a flourishing of play areas physically located inside of restaurants. The one square block around my daughter's daycare has five of those kinds of restaurants. Even the 24-story Radisson Blu Hotel has a play area for kids in its lobby. And if you want to go shopping, every shopping mall has a play area, where your child can play, watched by an attendant, why you get your errands done.
One thing with respect to property that might be unique to Latvia is the fact that property is split between the dwelling above and the land below. The result of the land reform after Latvia regained its independence and allowed Latvians who owed property before Soviet occupation to reclaim their land. It's made the real estate situation in Latvia very messy, and I understand that there is a trend now to have dwelling above and land below combined in the newer developments. There are flourishing industries to manage the 'split' situation too: lawyers, property assessors, speculators who buy up 'ideal plots of land' under large property developments.
The situation with property in Latvia is that if you buy a piece of property worth 150,000 euros or more, then you gain long-term residency (not citizenship). That is still of considerable value for life in an EU country which is aiming to adopt the euro next year. And it makes the real estate market extra strange (on top of the situation with land below and dwellings above being split). There are Russians flush with cash who do not need a mortgage. That's exactly my own situation applying for a mortgage at this time as a Latvian citizen for an apartment with a sale price slightly above this number. I know precisely that there are people in line behind me ready to pay with cash if I don't succeed.