Common public space design in Estonian-Latvian twin town Valga-Valka

Johanna Holvandus

By Johanna Holvandus, on February 1st, 2019

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Johanna Holvandus and Kadri Leetmaa make a case for cross border city twinning, showcasing the story of Estonian-Latvian border towns Valga and Valka, the recent hosts of a regional URBACT seminar.

On October 18, 2018 Estonian-Latvian border towns Valga (EE) and Valka (LV) hosted a regional URBACT seminar. The aim of the common event was to introduce valuable experiences from previous networks to other URBACT cities and potential newcomers in both countries. Neither Valga nor Valka have previously been part of URBACT networks. Both towns, however, have a lot to teach to other European cities, especially to twin cities in border areas on how to coordinate innovative cross-border initiatives and respective investments. These topics in mind, Valga and Valka are also searching inspiring new APN networks.

One becomes two

Both towns originate from a provincial market town Walk (original name, figure 1) which was an important railway node in the Russian Empire until 1917. When Estonia and Latvia became independent in 1918, Walk was divided. The division left the historical town centre and the railway station to Estonia’s Valga. Today Valga’s town centre is a heritage conservation area, whereas Valka’s centre is relatively newer.

Figure 1. Postcard “Gruss aus Walk (Greetings from Walk)” (dated before 1917). The town hall of Walk before the division of the city.

In 2018, 12 452 residents lived in Valga and 4 718 in Valka, altogether 17 170 people. As with many peripheral Estonian and Latvian towns, Valga/Valka faces severe shrinkage (figure 2). There have been two periods of growth in the city’s history: first, during the industrialisation period on the turn of the 20th century, before first independence period between WWI and WWII, and second, in the Soviet occupation years (1940-1991). There even is a saying that when Estonia and Latvia as independent countries are doing well, then Valga and Valka are managing poorly.

Figure 2. Valga/Valka population trends and predictions 1881-2040. Tintěra et al., 2018

Attractive urban space makes people believe in their town

Today Valga and Valka are forerunners in both countries to experiment with new urban policies to deal with shrinkage. In the common URBACT seminar, the chief architect of Valga municipality Jiří Tintěra and the Head of Development and Planning Department of Valka Gunta Smane introduced the innovations in common public space design where the key to success was cross-border cooperation.

Due to rapid population decrease and because Valga town centre is a nationally defined heritage conservation area, there are many abandoned or badly maintained houses in the historic centre. Jiří Tintěra comments the situation: “Unattractive and shrinking urban space also influences how the citizens perceive and how they believe in their home town.” (Interview 02/11/2018) The first and most painful step, according to him, was acknowledging and admitting to themselves that the town is shrinking and realising that there is no hope for large private investments in the nearer future. Ironically, because of being ready to honestly talk about shrinkage, Estonian Valga has been able to make itself more visible on the national regional development agenda. Whereas, many other peripheral towns often deny on going shrinkage process.

I am convinced that the economic stability follows the contentment of the citizens. If the citizens are satisfied with their home town, are proud to live there and believe that the town has a future, they begin to open up businesses. They start to make their own small places,” says Tintěra. Therefore, the main aim is to revitalize the historic and potentially visually very attractive town centre and to re-size the urban space to its current population. In other words, to make urban space attractive to its residents again. By putting these aims to practice the twin city is amongst intense discussions of how better to coordinate different investments.

Re-sizing the townscape

The housing stock of the city mostly consists of smaller wooden apartment houses dating back to the turn of the 20th century and of Soviet period panel blocks. When in major cities (Tallinn, Tartu, Riga) the pre-WWII inner city housing is rapidly gentrifying and housing estates are losing their prestige, then in small peripheral towns the situation is the opposite. Pre-WWII housing, without contemporary facilities, underused for decades, are an eyesore in the urban townscape, even when everyone understands that historic buildings are worth of preserving.

As it is not possible to rescue all historical buildings, Valga has defined about 10 key heritage monuments that are directly connected to the history and identity of the town. The municipality aims to reconstruct these buildings, even when the resources are always scarce in shrinking cities and sometimes buildings renovated with public money still need to wait for a new function also.

The national heritage protection rules, however, are the same for major national growth centres as well as for shrinking peripheral towns. The welfare level of local citizens does not allow owners to invest into improving their living conditions, not to mention that commercial banks are not ready to provide mortgages that would allow more systematic renovations. In many cases, Valga municipality has been in situations where the national and local views on heritage protection and urban development have not been consistent.

As an example, a wooden apartment building in a very central location was deemed dangerous according to the expert analyses. The municipality asked for a permit from the National Heritage Board to demolish the building and to locate few residents into social dwellings, but the application was declined. Soon the parents whose children attended the music school next door demanded demolition. This motivated municipality to take action without the permit of NHB.

Valga City has not been afraid to become a “test area” for new solutions in situations, when indeed a vacuum exists in national law. The city has been an innovator, showing that heritage protection rules should be adjusted, not only for capital cities, but also for peripheral towns.

Cross-border investments to shared public spaces – two become one

The most prominent recent investments are related to new central squares and shared public spaces in both towns. For the centennial of the Republic of Estonia, the Estonian Association of Architects led an architectural programme “Great Public Space” which aimed at creating new public squares in small towns. In 2015 Valga held an international architectural competition (winning project here) and in August 2018 the square was opened (see figure 3). The project received national funding and became quickly a beloved place for locals. Valga municipality is working on further encouraging its usage, for example, to make the square more attractive in winter, an outside ice rink is planned.

Video: Opening day of the Valga new central square 22.08.2018

Only a few steps away, just across the border, is the city centre of Latvian Valka. As a next stage, Valga and Valka decided to initiate a common urban space project (Interreg Estonian-Latvian program). The aims are to connect public spaces of both city centres and to encourage integration of communities. The planned shared pedestrian street connects two churches, the main visual and symbolic landmarks on both sides.

Figure 3. Architectural vision to connect urban space in Valga and Valka town centres. Author: Safont-Tria. Published in: Sirp 08.07.2016

In Valga a new central square will also be built, by the end of the project in 2020. The second international architectural competition was held in June 2016 and a winning concept was selected. It is notable that both, the already finished central square in Valga as well as its prospective counterpart in Valka, brought the creativity of Italian and Spanish architects to the peripheral Nordic twin city, demonstrating that the ideas how to connect something that was once divided do not feel North-South, or core-periphery boundaries.

The former city of Walk will have a second life when the inhabitants, visitors and businesses WALK around and live their daily lives in the renewed shared urban space and perceive it as a naturally united townscape.

Under the on going APN call Valga is interested in joining any emerging URBACT networks dealing with innovative urban policies and planning approaches in shrinking cities. Also, when the neighbouring twin cities search cross-border integrated solutions for revitalizing peripheral small towns, Estonian Valga in cooperation with Latvian Valka is ready to contribute.

More information:


Read also:

Tintěra, T., Kotval, Z., Ruus, A., Tohvri, E. (2018). Inadequacies of heritage protection regulations in an era of shrinking communities: a case study of Valga, Estonia, European Planning Studies, DOI: 10.1080/09654313.2018.1518409

Mawhood, W. (2015). The Strange Story of Walk – United by the Soviets, Divided by Freedom. Deep Baltic.

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