A Blueprint for Democracy: Redesigning Public Space in Latvia
THERE IS SOMETHING MAGICAL ABOUT STREET LIFE—especially in vibrant cities, where cars, cyclists and pedestrians peacefully share space. But what specifically creates that type of magic, where neighbors stop and spend time with each other in the street? And how can a city recreate it?
“People know how to use a good street when they see one,” says Evelina Ozola, a Latvian architect and urbanist. After completing her studies in the Netherlands, she experienced mild culture shock on returning to Latvia. Evelina believes there is a lot Latvia and the other Baltic states can learn from cities in the Netherlands and Sweden when it comes to creating urban spaces conducive to vibrant street life. “I believe that the reason we don’t feel free in our streets might be related to the lack of freedom we have experienced for a very long time,” Evelina explains.
Disappointed by the poorly used street space in Latvia’s capital Riga, she started a project called the Fine Young Urbanists with her friend and colleague, Toms Kokins. The duo set up an interactive life-size model on Miera street in Riga, called Mierīgi!, or “Peacefully!” which explored how the street could become a space for leisurely activities while also accommodating cars, trams, cyclists, and pedestrians. Evelina and Toms also invited the neighboring community to participate in this project by making decisions about enhancing the purpose of their street.
“If we build the environment around human needs, it is more likely that it will last longer,” explains Toms Kokins, currently a professor at Umeå University in Sweden, where he teaches architecture and urbanism. He says that more than just limiting the use of street space, urbanism also addresses social issues and exclusion.
Mierīgi! became very popular abroad, with architects and activists using the model for various installations long after the Fine Young Urbanists parted ways to work on their personal ideas. Though the original project in Riga got bogged down by bureaucracy and red tape, urbanists across Eastern Europe are challenging old planning policies, to create more inclusive ways which would favor public spaces and the community.
The issue of social exclusion within a contemporary community has been further discussed in Evelina’s new project, Together and Apart. Presented in the Latvian pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, it explores how architecture plays a role in shaping society. About 66% of the Latvian population live in apartments which were built during Soviet rule. According to Evelina, old, grey buildings with a lack of public space divide and exclude people instead of fostering community. She explains that her project, which has also been published as a book, questions the long standing principles of architecture. She argues that inclusive architecture should be available for everyone and not just the elite.
Evelina is positive that well-designed streets and public spaces can bring communities together and decrease social exclusion. “We would be better as a society if we had more freedom in our public space because at the end, it mirrors the state and society,” she says. “If you feel free to talk to other people on the street, to express yourself, and to just have a good time, then this spreads to other areas of society as well.”
This article appears in Are We Europe #4: This Is Not An Elections Issue