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Letter from Estonia: Why the Neighborhood Movement is Working in Tallinn

DSCF7647_cutA little over a week ago, activists from a local neighborhood association had something unprecedented to celebrate in Estonia’s capital. Local residents, media and city officials were among the hundred or so who showed up to the event, which would have formerly belonged only to politicians, as members of Telliskivi Selts cut the ribbon and declared a new street open.

What was special about this street, located in one of the city’s central districts, is that pedestrians and cyclists have more space than cars.

The city of Tallinn would not have made the decision to create the street on its own. The project required not only lobbying but design input from the local activists who built it. An engineering student prepared the plan as part of a course project. After urban planning experts convinced the city with a design that favored cyclists and pedestrians and curtailed the speed of cars, the construction was approved.

The opening of the street is the latest and perhaps most prominent sign of the local citizen activism that is increasingly evolving in Tallinn for the past seven years. The city has eight boroughs, which include 84 neighborhoods. Out of those, 20 neighborhood associations, Telliskivi Selts being one of them, have emerged.

The activism within the associations is varied, with different citizen initiative taking shape across the capital. They have successfully drawn together people from different political standpoints, education backgrounds, technical expertise and age.

And they have made those previously less interested in what went on beyond their house and courtyard think about—and start to change—the neighborhoods they live in.

The movement started seven years ago when a group of mainly young activists launched a neighborhood association called Uue Maailma Selts in the Tallinn neighborhood of Uus Maailm (“New World”).

Whereas the older groups in Tallinn viewed their neighborhoods as cultural heritage and something best preserved, the young association wanted to strengthen social ties, and to widen its politics toward sustainability. Uue Maailma Selts organized performance demonstrations in public space and introduced small-scale initiatives critical of the city’s car-centered street planning.

Telliskivi Selts started in a nearby neighborhood and adopted similar characteristics. Now, with many more new associations emerging in the city’s “milieu protection areas”, a more exclusionary form of politics by the associations have come about. Some have targeted their critique towards those who use the area for nightlife while others some have formed their critique even towards those who find it difficult to make their ends meet.

There are reasons to be both optimistic and pessimistic about the current trends toward neighborhood activism. One reason for optimism is the character of politics that the Tallinn case lends support—a politics that is not stable in the traditional sense, but can shift between positions, depending on the issues emerging and the people assembling.

Telliskivi Selts, for instance, wasn’t always concerned explicitly with sustainable mobility and transit. Three years ago, the group fought against the city’s plan to expand priced parking into the neighborhood. As one activist explained to me, the event brought together diverse people: those who supported car-based travel in the city, those who strongly disliked Tallinn’s leading political party, Keskerakond, and others—whether they were concerned with sustainability or not—who simply felt the city’s plan to be illogical.

The story finally took off in media and the city was forced to withdraw its plan. As an observer of this kind of activism, I was skeptical at first. But I later realized its positive effects: the city’s aggressive action had spurred residents to think about alternative ways of transit and living in their neighborhood. The fight against priced parking brought locals together and taught them skills—in organizing, media communication and other realms—that prepared them to take the next step.

Today, it is the diversity in Kalamaja, the neighborhood where Telliskivi Selts is most active, that stands out. Here, a collaboration takes place between sociologists, who help in surveys and local research; architects and traffic engineers, who help with planning issues; and local politicians, who along with the media have also at times helped draw in media to get involved.

Questions that people did not ask before about how they wanted to live in their neighborhoods are finally coming to the surface, and are being acted on. For instance, Telliskivi Selts as well as other residents in the neighborhood are now thinking about what a safe street is, and what should a street for cyclists feel and be like? The neighborhood strengthens one’s focus: it is easy to start to think about how you want things to be there.

On the downside, this strong local level of activism is not only limited by its locality, but has also created an environment where neighborhoods can become competitive with each other for the city’s attention and resources. While people may grow closer together within their own particular community, subtle but growing antagonisms between neighborhoods are at risk of developing.

There are other serious divisions, both linguistic and cultural. Most of Tallinn’s neighborhood associations are located in what are called “milieu protection areas.” Although there are many Russian speakers in these areas as well, neighborhood associations are almost exclusively working in Estonian.  At the same time, also, almost half of the city speaks Russian as a first language, and most of them live in Soviet-era housing estates that reflect a very different sense of neighborhood structure, its purpose and its possibility.

To get beyond these and other barriers, activists started Linnaidee, or the “Urban Idea” project, which brings Tallinn neighborhood associations together in conversation with one another, often bilingually, to help move people away from speaking the language of otherness. Linnaidee moves towards more inclusive dialogue that addresses the city as a whole and seeks to get the local government into the dialogue as well.

Much has yet to be seen about what will come from this local level organizing. It is too simple to call this middle-class conservative activism, but it is also too early to hail such developments as a new form of progressive activism. Politics can shift, and what is conservative at one point can become progressive at another with a combination of new thinking and new people.

The young “left,” such as it is, may finally be getting involved with what goes on at the local level. And this involvement does not have to be merely an acceptance. Neighborhood associations in Tallinn can become more socially conscious: they should incorporate issues of social justice into their agenda. The neighborhoods known as “milieu protection areas” are also sites with remarkable levels of poverty and deprivation, in need of improvement. The success of current local level activism provides a good basis to take the initiative even further.

By Tauri Tuvikene

Tauri Tuvikene is a doctoral student at University College London.