Tallinn: A Livable City? (18)

(Stuart Garlick/ERR)
Stuart Garlick
8/28/2014 9:55 AM
Category: Opinion

Every year, Monocle magazine releases its list of what it considers to be the world's most liveable cities. Valued are crime rate, connectivity, climate, architecture, public transport access, tolerance, environmental matters, closeness to nature, ease of doing business, positive policymaking and the availability and quality of healthcare. The top five are Copenhagen, Tokyo, Melbourne, Stockholm and Helsinki.

Monocle is a long-established monthly publication, which caters for a projected modern urban professional. Its "livability" survey is for people considering the most comfortable and interesting cities in which to reside in the future. However, as other articles have explored, different people have different criteria when it comes to choosing a place to live. We may like to fantasize about a super-slick life of seamless hot-desking, moving from upmarket coffee bar to bullet train to sterile office block, but does all this ease and efficiency really make us happy? Do we want everything in front of us on a silver platter?

Tallinn doesn't get into Monocle's list of cities for a variety of reasons - but then the profile of person who chooses to base him or herself in Tallinn has always been different to that of Stockholm or Helsinki, for example. Might it be that the reason why people come from all over the world to live in Tallinn is because life in Tallinn, a bit like the best relationships, may be a challenge, but is rewarding?

Steve Beeching, a former employee in Estonia's tech startup industry who recently moved back to London to pursue other work opportunities [the person is real, the name has been changed at the interviewee's request], echoes this feeling. "I'd totally recommend Tallinn to everyone as a fantastic place to visit and work, short-term, for one or two years, like I did."

For a foreign 'incomer," at which Monocle's analysis is aimed, Tallinn would seem to represent a blank canvas for ambitions and ideas. Estonia's e-Government portal has been lauded for making it easy to set up a company. "With the upcoming rise of digital e-citizenry," Beeching argues, "Tallinn should be a required stop on the road to entrepreneurship as there are numerous benefits to establishing a company here that serve both the entrepreneur and the country."

As the linked Guardian article makes the point, "hipsters" (though people fitting this broad generalization dislike the term) can be seen as a symbol of a city's growth. Artistic and creative people have, for years, been taking advantage of the history around them, making something new out of old buildings, clothes and furniture. Kalamaja, which was once a foreboding corner of Tallinn, is now a fashionable place to live and to socialize. Kopli, which has a similar reputation to that which Kalamaja used to have, is also changing.

Thanks partly to hipster culture, there are now many inclusive and welcoming cafes and bars in areas of Tallinn outside the usual tourist hotspots of the Old Town and the city center. There is an urgency and a creative drive to the development of Tallinn, and it seems to happen organically, with the impetus coming, in the main, from the bottom up, not from government down. The music scene is strong in Tallinn, with Tallinn Music Week an annual centerpiece. Theater NO99 continues to make thought-provoking plays that get a lot of people talking.

There are still difficulties. For a non-EU worker, the immigration red tape can be off-putting. The service in shops, bars, restaurants and cafes, with a few notable exceptions, can appear cold and dismissive to the outsider. There are clear tensions between the Estonian-speaking and Russian-speaking communities that share the city, who still do not appear, as much as would be liked, to be fully-integrated. Beeching, as an EU citizen, praised the speed at which crucial changes related to his business seemed to happen, "the speed with which bureaucracy moves here is tremendous. It's easy to get spoiled and forget that everywhere else in the world things tend to take much longer and require more paperwork."

The weather presents a major challenge to anyone seeking a base in Tallinn. If you're from a non-Nordic country, Estonia is a chilly place to be in winter. But when presented with lemons, people can make lemonade. Winter sports are a specialty in Estonia. Stockholm and Helsinki, after all, share features of Tallinn's climate, so weather is not a major impediment to a city being considered livable. At least, not after the self-inflicted hell of the first winter, when the majority of new foreigners try to keep their style from back home going, in a series of inadequate jackets and overcoats.

What might be considered a bigger block on progress is that Tallinn's airport runs few routes when compared to its counterpart in Riga. There is a common complaint heard about how prohibitively time-consuming and expensive it can be to fly to or from Tallinn. It's worth being fair and mentioning the caveat that the situation is improving, but, just as importantly, the customer experience at Tallinn is measurably better than that at Riga. Tallinn airport feels more like an department store than a travel hub; the concessions are mostly pleasant to shop at, there is a no-pressure atmosphere, the Tannoy speakers don't echo all around the building unlike in Riga thanks to the carpeting. In fact, most aspects of design seem to have been well thought-through. This is in stark contrast to the cattle-market feel of a stop at Latvia's capital. If Tallinn is what a small airport with a limited schedule of destinations feels like, then many people would take that. Maybe it's Estonia in microcosm - what makes it frustrating to some - its smallness - is also what makes it good.

In any case, once they've got out of the airport, most people don't come to Tallinn looking for an easy life. If you want that, you can go to any of the cities at the top of the Monocle list, and earn a higher salary for less of the challenge. It may not always be easy to see them, but there are reason why travelers, business people and migrants who arrive here, either accidentally or on purpose, make the decision to stay here.

Beeching has a warning - he feels Tallinn may be too much of an adjustment for some, were they to stay long-term. "Staying much longer than a couple of years, especially if you come from a nation where you are used to a much broader variety of choice in entertainment, food and shopping, could cause the good will and excitement initially felt to dwindle; and that would be a shame."

A livable city? Not by Monocle's polished, sanitized measurements. But there are many ways of defining a good life, just as there are many ways of living it. Tallinn might be a lovable city.


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