Critics: Tallinn's green capital program doesn't offer permanent changes

Trams and other traffic along Narva maantee in Central Tallinn.
Trams and other traffic along Narva maantee in Central Tallinn. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

The City of Tallinn is spending €12 million on its European Green Capital program this year, but according to critics, in reality, the program amounts to a collection of temporary and one-off projects expecting changes from city residents even as the city itself doesn't offer any structural and lasting changes in return.

Over the weekend, Tallinn kicked off its year as European Green Capital with a rich cultural program and tables loaded with food. Dozens of important people were flown in from across Europe and wined and dined for the occasion, leaving tons of food left over afterward. Not exactly a very green approach, critics say.

The Green Capital program itself focuses moreso on individual events, however, not implementing permanent change in Tallinn's urban space, such as a well-thought-out public transport network or safe cycling network.

"This program is packed full of events and perhaps what characterizes the program is its event-based nature, but that hallmark of what green capital means — which is how to reduce emissions, how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by the year 2030, as provided for in the City of Tallinn's climate plan — we're not seeing that clearly here," said Helen Sooväli-Sepping, vice-rector for green transition at Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech). "I would have expected a bit more ambition."

Sooväli-Sepping recalled that after five bids for the European Green Capital title, Tallinn finally captured the hearts of the decision-makers and won the title with its "15-minute city" concept, according to which key facilities and services should be accessible within a 15-minute walk or bike ride.

According to the vice-rector, it is this precise principle that is the key to Tallinn's climate issue. "This 15-minute city concept has unfortunately been left out of the program somehow, and it's a topic this program doesn't talk about," she said.

Peeter Vihma, an environmental policy researcher at the University of Helsinki, highlighted the fact that the City of Helsinki is contributing ten times more to the development of its public transport than Tallinn, despite its municipal budget being just 5-6 times bigger than that of the Estonian capital.

"What stands out in the current Green Capital program, for example, is that we're encouraging reuse, repair ⁠— repairing things ⁠— and the kinds of places where people can reuse or redesign their clothes or tools, which in itself is great," Vihma said. "But if we look at how many more shopping malls are being built, then we can assume that such small changes, which place the responsibility on consumers, may fall short and their effect will be rather modest."

He finds that lasting change can only begin once city leaders themselves want it. Residents of the Estonian capital have long since awaited both an updated public transport network plan as well as tram lines that would encourage the use of public transport.

Both of these, however, are awaiting a political decision and are not connected to the Green Capital year, which is why the city is simply recommending people just use the existing public transport more.

"We very much hope that this entire Green Capital year will help to increase awareness and people themselves will make better choices," said Raido Roop, strategic director for the City of Tallinn. "Swap out their car for the bus, tram, trolley, walking, biking, even just a few days a week or month. The City of Tallinn has one of the newest rolling stocks among European cities."

The city official admitted that the Green Capital program with its "Metsikult muutuv" ("Wildly Changing") slogan is focused moreso on temporary and small-scale solutions.

"For example, it includes pocket parks; it includes the redesigning of some intersections' traffic islands; it includes green roofs on bus stop shelters," Roop described. "But these are such quick and temporary interventions that, I'd say, will have to be redone in parts in the future. I don't think a permanent change in mobility will be happening during the Green Capital year right now."

According to Sooväli-Sepping, container landscaping and green roofs on bus stop pavilions will certainly help make Tallinn greener, but in reality is only fine-tuning.

"The City of Tallinn's climate plan calls first and foremost for the renovation of buildings, transport issues, the improvement of public transport, etc.," the TalTech vice-rector said. "Little initiatives like these are nice, but they aren't enough."

Tallinn's European Green Capital budget is €12 million, €1 million of which is earmarked for marketing costs, including the purchase of content marketing articles, €1.5 million for international conferences abroad and €2 million for labor costs. €5 million is slated to be spent on organizing Green Capital events.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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