The term "dense city" may evoke images of austere Soviet-era apartment blocks in Tallinn. However, in reality, it signifies the creation of a high-quality urban environment that offers residents improved mobility options and a more sustainable way of life, Markus Hääl writes.
Tallinn is sparse, filled with empty spaces, and inherently fragmented. The city remains inadequately connected, causing inconvenience for those who rely on public transport and seek to navigate different districts without a private vehicle. In contrast, a modern dense city can be characterized by compactness, mixed land use and intensity. Such an urban landscape promotes car-free mobility, facilitates easy access to essential amenities, and emphasizes efficient use of space and resources.
What do "mixed use" and "intensity" signify in the urban context? Mixed use entails the close proximity of residential, commercial, and social structures within urban areas. Intensity pertains to the dynamic use of urban spaces, dictating the extent to which these public spaces are actively engaged by the public. We shouldn't aim to fill the whole city with houses, but to make important nodes more functional – and not at the expense of existing green spaces.
The concept of density stands as a critical pillar in the ongoing development of Tallinn. It exerts a direct influence on the quality of life and the overall compactness of the city. Density, in this context, should not be misconstrued as merely the growth in population or an increase in building mass. Instead, well-planned density underscores the efficient utilization of resources, promotes sustainable transportation alternatives and encourages active, healthy lifestyles.
Maximizing space efficiency
Tallinn boasts numerous brownfield areas that, regrettably, stand as they are while new developments push out the city's borders over time. Urban sprawl rather than concentrated development poses one of the most formidable obstacles to achieving urban density. This trend has led to a surge in car usage as suburban residents are compelled to commute across various parts of the city daily. This, in turn, exacerbates CO2 emissions and traffic congestion.
The development of a dense urban area goes hand in hand with the 15-minute city principle. This means that city dwellers can live, work, rest and engage in various activities within a short distance of each other. It enables efficient use of limited resources such as land, water, energy and infrastructure.
Dense cities stimulate the use of public transport, pedestrian pathways, and cycling networks, as all essential destinations are conveniently accessible. Consequently, this minimizes the reliance on automobiles and mitigates issues related to traffic congestion, pollution and related health concerns. Moreover, it lessens the financial burden on local authorities associated with infrastructure construction and management. This re-prioritization enables cities to channel their resources into innovation, education, and other priority areas.
Addressing the issue of automobile dependency
Constructing more roads and expanding parking facilities inadvertently encourages car ownership. Research in Poland has revealed that the availability of private parking significantly raises the likelihood of car ownership. To counter this trend, some developments have implemented restrictions on the number of parking spaces. Moreover, off-site parking has been introduced to curb car ownership. A similar approach in Sweden has resulted in a notable reduction in car use.
As reported by the Foresight Centre, the number of people relying on public transport, walking, and cycling for their daily commutes has declined by 120,000 over the past 18 years. Concurrently, the number of registered passenger cars has doubled, making Estonia a leader in Europe.
Even though the Tallinn 2035 development strategy has set a goal in that "Most people use fast and accessible public transport, walking or cycling to get around in Tallinn," limited efforts have been invested to actualize this vision. The case of Pronksi Street epitomizes this disconnect – although recently renovated, the street continues to prioritize cars, boasting high speed limits while remaining less hospitable for pedestrians.
Therefore, rather than solely channeling resources into the improvement of road infrastructure, the city must pivot its focus toward bolstering alternative transportation options. As long as this is not the case, people will not be sufficiently motivated to swap a comfortable and fast car for a bicycle or public transport. Ideally, road space should be distributed equitably between motor vehicles and alternative modes of transportation. Currently, the majority of road space caters to automobiles, leaving a narrow margin for cyclists and other forms of lightweight transport. This arrangement poses risks, discomfort, and inefficiency in terms of time management.
Reducing environmental footprint
Dense urban locales afford greater energy and resource efficiency, subsequently diminishing the environmental impact of transportation and infrastructure. Additionally, dense cities constitute a pivotal facet of green urban planning strategies. These strategies encompass the creation of parks and green spaces, alongside general improvements to the urban environment for the well-being of residents. In a densely populated urban space, integrating natural elements and eco-friendly solutions that promote biodiversity, enhance air quality, and cultivate a superior living environment for all city dwellers becomes a more feasible endeavor.
A sparse city does not necessarily equate to a greener city. In Tallinn, vast empty areas predominantly comprise expansive asphalt surfaces. Vegetation can be brought to densely populated areas by means of street landscaping, courtyard greenery and green walls. This means introducing both elevated and ground-level vegetation, alongside container and vertical greenery. The essential objective is to create better microclimates by thwarting the formation of heat and cold islands and wind corridors.
Cultural diversity and active lifestyle
Densely populated urban centers foster cultural diversity and offer residents vibrant, active lives. A key factor in urban development is the provision of inviting public spaces, encompassing parks and various meeting venues. These public spaces encourage urbanites to traverse and explore the city on foot.
Urban space should not only be designed to get from point A to point B. Instead, the city should be conceived as an inclusive, engaging space, suitable for both 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds. At present, Tallinn is still too sparse, nervous and car-centred. Addressing urban sprawl, prioritizing strategic connections, and harnessing untapped spaces to link vital nodes could pave the way for Tallinn's aspirations of transitioning into a dense city.
Our ultimate aspiration is to create an urban environment that champions versatile, sustainable modes of transport while ensuring efficient, secure, and effective movement between various destinations. Instead of widening motorways, increasing intersections, and disregarding lower speed limits, the focus should shift toward achieving this goal.
Editor: Marcus Turovski