Article by Daniel Hess Examines the Evolution of Urban Planning in Post-Soviet Latvia

Riga, Latvia.

Latvia, including its capital city Riga (pictured above), have witnessed increased levels of public engagement in urban planning since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The study of post-Soviet urban planning in Latvia was recently published by UB urban planner Daniel B. Hess and Mara Liepa-Zemeša.

Published February 8, 2016

by Lisa Gagnon

Associate Professor Daniel B. Hess, PhD, traces the democratization of urban planning in post-Soviet Latvia in a “best-in-issue” article just published in Town Planning Review.

Hess, a faculty member in urban and regional planning, co-authored the article with Latvian planner and scholar Māra Liepa-Zemeša. Entitled “Effects of public perception on urban planning: evolution of an inclusive planning system during crises in Latvia,” the article appears in the January 2016 issue of Town Planning Review, published by Liverpool University Press.

Photo by Timo Ilves.

The study of public engagement in urban planning across the Baltic States is a natural progression in Hess's research. The urban planner is currently in Estonia on a two-year fellowship to develop planning solutions to aging Soviet-era housing across the Baltic States. Photo by Timo Ilves

The researchers document several shifts in Latvia’s urban planning process in line with two decades of political and economic change following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of the country’s independence in 1991. Hess and Liepa-Zemeša, a former visiting scholar with UB’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning, also identify specific strategies used by the Latvian government to increase public participation and equity in the planning process while reducing levels of corruption.

Prior to 1991, the Soviet Union’s governing focus on the collective good over individuality permeated the planning process in Latvia and other Baltic States, resulting in centralized projects driven by political goals, according to the authors. Following their independence, Soviet states struggled to shift public perception and levels of engagement in urban planning.

Explains Hess: “In the ‘command economy’ of the Soviet Union, the term ‘planning’ suggested centralized authoritarian decision-making without public input. It was a challenge for urban planners to subsequently educate the public about their ability to participate in public engagement exercises related to city planning.”

Mara Liepa-Zemeša, a Latvian urban planner and scholar, is also a former visiting scholar of the School of Architecture and Planning through a fellowship of the Baltic American Freedom Foundation.

Mara Liepa-Zemeša, a Latvian urban planner and scholar, is also a former visiting scholar of the School of Architecture and Planning through a fellowship of the Baltic American Freedom Foundation.

“People were suspicious and reluctant to participate,” adds Liepa-Zemeša, “and it took a great deal of public education to help people become comfortable with the idea of participation.”

With little or no homegrown expertise in democratic city planning, foreign specialists played a critical role in the evolution of planning systems in Latvia during the early 1990s, according to the article. Since then – with growing public trust in the political system - elected leaders and planners have developed an integrated system, organizing public participation campaigns, promoting the development of NGOs, and emphasizing local benefits of planning actions. The authors link high levels of public participation in a recent master planning effort for Riga, the Latvian capital city, to this enhanced culture of inclusion.

Hess, who is currently studying mass produced Soviet-era housing units known as “tower blocks” as part of a two-year stay in Estonia under the prestigious Marie Skłodowska-Curie International Fellowship, was eager to explore this angle of urban planning in Latvia.

“The complex political background of former socialist states is a fascinating place to study the evolution of public engagement in urban planning,” he says.

Prior to his current fellowship at the University of Tartu, Hess was awarded a Fulbright Scholar Award in 2010-11 at the Tallinn University of Technology to study how urban planning practice has evolved since the Soviet Union disintegrated. For the past five years, he has also overseen UB’s annual study abroad program in Estonia and Latvia.