Elo Kiivet: Small Town Hues

For three consecutive summers Paide central square has provided a collaborative platform for locals, participants of the Opinion Festival and municipality to find the best possible joint space for the community.

A space unknown and distant often appears to us in black and white, simplified to a fault. In a state where a third of the population lives in the capital, it is the small towns that inherit this role. They are established as depressive by one, or too insignificant to see elementary services maintained by another. The idyllicism of small town farmers petting their sheep and remote work culture nomads in action is an equally suspicious scenario, reversed. Stereotypical thought does not identify midtones, resulting in loss of ties with real life, often clouding the inner life of small towns. You can only witness the variegation and warmth whilst there in person.

Black. Depressive Small Towns of Estonia 

The recently completed study on small settlements states that migration is one of the most significant processes directing the evolution of a population: yet the degree of polarisation along the regional centre-periphery axis that we see today has not been encountered in the Estonian habitation system thus far. Migration towards centres has been intensive in the last decades, flow in the opposite direction, on the contrary, remains modest.i Adding the collapse of collective and state farms that followed the reinstatement of independence, the diminishing demand for human labour in agriculture in light of technological advancement, the convergence of higher education and services, and mixing all that with a diminishing and aging populace, we get a rather dim view of the status and outlook of a small town.

But, why should we compare a small town to a large one, the perpetual making of haste, mass consumption and the so-called average human? How appropriate is it to speak of depressiveness in a place where the brightest individuals do not stand out because they are not posing over national media, but are instead focused on developing local (cultural) life with impressive vigor? Why must one daydream about far-away franchises arriving one day, or wait for the city clerk’s arduous birthing of development when one can make and change the status quo on their own – doing it faster, cheaper and more amusingly, no less? It is a question about the possibilities embedded in public space, not about the impossibilities of life. A spatial experiment such as the one enlivening the central square of Paide is the best kind of evidence available to indicate that it is possible to switch viewpoints – the joy of doing it yourself becomes visible to the outside and may even infect others.

White. Communication Space for a Community 

The same study on small settlements asserts: analyses of prosperous economies have identified factual links between so-called social capital and development. Numerous organisations and tight communication create an environment where economical ties, sharing of knowledge and innovation function smoothly. The formula for co-existence and joint activity is simple – standing together develops in a local communication space.1 Every municipality relies on community initiatives to build the white ship of hope that would steer everyone to a bright and happy future. 

Paide is a town with a longstanding history of third-sector initiatives, including founding of local currency (by the Weissenstein union and named “P.A.I.“ (“pai“ – caress), appreciating voluntary work), activating the old town; it houses the youngest professional theatre of Estonia and a gigantic culture centre buzzing like a beehive, not to mention the experience gathered during the seven years of organising the volunteer based Opinion Festival.

The concentration of the so-called “bright sparks“ and the spirit of collaboration seems high in Paide. That makes it a natural springboard for Estonia’s largest (by dimension and duration) spatial experiment that grew to last from a month to two months, and gives the central square back to the citizens, whilst seeing the entire building and decorating set up as contribution through voluntary and communal work. The foremost task of the collaborating architect is translating the dreams and wishes of the community into spatial language and keeping it all together.

The purpose of spatial experiments is to act as agents for communal cooperation for different groups of society. The initiative that gathered momentum in Paide has become a solid example of successful placemaking, leaving no trace of doubt: just create a space, and the users will come. Each year something has changed, been added, showing that an experimental mindset is the way towards a better shared space.

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Read more from Maja’s 2020 winter edition (No 99). Maja is on sale in Estonia, for international subscribers click here to order the magazine.

ELO KIIVET is an architect and urbanist, who spent three summers in Paide, building the central square and the Opinion Festival. She is now the part-time city architect of Paide. 

HEADER photo by Ants Leppoja.

i Study on small Estonian settlements. Hendrikson & Ko, University of Tallinn, Ministry of Finance, 2019. Map applicationhttps://planeerimine.ee/2019/03/eesti-vaikeasulate-uuring/#more-3663