Dear ladies and gentlemen, members of the Riga City Council,
Traditionally, development of capitals has been driven by geographical factors. Riga, for example, was founded 820 years ago here because this was the best place for a port. Then came craftsmen and merchants, and trade ties with other regions. Riga quickly became a political and administrative centre of the surrounding Latvian and Livonian regions.
Flow of goods and ideas between Riga and Western Europe intensified as the city integrated into Teutonic Order, Roman Church and Hanseatic League and its conceptual world.
As a lawyer I can also assure you that these exchanges were further reinforced by the arrival legal constructs based on German and Roman law. Riga was able to create an effective legal framework based on the same principles as in Western Europe.
Riga and its agglomeration soon became part of Western Europe’s political, cultural, legal and historical space. In other words, Europe and its spirit and customs of the time came to Riga and through Riga we became part of the European history.
For more than a hundred years already Riga has been the capital of Latvia shaped by Latvians. Latvia stands out among other Latvian cities in this respect. That is why it has more responsibilities.
As a capital, Riga is the driver of national economy, education, science and culture.
As a capital, it has responsibilities towards the rest of our state. It means that Riga’s development strategy must be closely coordinated and coherent with national development strategies.
The new 2021-2027 Riga Development Programme is in the public consultation stage. That is an excellent example of direct democracy in action. The same can be said about the neighbourhood dialogue created by this City Council.
New leadership of Riga City has vowed to be open and transparent, and that is the kind of governance model everyone has been waiting for.
New development programme for Riga is centred around the concept of Riga as a metropolis of the North. Riga will become a regional leader and that means it must focus on offering better quality of life to its inhabitants.
That is a good and realistic vision. I believe that all nine priorities defined in the programme are great, especially the responsible social policies which will be supported from the 2021 social budget of Riga.
Strategy is based on a balanced approach to creating a better urban environment, and thus aspires to make sure Riga develops in a sustainable manner. Low emission areas, traffic flow changes, mobility points, pedestrian safety and cycling mobility, other amenities are all part of the new plan for Riga.
It is the desired approach because Riga is key for Latvia’s greening ambitions, and it needs to significantly cut down the emissions it generates.
We should also acknowledge that success of this impressive development strategy may be encumbered by the fact that Riga has fallen significantly behind neighbouring capitals Vilnius and Tallin in recent decades.
We need growth-oriented changes in a number of areas. We need strong priorities reinforced by holistic action plan and indicators against which you can measure the progress towards priority targets.
Let us take urban traffic changes. An issue which has stirred a lot of controversy. Reform focuses on pedestrians, cyclists and public transport. Yes, congestions are, of course, an unwanted side-effect of this reform, and there are also great many other challenges that need to be solved.
Many share City Council’s desire to bring in new style of management, but there are far more of those who oppose it. It is natural for us as humans to resist change. That is why dialogue is so essential. Inhabitants of Riga should have access to clear information about purpose of change, key actions and how they will benefit the grater good of the society. That is how you convince people to side with you and persuade opposition.
It must also be noted that communication is key on all levels of government, from Cabinet of Ministers to President of Latvia and Riga City Council. We must improve our public communication. There are good ideas that need to be discussed and explained as eloquently as possible.
Dear City Council members,
There are several issues Riga needs address to regain its competitiveness among main capitals of the North and be more prominently represented on the world stage in the 21st century.
Let me reiterate. Riga is the driver of our national economy. 33% of our population lives in Riga. It is responsible for 56 % of our national gross-domestic product (GDP). Add on top of that greater Riga area and you will get 52 % of Latvia’s population (more than half) and 71% of our GDP.
If we want a developed state, we need to support the growth of Riga and its agglomeration. It is and will remain the engine of the overall growth of our country.
The idea of developing greater Riga area around the metropolis is central, even decisive for the future of Riga and the whole state.
Riga agglomeration cooperation framework will facilitate synergies for better transport and infrastructure. Most people living around Riga work in the city, use its public infrastructure but pay their taxes outside.
Riga Metropolitan Area, like other similar areas have done elsewhere in the world, must build integrated public transport network and ticketing system as soon as possible.
This requires special regulatory framework. Law on Local Governments does not prioritise Riga, its agglomeration or Metropolitan Area. But we all know that half of our population lives in the capital. We need to create a governance model regulated by law to manage the area of Riga and its agglomeration where most of our people are concentrated by building stronger synergies and better quality of life. That is why government is currently working on changes in the Law on Local Governments. It is nice to see Riga and municipalities around it making a strong contribution to the draft law. Riga, greater Riga area, and the whole Metropolitan Area is different from other municipalities. It needs special regulations to eliminate any potential administrative inconsistencies.
I believe that Riga’s special significance as capital means that it should be given a special status in the new Law on Local Governments to recognise its role as the capital.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Riga is also shrinking. Its population has gone down by 16% since 2000. Population of its central districts has reduced by up to 40 %. People are moving out to Mārupe, Ķekava or Ādaži, which have almost become suburbs of Riga.
To avoid centre from becoming depressed, empty, sad and deserted, like some American cities or even some dilapidated places in Europe, Riga should make focused effort to revitalise its centre. Other big Northern European cities are a good example from which to learn. Riga must have booming centre to attract people and offer affordable housing options, to enable middle class to live in the centre, to create an environment pleasant for living or just spending time downtown.
Old Riga is part of the UNSECO World Heritage List, which protects it from hasty decisions or actions. Old Town is what attracts tourists to Riga. They come here for the historical centre, not the “sleeping districts” of Riga.
Central Riga is our treasure in the broadest sense of the word. It is our pride. It gives Riga its character, appeal and identity. We must take good care of it.
Reckless urban planning and insertion of buildings that distort the urban streetscape should not endanger our gem. And by gem I, of course, mean Old Riga. Historical buildings in the centre of the city contribute to the unique ambience of Riga, even though some buildings have little cultural or historical value on their own. It is the homogeneity of the old town we adore so much.
On the other hand, many buildings if the central part need retrofitting. Some industry experts advocate for greater flexibility. Historical facades may remain, while indoor spaces can be redesigned to create more convenient dwellings and diversify use of the units. This is how, for example, Brussels deals with this problem. All of this will be in vain if municipality fails to make investments in more modern engineering and communications networks for these buildings.
Riga Construction Board has made an important step by creating a fast-track procedure for faster approval of large scale development projects, which has led to enormous improvements.
Riga is still however grappling with huge number of brownfield sites on the doorstep of the city centre. These sites should be given preference in the process of selection of where to build new houses. We must support the rise of modern Riga, but not at the expense of historical architecture.
As far as modern architecture is concerned, Riga should not turn into a glass and concrete paradise, a faceless city of box-like buildings that has no soul. Riga should create more rigorous aesthetical standards for new buildings compared to what it has now. The interior design (inside) of the Central Market pavilions does not contribute to city’s unique character.
I am convinced that City should expect more creativity, higher aesthetical standards from developers and architects. Each new building should have some artistic value too. Why not? Architects who built the 19th century city centre were able to do that, why shouldn’t modern architects be capable of replicating that?
Last but not least, city leadership should consider financial incentives for young families looking to buy their first home. Their financial opportunities may be limited, and this would be a great way to support the city and its demographics.
Dear members of the City Council,
Strategic Rail Baltic project is gradually taking shape and beginning to redefine Riga historical centre and the whole country. This flagship project will ensure that we are deeply embedded in European Union transport network.
Riga must get the best out of its excellent geographic location to bring in more investments, science and manufacturing. Rail Baltic is the best vehicle for that.
Riga will also play a key role in the Three Seas Initiative. It is a political as much as economic endeavour aimed at developing connections and boosting connectivity between countries surrounding the Baltic, Adriatic and the Black sea. It is a transport and communication corridor connecting north and south.
Three Seas Initiative is a cooperation project between 12 Eastern European countries, a region which has grown two times faster than the Western Europe. Three Seas Initiative countries comprise one of Europe’s growth regions, and Latvia is among these countries. We must use it to our advantage.
Next summer Latvia will host the Riga Three Seas Summit and Business Forum. Partners, such as the United States of America, Germany and European Commission will also attend the meeting. I think this is an excellent opportunity for Riga to showcase itself as part of this European growth region.
Riga is the scientific, educational, cultural and innovation hub of our country. A place where new ideas and various synergies emerge. Riga City Council can grow this potential for its own needs and the rest of Latvia.
Riga is home to several clusters of excellence, such as the New Teika, where most of our biggest information and communication technology (ICT) businesses are located. According to some estimates, this two square kilometre stretch houses 42% of Latvia’s ICT sector turnover.
There is, for example, material science cluster of excellence. University of Latvia Institute of Solid-State Physics is producing global level knowledge. Riga must actively support these knowledge clusters. Excellence attracts excellence, you know. That is why I believe Riga City Council should further support the development of the so-called knowledge mile on the left bank of the Daugava River.
I think that knowledge mile is also a good brand value for Riga. Several universities and institutes, the face of Riga and its main appeal are there. We should emphasise it more. Let us, for example, take Grenoble or Gottingen. The first thing that pops into your mind is science and universities, education and culture. I believe Riga must strive for similar image.
Riga, like Latvia, needs its own higher education strategy, which is centred around raising investments. Scientific, educational and cultural prowess is the future of Latvia and also Riga. Economic benefits will follow.
We are small compared to the rest of the world, but we can be excellent at what we do. Let me mention as an example one of such national projects launched by the Presidential Chancery together with the Ministry of Education and Science. It will require your support, as well. Project aims to ensure that every student and teacher in Latvia has access to modern teaching tools, i.e., computers. Computers that can be operated at school, home, library or even a park. Dear member so the City Council and our municipal colleagues, you can also help this cause by supporting our programme which seeks to give access to computers for every child and make sure their used to the best of their possibilities. Development of Riga will also benefit from that.
Let me remind you that you pledged to resolve the preschool education issues when gave your oath.
I have proposed to officially designate the 15 October as the Official Language Day. On 15 October, in a week from now, our country will celebrate its first Official Language Day. Whereas tomorrow, on 8 October, I will host a discussion about the official language in the 21st century at the Riga Castle. You can follow it live online.
Official language, Latvian, is what all citizens, residents and local governments of Latvia share.
Respect for our common and official language, for Latvian nation and history of the Latvian State is essential for our society’s unity.
That is why I support the idea of installing billboards with information about the history of our country around the Victory Monument on the left bank of the Daugava River built by occupation regime to put the Soviet legacy in more modern and democratic perspective for Latvia.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Diverse and interesting options make cities attractive.
Latvia offers very interesting cultural agenda, but most of professional cultural institutions in Riga are funded from the national budget. I urge the administration of Riga to pay greater attention to creating its own cultural institutions that would make the cultural life richer. For example, there is still no concert arena and contemporary art museum that inhabitants of Riga could enjoy.
Riga should not shy away from its responsibility for preserving our cultural heritage, more effort should go into supporting non-tangible culture.
Dear members of the City Council,
Riga needs to nurture excellence to become a true metropolis of the North. That is what residents of Riga and the whole Latvia expect from the Riga City Council.
Make converting Riga into metropolis of excellence Riga City Council’s goal!