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Cobblestones to green zones: tactical urbanism’s impact in Tallinn’s old town

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Cobblestones to green zones: tactical urbanism’s impact in Tallinn’s old town

Tallinn capitalized on its 2023 European Green Capital designation by transforming its Town Hall Square with a temporary park, demonstrating tactical urbanism’s role in improving urban environments and community life.

Kaidi Tamm / Published on 17 June 2024

Last summer, Tallinn’s historic Town Hall Square was transformed from a sun-scorched cobblestone expanse into a vibrant pop-up park. As part of Tallinn’s designation as the European Green Capital 2023, this initiative welcomed both locals and tourists to enjoy newly installed wooden benches, lounging areas and lush plant containers equipped with educational QR codes. This transformation created a peaceful green retreat in the heart of the old town, turning what one visitor called a “stone desert” into a “biodiversity oasis.” 

This innovative transformation was part of Tallinn’s Green Tracks project, conducted under the broader umbrella of the Tallinn European Green Capital 2023 program. It aimed to explore the impacts of tactical urban interventions. In addition to the Old Town, other areas such as the seaside stretch between Linnahall and the Cruise Terminal saw similar temporary installations.  

Pop-up park at Tallinn Old Town Hall Square in the summer of 2023. Previously, the only options for sitting and spending time were to visit one of the restaurants surrounding the square or to stand or sit on the cobblestones.

Photo: SEI Tallinn.

Tactical urbanism: a flexible approach to city planning 

Tactical urbanism refers to a city planning approach that supplements the often slow and rigid processes of urban planning. It allows for quick experimentation and adaptation, enabling participatory and flexible responses to challenges like climate change. The approach involves testing ideas and gathering feedback from citizens and other stakeholders before making large-scale infrastructure investments, thereby mitigating risks. By fostering collaboration and co-creation, tactical urbanism encourages citizens to actively participate in shaping their environment, enhancing both the quality and the sense of ownership of their living spaces. 

Community feedback and insights 

The SEI Tallinn team conducted a six-month empirical study to explore how residents, visitors and businesses experienced the changes in urban space in Town Hall Square. Through systematic observations and interviews, the feedback received was predominantly positive or neutral. International visitors showed particular enthusiasm, while local residents shared mixed reactions as they adjusted to the park’s new design. Some locals preferred a more modest design that would have complemented the historical context of the area, while others would have favoured an even more modern design. 

The creation of an accessible green space was highly praised. “The trees are great! They bring a sense of nature; humans are part of nature, after all, and this creates a feeling of safety and comfort. Without the trees, this would be lost,” a local resident remarked. The park offered a respite from the commercialized Old Town, providing a space where visitors could relax without the need to spend money. 

The trees are great! They bring a sense of nature; humans are part of nature, after all, and this creates a feeling of safety and comfort. Without the trees, this would be lost.

A local resident of Tallinn

The park was praised for its multifunctionality. It served as a versatile area for socializing, eating, working, relaxing and enjoying the historic scenery

A man stretching and resting on the wooden bench.

Photo: SEI Tallinn.

Activities ranged from listening to concerts and swinging to reading books provided by the National Library. “It’s good to just sit, watch people, be among others, not alone, shared an elderly gentleman, highlighting the park’s ability to foster a sense of community. Its unique location in the historic city centre, coupled with a variety of engaging activities, reportedly made it more interesting and varied than a typical park. 

It’s good to just sit, watch people, be among others, not alone.

Elderly gentleman visiting the park

People spending time in the park during the evening time. On the right, books provided by the National Library.

Photo: SEI Tallinn.

Addressing practical needs and business perspectives 

While the park’s atmosphere and educational elements were appreciated, its lack of some essential amenities like shelters from rain and sun, public drinking water fountains, restrooms and bike racks limited its functionality. 

Local businesses viewed the park neutrally or supportively, noting its role in making the Old Town, especially the Town Hall Square, more attractive for locals and encouraging longer visitor stays. They noted, however, that restaurant patronage declined on busy park days as visitors chose to relax in the park rather than dine at nearby cafes. While the park did not directly boost sales like the temporary Christmas market every year, it positively impacted the work environment for local employees and provided a pleasant space for breaks. The park also attracted evening crowds, which sometimes led to excessive alcohol consumption and unruly behaviour, indicating a need for better lighting and enhanced security measures.

Overall, the park successfully revitalized the Old Town, providing a relaxing retreat for both locals and visitors while establishing a vibrant and relaxing non-commercial space. Due to overwhelmingly positive feedback and high anticipation for its return, the park is reinstated this summer. However, budget constraints following the conclusion of the EU Green Capital year has restricted enhancements such as adding more shelters. Securing additional funding for improvements is crucial to maintaining the park’s popularity and ensuring its place as a permanent summer fixture in the Old Town. 

Expanding tactical urbanism in Tallinn 

In addition to the temporary park on the Town Hall Square and the new relaxation area at the seaside between Linnahall and the Cruise Terminal, Tallinn is planning to implement further tactical interventions across the city in 2024.  

Architect Mike Lydon first introduced the concept of tactical urbanism in 2010, defining it as “short-term actions designed for long-term change.” This approach focuses on small, cost-effective, and rapidly implementable interventions that significantly enhance public spaces, contributing to safer, fairer, healthier and more sustainable communities.

The positive outcomes observed from such interventions should encourage not only Tallinn but other cities and towns throughout Estonia to apply tactical urbanism more broadly. Using this approach more systematically enables ongoing feedback from users and provides valuable insights from these experiences, thereby improving the living environment and overall quality of life for residents and visitors. It is also an effective tool for addressing the impacts of climate change, leading to urban development that is more sustainable, inclusive and centred around human needs.

Design and development by Soapbox.