“We need to see recovery as an opportunity for radical change,” says Inese Andersone, Head of the Development Committee at the City of Riga. “So that we come out stronger and more resilient from these crises.”
How do cities deal with planning the future after a global pandemic that still drags its feet, and two months into a war at Europe’s doorstep? Cities have similar goals and ambitions, though their starting line position isn’t the same, and radical change can look different from city to city.
Leave your car behind
One of Riga’s priorities is to improve its transport offer and make it an affordable option. “Because of Covid-19, people jumped back into their cars to feel safer,” says Andersone. “And this effect hasn’t reversed yet, so we need to promote public transport more.”
Riga collaborated with the national government to achieve its goal and obtained €150 million from the Recovery and Resilience Fund (RRF) to improve the city’s mobility infrastructure. The network will receive a new metro line, better connections between the railway and urban transport system, and new temporary bike lanes. Its offer will be accessible through a single ticketing system.
“In Western Europe, there’s a lot of talk about electric vehicles as an alternative. We also have a programme that subsidises the purchase of e-cars, but we can’t ignore the difference in income level,” explains Andersone. “It’s mostly for wealthier people. We need to think about the option of electric, but for us, bringing people to leave their private cars is more urgent.”
Therefore, Riga prioritises measures to invite people to choose public transport over their private cars. While the city hopes the crises-induced increase in fuel prices will “push people to change their transport habits towards using more public transport or cycling to save money,” says Andersone, Riga is also planning to implement a low emission zone. “The change will not happen on its own or thanks to people’s will only,” notes Andersone.
Finding the money
Having access to part of the Latvian share of the RRF – a total of €1.8 billion of EU funding – is not enough for Riga. The national government can also support the city by granting a loan, but there are limits to what kind the municipality can request. Riga also draws on its annual municipal budget, of course, but Andersone explains that their “needs and the needs of our citizens are more than our budget possibilities.”
So, the city has recruited an expert to identify projects, like those with more than €20 million of investment, where it could attract international private companies to be a partner. “We have not yet been so good at looking into attracting private funding like public-private partnerships,” admits Andersone. “But we are working in that direction by evaluating future projects where we see an interest in creating a private-public partnership in the future. We are at the stage of listing potential projects and methods for such partnerships and funding options.”
For the climate and the economy
Such an alternative is also needed because no matter the positive experience Riga has had with its national government over the redistribution of the RRF, the city is in regular competition with less populated areas of the country.
“Of course, we need to invest in regions too, but cities are the ones polluting,” says Andersone. “It would be more sensible to spend money meant to fight climate change and fund emissions’ reduction, for example, where most of the problem is. In cities.” Riga’s metropolitan area is home to half of the population in Latvia and accounts for 70% of the national GDP.
Riga’s climate plan will be approved in the coming months, and it includes measures to invest in more energy-efficient buildings. “We are lagging behind,” says Andersone evoking the impact that making their multistorey buildings more energy efficient could have. She also stresses the importance of trickling the funding down to citizens “so that they can afford the transition.”
Riga’s population, for example, relies on gas for their heating systems, but switching to renewable energy is costly, and it takes time. With the Ukrainian war increasing energy prices, “our climate goals have also become economic goals,” adds Andersone. Finding new energy sources will impact the climate and make the country more independent from other energy sources.
Some changes will take time to happen. For example, the war in Ukraine has also increased the prices of some construction materials, like metal and bitumen, that Riga was purchasing from Russia and Ukraine. “It will take us time to create a new supply chain,” says Andersone.
In the meantime, Riga is doing its best to kickstart the change. “Municipalities are like big ships, and they tend to be conservative in how they do things,” says Andersone. “We need to find ways to do new things within this large infrastructure.” One of the ways Riga has found is by creating an annual Innovation Fund.
The fund will be dedicated to testing innovative ideas. “Usually, there is no budget to test something new,” says Andersone. “It’s used to improve existing solutions and maintenance, but we want to encourage testing and collaborating with universities and companies.”
For example, this year, the Innovation Fund will be used to solve monitoring noise pollution. Citizens in Riga complain about the sounds of motorcycles during the summer season. So, the city will set up sound detectors connected to cameras to measure the sound and identify which vehicles disturb the people. “This is a first step to understanding the problem and its extent,” says Andersone.
Riga has created specific funds to help businesses develop their innovative solutions. For example, the installation of electric-vehicles chargers on light poles. “Instead of creating new infrastructure, this was a smart way to use the existing one, so the city supports these solutions,” says Andersone.
The city has also introduced a brand-new role: an urban and landscape designer to make the city more pleasant to live in, for example, making the streets more centred on pedestrians and adding green spaces. Although concrete results can’t be seen yet, this is one of the many changes Riga is spearheading to achieve ‘more than recovery’.
Cities face many competing challenges and are committed to learning lessons, and using the potential boost from recovery funding, to jump ahead of where they were two years ago. By using this opportunity to take a leap towards the much needed digital and environmental transitions of our time, cities want #MoreThanRecovery.
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