Everything would be much simpler with three million Estonians

Helen Sooväli-Sepping.

PHOTO: Eero Vabamaegi/Postimees

Two Estonias have developed both socioeconomically and regionally. Tallinn and the rest of the country. The Estonian Cooperation Assembly foundation presented its 300-page Estonian Human Development Report on Thursday, editor-in-chief of which Helen Sooväli-Sepping finds that Estonia’s regional policy needs a restart as things done so far have not managed to slow down urbanization – all villages, small towns and counties are being drained of people. All except Harju County.

When I moved from my home city of Võru to Tallinn, I realized that its residents consider the capital to be the only city in Estonia.

Yes. People refer to Tallinn when they say they’re going to the city.

When will Tallinn become the only de facto city in Estonia?

Not inside the next few decades as Tartu and Pärnu are still strong as cities. We will not be a one-city country.

However, that is where things are headed?

Yes, we have a single region that’s growing.

Have we done something wrong to see life in the rest of Estonia slowly die out?

I do not think it has been a strategic choice. It has simply happened. People leave their home if better work is to be found elsewhere. People move where there is prosperity – that is also the reason why 30,000 Estonians have gone to work in Finland.

How much better is life in Tallinn?

The relevant question is what a young person wants. Risk of unemployment is lower, while pay and career prospects are better in the city. An educated person might not find suitable employment where they’re from.

What will happen outside of Greater Tallinn in the coming years if your proposals are not heeded?

County centers might die out if the state fails to intervene and provide funding for improving quality of life.

What would that hold for the people there? Which opportunities would be lost?

It is a dead end and a vicious circle. First jobs will disappear, followed by people, followed by vital services. Medical assistance has already disappeared in many places – the city of Haapsalu is short on family doctors, for example. Schools could be closed.

This vicious cycle is worse in small places. As a young person, it makes no sense for me to move back to Võru. Will things keep getting more depressing in small places?

(Pauses for a long time.)

First to go are jobs, followed by hospitals, schools and eventually people?

Yes.

People need to know what they are looking for. If it is a safe environment for their children, the countryside is definitely better than the city. However, daily life is less convenient. Cities have noise and air pollution, rush-hour traffic etc. It’s a choice between spending an hour in city center traffic or spending it on the highway if the school run takes an hour. It takes as long to go from Tallinn’s Nõmme district to the city center (eight kilometers) than it does coming from Jõelähtme (20 kilometers from the city).

What could be a fast and effective solution?

To consider which regions we want to keep viable. Estonia has that plan and it requires a fair support system. Such as what they have in the north in Finland: considerably higher salaries for doctors and teachers.

The railroad plays a key role in the future scenarios your report includes. We have an extensive railroad network, while trains only go to a few places.

Socioeconomic analyses suggest it takes a lot more money to develop and maintain the railroad than it does roads. The difference is several orders of magnitude. It is cheaper to build roads than it is to fix up and maintain the railroad. Considering Estonia’s population, keeping the railroad operational is hugely expensive.

Other countries, such as Denmark, manage.

They have far greater population density. Everything would be much simpler had we three million people.

Getting an additional two million Estonians would help solve problems?

Yes, definitely. It would mean a completely difference income tax base. The railroad is simply very expensive – that is also the reason why there are no trains in Iceland.

Perhaps Estonia should simply accept rural areas drying up? It would be a decision at least, while today, we have neither acceptance nor a strategy for adaptation.

We cannot say there have not been decisions or funding. The measures have simply proved ineffective. The question now is what would. We need a restart because the administrative reform, for example, has not managed to bring people back to the country.

Has free public transport helped?

It is symptomatic of what we have been talking about that several lines have not been reopened since the coronavirus crisis. Operators are saying there are no passengers. It is not a question of whether the bus is free or not, what matters is the quality of the service.

Your report clearly shows that Estonia would function well with two centers (Tallinn and Tartu) if at least one of them would be no more than an hour’s commute from anywhere in Estonia. The same model was put forward by Edgar Kant in 1935. With these considerations in mind, isn’t it a mistake to construct Rail Baltic in a way that will disrupt Estonia’s natural spatial structure instead of supporting it?

Rail Baltic would be more use if the railroad supported local development. If the train would also stop in smaller settlements.

Where should the Rail Baltic corridor lie?

(Thinks.)

I think answering would be going down a slippery slope. The decision has been made – it will go through Pärnu.

What could be discussed is a branch line from there. It is not even on the table today. Rail Baltic is good for the state but not the places it passes through. Even though we could say the former gives us more tax revenue with which to support regional development.

What did the recent coronavirus crisis tell us about where people stay?

Five percent of people have several homes. People commute between the city and the countryside. People went to their country homes during the epidemic, while a bigger problem became apparent there. The internet connection was unstable. Children could not access e-school and parents attend their video meetings. Which is when people came back to the city.

We had a professor, a lecturer and a Ph.D. in the room today. You have done a lot of work and made a number of proposals. How far will they be heeded?

(Thinks at length before bursting into laughter.)

The honest answer is that I hope the spatial dimension will be discussed more often. So that every local government decision would have that spatial dimension. We need understanding in terms of not constructing apartment buildings where the general plan prescribes green areas. An apartment building for 400 people also requires 400 kindergarten and school places, roads and healthcare services. I hope that our object-centered cast of mind will become a spatial and geographic one.

You say in your report that politicians should shake their simplified and emotional style of argumentation as concerns regional policy and everything else for that matter. A criticism of the government?

It is a common tone that has its roots in social media and has permeated the public forum in general.

What should be the headline of this interview, so people would take your proposals to heart?

And for it not to be emotional?

Does it need to be?

A neutral headline would read: “Estonia on the crossroads of choices.”

I will consider it.

TOP