Green transition in Riga: Citizens must learn to get involved and take responsibility for their own housing

As something completely new in Latvia, the Desire partner Riga Municipality involves citizens in the renovation of a Soviet era apartment block and its outdoor area. The hope is that it will become the first really good example of Soviet housing block renovation in Riga and that others join forces to follow the example.

Published December 8, 2023. Text Hanne Kokkegård, DTU Compute

How do you get the population of a former Soviet republic to get involved in the green transition? And why does it make sense to renovate such a destroyed building, as the one pictured, when we talk about the green transition?

In October, the Desire project visited our partner Riga Municipality, where we had the opportunity to experience with our own eyes the housing block Ziepju 11, which is the focal point of the pilot project in Riga.

The block is owned by the municipality, and in the coming years the block must be renovated, and the area must be turned into an attractive, green urban space for the area's residents, where they can be part of a community.

Through the Desire project, citizens are invited into the process to make their wishes and suggestions heard – something which has never happened before in Riga, when designing social housing.

Even though the country became independent more than 30 years ago, it is deep in the population's DNA that people keep to themselves. This was the practice during the Soviet era, and this is particularly evident in the many residential areas comprised of apartment blocks. Sure, there is greenery, but there is close to no life, with just a few places with tables, benches, and playgrounds.

"This project is actually facing the biggest challenge we have here: Changing the mentality of the people that they are not only users living with a central system that deals with everything, but that they are actually users that can actively engage in and create their own city – their own home," says Rudis Rubenis, Architect and Desire Project coordinator in Riga Municipality.

In August, Riga Municipality held workshops for the residents of the neighbouring block to ask for ideas on how to transform the outdoor area into an attractive, green urban space where people can be together. Both children, young people, adults, and the elderly showed up. In September, school children from a nearby after-school program were invited to a workshop to share their ideas.

Workshop with school children, September 2023. Photos: Benjamin Hesselholdt.

Our Desire team in Riga. From left: Rudis Rubenis, Arnita Verza, and Emils Zinkevics. Photo: Hanne Kokkegård, DTU Compute

Our Desire team in Riga. From left: Rudis Rubenis, Arnita Verza, and Emils Zinkevics. Photo: Hanne Kokkegård, DTU Compute

Workshop for school kids in September 2023, with Rudis Rubenis. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Workshop for school kids in September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Riga, September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Riga, September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Riga, September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Riga, September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Riga, September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Riga, September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Riga, September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Riga, September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Riga, September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt

Riga, September 2023. Photo: Benjamin Hesselholdt


6,000 private owned blocks in bad condition

According to the city government, 68 percent of Riga’s population of 650,000 people live in apartment blocks from the 60s -80s, typically of poor build quality. Only a few of the approximately 6,000 apartment blocks have been renovated, and many blocks have cracks in the facade, which must be repaired.

People in Latvia are generally not interested in renovation - and there is no money for it either. When the country gained independence, its politicians decided to hand over the apartments to the people who already lived in them.

So, the apartments are privately owned, and people pay low maintenance fees. People are used to taking care of their own apartment, while the 'system' fixed the rest. But something must happen to change this approach within the next few years.

There are perhaps 70 different owners in each apartment block, and they must all agree on establishing a form of owners' association, so they can borrow money together to pay to have the block of flats renovated.

This is where the Ziepju 11 block comes into the picture. The municipality owns only three percent of the housing blocks, and the hope is to be able to do such a fantastic and attractive job at renovating, that people in the around 6000 privately owned blocks will want to follow the example.

"If you just isolate the blocks, in 10-20 years they might be in a worse condition than now, so the work will be enormous. We hope Ziepju can serve as an example of how it can be done in a good way because there is a lack of good examples,” says Rudis Rubenis.

"We learn to not only build in a circular way but also how to talk to the community and how to engage them - and how to give people a voice," says Ieva Zibarte, Representative of the municipalities department Rigas Buildings.

The expectation is that Ziepju 11 will be fully renovated in 3-4 years so that vulnerable families with physical and mental disabilities can move in. The basement is to be transformed into an after-school facility (a daycare centre) for the children, and the block and the outdoor area are to function as a meeting place for the neighbours.

Partner meeting in Riga, October 2023. Visit the residential area Ziepniekkalns with many blocks including the longest block in Riga, approximately 343 meters. Photo: Hanne Kokkegård, DTU Compute

Partner meeting in Riga, October 2023. Visit the residential area Ziepniekkalns with many blocks including the longest block in Riga, approximately 343 meters. Photo: Hanne Kokkegård, DTU Compute