When Hayro, one of the Better Block team members, brought this video to our attention, we knew we had to meet the group behind it. Led by Evelina Ozola and Toms Kokins, Fine Young Urbanists are a Latvian duo leading the tactical urbanism scene in their country.
Both trained architects and urbanists, Evelina and Toms, like Better Block, were discontent with the top-down structure of modern architecture and wanted to see a more human approach to design. Unlike many of its Western European counter parts, vibrant public spaces and multi-modal street design haven’t been part of the planning process in Latvia’s capital of Riga, which has suffered from Soviet-era, car-centric design and suburban sprawl. A small number of creatives and new urbanists have arisen in Riga to combat this, but Evelina and Toms are leading the charge. “We’re the most popular,” Evelina laughed on our Skype call.
Their popularity grew from their colorful Mierigi! project in September 2014. Evelina and Toms had noticed that the wide cars lanes on Miera Street in Riga were underutilized; most cars rode on the tram tracks, leaving excess space on either side of the traffic and condensing pedestrians and bikes to a narrow sidewalk. While the city had a long-term plan for increased bicycle infrastructure throughout the city, a number of residents and city officials had a hard time believing that there was enough room on the streets for wider sidewalks, bike lanes, cars and a tram at the same time. So, Evelina and Toms decided to show the community how the plan could be realized in a creative way.
They took blue paint and created panels that mimicked the proposed street layout, covering part of the car lanes with extended pedestrian space, bike lanes and room for cafe seating. To continue the aesthetic of the street, they paneled the adjoining storefront as well, making the entire section of Miera Street pop with bright blue.
“What we’ve learned is that the aesthetics are very important,” said Toms. A project’s functionality is obviously a priority, but if the elements are not attractive to the community they serve, few pay attention. On the other hand, well-designed, photogenic initiatives increase civic and official buy-in, and cause people to take them more seriously. An aesthetically minded project that photographs well is also more likely to be shared, spreading its reach beyond the neighborhood in which it took place and widening its impact. The Mierigi intervention was part of the larger cycling infrastructure strategy for Riga, acting as a demonstration that precedes the more permanent design.
Similarly, Evelina and Toms made a bold statement with their redesign of Alexey Square in Riga, painting all of the elements bright red. They were enlisted to convert community suggestions into an actual place, which is what they are all about — bringing the seemingly inaccessible idea of the architect down to a human level.
“It’s unrealistic to make everyone an architect,” said Toms. Instead, they make architects everyone. Through their projects, they extensively observe and collect input from the community and show that their ideas and needs can be translated into a well-designed reality. Their projects are participatory, requiring refinement from the neighborhood at each design stage, and hands-on interaction during installation. Evelina and Toms aren’t hiding behind a computer screen throughout the process, but instead there among the crowds, getting their hands dirty.
In her blog post about the Alexey Square project, Evelina detailed their atypical approach to their role as architects: “There were construction jobs to be done professionally, such as pouring rubber and assembling street furniture, and jobs that everyone can do, mostly cleaning and painting. I myself spent two days up on a skylift painting poles, and two other days picking up dog poo and cigarette butts from the ground.”
Like we’ve learned from doing dozens of Better Block projects, to really adopt bottom-up, human-centered architecture, sometimes you have to pick up dog poo.
Evelina and Toms are now based in Cesis, Latvia, where they organize an annual architecture and urbanism school for students and young practitioners.