Waterfront development lacks planned approach

With the aim of fostering cooperation between waterfront communities and cleaning up our picturesque coastlines, a new online platform, Ūdensmalas.lv, has been launched. “It is important to identify the potential of waterfronts as our unique offer in the Baltic Sea region,” says Sandra Zilberta, creator of the platform and head of the association “Waterfronts for Development”.

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What is the situation of waterfronts in Latvia?

Waterfronts in Latvia are not developed. There is a kind of triangle of grief that we are trying to deal with. One corner is that the waterfront is still perceived as an obstacle, but in fact it is a wonderful destination that brings people together and to which people will always aspire. The other corner of the triangle is that people do not want others to come to their waterfront. Again, it is a process. At some point, the waterfront inhabitant realises that he will not be able to keep the beauty of the waterfront to themselves, that slowly but surely the waterfront has to be opened up, with clear boundaries of use. Legally, everything is in order with regard to the use of waterfronts. It is understood what a mandatory waterfront edge zone is, that it must be free and unobstructed. It is understood how to manage the waterfront, what the municipality should do in terms of waterfront management. Here we see that the third corner of the triangle of woe cuts off development when the building control authorities (būvvaldes) start to interpret all this.

Because waterfront development is expensive and public money must be invested wisely, a planned approach is needed: waterfront experts must be involved: hydraulic engineering specialists, environmental planners and public debate must be encouraged so that the outcome of the investment is justified and acceptable to the majority. Just as long term and data-driven as road building, or medical development, or school maintenance, the opening up, accessibility and safety of waterfronts must be planned. Where such a large investment in time and resources is needed, there is no way that the owner of the land adjacent to the waterfront can manage it alone, which is why community mobilisation and close cooperation with the municipality are needed. Who has more say and say when it comes to collecting signatures for change? It is the community.

At the moment, there waterfront access is developed in isolated spots, because there is a lack of a planned approach to waterfront development, especially if we look at the large Pierīga region, which could be viewed as Latvia’s economy incubator. Why is this? It is here, in the Riga Metropolitan area, the Riga Planning Region, that most young, active families live, but at the same time the infrastructure has not kept pace with the population. That’s why our partner Riga Planning Region has highlighted waterfronts as one of the unique offerings of the Pierīga region in its 2050 strategy, because for residents, blue wellness (the mental and physical health benefits of waterfronts) are just as important as green wellness (the mental and physical health benefits of carefully managed natural habitats). For a country, the blue economy (the economic potential of waters and waterfronts) is as important as the green economy. The role of the blue economy is growing in other parts of the world as people now realise the value of water, so it is now important for us to get on board and develop this potential.

What needs to be done to accelerate the development of waterfronts?

First of all, every community, every municipality, needs to be aware of its waterfront resources. There are many people who look after their own waterfronts. It is necessary to identify those who are already taking care of them and to provide them with assistance, including financial assistance. Let the municipality support these people first and then work with the other waterfronts that need development. Secondly, micro-mobility by the water. There is potential for that development too. Thirdly, it is important to stop looking at the water as a sewage outfall or a drinking water intake. Waterfronts are people’s lives. A great many people are working so that they can live a quality life at their water’s edge.

What are the biggest challenges now in uniting and building a waterfront community?

How are we Latvians doing working together? How are we doing trusting that it is safe to apply for public funding in project calls, that cooperation with the municipality will be work? This is a learning process. In this process, the good example of our neighbours is the most encouraging. This year, the Association is launching a platform for waterfront community cooperation and civic participation www.udensmalas.lv within the Active Citizens Fund (ACF) project, which is the crown jewel of all our activities since 2016. For two years in a row we have organised rowing competitions in the Ķekava region. Together with our partners, we have mapped the Daugava Water Tourism Route, which can be found on Daugavabasmalas.lv. We have also established cooperation with water tourism route researchers upesoga.lv. We are friends with all the NGOs and businesses of the waterfront fraternity in the Pierīga region. We also participate in international forums where we talk about the blue goodness. We look forward to a deeper cooperation with the Estonian University of Life Sciences in Tartu, because we are strong advocates of data-driven decision-making and knowledge management. We cooperate with Riga Technical University.

Our partners are also the Daugava Museum on Dole Island. All our accumulated knowledge, video and photo material about the Daugava is stored there. And alongside all this, we also work hard with a shovel and a rake, because there’s nothing better than a clean-up together with friends to start good things off. We have also done something that is quite unusual in the NGO world. At www.udensmalas.lv we invite you to donate to the core activities of the association and we have made it clear that we are open to cooperation. This was done so that those who use the resources of the NGO sector understand that NGOs do not work for free. Everyone should work together, including helping each other financially. This will be something new in our case. We will see how it goes.

How will climate change affect our desire to live as close to the waterfront as possible in the future and are we ready to adapt to it?

In the cooperation project Daugavabasmalas.lv we had the opportunity to cooperate with the Latvian Centre for Environmental Geology and Meteorology in organising eight conferences along whole length of Daugava river. The opinion expressed by the experts was that due to climate change, which we can already observe, extreme weather conditions will become even more extreme. If it is hot, the heat waves will scorching, if it rains, there will be unusually heavy downpours. Perhaps it is not so much the type of the climate in Latvia that will change, but the way nature deals with us will become more extreme. So people living near waterfronts can expect both severe droughts and washouts of water banks, and flooding. If people account for that when they are building, there will be no problem. For example, my house is on the banks of the Misa River. The river swells regularly. Beautiful flood meadows are forming around it. The Misa is the longest fast-flowing river in Latvia, it was flowing ages ago under glaciers. It likes also to change riverbed, but sensible people take that into account when they build. For example, a driveway along a property can be designed as a hydrotechnical structure – flood protection dam, and investments made to raise it well above the flood water level. If people do not understand they need to do this, they are not prepared for life on the waterfront edge. This is where we see our educational role. Those who live by the water’s edge should learn how best to live by the water in each particular place. This is not something that cannot be done. It is a matter of being able to investigate, to get involved and conscious.

What are your plans for the future?

We will continue to look after our shores in the Ķekava region and work on encouraging communities. Our task this year is to identify all the communities in Ķekava that live by the water. To map their waterfronts and find out how they are used, what is their seasonal rhythm and who is currently responsible for their maintenance. We want to put waterfronts on the municipal agenda, with all that they have to offer: the blue wellness, the seasonal rhythm, the accessibility, the tourist flow and the safe use of waterfronts. We want to identify the potential of waterfronts in Latvia and highlight them as our unique offer in the Baltic Sea region.

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