An international workshop on post-industrial cities in the Baltics, organized by the EHU Laboratory of Critical Urbanism, recently took place in Visaginas, a planned Lithuanian “nuclear town” built during the Soviet era to accommodate workers employed at the now shuttered Ignalina nuclear power plant nearby.
Visiting scholars from Berlin, Leibniz, London, Riga, Stockholm, Tallinn, and Vilnius described their research on post-industrial towns such as Visaginas and discussed “cultures of shrinking” with local residents.
“We see three strategic areas for our research and interventions in Visaginas. First, what to do with underused buildings of schools and kindergartens in an ageing town? This issue is very relevant for Visaginas, but broader than it. Second, how to animate an underused pedestrian street (Sedulinos al.), which was planned as a commercial one, but then lost this function? Third, how to present Visaginas’s history and identity in a future town museum?” says Siarhei Liubimau, one of the organizers of the workshop who lectures at EHU and is a researcher at the Laboratory of Critical Urbanism.
“Although these ventures do not promise to generate new resources for Visaginas, they may help retain and valorize already existing ones. Local residents have a lot of interest and a lot of expectations. Right now Visaginas leaders are trying to upgrade their town's identity and make it a more comfortable place to live for young people. That is why projects like ours are valuable for the town,” adds S. Liubimau.
The international workshop in Visaginas was a preview of the kinds of work students and scholars from Germany, Belarus, Lithuania, and other countries will conduct at the EHU International Summer School on “Sources of Urbanity in Post-Industrial Cities”. The Summer School will take place September 20–October 3 in Visaginas.
“We have chosen Visaginas as our Summer School location for several reasons. First, Visaginas is itself an attraction. It was built from scratch in the 1970s as one of Lithuania’s best examples of a centrally planned mono functional urban unit—very advanced for its time in terms of architectural decisions. The history of the town and attitudes of its dwellers are characterized by almost full reliance on external top-down allocation of resources, make it comparable to the current and future development dilemmas faced by Belarusian society. Visaginas’s decline in terms of work places and population makes it comparable to the former East Germany, where the term 'shrinking cities' was coined and where a range of urbanist tools for dealing with the effects of shrinkage was introduced,” explains Liubimau.
International scholars examined the changing identity of Visaginas as younger residents perceive themselves beyond Soviet industrial history and geography. They rather emphasize the multiethnic character of their town and the town's human capital with valuable technical skills inherited from the older generation through schools and families.
“Although there is a clear understanding in town that its Russian speaking population is different from the rest of Lithuania, it does not look like it implies any confrontational ideology. Our workshop took place right before local elections and we were cautious about the possible politics of it. But all discussions were constructive and correct. Interestingly, these elections were won not by a political party, but by a newly formed urban movement called ‘Visaginas - tai mes’ (“We are Visaginas”). It seems the emergence and popularity of urban movements distinguishing themselves from party politics is a tendency much broader than Visaginas,” notes Liubimau.
The workshop was organized by EHU’s Laboratory for Critical Urbanism with the support of partners including the Estonian Academy of Arts, the Herder-Institute Marburg, the Lithuanian Social Research Centre, Archfondas.lt, and the EHU Center for German Studies. It was supported by the Deutsch-Baltisches Hochschulkontor Riga and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).