EXPERIENCING THE KNOWLEDGE OF CITIES. An interview about competence in urban environment in Rīga.

The school season has just been launched on 3 September, when every kid and student starts dreaming about late morning naps more than ever. To "celebrate" this event we share a full interview by Emīls Rode from Live Baltic Campus with our Mārtiņš Eņģelis about “Dreams and Seeds. The role of campuses in sustainable urban environment” issue.
live baltic campus, riga, emils rode, martins engelis, dreams and seeds, capital r

It is my conviction that cities are built of words, of language(s) that live there. As a tour guide who is giving tours of Riga, what do you make of this?

Everything consists of language, because of simply everything telling a story in a directly perceptible or Aesopian language – audible, visible, semiotic, or other. Boring or exciting, that is a different, rather subjective question. If we mean urban environment, everyone has heard about the language of art, language of architecture, etc., even street language (meaning slang or jargon) – everything that is seminally expressed in urban life and then is reaching other audiences can be followed to the origins of that word.

I once started, for a short period of time though, a project called “Deaddrop Riga”. The meaning of this was to prove that every single place of the city, wherever one gets dropped off, can tell a story, and within practicing this technique we can find an ultimate (paraphrasing Nietzsche) “uber-guide” that can interpret any received and experienced impulse in the city into spoken language. It was some sort of training for me to develop skills on how to generate stories out of thin air only from contexts I see and hear, from nods I recognize in architecture, street life, from history, sociology, and politics, even if I were dropped in the middle of nowhere. At some point, doing tours allowed me to interpret the stories I believe and offer a new meaning of them, of course, as responsible, meaningful and honest as possible to the essence and narrative of the historical story.

You are a bicycle-riding urban explorer. Should everyone be like you? Why or why not?

Oh, yes I am, for sure. I don’t say that everyone should, but I say that everyone CAN be a “bicycle-riding” explorer if one wants to, and there is the beauty – to have this option by default not as an extra or representing only an underground movement for enthusiasts and the youth. Riding bikes are cool, and discovering amazing things for free while you just sit and roll, it’s even cooler! A bike is what I call an “intelligent mobility” – it is a fast & slow adapting mobility via controlling your own pace. Cycling is the closest casual transportation to walking. Michel de Certeau once stated that the walker (read - the cyclist) actualizes one’s own possibilities and prohibitions (also forbidding the ordinary - to take paths generally considered accessible or even obligatory), and then fixes to some of them or invents new patterns of walking (read – exploring, experiencing while cycling) within one’s choosing. It means that a visitor may most likely hang around in one particular area and improvise within it, but, from a democratic tourism ethics and ideals of rights of free roaming, no one can determine borders of anyone’s spatial choices or opportunities (only if the act is illegal, for example, violent trespassing). Most definitely one cannot do this with cars or public transport.

If the infrastructure in Rīga becomes decent one day, cycling proves to be much faster in short or average urban distances, much better for nature and for your cardio, takes up less space, pollutes and consumes less, and people on bikes look very sexy (most of times)!
But first – be safe, friendly and responsible while cycling!

You are not only biking but I suppose also reading. What is your favourite book or other source of inspiration on cities? On Riga in particular?

You suppose right, I indeed read, hah, although, because of my job and summer projects I have been a lazy reader now. Today it’s a rather dry, professional literature related to tourism culture, history and critics, but some time ago, because of my work in Iceland Tourism Research Centre and my thesis I began to read a lot of research papers on urbanism, places, continued on psychogeography etc. relating it to travelling and exploring, also coining new touristic terms I was missing at my work e.g. district regionalism, anti-place. My daily routine consisted on Marc Auge’s work on non-places, Maria Lewicka had a good paper on forgotten past of cities, also Lucy R. Lippard has good books. But I’ve always enjoyed the ideas and practices behind situationist movement and psychogeography e.g. Merlin Coverley has done a very short yet beautifully written book about urban drifting, also Ken Knabb edited and translated a good read called “Situationist International Anthology” I enjoy browsing once in a while. To conclude, I always appreciate writings, interviews and lectures by Zygmunt Bauman, sadly he passed away earlier last year, though.

One thing apart from reading is browsing or experiencing examples of creative tourism, counter-tourism, critical tourism activities online. Sometimes I teach some lectures on tourism culture, storytelling, creativity and critics; archived examples from the web definitely help to widen students’ horizon and also mine. A good book for everyone interested in a mixture of the previously mentioned is Phil Smith’s “Counter-Tourism: The Handbook”.

live baltic campus, riga, emils rode, martins engelis, dreams and seeds, capital r

As someone who explores the city and experiences it firsthand, what do you think are the emerging uses and expectations of the city in the not-so-distant future?

I think that every healthy city of tomorrow will tend to become a “quiet city” very soon, representing it as the main objective that actually will include multiple values we already talk about now but haven’t tied them with this one unifying perspective:
  1. Mechanical quietness will be valued more than ever i.e. there will be strongly regulated amount of motorized cars and motorcycles in urban areas (strict noise reduction rules for their exhaust pipes already happens in Germany; fuel consuming regulations will mean less noisy and polluting vehicles leading to a greener city); 
  2. all that will lead to more cycling and more electric vehicles/public transportation as a strongly recommended daily routine, and hearing naturally created sounds will be received as a supreme value for the upcoming hype of “urban meditation” - from wind rushing through leaves and beehives on every rooftop (it means we will need more trees, parks, forests and private urban allotments) to birds tweeting in the hanging gardens of every contemporary; estate, and sounds of waves and water (boats and river promenades/hills etc.),
  3. “quiet cities” will also include reducing light noise and the unpleasant, “noisy” architecture;
  4. a quiet city will also mean a safe city - less gangs, less street fights, less crowd-crashing terrorist trucks, safer environment for locals and visitors, and
  5. reduction of tourist noise.
To achieve a healthy distribution of all noises plus tourists in every city, district regionalism must kick in - a new sustainable urban/tourism planning method that motivates off centre neighbourhoods to transform what is typically considered as municipality owned areas and blighted properties and develop their own economic, political, social and cultural processes and guidelines in order to position the district in the market as an independent, valuable, stronger entity - a creative neighbourhood I might call it. Therefore it’s great for tourism - the flow is distributed to more neighbourhoods, relieving jammed areas and reducing amounts of noise made by massification of tourism in super-limited areas of “wealth and power”, stag parties, over-crowding etc.; it will also shrink the pedestrial loudness in the centre or Old Town made by inhabitants themselves.

Sometimes I hear from locals that they would never live in the heart of Rīga because of all the given elements; by reducing them or sorting it out we could make our city healthier, more capable, sustainable, enjoyable for all – inhabitants, visitors, planning and building. The district regionalism process is very good for the plain urban development as well - the never-before-seen flow of people will eventually demand (through dissatisfaction) appearance and upgrades of bike paths, bus stops, more seats, more street crossings, restored pedestrian lines in parks, pavements and curbs adjusted for luggage and prams, trees etc.

But, within this “quiet city” business, some noise could emerge - the sound of political and social activism. I think that today the urban environment is most likely to represent either terror or either freedom, most violence happens there or most liberation of rights and social processes (cycling activists, gay rights, gender equality, animal rights, interaction with refugees, freedom of/from religion etc). Yet it isn’t really that productive, I must say, this political/social activism is rather struggling except when happening into places that have their quiet lives shaken. Maybe this activism does not work properly, because the cities are too noisy? Maybe, when cities quiet down, the people’s voice will be finally heard?

How can Riga be more competitive in the Baltic Sea Region, or the world? Do you even accept this notion of competition, or is it a wrong way to look at things?

Maybe “competitive” is not the right word. Maybe “cool enough” is, hah. I think we are all geographically born cool here in the Baltic Sea region, we have warm hearts, but more reserved emotional execution, but, by working more and more together, we definitely have the potential of being a half-European-sized Silicon Valley, or the “Microsoft of BSR”. The competition is tough between the Baltic Sea states, indeed, but it all generates one big label of coolness, one clear brand that everyone can use to gain, to maintain, to improve and compare - the Baltic Sea Label. I think that is what makes us (not only Rīga), more competitive in the world, this shared history, nature, culture and internet, bigger possibility of having great networking, a potential of maintaining regional traditions of events, keeping similar qualities and aims, being a symbol of creativity and innovations of all kind, and, because of the impressive closeness to nature - also being sustainable. This status overall also pushes each of the states to improve - no one ever wants to be the weakest part of the chain, therefore I rather accept healthy competition within networking, when it develops a stronger general substance.

As about Rīga I always believed that we constantly need to feed others with a feeling that THINGS HAPPEN here - events, processes, thinking fast and slow, art, culture, music, business, technologies, creativity, everything. We must make it so vibrant yet mystical, so people want to arrive here just to experience this magic in real-time, we need to create desire of visiting before the awareness and interest of doing that. What's happening?? What is going on here? Everyone is talking about it, but what is it? - I am hearing this sometimes when people talk about Berlin. I wish Rīga synchronizes with this soon. We must achieve our “Montmartre effect”, you know, when tourists, despite the golden age long gone, still meaninglessly visit the famous part of Paris, (where Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and others were hanging around) to feel this mystified magnetism, to get inspired by this energy the artists had, that, alas, has been absent for a long time.

In order for Rīga to become like this, the municipality must take a big step toward openness to those who want and can achieve it - there is a very rich and strongly growing cultural, social, political, economical, creative environment here (yet, we sometimes envy each other too much in Rīga), but it’s all about how free can people feel (legally and socially) to express themselves meaningfully, and how open and honouring the municipality is towards this? It is the issue that still sometimes stops us, Rīgans, from being “cool enough” in the Baltic Sea context.

You work with tourists and tourism. Aren't we all becoming tourists: medical tourists, culture tourists, educational tourists? This implies temporariness, impermanence, superficiality. What makes a "good" tourist? Can we be both good locals and good tourists?

When describing a “good” tourist, I always have a saying - authenticity appears when you disappear. It goes both ways:
  1. when you, as a traveler, are neutral and blend in with the crowd, you have a much bigger possibility to experience and capture (if, of course, you have the will to do it) the real destination passing before your eyes - what a great, true, “good” way of seeing its nature, habits, ways of living, its locals and locality in full display to meet and greet (theoretically :), not just enjoying some sprinkle on the same old cake you know from home (so why did you even come here?). Meanwhile,
  2. when tourists are neutral and blend in, they don’t mess up with the authentic flow of life and don’t affect or upset locals so they can maintain this authenticity to proceed (although this might not mean that you don’t need to interact or respond when something vicious or unfair happens). Theoretically, this intelligent disassociation somewhat can make tourists locals, too, they can fastly integrate while being observers, and you can interact with them like “normal people”, who only happen not to live here - I wish this would be a norm everywhere around the globe, when tourists can have a natural, no-nonsense chat with a bartender and never get cheated by a taxi driver (for now - dream on). Of course, no one is going to have a natural chat with an asshole and, as we all know, people of all kinds have tendency to become ones on the road, at home, at work, everywhere, no matter you’re traveler or not. Sometimes a “good” tourist’s motivation is ruined by unethical, unhygienic, unfair, unsustainable, unprofessional or evil locals, sometimes it’s the other way round. In a nutshell - “good” tourists and “good” locals appear, when everybody on Earth become less an arse.
This disappearing/appearing effect can happen to a regular local, too. Let’s make it clear first - we have never become tourists, we have always been ones. In short, the definition of a tourist is: one, who travels to places different to one’s usual environment. Regional, national, global level, no difference. An example, many of us call Rīga our home, but do you really know, where Brekši is (it is a small peripheral neighbourhood)? I bet there are people that have never been to Āgenskalns market, too, but they have lived in Rīga for a very long time. So, calling the city your home only applies to your neighbourhood and the rest of the metropolitan area has a potential to become “different to one’s usual environment”, that is - a tourist destination of some sort. While travelling for work I have been a “foreigner” in many Latvian places lately, so, in many cases, I am a tourist, but is there any real difference that matters between me and a girl from, let’s say, Germany? Should I be treated differently? But I am a Latvian, right? There lies this “local/non-local” double standard we need to rub out.

To conclude, many of us are tourists, not travelers - we see what want to and what is set to see rather than seeing what we see. Within this sophisticated saying there is this unfading truth about your mentioned “temporariness, impermanence, superficiality” - the tourist majority only perceive traveling as a project, as a checklist, as an ego trick and “king in the castle” situation with more or less the same “Google image search” trophies in their devices like everyone else; while the travellers might have annoying, unclear plans, trashier lifestyle and failed expectations for those waiting at home, yet they have a greater opportunity to see the true self of the destination (and the true self of oneself), the essence of what makes it different to home and develops the unforgettable experience you can write in memoirs, not in another “Lonely Planet” pocket guide book. We have enough of these, trust me.


Read: The short version of this talk is published here (p.44-45).
Find: Live Baltic Campus aims at developing campuses as innovation hubs by creating better urban environment for businesses and residents in Central Baltic Region.