MALKA. How does the coldness smell in Riga?

There is a particular scent embracing Riga's old suburbs every time autumn comes. It's the scent all people recognize, and the one that, many will agree, came surprisingly early this year. The scent that makes Riga being a down-to-earth and cosy city, and characterizing something many urban spaces have lost during time. This aroma even drives many romanticists to the suburbs, when it fills the air along with a clear sky of the approaching anticyclone; man it can really make you emotional.

Can you guess what smell I'm talking about?

Varis has been a chimney-sweeper for more than 60 years. - The work is still around, - the prototype of the only sculpture dedicated to all his craft-brothers says, standing by his maisonette on Mūrnieku street (CAPITAL R; 2019).

In the beginning of June, 2019, The Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development announced their new plans on banning firewood heating by 2030. Their reasoning was very clear and up-to-date - reforms are carried out not because of any personal danger, but due to fighting air pollution in urban areas like Rīga, Liepāja and Rēzekne successfully by 20271.

Their method of starting with individual households... was no so reasoned. And welcomed too. Almost no one took their plans easily. Mayors of the smaller towns even announced - this is another symptom of the ministry's negligence fighting larger and more consistent polluters by targeting weaker and more fragile inhabitants of the country (changing the heating system costs abnormal amounts of money, to say the least).
Only few days ago I still had nothing to write about. It was only a matter of one cold night last weekend to hit me with the smell of a running hearth somewhere. And there it was - something that means so much to chroniclers, romanticists, and many suburban residents of the middle-to-lower class Riga.
Beyond doubt, fireplaces, furnaces and masonry heaters make up a large chunk on how many households are warmed up around the country. Any type of the heating medium mentioned earlier could've still be used by around 20 - 25 % of residents in the old Forstadts - the low-storey suburbs that became parts of Riga before WWI and also WWII. Across the country the percentage is even bigger - around 35 % of population use open fire for household purposes2.

Residents are reporting their first firewood purchase as we speak (Mārcis Kalniņš, 2019).

Nationally and also locally, most users are either not from the richest end, are the larger part of true romantics, or simply the people attracted to the economical aspect of heating manually with firewood. It always turns out to be cheaper. In Riga, many keep their tile stoves just as a design element, some can't unwant them because of being a historical monument. But the vast majority keep their antique tile stoves as a convenient second-hand source of warmth even when the flat is connected to the central heating.

It could help a lot this September, when the city hasn't made the radiators warm despite the temperature going down close to zero every night now. Old masonry heaters are what work as an asset to many households, not a threat, not to say anything about households with furnaces or stoves boosting up the indoor climate as the only source of heating.

An idyll for those having a pre-war tile stove in Riga (2019; CAPITAL R).

On the contrary, open fire is to blame for Riga having it's special suburban firewood markets with guys sitting in their trucks waiting for the call. Every lamp post, drainpipe or traffic light is glued over with little leaflets offering stove masonry services or MALKA - a word one needs to learn eventually if they want to survive the real suburban life. Because of the firewood we even have our shed micro culture Scandinavian architects are inspired by, while anthropologists and sociologists come researching them; the tradition of shed-building and keeping is mostly gone elsewhere.

"Stove masonry services. Works of any difficulty. Warranty, quality. Choice of materials, advice" (CAPITAL R; 2019).

As the ministry states, their data show 60 % of the national air pollution coming from micro particles released by the manual household heating. Of course, it's an undeniable fact the chimney smoke deals some damage when polluting the air, but this data must always be checked scrupulously before trusted. I agree the best solution is to install a filter to each smoke emitter.

Many would have nothing against to upgrading from firewood to gas or central heating, but, instead, they are simply irritated by the logic of the ministry. No, the air in Riga is not polluted because of mechanized vehicles, let's not bother! It's neither the road dust especially after winter or the port giving birth to stenches or coal dust flying around the city so much one can see it on every windowsill. Not this one too. That air in Riga is actually most polluted along main streets and in peripheral suburbs close to the main roads leading into the city. Places where the firewood is never really used at all3. Not to say anything about Riga's air being polluted during summer the most rather than when firewood really smokes up the air.
A map showing where particulate matters are in the air the most. According to the ministry's logic it seems, for example, the river Daugava runs on firewood (; 2015).

Needless to say, the plans of the ministry got cancelled pretty quickly (it maybe took a few days time), proving that the stove topic is very sensitive in Riga. The project was promised to be reconfigured in order to help municipalities motivating people to get rid of their older heating sources rather than prohibiting them. Some residents are rather willing to move to generating some heating from wind or solar energy rather than connecting to gas or water4.

Many are ready to mount filters that would be the most practical and also environment-friendly solution, but again, almost no one in Riga's suburbs will be willingly getting rid of their well performing fireplace. Because when the autumn-time comes, the scent of smoke in the air is one of the only things left that replaces a thousand words of the story of Riga in one nose-breath.

Mārtiņš Eņģelis

1 VARAM mierina - malkas apkure lielajās pilsētās aizliegta netiks., 2019
2Katra trešā mājsaimniecība ēdiena pagatavošanai izmanto elektroenerģiju., 2016
3Par gaisa piesārņojuma teritoriālo zonējumu un siltumapgādes veida izvēli., 2015
4Rīgas apkaimju iedzīvotāji neapmierināti ar VARAM plāniem ierobežot malkas apkuri., 2019