UNDER THE CANOPY. In the news then and now. Pt.4 - Trees in Riga.

Last month, more than ever, Rigans looked at trees as one of the most precious things in the city. Often reaching +30°C, the sultry, cloudless climate was pushing us down to the ground as the streets, once crowed with canopies adding shade to the asphalt and cobblestones, showed its bare modernist teeth. Have trees in Riga always been just an inconvenience, or have they been praised, say, in newspapers at least 80 years ago?

"The lime trees at Rīga's avenues and gardens start to bloom. The mellifluous scent again beats the smoke of factories and the fumes of petrol. There are more than 10,000 lindens in the greenery of the capital. Many Rigans consume the lime tree blossom tea since it is beyond compare healthier and cheaper than the "real" teas. Last year, 1000 kg of dried linden blossoms were collected in parks and gardens of the capital...
Jaunākās Ziņas Nr.3 (05.07.1939)"
What took place in the beginning of July almost 80 years ago, now happens at least two weeks earlier at least. The climate change has affected everything, from sakuras and bird cherries, and weather and the cycle of seasons to lime trees, that have began to bloom earlier again.

Despite the majority of forests in Riga consisting of pines (similarly to most of coastal areas around the country), many trees in the centre are lindens. There are some maples with their fringed flowers and chestnuts showing off their flower candles early in spring as well, while most of microrayons, erected during the soviet era, are decorated with poplars. They are fast growing trees extremely popular then, but have now become more like an uncontrollable weed.

However lime trees are the ones giving its distinctive, indeed honey-like smell to the central city everybody now recognizes already by the end of June rather than in July. They are also the ones having a tendency of "crying" - a phenomena when lime trees push excess water through leaves right before heavier rains. Many say that, when riding or walking under this slightly syrupy drizzle, it's one of the most reliable sources of the upcoming precipitation.

Yes, we could actually talk about trees a lot, and who wouldn't! They are cool (literally and metaphorically), important for cleaner air (and oxygen, in general), visually appealing, serving as groundwater regulators, sometimes becoming a history book or even a psychologist.

Sarkandaugava neighbourhood were probably the first ones to employ the method of phytoremediation in Riga. By using plants as natural filters, they joined with ALPS landscape planners and began cleaning the soil from metals and chemical compounds surrounding once the very vital, but now overgrown and partially buried Sarkandaugava river. Sadly, the city has not joined in for using such method at their work (© ALPS; 2013).

Many in town have a tendency to call Riga one of the greenest cities in Europe. After all, despite some intensive felling in recent years, we still live in a country that (theoretically) praises its 50% of woods. Why would it be different in the capital?

Sadly, albeit great from top to bottom, trees have suffered a lot in Riga recently.
The capital is also greener than thought only because of its forest areas surrounding the city's periphery. Otherwise, there is nothing much left of the 26% of the total greenery in Riga - it's only roughly 5% of the city with trees within residential areas.


Squandering neighbourhoods off trees has been a common practice for 5 years at least, when there were roughly 13 times less trees planted than liquidated in Riga. It's like roughly cutting 2000 and introducing a just over a hundred.

The true pop-cultural wave of protecting our green, tall forest buddies in the capital began only in spring 2017, when some activists, both fighting for a chestnut alley and against a shady tram line being installed, gathered quite an impressive protest.

More than 150 people showed up on a flashmob to save dozens of trees on Pērnavas street. Called "Soon i'll be gone", the flashmob was condemned by the well criticized city council, however sparked a movement of residents willing to save both the trees and rights for any greenery to be protected in town. Other people found out the trees will be cut just to widen the street only after the protest (© Pilsētacilvēkiem.lv; 2017).

Immediately after, a movement "For trees in Riga" was born, now gathering more than 1,000 followers and creating a much larger resonance and more following protests in different locations across the town. Since the creation of the movement there have been streets, manor parks, suburban backyards, old velodromes, and more saved from the sharp tooth of an axe.

Meanwhile some arborists began streaming live videos on their daily life, sharing content with great, sometimes expensive although necessary manipulations with trees, their root systems, soil fertilization etc. Suddenly, thinking of trees became as cool as the trees on a hot summer day as well!

Edgars Neilands (Labie Koki) has proved arborists can also be successful key opinion leaders to urban development as he has become one of the most vocal and practising advocates of thoughtful planting and care of trees in Riga (Livestream screenshot; 2020).

One could agree, the growth of activism is related to the overall evolution of civic participation and maturing society. However, the most crucial trigger that sparked the real activism was still the enormous negligence and ignorance from the city council toward maintaining a sustainable arboreal environment in general.

For example, a year before the "Soon i'll be gone" flashmob (in 2016), not a single tree was planted in Riga, with only few dozen two consecutive years before. Instead, several hundred were cut each year, to say nothing about those felled on private properties sometimes with no reason.

Cut and planted trees by the Riga City Council Housing and Environment Department (no data on casualties in 2019).

The city always claimed there's no money to buy new trees; paradoxically it only appeared when materializing the cut ones. Soon the council declared they even have no money to water flowerpots placed on the dubiously renovated Barona street few years ago (flowerpots located where trees ought to be).
In 2019, in order to stop the pots from being evacuated and their content thrown out, several citizens, initiatives, collectives, and even companies agreed with the city to "adopt" the pots and take care of them. Alas, only a dozen or so from 100 pots were kept intact.
Watering one of the saved flowerpots (© Neils Balgalis; 2019).

Important to mention that Barona street still had 50 empty planting beds left for trees after the renovation, and the promised 100 trees were never fully planted. Since many of them were located between streetside parking, many of the beds were made rutty, muddy, and were totally ignored by drivers.

The empty planting beds not long after the "renovation" of the central Barona street (© Pilsētacilvēkiem.lv; 2017).

In those five years, many activists often compared the city of today to Riga before WWI. Pointing out the lushness of the Imperial city in postcards (and even during the Soviet era, at some locations), it is hard to deny many things turned for the worse when speaking about the importance and percentage of greenery on streets, boulevards, and parks.

Although, one also needs to remember that at least the Imperial postcards were no better than a photoshopped Kardashian today, and most of the canopies, flower beds, and colours were added by hand brush in postproduction. Sometimes the glory of the greenery was not so impressive back then, however the glory was still more powerful than today.

The "sudden" lushness of bushes and hastily growing trees at Esplanāde, surrounding the Orthodox Cathedral of The Nativity of Christ (beginning of the 20th century).

Despite proto-photoshoped postcards, the central part of the city indeed had become bare with trees stripped on most streets in last 5 years. Empty planting beds were even buried in concrete and pavement bricks by the responsible authorities.

To highlight the situation, a group of activists called "Riga Tactical Urbanists" began marking the areas where the trees once grew. "Here was a tree once", the stencil stated. The activists even began replanting themselves and gained a legendary comment from the ex-mayor of Riga, notorious Nils Ušakovs, when he publicly called the activists and tree fighters "pajoliņi" - nincompoops or plonkers.

The closest planting bed was already empty in 2011 with the furthest becoming uninhabited by 2014. In the beginning of 2018, both of the beds were already filled with bricks (© Pilsētacilvēkiem.lv; 2018).

Meanwhile, another problem emerged when the city began its well criticized practice of spreading road salt there and here, and everywhere during the winter months. While winters have become warmer in last 5 years with ice barely covering streets only for few days per season, many residents began confronting the responsible authorities as well as janitors of private properties.

If it's not rocket science to know the salt is bad for shoes and floors at our flats, the recent growth of companion animals such as dogs highlighted another problem - the damage to their paws. Finally, the sludgy mixture of salt, dirt, and dust went straight to the greenery, damaging roots, soil, bark, and everything a tree or grass represents and needs.

Already in 2004, it was clear that road salt is the last thing we need, and alternatives must be found. It sadly took more than a decade for both residents and professionals to finally be convinced that many lindens, particularly in the city centre, look like in autumn when it's only the beginning of July - dry, with brown leaves, unhealthy.
Turned out most of trees were damaged by salt, clumsily laid underground communications and, of course, lack of care. Many roots were irresponsibly cut because of mostly poorly executed road works, while most of the trees were not kept in condition and mistreated due to laziness and overall negligence.
Hapily, in the end of 2018, a wonderfully drawn animated movie "Jacob, Mimmi and the Talking Dogs" was released. It told a suburban story of few kids and neighbourhood dogs willing to stop the destruction of their park. One might dislike the rather weak dialogue structures, however such narrative was something new to both Latvian contemporary children literature and cinema, proving the society is becoming more mature. The movie showed that things can be better, and everybody now hopes they will.


Turns out that Riga has had no head gardener or head landscape architect for more than 15 years. In "one of the greenest cities in Europe"? It can't be! But it's true. There is also no strategy, no system, no responsibility, and no centralized statistics. So, no wonder such calamities have taken place.

Many believe the position will return after the upcoming extraordinary elections this August. A large number of activists will take place as potential candidates and, most likely, will become members of the council. Many have seen them actually doing things for the better, many trust in their expertise as well as in their mission.

Meanwhile, while Riga's political nausea was stopped when the previous convocation was dismissed, "Labie koki" began fulfilling an order to plant at least 140 new trees. On top of that, the company also carried out soil fertilizing, air cleaning, and root protection works to many others. Some now say the city functions better without its mayor at all.

This article might sound quite depressive, yet it does not change the fact that Riga might still be greener than many other cities in Europe. Things could get much worse, believe us!

Therefore, at CAPITAL R, we very much suggest everybody to have a ride or walk around our parks, gardens, cemeteries, waterfronts and beyonds, and the canal area. And if it seems not green enough, there's always a 20 - 30 minute ride solution to forests surrounding the city and the fresh beach bordering it.

The main question here still stands - is the greenness of Riga today enough for Riga tomorrow?