A CITY IS A MACHINE FOR EXPERIENCING IN. Dreaming of a chief design officer in Riga.

The extraordinary election of Riga City Council will take place in a few days. There are many things people expect to come true out out promises the candidates provide. Although most of them are finally much on point, essential, and also some of them will eventually come true, there is one element missing in Riga that might help to make the promises happen. A position of Chief Design Officer. What is it and why is it needed in Riga more than ever - here are my thoughts of designing a city full of experiences and life rather than transit and death.

Portaloos in front of Rainis monument during the burgerfest at Esplanāde (23.08.2020; © Agnese Zeltiņa).


Establishing a chief design officer position (CDO) at cities might sound like something unseen however it's a practice we can already learn from. Helsinki was possibly the first to open the office of CDO in 2016, with Anne Stenros taking the lead of Helsinki Lab for four years; now the city has a second CDO from 2020, Hanna Harris. Los Angeles appointed their head designer, Christopher Hawthorne, in 2018, and Edmonton did as well around the same time. Many places like Detroit, London, or New York have specific institutions, too, preparing the soil for the future.

When announcing the position at Helsinki Lab, it was formulated that it will be created to make design knowledge, digitality, and interaction an increasingly integral part of the city's development. The new CDO would be assisted by two design experts who are professionals in fields of user understanding, inclusion, development through experimentation, and visuality. In addition to them, 10 to 15 city experts from different administrative fields would participate part-time in the Lab work and projects.
Instead, Christopher Hawthorne began with one of the best quotes that explains the situation with his city and confirms many urban areas, including Riga, is in need for CDO as well. “Los Angeles can be hard to read; it doesn’t quite fit the mold of what we think a city is," he says.
Set to host the Olympic Games in 2028 and experiencing mounting issues raised by climate change, homelessness, and public infrastructure, Los Angeles faces a critical moment of transition. Hawthorne claims that his work will improve design in the city's public realm, responding to its needs, its flaws, and its actual inhabitants. For both Hawthorne and Eric Garcetti, mayor of LA, part of that response includes increasing public engagement in city-wide projects.

Also Helsinki explained the need for CDO in the age of large upcoming challenges - when new neighbourhoods are popping up, making the city a place of constant change, uncertainty for mobility and sustainable energy production, for example, must be developed by first considering the people.


Of course, Riga never had such department yet its duties, however partially, was carried out by the city's chief architect for 150 years until the end of the USSR, and by the city's head of arts. Apart from today, the working process was quite pragmatic and both offices held some authority.

One of the most renowned chief architects (1971 - 1995) of contemporary Riga, Gunārs Asaris, managed to have real power to affect how the city's canvas changes through time or protect it. He was responsible for the placement of the significant TV tower or made sure our famous Vanšu (Suspension) bridge had one tower instead of two - to fit the city's panorama better. The work of the chief architect was important however it was much related to structures and infrastructures rather than spaces and their users.

Another tower of Vanšu tilts would look too much and would also obstruct the view of Old Town's panorama.

Similarly to architecture, also the position of head of arts was much related to the decorative and architectonic instead of overall composition and thinking of Riga as canvas of experiences. Despite some more in-depth thoughts by the people in charge, not much really changed. Instead, thinking about "city designers" some 30 years ago was much related to coordination of the upcoming billboards and public advertisement.

Another field of work related to urban spaces and our well being was the responsibility of the chief gardener of Riga. We all agree that landscaping is much more than planting flowerbeds and moving lawns.

For roughly 50 years, before WWII, the chief gardener was also a renowned profession with real power. However, during the first decades of Latvia gaining independence in 1990, the work of chief gardener's office was just maintaining the green space instead of developing or transforming it to fit the needs and dreams of a contemporary society. Without extra money and with unclear political objectives, its purpose was questioned.

First to detach itself from tangible, artisan processes in urban environment was the Riga City Architect's office. Halted for 5 years, it returned in 2006 and however valuable, had transformed from a decision maker back in the days to being an binder, advisor, communicator, and discussion maker between the professionals and community. Since then, its opinion might be important, yet there is a huge chance it will not change much in the actual urban space.

Meanwhile, the position of head of arts in Riga has been liquidated for 15 years already. As Leonards Laganovskis, the last head of arts of Riga, said in his letter to the City council to reconsider eliminating this position in 2005: "our department is the only one who constructs, develops, and maintains the city's and council's corporative style. A harmonious urban environment where historical architectonic forms jog along successfully with contemporary elements of design is an investment in reputation of the city, it lifts quality of life and self-confidence of residents."

Laganovskis insisted that Riga must become a united urban space with its own distinctive style. Otherwise, however well everyone does their job, even if considered being done right, the final look is chaotic and unkept.

Finally, also the chief gardener's position was drawn into bureaucratic football, and its existence was laid to rest from 2011 until 2012. Its responsibilities was taken over by the managers of forests in Riga, thus further degrading green spaces from emotional, functional, and social to static and decorative.

Instead, a new municipal agency "Riga Tourism Development Bureau" and its relate brand "Live Riga" was launched in 2008 and in 2009, respectively. It's important to mention this here, because, however important tourism might be and however great the numbers were, the work of this bureau purposefully degraded user experience, locality and authenticity in Old Town and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, it took around 10 years for the office to eventually develop their communication and offer related to suburbs and areas outside wealth in power. In short - the city was again designed for someone else rather than residents.

The first campaign of Live Riga was already launched with a typo that explained how locals felt. Also graphic designers.


The transition from chief architect, head of arts, and chief gardener of the city to CDO now seems more than reasonable. No city is just a pod of buildings, electric billboards, lonely trees, and callous streets any more. And no street is just a transport infrastructure without being a display of qualities of everyday life and its ability to be paused.

The purpose of relaunching the Riga City Architect's office in 2006 was to bind the community (that had just started to take an active part into developing urban life) together with architects, politicians, and developers. The office did their job more than just good - numerous conferences, publications, seminars, discussions, work on alternative plans and concepts of urban spaces. An important part of their agenda was also research (one of the most important achievement was a document on air quality and pollution in Riga in 2010 as well as later).

However, 15 years have now passed, and urban activism, rights to express opinions, and various think-tanks have reached critical mass. Residents no longer only want to be heard out, they are ready to take part. People want and work for their city to literally become more contemporary, safer, better looking, harmonious, resilient, and forward-thinking. Discussions are not enough any more, consulting might not lead to actual change in urban environment, as there are too many players, and the city has proven to be an organism of various qualities, not only sleeping, working, and commuting.

That might be one of reasons the architect's office is under questioning again in 2020. Its strategy was approved last month, but the discussion of whether it should be around is going on now. Rumour has it, the position is already predestined to be shut down.

Things could be worse though. In 2015, a survey for the "Latvijas dizains 2020" publication, issued by the Ministry of Culture, asked a question - "which of the following describes the use of design in your business the best?" There were 4 options to choose from as suggested on the known design ladder. Turned out more than a half of entrepreneurs and businesses never used design as a tool when creating products or services. Funniest thing, the same percentile was also the average in EU back then.

The Design Ladder was developed by Danish Design Centre in 2001 as a communicative model for illustrating the variation in companies’ use of design (DDC; 2015).

If Riga City Council needed to answer the question today, I would speculate we'd find ourselves somewhere on step 2 - using design only for style. However, after the experiment of Tērbatas iela, I see new vibes coming in and us looking toward step 3 - using design as process. It's still a long way ahead.

Tērbatas iela when closed for motorized vehicles and opened for pedestrians, cyclists, and commercial spaces for a month from mid-July to mid-August, 2020.

Sure, many things were ignored, e.g. designing and executing ways of communication about the pilot project with residents of the street and others or running a too-large event during the fragile times of covid-19. However, the experiment was one step closer to make design help us live at and use the city better. Its most vital element was experiences that registered how we both see, feel, and remember things in urban environments.
“Most designers are motivated to improve human experience and most human experience now happens in a city,” agrees Justin Garrett Moore of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation Program and Director of the New York City Public Design Commission.
The experiment of Tērbatas iela was just a drop of honey in a jar of tar. I thought of several more angles that remind us of the need for an existing, practical, and capable urban designing department in Riga, that, of course works together with other mentioned institutions caring for the canvas of the city.

  • The identity and what it's made of.
First things first. Riga has not experienced a well structured and well delivered visual identity for a long time if ever. A visible, yet practical and resilient standard that not only represents a united look of the city's services, web pages, booklets, outdoor posters, or document templates etc., but also generates guidelines of information stands, road signs, or even the type of paper used in brochures that gravitate toward excellence and sustainable materials. Visual communication that serves and lasts in a city where it sucks and blasts.

  • One city designed in many neighbourhoods.
Too many and too impractical models of public transport stops, every bike lane looks different to each other, random benches here and there (or usually nowhere), insufficient, terrible, or obscurely planted bike racks. At least the public transport itself looks uniform although reasonable electronic tableaus only appear now.

Development of such framework or regulations would not limit the city, instead it would make us aim for better materials and comprehensive and comfortable infrastructure. After all, if a city cannot distribute more similar and better serving litter bins where people would need them the most, and get their public toilets look the same and available often and coherently, we have a problem, Huston.

  • Urban space is a playground, not a prison. 
Sometimes it seems there's not enough public space for people to stop and come together in Riga or they are too dangerous to do so. There are so many firewalls and too few street murals. Every tunnel or pavement is a challenge, and "play" can only happen at restricted places when the rest of the city is flat and dormant.

For now, we live in a city that only serves the needs of those who don't even stick around, but it begins to expect something back. Riga needs to design sustainable and well planned experiences for the eye, nose and ear, on foot or on bikes.

  • Because of experiments and accidents, we have penicillin.
We need more streets like Tērbatas iela where new ideas can be planted in the right time. We need more Tallinas creative quarters where street art, performances, and murals are what make the place a magnet. We need more Survival Kit, Komēta, Homo Novus, or RIBOCA art and culture events to prove - locations, landmarks, and places are meant to be open for ideas not closed for the future. We need more Marsa parks to have a feeling there is something worth fighting for in the city and that something is open for creativity. Rules and regulations are nice until they kill creativity and only regulate death.

  • Noise comes from everything that pollutes.
There are no detectors on main streets to fight mufflerless motorcycles or cars; there are too many large, noisy and often useless billboard screens; there are streets with too many cars and too few bicycles and pedestrians; there are many terrible signboards of shops and eateries; there are vehicles everywhere with no police to regulate them. Whatever happens, we demand Comic Sans being publicly forbidden in Riga from now!

Meanwhile, there are neighbourhoods in Riga that have their own ensemble developed some 100 years ago that still performs. Wouldn't it be good to see such colours, materials, shapes or designs of buildings being used to fit with the heritage instead of painting a façade in whatever colour that, turns out, no other likes but me?

  • A city is made of cogs of different sizes and materials.
One cannot solve urban problems by sorting out transport infrastructure. One cannot solve suburban problems by renovating façades. The city is not only made of constructions and roads.

Its main core are the software - people and their involvement in hacking social innovation and inclusion, placemaking, cultural planning, grassroots movement, bottom-up development, traffic calming, and other weird contemporary tools and methods that make the engine of the city sing at its best frequency. And engines are best sold and they last when oiled. You put them in the centre of your attention, bare and fragile, and the attention is returned.


It all just summarizes why a department of CDO in Riga is needed more than ever. People are ready not only to acquaint and discuss, but instead want and and already work for a better urban environment. Design has also proven itself being important not only as a visual thing but as an fundamental part of constructing experiences in urban life. Eventually, a city must function as one well oiled organism, and Riga deserves design as a strategy for this urban machinery to work for the people, businesses, communication, culture, and, eventually, status. We deserve step 4 on the design ladder mentioned above.

However, the CDO should not do all of this, but, instead, define guidelines, does and dont's, try out things before they are implemented in the city, demand and provide research, and set a technical specification of function and execution. At second, of course, not one department should do this. After all, unity comes with both looks and practice, and all departments, be it Culture and Education, Traffic and Urban Development, City's Construction Authority, Tourism Development Bureau, and others must join in.

According to Christopher Hawthorne in LA, his responsibilities already include collaborating with various city departments. Also Anne Stenros in Helsinki quickly learned that most of the issues afflicting cities can’t be fixed single-handedly. “They are so-called "wicked problems", open-ended and complex. The only way to try to solve them is through collaboration across disciplines.”

In result, Stenros explained that designers “cannot do it alone”— they must also work with the public, and other organizations, to strategize what’s best for a larger population. Here comes the reason why at least a Hub of pragmatic creativity, experimenting, researching, and prototyping together is essential even if we never get a separate department.

The bottomline - design is unity is power if designed well. Otherwise, it is chaos in this machine we live in now.