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Main Street project aims to give central Tallinn back to the people

After decades of car-centred urban planning in the centre of Tallinn, the city has decided to give the centre back to its people and enliven urban culture by creating a 21st century Main Street: a shared urban space that is safe for pedestrians and cyclists, with more public transport and fewer cars.

The design competition, organized by the Estonian Centre of Architecture, took inspiration from sustainable city planning solutions in other European capitals, such as Berlin, London, Stockholm and Helsinki. The project is meant to be completed in 2018, to coincide with Estonia's centenary as well as the country's presidency of the EU.

The goal is to transform the heart of Tallinn from a transport corridor to a people-friendly space with its own identity and street culture – a space for meeting and spending time, not just a busy thoroughfare for cars that citizens and tourists alike try to avoid.

The soon-to-be-redesigned street stretches 1.5 km from Freedom Square along the current Pärnu road, Viru Square and Narva road. One of the objectives of the Main Street project is also to link the Old City Harbour with the city centre, extending the city to the waterfront and thus making the now fragmented centre into a cohesive unit.

The Main Street project also aims to raise environmental standards and improve the quality of life in Tallinn's city centre by decreasing noise and improving air quality. This is to be achieved through people-centred city planning and by encouraging motorists to choose alternative modes of transport.

The winning team in the design competition is led by Toomas Paaver from Linnalahendused, in cooperation with Kavakava Architects. The jury chose their project, "Spring in the City", as the winner last month. As part of the transformation of the city centre, the team intends to highlight missing sections of the Bastion belt that used to surround the Old Town centuries ago, when Swedes ruled the capital.

Overall plan of Tallinn's Main Street project including the bastion belt

Overall plan of the Main Street project including the bastion belt


For Tallinn, where urban development over the past few decades has meant building bigger roads to accommodate ever more cars, this is quite a paradigm shift. Not surprisingly, some groups are worried. For example, some have argued that reducing car traffic and reallocating parking spaces to pedestrians will make businesses want to leave the centre. However, local entrepreneurs are actually welcoming the project, as they want to see more pedestrians in the area.

In fact, one of the most valuable aspects of the Main Street planning process is that it has created a space for citizens to voice their opinions about the future of the city centre. No other project in the past 20 years has engaged so much with the public. The Main Street webpage has invited people to post their ideas, and "city forums" lasting two days have been organized for different interest groups to participate in discussions about designing the urban space. Local businesses have likewise been active in helping to shape a common vision and language regarding the Main Street.

Overlooking Pärnu road as planned by the winning team Linnalahendused and Kavakava Architects

Overlooking Pärnu road as planned by the winning team Linnalahendused and Kavakava Architects


The architectural competition was grounded in data and research as well, including surveys of traffic modelling and mobility of different transport users that found the planned changes would not lead to traffic chaos. In-depth environmental impact assessments are now under way to determine the implications of linking the Main Street and the Old Town Harbour.

Now that the winning proposal has been chosen, the engineering work on the project, financed by the City of Tallinn and co-funded by the European Union Structural Funds, begins in earnest. As Tallinn residents, we look forward to enjoying our new Main Street – a more vibrant city centre to be enjoyed on foot, without traffic congestion, with cleaner air and a stronger sense of community.


Written by Mari Jüssi, senior expert at the Stockholm Environment Institute Tallinn Centre (SEI Tallinn), part of the Tallinn Main Street expert working group that is advising the Estonian Centre for Architecture in the project, and Helen Saarniit, marketing and communications manager for SEI Tallinn.