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Razende Reporters – Narva, a city on the edge

Column by Tim den Duijf. Since this year, Landscape Architecture and Spatial Planning students report from a broad scope of places where they are based during their international exchange. This results in a series of local reports concerning spacial issues from around the globe. This time Tim den Duijf reports from the far end of Europe. Located on the border of Estonia with Russia and thus the border of the European Union, is Estonia’s third biggest city. Narva is a city that has been shaped, torn down and build back up by its ever uncertain geopolitical situation. Its particular location has caused for the city to be a tension line between ideologies throughout history. Whenever Estonia was not under Russian or Soviet rule, it was under rule of some western force. And Narva has been a stage to this power play. What is left of its identity?

Figure 1. Border between Estonia and Russia: Left Narva, right Russian city Ivangorod

The city has known flourishing times and under Swedish rule in the 18th century, it was even known as the ‘Baroque pearl of the Baltic Sea’. After different rulings since this golden age, the city was nearly completely destroyed in the Second World War by Russian forces. Trying to find examples for me to compare this spatial history with, the city of Rotterdam popped up in my mind, also being a city destroyed by invading powers. This sadly is probably the only resemblance it has with a city like Rotterdam; where the Dutch wiped the city clean post-war, came up with a plan and used this tabula rasa to make a spatially better working and ‘beautiful’ city. They went right ahead and stitched the wound that WWII had left. Whereas when the Estonian Soviet republic was re-established in 1944, the first reaction towards the destruction in Narva was to wait. There was indecision about what to do with all the mid-evil and baroque ruins. All this while most landmarks could still have been saved, with exterior walls still standing. This caused for the wound not only to stay open, but also to start festering. After six years the Soviet government decided to tear everything down after all and make way for classic Soviet style apartment buildings. This has caused for Narva nowadays being a thorn in the eye for the whole of Estonia, leaving the people of Narva with identity issues and a corrupted image.

Figure 2. Soviet building blocks in Narva

As a member of a team of Estonian, Finnish and Latvian students taking part in the NORDPLUS Urban Study Course, I had the opportunity to study Narva intensively for a week. The week existed of lectures by the city architect, fieldwork and plenty of interviews with the local community. This with the help of a Russian speaking translator; it’s rare to find Estonian, let alone English speaking people in Narva. This all let to a rough profile we made of the typical Narvan inhabitant:

– Kids who play in abandoned buildings, being limited in their creativity and personal growth by teachers who are stuck in their old ways – Youth either with little ambition wanting a simple job in Narva or wíth the ambition to leave Narva in search for a different environment, higher education etc. – Middle aged with low education jobs or no job at all, longing back for the industrial city Narva used to be (more about this in next paragraph) – Elderly having to work side jobs to pay their rent, doing some gardening in their free time.

What stood out for me was the open, kind attitude of the people. Underneath the grey exterior is some colour, doubting if it should come out, being held back by the walls that were build in another time with a gone-by ideology as cement. This does not change the fact that the city itself still felt like it lacked a centre, there was no active street life except for in the big shopping malls and that there was an abundancy of abandoned buildings which present a danger to the future and image of the city.

Asides from Narva being an intriguing spatial whole, there are some sites that draw attention. Kreenholm textile factory is one of these sites. For the biggest part located on and named after an island in the river that separates Estonia from Russia, this huge area once was the pride of modern day Narva.

Figure 3. Kreenholm island and factory (Upper and right by Tim den Duijf, lower from

At its height it provided jobs to 12.000 people. With production going overseas, it is now left to be a remarkable post-industrial wasteland. With a significant part of the population of Narva and Ivangorod once working in this factory, and with bridges stretching to both sides of the river, you could say Kreenholm was one of the most important things bringing the inhabitants of the two twin cities together. Now that it is inactive, this big empty terrain also left a figurative hole in the community. The current Swedish owners leave it closed off and guarded to visitors or entrepreneurs.

In the recommendations that we have made to the municipality after the USC project there were some themes that were overall present. There is a mindset problem not only with the people and municipality of Narva, whose lack of entrepreneurship and creativity is draining the city from the youngster, but also from the rest of Estonia towards Narva, causing for even stronger separation. Also there is positive sides, opportunities that can require just little changes to set in motion a snowball-effect of spatial enhancing. As Thomas Lunden states in his research about border agglomerations:

“In peoples minds, boundaries, physical and mental, serve as ‘Checkpoints and mental maps. Boundaries are constructed through the practical monitoring devices that groups use to differentiate members and to enforce Separation’” (Lunden, 2007)

I think this very seperation has been growing bigger and bigger, as invading and neighbouring forces to Narva became bigger and bigger. With this, Narva has been faced with a seeming loss of identity. It is faulty to think of these regions as backward and to turn our backs towards them. Especially in these times where borders are being threatened with closing and lack of trust is blossoming. Narva’s identity, and this is something that may be true for more border regions, is very dependend on neighbouring forces. When given the chance, this identity could grow into something very unique of its own. It is a mindset change, and what could trigger this change is always very hard to predict. References: (2017). Narva. [online] Available at: (2017). Kreenholm area and Kreenholm Textile Factory, Estonia. [online]

Available at: . (2017). Kreenholmi Manufaktuur. [online] Available at: Lundén, T. (2007). Border agglomerations in the Baltic area: obstacles and possibilities for local interaction. Geographica Helvetica, 1(62).

maart 6, 2018

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