Thursday, January 13, 2011

Experience of urban farming

Ilgvars is a spacial planning student from Riga and has kindly made a guest post about allotment gardening in Riga. No advice on lettuce and radish this time, but - even better - discussion about the social and economic benefits from urban agriculture. Ilgvars is running his own blog about urban issues.

During the last decade the popularity of urban farming has increased. Not only in cities in developing countries like Cairo, Mumbai, Havana, but also in cities like New York and Detroit.

In developing countries urban farming is practised for income-earning or food producing but in developed countries urban farming may be undertaken for the physical and/or psychological relaxation it provides, rather than for food production. Because urban farming promotes energy-saving local food production, urban and peri-urban farming are generally seen as sustainable practices. Local production of food also allows savings in transportation costs, storage, and in product loss, what results in food cost reduction.

Social benefits that have emerged from urban farming practices are; better health and nutrition, increased income, employment, food security within the household, and community social life. Some researchers indicate that unemployed populations in large cities and suburban towns would decrease if put to work by local food movements.

I won’t question or deny the benefits of urban farming. I will briefly compare the situation in Latvia. To my opinion urban farming is nothing new in Latvia. For 50 years Latvia was part of USSR. This was time when urban farming took a serious role in each citizen’s life. So called community gardens took place in every city and surrounding area. These community gardens were made and supported by biggest factories and enterprises and provided recreational activities and extra food for their workers. The problem is that most of these areas are partly abandoned and are considered as degraded. Municipalities don’t know what to do with them. Remove or not, because these community gardens take a serious role in lives of old and poor people. Many of them are located in precious land like Lucavsala, Torņakalns in Riga and surrounding municipalities in Riga region. In many of these areas building of living houses has occurred during last years what makes the situation even more complicated. So what to do with this heritage?

Community gardens at Skanstes Street. Photo by Flickr user Kaspars Funts.

Another issue is that, because of the history how the community gardens were made, it is not prestigious to take part in it. That’s why when somebody mentions urban farming as a new practice people in Latvia are very sceptical. We might say that we have bad experience! Although ''the new economic situation'' and the experience of New York and Detroit has shattered this opinion a little.

Also we have a lot of vacant urban areas in cities where urban farming might take place. The question is - are people ready for reanimation of urban farming in Latvia? And if we look at example of Riga - is it reasonable to turn vacant urban places into agricultural land while surrounding agricultural land in Riga region is turned into suburbs?

Friday, January 7, 2011

High-speed rail Riga-Jēkabplis

In December 2010 Latvian Transport Minister Uldis Augulis came with a sensational proposal about High-speed rail (HSR) connecting Riga and Moscow. Instead of listing all reasons why Riga-Moscow HSR in unreasonable, I developed a new proposal – Latgale HSR stretching from Riga to Jēkabpils. French LGV Est has demonstrated that HSR can work not only with multi-million cities at booth ends but also as a trunk line with several branches to smaller cities all around the region - similar to the situation in Latgale. The primary use of Latgale HSR would be providing passenger transport from Riga to Jēkabpils and further east on three branches – to Daugavpils Rēzekne and Madona. And the secondary use – an additional freight capacity to Riga port. Though ‘classic’ HSR are passenger-only, several HSR in Germany and at least one in France have/will have mix of freight and passenger trains.
Where is the problem?
The existing railway between Riga and Jēkabpils was finished in 1861, since then dozen of towns and villages have emerged near the stops. It is the busiest railway in Latvia carrying big number of freight, suburban and bit smaller number of regional and intercity trains. If traffic will continue to grow, it will become very difficult to sustain so big variety of services on one railway so a need for alternative tracks may emerge. Furthermore – in favor to road transport, the construction of highway replacing the old and inconvenient road trough the towns and villages has already started. If no significant improvement is done to increase the intercity services on the railway, road traffic may steel significant part of passengers.

How this HSR to improve situation?
If a new rail line is considered, it must be build according to modern standards – e.g. the high speed no less then 300km/h. This would allow removing the slot-hungry intercity express service from the old railway. As passenger transport alone could not justify construction of new railway, it must be used also for freight traffic – especially the one heading to docks on the left bank of Daugava in Riga (supposed to be built soon) thus avoiding crossing of the busy Railway Bridge in Riga. The HSR should be routed south of river Daugava because the area is sparsely populated, flat and have vast state forest properties. The whole length of the new railway is approximately 130km; on average speed of 230km/h travel time would drop to 40minutes from Riga Central to Jēkabpils South so cutting the travel time to Daugavpils, Jēkabpils and Rēzekne by more then 1 hour.

A capacity increase by doubling the last single track sections is underway on the old railway so the slot problem will be solved at least for 20 years. But if politicians truly want to make passenger trains the mayor transportation mode in the state, the frequencies and operational speeds for intercity trains should be increased and that also leads to considerably smaller overall capacity of the railway. Latgale HSR is not a project desperately needed right now, but it should be carefully considered by planners. Riga to Daugavpils and Riga to Rēzekne are two of most developed intercity train routes in Latvia and market for passenger transport is bigger than for Rail Baltica or Riga-Moscow HSR project, meanwhile the 130km stretch require far less investments then the other two proposals.