Local Situation: Lithuania

Local Situation: Lithuania | Going Public | © colourbox.com
Local Situation: Lithuania | Going Public | © colourbox.com
During the last twenty years Vilnius has experienced numerous changes – changes of surfaces, changes in the geography of functions, changes of identity, and changes in urban dynamics. The most obvious reasons were certainly related to the privatization of the larger part of the real estate in the early 90s. While back then much of the public life was concentrated in the streets and courtyards, now it has moved to the commercial areas in and around shops, cafeterias and shopping malls.

The Old Town and the city centre have lost around one third of their inhabitants. Until the 90s, these had been highly populated areas of the city, whereas later most ground floors and often the whole buildings acquired administrative and commercial functions. As a result, the dynamics of the streets, squares, courtyards and parks started to depend on the working hours of the offices, shops and cafeterias rather than on the lifestyle habits of the citizens as it had been the case earlier. For the most part, the rhythms of the central parts of Vilnius used to be in tune with the casual timing of their inhabitants. People from other city areas came here to work, shop, attend theatre performances or cinema screenings, visit friends living in the centre, or stroll along the main Gediminas (formerly Lenin) Avenue. There were fairly few bars and only a handful of restaurants and cafes here, all closing rather early. The city centre offered numerous public leisure facilities – benches, fountains, kiosks, small stadiums and outdoor ice-skating rinks in winter. During the recent decades, many former public entertainment services, entire squares and parks have become abandoned. New public entertainment services look more commodified, more controlled. They have moved indoors – there are children playgrounds in shops and restaurants, benches and torches and skating rinks in the passages of shopping malls, exhibitions in cafeterias. It is rather obvious that the population in Vilnius’ central urban public spaces has changed. There are people with stronger shopping intentions, less senior people and children, but also many teenagers who have invented new uses for the new qualities of the current public spaces. There are skaters using the new surfaces of benches and squares, people having lunch or chatting in small parks or at the riverside, and parkour lovers drifting along the diverse surfaces of the newly built shopping malls and hotels.

The growing tourism sector was certainly another factor behind the recent grand changes in the central public spaces of Vilnius. Trying to attract tourists, Vilnius had to come up with appealing marketing strategies for the city and its tourist infrastructure. At the moment, souvenir shops, hotels and tourist-oriented bars (international chains) dominate the commercial infrastructure of the city’s Old Town. For the tourists, Vilnius is culturally branded as a Baroque city, whereas most souvenir shops offer amber and linen items. Therefore, the development of the Old Town largely reflects the needs of middle-class tourism, distinguished by high consumption rates.

Nevertheless, there is an obvious and pressing problem with the architectural environment of Soviet Modernism – the spaces that cannot satisfy the current functional needs and are abandoned, waiting for new functions to be invented, such as the former Lenin Square, the Žalgiris Stadium, or the Sports and Culture Palace, all of which are exceptional Modernist projects that presently lurk like ghosts in the very centre of Vilnius.

The past five years saw an intensification of public debate about the urban changes in the city, commodification of spaces, and the drawbacks of rushed planning. Several new cultural initiatives that call for increased use of public spaces in the city have emerged reccently (Burbuliatorius / Bubble the City in the former Lenin Square, KultFlux at the Neris riverside, the permanent exhibition on Literatų street, open cinema screenings held by Meno Avilys, planting of outdoor art and design objects, art in public spaces, etc.). Many of them were catalyzed by the Vilnius – European Capital of Culture 2009 programme, which activated diverse projects that revolved around urban research.
Ūla Tornau
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