Tallinn is toughening up: Building resilience to crises through longer-term planning

About the Affordable Cities blog series and #BetterUrbanHousing
People living in cities across the world are facing the effects of the housing affordability and cost-of-living crisis. OECD Champion Mayors recently endorsed the new “OECD Brussels Blueprint for Affordable cities and Housing for All” at the Brussels Urban Summit where they shared innovative solutions to tackle these challenges and drive more inclusive economic growth. They continue to drive efforts that shape a more affordable, equitable and resilient urban future. www.oecd-inclusive.com/champion-mayors/

Ours is a time of crises – the COVID crisis, the energy crisis, the food crisis, the refugee crisis and of course climate crisis. On top of all that, there is a full-scale war in Europe.

The last three years have transformed our priorities, shifting our focus from important long-term visions and strategic decision-making to short-term priorities – including energy security and providing emergency support to the vulnerable. Longer-term planning can help cities build resilience to both the crises of today and those yet to come.

Affordability through infrastructure

Many cities are grappling with the challenge of making housing more affordable. Yet municipalities in Estonia hold few levers to influence the housing market. They do not own much land or social housing which are reserved only for the most vulnerable groups. Instead, we have focussed on deploying wider infrastructure and measures to help control living costs for our people – which has helped them weather the storm of current crises.

Already around 70% of Tallinn is covered with a district heating network that is more than 450 kilometres long. Today most of the energy needs come from renewable sources – wind, sun, waste and biogas. But we still are too dependent on imported fossil fuels that are being used as geopolitical weapons.

The crisis was an opportunity to change, an impulse to build new systems and deploy new technologies. While in the 20th century, technology and the environment were in conflict, in the 21st century they can be complements.

That is the reason Tallinn’s city government has been working together the business sector and academia to develop innovative solutions, helping steer investments in new renewable energy sources such as wastewater and seawater heat pumps as well as harnessing the potential of biogas.

New infrastructure will not only provide the people of Tallinn with affordable district heating based on renewable energy, but also allow the city to take realistic steps towards carbon neutrality.  

On 17 May this year, the city of Tallinn decided to enter into a partnership agreement with the energy company Utilitas to create a joint venture to support district heating in Tallinn. This gives us the opportunity to build innovative energy solutions that will ensure energy independence and the stability of heating prices. Through this partnership we aim to start using sea and wastewater energy in the district heating and cooling network by 2027. The goal is to finish updating the district heating network and to achieve a carbon-neutral heating and cooling supply by 2030 at the latest.

Looking to the future

Although I mentioned that our focus has shifted strongly towards meeting short-term priorities and ad-hoc problems, cities must not abandon long-term strategic plans and visions, and building resilience for the crises that are yet to come.

All the support measures we have implemented in Tallinn existed long before COVID-19 hit us in 2020. When crisis hits, there is no time to reinvent the wheel, there is only time to act. A free school lunch for everybody; a reduced rate for day care, both for children and the elderly; financial support for low-income families; and legal counselling have all been in the city toolkit for years. This is alongside our most famous universal support measure – free public transport for all citizens of Tallinn – which was introduced in 2013.

American journalist, author and urban activist Jane Jacobs has said: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” As city leaders, let us not forget that.

About the OECD Champion Mayors Initiative
Created in 2016, the OECD Champion Mayors for Inclusive Growth Initiative is a global coalition of mayors who meet on a regular basis to share their experience in the pursuit of inclusive growth in cities. Since its inception, over 100 different mayors from around the world have joined the Initiative, contributing their voice to the global debate, and making major strides in their cities toward youth empowerment, sustainable climate policy and support for SMEs. The Champion Mayors will meet at the Brussels Urban Summit on 13 June to drive change on improving housing affordability and cost of living for residents in their cities.

Mayor of Tallin | + posts

Mihhail Kõlvart (born in 1977) is the Mayor of Tallinn since April 2019. Previously he has served as the Chairman of Tallinn City Council (2017-2019) and the Deputy Mayor of Tallinn (2011-2017) responsible for education, culture, sport and national minorities. In spring 2022 he was elected as the Chairman of the Board of the Association of the Estonian Cities and Municipalities.

As the Mayor, Mr Kõlvart’s priority is sustainable, green and just urban development, he is a strong spokesperson for increasing the role of cities in the European Union decision-making process. He is the member of OECD Champion Mayors and the Mayors Alliance for the European Green Deal initiative.

Mihhail Kõlvart has a degree in business law. He is a member of the Estonian Centre Party and the Deputy Chairman of the party since 2016.

Mr Kõlvart has a black belt in Taekwondo, and he has won a silver medal from the International Martial Arts Games. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the Estonian Olympic Committee and the president of the Estonian Taekwondo Federation.