Telliskivi Neighbourhood Association (TNhA) is an NGO with the main goal to preserve and improve the residential social and built environment in the neighbourhoods of Pelgulinn and Kalamaja (two neighbourhoods in Northern Tallinn). It does so through participation in the collaborative planning process regarding these neighbourhoods. The target audience are the local residents. The background of the members vary from students to, for example, entrepreneurs, white-collar workers, unemployed, young mothers and senior citizens as well as architects, designers, lawyers and politicians. It thus cuts across ethnic, social and age diversity and binds together people with similar lifestyles and environmental preferences. TNhA focuses directly on creating social cohesion by creating places of encounter and recognising different possible interest groups in the neighbourhood. Other stakeholders in their activities are the local government, real estate developers, and other NGOs. Main actions taken towards achieving their goals are: developing constructive discussion with other stakeholders (mainly the local government), raising their own competence in the given topic in question to be equal parties in discussions, promoting a collaborative planning process, intermediating information between interested parties, but also increasing cohesion in the community through different social activities, like the annual Kalamaja Days festival. The latter event is fairly popular amongst all Tallinners, and it opens the neighbourhood to the wider public.
According to the interviewee, representing the active core of the association, TNhA is a body through which relations inside and outside the neighbourhood are created, a network of ideas, which aims “to hold the locals, other NGOs and other governance bodies connected.” As of 9 June 2014 there are 125 official members (7 in the directive), unofficially the circle of supporters is wider. The association creates possibilities for encounters and functions as a platform for recognising and collecting different local identities and ideas. Some members of TNhA are also part of the Northern Tallinn District Council and members of the Tallinn City Council, which in turn ensures that the local ideas are well heard in the City Government. The finances of the association are comprised of membership fees (10€ annually), donations and project based funding.
With the neighbourhood associations there always remains the question of who do they actually represent. According to the interviewee, “fortunately you cannot do one way [ignore different opinions], it would create a homogenous mass.” Still, as the neighbourhood has a certain milieu, “people who have moved here recently (more affluent residents compared to the previous residential structure) have chosen to live here and they generally share the same vision, similar lifestyle and habits.” On the one hand, this might lead to the assumption that this reduces diversity within the neighbourhood by bringing together only similar people in the sense of shared world views. On the other hand, it increases the diversity of neighbourhoods in the city by eliciting these different preferences through neighbourhood associations on the city level. However, the interviewee emphasises other aspects of intra-neighbourhood diversity as well, such as “the developed milieu itself is diverse with its living, business and even small scale industrial options, the area itself has defined it.” As the association stands for preserving and developing the neighbourhoods, the aim of the initiative is also to maintain the existing diversity within the area.
However, as the district is rapidly changing, the identification of the locals as ‘those who have chosen to live here’ has to be acknowledged—the district has experienced the inflow of new inhabitants, usually young Estonians with higher socioeconomic status searching for a distinctive residential environment close to the city centre. They have settled in this inner city neighbourhood as part of the socio-spatial career of young urban residents with certain values praising urban lifestyle (cf. Haase et al., 2013). However, the voice of those, often ethnic minorities (mainly Russians) with lower socio-economic status and who have lived in Northern Tallinn mainly since the Soviet period, are not well represented in the neighbourhood associations (Holvandus, 2014). Telliskivi NhA, as with many other neighbourhood associations, certainly represent only a particularly more active segment of the local residents.
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
The association aims to stand against the neighbourhood becoming homogeneous: “If no one acts on behalf of the neighbourhood, the developers can easily plan and develop one-sided projects which in turn create one-sided problems.” By gathering many different worldviews and ideas, one’s personal ambitions are lowered, thus, different perspectives become evident. As this diverse urban environment attracts many people, there indeed are many parallel visions of the neighbourhood. Thus, overall, diversity is perceived through the spatial, social, architectural, functional mixture within the neighbourhoods which the association is trying to maintain.
Main factors influencing success or failures
The success of the association is directly bound to the active members who are interested and also professionally able to participate in the initiative. Biggest success stories are Telliskivi and Soo streets, both of which were undergoing reconstruction. Telliskivi Association was able to successfully collaborate with the District Government and City Government, making sure that the planning outcome is bike and pedestrian-friendly. The other success factor relates to educating themselves to be an equal partner in the collaboration process, “the goal is to have a level of knowledge which is taken into account, so that you start to recognise the other stakeholders’ motives.” However, as a shortcoming of this otherwise good intention is that voices speaking ‘unprofessional’ language are ignored and the voices of those educated professionals are often interpreted as representing the overall ‘local voice’.
The main factor for failure is the lack of time that people can invest into voluntary activities. The other failure factor that needs to be tackled daily is the lack of finances since membership fees and donations are not enough to secure the sustainability of the initiative. At the same time, as the interviewee also emphasised, the association exists because the need to intervene has been recognised. As a consequence of these two opposite forces, more active and passive periods are inherent for such types of initiatives.
A specific feature related to the TNhA as well as the other similar area-based NGOs in Tallinn is the fact that it mainly provides the opportunity to discuss local issues for the Estonian-speaking population. The interviewee admits that this should be taken into account when listening to local voices in the sense that one major part of the population, mainly the Russian-speaking ethnic minorities, might be left out from such discussions. The interviewee, however, did not clarify which alternative and comparable tools could be used for empowering the Russian-speakers. In other words, despite the focus on improving the Estonian language proficiency among minorities in Estonian national integration programmes (Tammaru et al., 2014), a strong language barrier still exists for Soviet-era migrants and their children which does not allow them to equally participate in grass-root activities with those being proficient in Estonian.
Neighbourhood associations like Telliskivi Association act as community unifiers, communication network creators, but also as bridge builders between the public sector and civil society. The innovation of neighbourhood associations is to facilitate regular cooperation with the city government that would improve the quality of local life. In Tallinn, neighbourhood associations are relatively young and, therefore, the codes of conduct have only emerged recently, especially when it comes to solving the different views on the future of the city life in the neighbourhood and in the city. Another threat is to fail with the representation issues, in the sense that all citizens are actively involved in local activities. This is the main criticism towards the associations from the city government as well. The representation issue cuts into ethnic dimension, i.e. despite a strong emphasis on Estonian language proficiency among the Russian-speaking minorities, the language issue in grass-root activities such as neighbourhood associations still seems to be one of the most important barriers for social cohesion in the neighbourhoods of Tallinn. This implies that both parties, neighbourhood associations and the city government, need to make an effort for improving their mutual co-operation.