Meet the architect turning Estonia into a skateboarder’s paradise

Landscape architect Terje Ong is reinvigorating Estonia’s empty urban spaces by adding elements that bring skateboarders to its streets.

4 February 2019
Top image: Emerson Siimer

The rattle of urethane on cracked tarmac blurs into white noise as we cross the bridge over the river Emajõgi. We speed away from the pastel-coloured facades of Raekoja Plats and Tartu’s Old Town, through the cool shade of the wooded Ülejõe park, towards the uniform panels of the Annelinn district. Skateboarding in a city is all about finding nooks and crannies, and making use of spaces where you are not supposed to be. Unusual, then, are the various skateable structures built into Tartu’s public spaces, which actually invite skateboarders in. Neither skatepark nor traditional public space, these urban interventions provoke skateboarders to rethink how they interact with the city. Used to being shooed from place to place by security guards, the experience of gliding through Tartu at your own pace undisturbed is incredibly refreshing.

More than ever, people are passive and connected only to their screens. Public space has an important role in our society

Over the last decade, Scandinavian cities have been at the forefront of a new sort of public space, encouraging skateboarders into the city centre by subtly incorporating skateable elements into urban designs. The same trend has been adopted across the Baltic Sea in Estonia, where fascinating urban interventions and abstract street furniture are reinvigorating public space. Landscape architect Terje Ong has redesigned urban areas, mostly in Tartu, but also in Narva, and Pärnu, making them more skater-friendly. I spent the day with Ong cruising around Tartu to discuss her work.

We ended the day in the Annelinn district where Terje completed one of her recent projects. The mikrorajoon, or micro-district, is build on an impressive grid system that links the Soviet-era apartment blocks by a network of pedestrian arteries. Before 2017, none of the empty spaces around the blocks were ever developed. Ong revamped these spaces, adding bright yellow skateboarding obstacles, as well as ping pong tables, basketball courts, and seating. Find out below why skateboarding is beneficial to Estonia’s cities, in her own words.

Pedestrian and cycle path in Annelinn. Image: Erge Jõgela

Terje, would you briefly describe your work in Tartu?

I’m a landscape architect and partner in our Tartu based TajuRuum office, which I co-founded with my friends and former course mates from the Landscape Architecture course at the Estonian University of Life Sciences. I have worked as a landscape architect since 2010, and focus mostly on local public space projects.

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Why is it important to bring skateboarders specifically into public spaces?

It is important to enable the possibility of movement and diversity in public space. I don’t think that skaters should be only in skateparks, or children only in playgrounds, that all of these interactions should be separate. There is much more value in looking at public space in a broader way — looking at our streetscapes as places for movement and interaction and introducing more mixed use spaces.

Having said that, skateboarders often bring a new use to places that would otherwise be left aside, or passed by quickly. Skateboarders tend to be creative in the ways that they interact with spaces. They often see potential where other people don’t. Whilst skateboarding is seen as being countercultural, it is important to create spaces for everyone, and not to preference a certain group over another. We should welcome everybody in our public spaces.

Skateable elements in Annelinn. Image: Emerson Siimer

How do you go about designing spaces that will appeal to everyone?

One way we’ve integrated play and movement into public spaces and streetscapes is through street furniture. Rather than taking generic products such as benches, bollards, and bike racks, we can create abstract forms that provide seating but also function as obstacles for skaters, or work well for fitness training.

It’s wonderful when you design elements or surfaces that trigger the skateboarder’s imagination

Skateboarders are already using the city for their own purposes, regardless of these skateable elements. Do Tartu’s modified public spaces have something unique to offer?

I try to bring something to the space that will trigger the imagination, such as abstract forms that force the skater to pause for a moment and think. These elements aren’t taken out of a catalogue, and they give the user the opportunity to move in new ways.

More than ever, people are passive and connected only to their screens. We know that children don’t move as much anymore, and so public space has an important role in our society. In these spaces people have to move, whether they like it or not. If you create a space that is safe and inviting, and that provokes new ways of moving, people will come out and use them, whether on skateboards, bikes, or on foot.

Multi-use space in Annelinn. Image: Daryl Mersom

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Have you been able to gauge the reaction amongst skaters and the public to your urban interventions so far?

Yes, I revisit the places I have worked with on bike or on foot because I’m interested in seeing how these areas work in real life. I get quite useful information from these trips, and am often able to rethink some of the solutions we have come up with. I also talk to local people there, and with the skaters. But after you’ve finished a project the best sign is if people come and actually use the space, often in ways you hadn’t envisioned in the design process. Skaters are particularly good at this.

Is there a tension between the countercultural spirit of skateboarding and the design process you are involved with, whereby skateboarding is coopted into the city?

No I don’t think so, it is important to create spaces that are open to all user groups, so that you don’t bar anyone from using the space. It’s wonderful when you design elements or surfaces that trigger the skateboarder’s imagination and do not prescribe exactly how they should interact with them. This is when we truly see the skater’s ability to work against the grain, when they use the elements we provide in their own new and interesting ways.

Skateable elements in Tallinn. Image: Daryl Mersom

In the Annelinn district, yellow paths link various skate spots together within the Soviet-era housing district, and offer the experience of constantly moving on from spot to spot, a little bit like skateboarding at authentic city spots, where guards will move you along each time. How did you bring out this sense of movement through the district?

The original plan for Annelinn included these great pedestrian arteries that connected the apartment blocks with all of the public infrastructure in the district, as well as the city centre. The schools and kindergartens were to be a short walk away from children’s homes, and the pedestrian routes would have seating areas, kiosks, and restaurants. This vision was never realised, though. The network of arteries was built, but the public space was left empty. We have tried to fill in the gaps with our yellow cycle and pedestrian routes. It takes one of these arteries and introduces spots along the route where you may have a picnic, meet friends, do tricks, or play.

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