01.09.2021

From Grey to Green: The Pollinator Highway of Tallinn as an Innovative Concept for Bringing Nature Back to the City

The Pollinator Highway of Tallinn is the capital’s green habitat. The name ‘Pollinator Highway’ refers to the fact that pollinators such as butterflies, bumblebees and honeybees as well as other animal groups use this natural space to move from one green area to the next. Human beings have an intrinsic need to spend time in nature, but an increase in city life means that natural habitats are under developmental pressure. New and innovative ways to preserve and plan urban nature habitats are needed.

​The Pollinator Highway passes through nine distinctive panel housing areas and train depots, starting from an urban forest area and ending in a garden city, from a species-rich alvar to various industrial areas, all the while connecting Tallinn’s most distant parts to the heart of the city – the total length of the journey is almost 13 kilometres. Tallinn wishes to establish a vibrant and diverse linear park along the Pollinator Highway.

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Nature and cities are not polar opposites

Planning to establish green habitats for pollinators is a novel concept with which Tallinn hopes to become one of the leaders in Europe and other regions. Pollinators are extremely important for both the environment and people because they pollinate and take care of the crop yield of more than 150 food plants. The Pollinator Highway’s objective is to show that built and natural environments are not polar opposites; they can work in harmony if we can address some misleading beliefs even a little: If we allow over mowed lawns to grow into lush grass, if we use a high-speed tram or a bicycle instead of a car, we can grow fresh food in cities just like people grow it in rural areas and we can change people’s perceptions for the better when they view their surroundings.

The Pollinator Highway primarily values urban meadows in terms of natural environment. Urban meadows have the most developmental pressure of all natural habitats in the city. Precise requirements regarding the protection of trees and parks are usually set in stone in cities, but meadows are often viewed as unsafe, unkempt wastelands that require some ‘correction’. As a result, meadows are rather defenceless in regard to development, but often a great deal of biodiversity exists in those meadows.

Promoting green mobility

Tallinn is one of Europe’s fastest growing capital cities in regard to the purchase of personal vehicles. This stems from the Soviet era, when owning a personal vehicle was a luxury only few could afford. Now, 30 years later, there is a dominant view that owning a personal vehicle is a part of individual freedom. Automobility indicates the shortcomings of urban planning, in which grey and green infrastructure are polar opposites. Urban planning is important and should be done in a way which maintains an enjoyable atmosphere and environment for both new and existing residents. This is achieved by focusing on green types of movement. The Pollinator Highway is one project that expands bicycle opportunities in Tallinn. Bike lanes are being planned and designed in places they do not currently exist within the framework of the Pollinator Highway project. A fast, new public transport option is being created between Südalinn and Tallinn’s largest coastal leisure area – Stroomi beach. This is a new tram corridor on the Pollinator Highway.

An outdoor garden in the city

As early as 25 years ago, it was common for Estonian city dwellers to have summer homes with outdoor gardens located in the surrounding areas of the city. These homes were used for holidaying; everything was grown there, from potatoes to strawberries. This tradition is declining. A number of such summer house areas are repurposed for year-round living. The price of land in the surrounding areas of the city is too expensive for people to purchase a summer home; and public transport to distant rural areas where the land is affordable is infrequent. As a result, many Tallinn residents do not have any gardening opportunities. It is a recognised fact that urban areas highly depend on rural areas for their food production. As the world is becoming more urbanised, it is more important than ever to find other ways for cities to function independently of rural areas.

The objective is to offer every person in Tallinn a way to grow their own plants for food; therefore, the City of Tallinn has created community gardens in every city district. One of these operational community gardens –Pelguaed– is located on the Pollinator Highway. All interested individuals can get a free planting bed or planter to grow their own ornamental plants or food plants in the community garden. Gardening is a fantastic community pastime suitable for all age groups. It provides something to do, reduces stress and integrates the community.

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Since individuals in Tallinn are becoming more interested in gardening every day, the first allotment garden will be created in Tallinn as part of the Pollinator Highway. Tallinn’s residents can use this novel idea and rent a 25 m2 allotment for a symbolic price, which they can use to grow both food and ornamental plants. The garden is essentially an organic garden that does not allow pesticides. A larger allotment will permit you to grow food in much larger quantities. The garden may also have a small pavilion (for example a summer kitchen) or a recreational area with a terrace. The allotments are for private use, but they come equipped with a shared compost pile, water source and tool shed. This way, urban allotment gardens will benefit both nature and humans: organically grown plants are a source of food for people and pollinators alike and the gardens diversify public areas. The community garden’s main target group is families with children, elderly people and economically vulnerable Tallinn residents who do not have any gardening opportunities; however, all Tallinn residents are welcome to rent allotments on a broader scale.

Flower meadows

Industrial agriculture is a heavy negative burden on the environment. The growing of monocultures, intensive management and the use of pesticides to combat pests lead to a reduction in biodiversity in rural areas. Cities like Tallinn do not use pesticides to maintain public green areas; green infrastructure has become vitally important for both pollinators and other animal groups because they offer better conditions for ecological systems than natural lands affected by various industries. One of the Pollinator Highway’s primary objectives is to further improve the living conditions of Tallinn’s pollinators.

In autumn 2019, an inventory of pollinators and flora was carried out along the Pollinator Highway. It revealed that the conditions for pollinators were excellent in a number of areas the Pollinator Highway passes through. The region has alvars with superb species diversity, where many rare and endangered pollinator species live. Forty-two species of butterfly (43% of total Estonian butterflies) and 22 species of bumblebee (78% of total Estonian bumblebees) have been found there in the last decade. Some habitats the Pollinator Highway passes through have a smaller number of species – whether because of the extent of the artificial environment or the flora having less species. Scientists believe that it is easy to fix areas which have less species – mow less often, replace grass with flower-rich meadows and create honey plants for pollinators from spring until autumn.

One Pollinator Highway urban nature prototype project was launched in the panel housing area of Väike-Õismäe (Little Flower Hill district) – a 1300 m2 flower meadow instead of the existing grass area with few species. The seeds planted in this meadow originated in Estonia’s vast nature. The flower meadow will fully bloom for three summers. It will be exciting to find out whether the labour-intensive process of establishing a flower meadow will provide more benefit than the easiest method of increasing biodiversity – less mowing.

Bee borders

The Stockholm Environment Institute conducted a green infrastructure study in 2021, which revealed that there are people who believe a vibrant city flower meadow is beautiful, but there are a many dissenting opinions, too. The low opinion regarding flower meadows is also due to the fact that Estonian style flora is not brightly coloured; it is more modest. In a sense, the Pollinator Highway project is a vision exercise – how can we draw residents’ attention to values which are unseen at first? We have realised that more classically beautiful solutions are required to achieve this. We created bee borders near the Pollinator Highway because of that.

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The bee border is a large planted area consisting of brightly coloured perennial plants combined with other gramineous plants and native species. This results in an ecologically diverse and exuberant oasis that blooms from spring until autumn. Bee borders can be created as planting beds and also as edge markers between which it’s enjoyable to traverse. Bee borders are native to English gardening culture, but we are using them for the first time in Tallinn (in a northern climate).

Reusing high voltage power masts

The Pollinator Highway mainly runs alongside a former roadbed and a high voltage corridor. The service masts from 1959 are set to disappear from the urban landscape because the lines will be moved away over the coming years. These masts are quite worthless, but the idea is that a few of the masts will become landmarks as an exciting formation of the Pollinator Highway. We wish to provide them with a new meaning and role.

Dismantling the steel frame modules and putting them back together in a new way can transform the masts into bearers of light, greenhouses, climbing towers or observation platforms covered in vines – the local residents suggested these ideas as part of the Pollinator Highway idea collection conducted in 2019. So-called ‘activity pockets’ will be designed near the masts. The masts will have integrated smart solutions which will be utilised in a number of ways. The masts’ new shape and concept is produced in collaboration with the Faculty of Architecture at the Estonian Academy of Arts.

Inclusion via augmented reality

The central issue of urban planning is how to involve local communities in important three-dimensional decision-making, and in turn how to clearly introduce those three-dimensional solutions to them. The Pollinator Highway project included an augmented reality art gallery. The garage walls that surround the Pollinator Highway had four thematic murals painted on them: ‘Sustainable mobility’, ‘New operating modes for garages’, ‘Activities in the public area’ and ‘Biodiversity’. When aiming your phone at the paintings, the augmented reality layer will activate, which will allow you to experience the planned urban space as an augmented reality solution in your surrounding physical space.

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The Pollinators Highway concept is being built with support from the European Union. The external project ‘B.Green’ (2020-2022) is funded by the Central Baltic Programme, which supports cross-border cooperation projects, sustainable urban traffic and related communities. Tallinn Strategic Management Office’s Ruumiloome Centre of Excellence is the leader of the project. Find more exciting information about the Pollinator Highway project on the www.putukavail.ee website.

 Author: Kaidi Põldoja, Tallinn Strategic Management Office, Head of Space Creation Competence Centre

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