Tartu WAVE Living Lab Team 1 2022

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Area Tartu Emajõgi Upper part I
Place Tartu
Country Estonia
Topics Accessibility, biodiversity
Author(s) Marina Pushkar, Helen Narusberg, Liina-Kai Raivet, Katri Dremljuga-Grüner, Laura Kipper, Annabel Mett
Lodjakoda Linnajula RagnarVutt 1680 0.jpeg


River Emajõgi plays a key role in the historical formation of Tartu, it has cultural importance and plays a significant role in the city´s green and blue infrastructure and biodiversity.  Flowing towards the city centre, Emajõgi is forced into an artificial channel, affecting the usability and accessibility of the riverfront. The challenge is, how do we enable the active use of the river in places where it is in a more artificial state and how do we protect the city wilderness that is still preserved in areas further from the city centre.

Location and scope

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Water as a natural system

Geomorphology, typologies and dynamics of water areas

Emajõgi (Suur-Emajõgi), the largest rivers in Estonia; length 101 km, river basin with Lake Võrtsjärv basin 9960 km2 (of which 98 km2 in Latvia), average flow 71.8 m3 / s. The width of the river is 20–145 m, the maximum depth is 11 m (up to 18 m at the mouth), the total slope is 3.5 m, the average flow speed is 3.7 km / h. It starts from Rannu-Jõesuu in the northeast corner of Lake Võrtsjärv and flows to Lake Peipus in Prague.

From Võrtsjärv to the Kärevere bridge (40 km), the river meanders and is rich in swamps (old rivers). In the upper and lower reaches, the river flows in marshy shallows, in the middle reaches the ancient valley (the width of the valley above Tartu is 1 km, elsewhere even more, the depth is up to 20 m). In the upper and lower reaches there are swamps and meadows (floodplains), which are under water during high water. Floods also occur in Tartu during high water. The water level in the Emajõgi River can fluctuate from 1.2 to 2.6 m per year.

It is 57 km from Lake Võrtsjärv to Tartu and 43 km from Tartu to Lake Peipus. Back in 1927, the length of the Emajõgi River was 117 km, but later the river has been dredged and channeled. The special feature of the Emajõgi River is its abundance of water bodies, 102 in total. Most of the old rivers are a 35 km long section from the mouth of the Pedja (Pede) river to the village of Kärevere.

During high water (usually in May, but sometimes also in winter), when the flow of the Pede (Pedja) River is so large that it does not flow in the direction of Lake Peipsi, the Emajõgi changes direction in the six-kilometer section between the Pede estuary and Lake Võrtsjärv. The upstream part of the Emajõgi River is several times wider than usual at that time and is also called the Järvejõgi River. The reverse flow is slow, 7 cm / s.

It is 57 km from Tartu to the source of the Emajõgi River in Võrtsjärv and 43 km to the mouth of Lake Peipsi. The river is navigable in its full length. In the past, shipping and fishing played an important role. Until 1775. Until the fire, the Emajõgi River flowed in two branches above the city, forming a small island above the current nightclub "Atlantis" (see also Koolujõgi). The springs flowing out of the tributaries of the primeval valley created smaller tributaries that disappeared from today's cityscape. The bed of one of these was located above the present department store. The Burgundian knight Ghillebert de Lannoy is in his travelogues in the 15th century. said: "Tartu is a very beautiful and well - fortified city and there is a fortress by three rivers ...".

The higher water level of the river was registered in Tartu in 1867. in May 373 cm above the zero of the graph. In the 1920s, the banks of the Emajõgi River were fortified and raised, and boulevards and green areas were built there. 1947-2002 the lowest water level was 30.09.1996, 29.30 m above zero.

Water as a living space

Man and Emajõgi. Fishing.

36 fish species have been caught in the Emajõgi, 10 of which are erroneous. The most caught fish are pike, bream, perch, roach and roach. Eels, carp, tench, pikeperch, linseed, ling and peat are also caught. It is also quite common to catch a breeder whose fishing is currently prohibited by fishing rules.

Interest in various fish species has changed throughout history: in pre-war Estonia, pike were caught on the Emajõgi River during the German occupation, roaches during the Soviet occupation, as well as perch (as it began to be dried) and perch. Until the Second World War, fish were caught on the Emajõgi River mainly with nets, and after the war, trapping and net fishing were also used. In 1958–1976, a fisherman's collective farm called Lenin operated on the Emajõgi River, in 1976 the fisherman's collective farm Peipsi Kalur was established. Today, there are some self-employed fishermen who use the edge traps of the Emajõgi River for fishing. A very popular recreational fishing spot. From 2009 to 2010, the South Estonian Fishermen's Club estimated the number of fishermen on the Emajõgi River from March to October: based on this estimate, the fishing effort is approximately 100,000 fishing days per year.

Emajõgi Festival, an annual celebration taking place in Tartu since 2006, focusing on the Emajõgi River. It is usually held on the weekend of August 2nd. There will be boat parades, swimming and fishing competitions, concerts on the river bank and on ships, etc., various water attractions, water-related institutions and companies will be introduced. Boat trips on the Emajõgi River will be organized for those interested. The best known of the sports competitions are the Emajõgi Cup in open water swimming and the "Sprint of Two Bridges" from Kaarsilla to Võidu Bridge. The fishing competition is called "River of Good Techniques".


  • Aspius aspius Asp (under protection, ll category, lives in larger freshwater streams and lakes, only predatory carp in Estonia)
  • Misgurnus fossilis Weatherfish (III category, weatherfish live in dense patches of aquatic vegetation, dredging and aquatic weed removal poses a danger to weatherfish populations)
  • Cottus gobio European bullhead (III category, prefers clean water bodies, benthic fish with low distribution potential, unfavorable living conditions are an obstacle to the expansion)
  • Cobitis taenia Spined loach (III category, lives in rivers with slow flow rate and clear oxygen-rich water)

Most commonly caught fish: northern pike (Esox lucius), freshwater bream (Abramis brama), European perch (Perca fluviatilis), rutilus roach (Rutilus rutilus) ja ide (Leuciscus idus).


Under protection:

  • Aquila pomarina Lesser Spotted Eagle
  • Alcedo atthis Common kingfisher
  • Dendrocopos leucotos White-backed woodpecker
  • Accipiter gentilis Northern goshawk
  • Luscinia svecica subsp. cyanecula Bluethroat
  • Larus fuscus Lesser black-backed gull

Common birds:

  • Anser albifrons Greater white-fronted goose
  • Gallinula chloropus Common moorhen
  • Acrocephalus schoenobaenus Sedge warbler
  • Aix galericulata Mandarin duck
  • Aythya fuligula Tufted duck


Under protection:

  • Liparis loeselii Yellow widelip orchid (prefers low vegetation saplings in calcareous and wet areas in shallow bogs, near springs, on lake shores and coastal meadows)
  • Crepis mollis Soft Hawk's-beard (in Estonia it is only found in the damp floodplain meadows and bushes around Tartu)
  • Thalictrum lucidum Shining Meadow Rue (Grows on wet meadows)
  • Butomus umbellatus Flowering rush (On the banks of rivers and lakes and in shallow water)

Common plants:

  • Rumex longifolius dooryard dock
  • Potentilla argentea Silver cinquefoil
  • Lathyrus palustris Marsh pea
  • Viburnum opulus Guelder-rose


  • Trametes gibbosa Lumpy bracket (Under protection)
  • Coprinus comatus Shaggy mane

Vertebrate animals

  • Castor fiber Eurasian beaver
  • Capreolus capreolus Roe deer
  • Vulpes vulpes Red fox
  • Lepus europaeus European hare
  • Rana temporaria Grass frog
  • Calopteryx virgo European newt


  • Dytiscus latissimus Diving beetle (inhabits dense vegetation, mainly of Carex and Equisetum, at the edges of lakes or in non/slow flowing waters and deep ponds)
  • Aeshna mixta migrant hawker
  • Enallagma cyathigerum Common blue damselfly
  • Pyrrhocoris apterus Firebug
  • Calopteryx splendens Banded demoiselle
  • Sympetrum sanguineum Ruddy darter
  • Bombus sylvarum Shrill carder bee
  • Platycnemis pennipes  White-legged damselfly
  • Coenagrion pulchellum Variable damselfly
  • Coenagrion hastulatum northern damselfly
  • Cantharis (Cantharis) fusca Soldier beetle

Blue and Green Infrastructure

The only connection to the city's green network is the green corridor running along the Emajõgi River (the side on its left bank and in the area of Tartu municipality). The most ecologically valuable green areas are in the Emajõgi Green Corridor: Ropka – Ihaste meadow nature reserve with river banks to Luunja municipality, Anne nature reserve and protected areas between the protected areas, Kardla-Vorbus support areas, Kvissental settlement shore areas.

The only blue infrastructure in the area is the Supilinna pond. Areas covered by the green network: Dendropark, Cemetery outcrop, Tartu University Botanical Garden, Ülejõgi Park, green zones on the Emajõgi bank.


Tähtvere dendropark is an area managed by the Tartu City Economics Department, located behind the buildings of the Estonian University of Life Sciences, between the Tartu Singing Stage and the Emajõgi River, the entrance to which is at the intersection of Tuglas, Tähtvere and Herne streets towards the Emajõgi beach. Dendropark is a versatile leisure place, which was established in the 1970s under the leadership of the Estonian University of Life Sciences by planting diverse and also rare trees. All the trees planted are no longer there, but the list of rarities includes black spruce, American wound, paper oak, red oak, gray walnut, and walnut and American larch.

Cemetery outcrop

Devonian sandstone outcrop on the left bank of the Emajõgi primeval valley in Tartu. The outcrop is located above the cemeteries on Puiestee Street (Uus-Jaani and Vana-Peetri cemeteries). The protected area of the cemetery outcrop was established in 1957 by the decision of the executive committee of the TSN of the city of Tartu.

Tartu University Botanical Garden

The Botanical Garden is located near the center of Tartu, on the west bank of the river. At present, the water system of the garden is characterized only by a pond, which is a remnant of moats filled with water from previous times. There are no natural plant communities in the botanical garden. The main reasons for this are the small size of the garden and its central location. The botanical garden is home to typical animals and birds adapted to urban conditions.

Ülejõe park

The park is located between Narva Road and Emajõgi on the section between Kaarsilla and Vabadussilla. The park houses the Hugo Treffner Monument and the Friedebert Tuglas Memorial. The park creates a good connection with the green network of the Emajõgi River.

Green zones on the banks of the Emajõgi River

The banks of the Emajõgi River are delimited on both sides by greenery, either by bushes or green areas, which can sometimes be connected to public beaches.

Water as a cultural space

Land use and water

1732 (estimated year) map

Settlement mostly inside the city wall area and not along river Emajõgi. The river area is not used, the landscape is natural and not managed. Only one bridge to cross the river to get inside the city wall area where the settlement is.

1884/1839 map

Settlement has grown quite a bit in the city center in our area, but also a few houses outside along the river side. Riverside is mostly not managed and has a natural landscape. There are a few access points to the river which could be used for shipping and fishing. The railway was built and opened in 1876.

1923-1935 map

Settlement has not grown significantly but there are more houses near the river outside the city center. The land use along the river is mostly agricultural. New development regarding the land use is to some extent industry. Like for example on both sides of a blacksmith, vodka brewery, tavern on both side of the river and agricultural school nearby. River itself is used also for fishing and for entertainment purposes such as swimming or boating.

1997-2003 map

Settlement has grown vigorously. Due to the II WW the industrial and entertainment use of the river has been lost. The riverside consists mostly of wetlands and green areas. There are not very many access points to the river and it is not used for recreational purposes as it was after the I WW period.

Cultural and spatial typologies of water areas

The spatial patterns of the area which is mostly riverside that has been natural landscape and not managed changed during the beginning of 20th Century when with the city growth the nearby water area was used as well. Fishing and boating for commercial and entertaining purposes were popular. Industry related to the railway and blacksmiths, brewery and taverns all activated the usage and spatial development of the Emajõgi river. This action created the need for some maintenance and access points to the river.

Role of the water area in overall urban morphology is to open the river to people so it can be used as an important and vital part of urban space. Also water as an urban morphology feature is crucial for air quality improvement in urban areas. It is like a blue cleaning channel for the air. If the river is running through the city of Tartu then Emajõgi should absolutely be a connector and not a divider regarding urban morphology.

Sacred spaces and heritage

Emajõgi is a cultural cradle and spine of Estonians, it has enormous cultural and symbolic value as a core text of Estonian identity.

The heritage that is connected to Emajõgi is mostly symbolic as the river itself has acquired a central position in Estonian cultural memory.

Emajõgi is a symbol of education - Tartu is often called Athens of Emajõgi. Here is the place where wisdom flows - sometimes also called Tartu vaim (The spirit of Tartu). National awakening movement in the 19th century started from Tartu, the most famous Estonian female poet Lydia Koidula, who was called Emajõe Ööbik - The Nightingale of the Emajõgi, had strong connections with Tartu. First song festival took place in Tartu and the Estonian national flag was invented in Tartu by students. Emajõgi has a cultural meaning to all 100 000 alumni that have graduated from the university.

Emajõgi is also a cultural divider in the Estonian mental landscape. River acts as a border to frame South-Estonian identity. When you cross Emajõgi another world opens - South-Estonia with different languages (võro, seto, mulgi), worldview and more traditional lifestyle.

Visual appearance and landscape narrative

Main narrative in art and literature that is connected with Emajõgi is definitely sense of belonging, a bit of nostalgy and a lot of pseudomythology (birth of Vanemuine and Emajõgi as “paradise of first humans”).

Emajõgi has recently gathered a lot of graffiti artist’s attention to add interpretation to historical art and react to social problems. In the beginning of 20th century Tartu was the center of a famous art school - Pallas Art School - pallaslane is a term that everyone knows in the Estonian art scene.

Water and People

Accessibility and usability

Emajõgi river takes a central part in the Tartu city, dividing the city in two parts serving as an axis of the city's development. The Tartu City municipality is seeing the improvement of the riverfront accessibility and activating the river banks as one of its main objectifs. When addressing the issue of accessibility it is possible to distinguish 5 different aspects:

1) Accessibility TO the riverfront: it varies throughout the city changing as you move from the city center up the river to the city border. In the city center multiple streets are leading to the river but as toward the city borders the density is decreasing, so does the number of exits to the river. In some cases the natural areas, e.g. Supilinna pond and dendropark, serve as a river buffer – where little paths leading to the river are known only to the locals. In other cases recent real estate development as in Supilinn and Kvissental block the access to the longer stretches of the riverside. There are two parking lots on each side of the river catering to the beach areas and maritime recreational center Lodjakoda.

2) Accessibility ALONG the riverside: riverfront in Tartu is reserved for the pedestrians and cyclists (on the Western side of the river). On the Western side of the river the promenade gradually transforms into hiking trail – the main drawback of which is its linear character – after reaching your “turnback” point, which is quite often determined by seasonality, you have to take the same route back. The walkability of the route decreases towards the outskirts of the city presenting both physical – the lack of the route maintenance, flooding etc. – and psychological barriers (signs prohibiting trespasses, fenced areas with the dogs, leaving you only a narrow strip by the river to walk through).

3) Accessibility ACROSS the river: the city center is provided with the 4 bridges located closely to each other facilitating easy movement across the river, whereas in the upstream part of Tartu the lack of bridges lead to the substantial increasement of physical and psychological distances: 2 Emajõe beaches located within 200 m on the opposite banks require a 2,5 km hike to get from one point to another increasing the distance up to 10 times. 4) Accessibility with public transport: the nearest stops to the public beaches lie within 700 m walking distance, which can be quite problematic for elderly or families with little children – the further you go from the center, the more problematic is the access to the riverside by public transport.

5) Water infrastructures – sport, water travel, recreation.

The usability of the riverside is largely defined by the typology of the river banks which falls into three categories:

1) the vertical concrete embankment of Emajõgi in the city center providing no direct access to the water allows only for the passive use of space as an “observer”, there is no much room for interaction and the participant is limited to a role of” the spectator in the theater” – the territory quite effectively, though seasonally, used by business owners – little riverside cafes. Other than that the promenade is used for walking, being the most pleasant way to travel the city in summers. In the recent decade the city started installing different types of terraces along the promenade and the most popular prove to be the ones with the closest access to water.

2) the man-made steep bank covered with natural vegetation constructed to prevent flooding – allows for linear movement, as only single users, mostly fishermen, take the effort to go down the steep bank to reach the water. The territory is popular among joggers, also widely used for walking purposes – the linear types of usage – not encouraging to stop and explore.

3) natural banks allow for the widest variety of use – recreational, play, educational – as well as direct engagement with the water as in swimming and bathing.

Community Mapping

Social groups





Sport enthusiasts




Tartu University

Local communities (eg. Emajõe Lodjaselts, Supilinna selts)

Sport clubs (Paddling , rowing, etc.)

Small businesses (catering and entertainment)

Local residents

External stakeholders

Tartu municipality

Environmental Board


Restoration Board

Possible Futures

If put in a larger context, the river environment of Emajõgi in the upstream part of Tartu is in relatively good condition. There are values related to the unspoiled river environment, but it shouldn't be taken for granted. In Tartu upstream area two opposites can be seen - in the city centre the river is enforced into concrete embankment but going up the river towards the city border a different image unfolds with rich nature and biodiversity. As the riverbanks change so does the usability of the river - with more natural banks, the usability is higher and vice versa. From history we know that the river was widely used - the river itself for commuting and transportation and by the river were situated different gathering sites, like outdoor pool and tavern. Today in the city centre the riverside is very well accessible but with no direct access to the water only passive use as an “observer” is possible. Now there is a threat to the city wilderness with the housing and land privatisation at the riverfront.

If we look at the Sustainable Development Goals there are several to link with the state of the river environment of Emajõgi. First the Goal 3: Good Health and  well-being, since the river enables different kinds of sport activities and recreation.  Also Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, since river Emajõgi is important for different communities and a river environment in good state contributes to the resilience, inclusiveness and sustainability of Tartu. Goal 13: Climate Action is, in Tartu case, related to the risk of flooding. The Goal 15: in the Tartu case is related to biodiversity loss.

The worst case scenario is when the threat to biodiversity and city-wilderness comes true resulting with very fragmented green spaces. With housing and land privatisation at the riverfront there is a pressure on the natural areas by the river Emajõgi. When a natural area is urbanised and built, there is no way back. This is not only a loss for the biodiversity and animals residing there but also for Tartu citizens seeking urban-wilderness and ways to connect with nature inside the city borders.

The best case scenario is when the pressure of the urbanisation and building is stopped or reasonably restricted.  The best case scenario also deals with the low usability of the riverfront in the city centre. The passive “observer” becomes an active participant. With spatial adjustments, of transforming the concrete and vertical embankment to the more natural meandering state, the river flow is calmer and accessibility to and usability of the water is brought back in the city centre.

Collaborative Goal Setting

  • Define strategic planning objectives based on the evaluation findings from your analysis
  • Ideally, involve the community of your living labs into this process
  • Link back to your original targets from section one and the Development Goals
  • 150 words text contribution

Spatial Strategy and Transect

Driven from the two scenarios and considering our analysis and study of the area there stood out three main problems that also distribute spatially in three areas. From these problems three main goals evolved that formed a basis for future vision.

In the upstream part of our study area is a problem of a not functioning shore path. The property owners along the riverside often block the shore path with unauthorised interventions. By controlling the area and forcing people to remove the blockages, the access to nature is guarateed. Then only the obstacles made by nature remain (ditches, shallow wet areas, bushes etc.). But that way the people still have opportunity to go and explore and be reminded of the power of nature.

Moving downstream, in the central part of our study area we have preserved natural areas which are under the pressure of development.

There are some areas that are preserved for specific species. Rest of the area, although in private hands, preferably should also keep its biodiversity as much as possible. That can be achieved by informing and educating people of the benefits of biodiversity.

Middle part of our area also needs more access points to approaching the river - to go for a swim, take the boat or just spend some time on the river bank.

And in the city centre part where the riverbanks are artificial or forced into concrete channel, the usability and access to the water is low. Hence the goals driven from these problems were functioning shore path, sustainable development where inevitable in the same time preserving the natural areas and diverse usability of the riverfront in the city centre.

By adding more artificial stairways that also spread along the river, it creates more access points to people to reach the river. Also gives the river the opportunity to exit the created channel when it's flooding and by the opportunity to expand the river flow isn't so fast and it adds more natural and meandering motion to the water. By that there are possibilities to more appropriate living conditions to some specific species that prefer living in a slow moving water.  

In addition to stairways there are desperate need of piers to provide access to river to use small boats to go fishing or just rowing on the river.

From Theory of Change to Implementation

Open governance is the model Tartu City government is currently using - mostly by implementing participatory budget and ensuring the budget transparency.

All the processes should be framed by collaboration, openness and transparency keywords.

We elaborate the open governance model and propose the process to be as following:

Planning phase

  • When planning the interventions it’s essential to gather more data, quantitative or qualitative- where people are moving, using mobile-positioning data and also make interviews about the expectations towards the public space
  • Making partnerships with local communities -  fishermen, swimmers club, nature-trail and boat-users - making personal contacts and finding spokespersons
  • Planning budget
  • Start from prototypes, with a low budget
  • Gathering extra feedback to solutions and making interviews with users

Implementing phase

  • co-building interventions, promoting and enhancing community involvement
  • awareness and notification


  • Analysis phase is overlapping and behind all phases, monitoring interventions and their usage is crucial to urban design


Process Reflection

  • Reflect in your intercultural and interdisciplinary team on the outcomes of your study
  • Which limitations were you facing?
  • What have you learnt from each other?
  • What did you learn in the Living Labs?
  • What would you do differently next time?
  • You can also use diagrams/visuals
  • 250 words text