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Vilnius, or Why Urban Civilisation Hides in the Forest

Vilnius is a blessing for your lungs. While I was researching for a short climate change-related article it bounced as a surprise that the Lithuanian capital enjoys the cleanest air among urban agglomerations in Europe. At the time I thought that the answer to such low levels of CO2, CO, NOx or heavy metals in the East European air of Vilnius lay in some really alternative local leadership and policies.

Despite the almost total lack of industry in the area, urban traffic is pretty dense, and new office buildings gain more and more space, both vertical and horizontal, as false images of “development”. So the answer must be somewhere else. Now, I must apologise for the green cliché, but trees are indeed the answer. A certain pagan tradition of tree-hugging lies at the very core of the Lithuanian capital’s clean air.

A forest of Baltic myths

The Queen of Serpents is a fairy tale that apparently comprises most references to ancient Baltic mythology exceptionally revolves around trees. The tale is treating the myth of eternal return and Lithuanian theogony, spiritualising and shape-shifting humans into trees. The narrative is not of great importance here, but just to make a point: as a punishment for betrayal, Eglė, the main character, turns her children and herself into trees. Her sons become strong trees – oak, ash and birch – while her daughter is turned into a poplar. Eglė herself is transformed into a spruce.

Historically, Lithuania – once known as the Land of Barbarians – has always been famous for its forests. The first known written documents describe it as a land of forests and swamps. This image prevailed until the 16th century, and was later revived during the Romantic period.

Lithuanians believed that the forest is the place where one can feel safe, where gods live, Jolanta Bielskienė, political scientist  from Vilnius-based think tank DEMOS Institute of Critical Thought, told us. The relation between a human and a tree is unbreakable, she says. All pagan world was built on the image of the Tree of Life, where roots represent the underworld, stem – our common world, and the leafy branches – a locus where Gods and souls of ancestors dwell. “It was believed that the tree is the home of dead souls. Even today people believe in hugging trees,” asserts Bielskienė.

“We were Christianized very late, so for a very long time – some would say until recently – pagan rituals and beliefs were much a part of everyday life,” says Kristina Sadauskienė, editor-in-chief of the environmental magazine Ozonas. Even nowadays Christian rites are intertwined with old Baltic pagan customs and rituals.

Forests always had the “sacred place” status. They served as a powerful medium through which one could talk to gods. Lithuanian historians assert that there were many sacred forests where ordinary subjects were not allowed in; only priests and priestesses could enter these places of rituals and sacred oaths. People believed that trees could feel, that they lead a carnal life.

Naturally, certain trees belonged to certain deities. As in the fairy tale, the oak, the strongest essence, is the most respected; it impersonated the Thunder God, or Perkūnas. As a small deviation, notices Sadauskienė, Lithuanians still bear the custom to plant an oak tree for a newborn son (and a lime tree for a daughter). Lithuanians believed that trees hosted souls of the dead, adds Sadauskienė, and again, as a spiritual remnant, during funerals people shed small fir branches and kindle on the road or pose them on graves.


It can’t be only local policies

I initially embraced a mechanist approach and felt compelled to address the city hall with a bunch of questions linking the clean air to some super-duper environmental policies of the beautiful town’s mayor, Artūras Zuokas. He is pro-business and pro-neoliberalism, a very controversial politician apparently preoccupied with urban ecology, or at least with a good PR for embryonic green initiatives.

One would think that clean air in the city is determined by urban environmental policies. It’s not. What’s more, the mayor convinced me during our online interview that he’s got nothing to do with air quality in the Lithuanian capital.

Vilnius doesn’t have an Environmental Master Plan. Instead, the principles of city development are stated in other documents, such as the General Plan until 2015 and the Vilnius City Strategic Plan for the years 2012-2020. They include principles of sustainable development, protection of green areas and creation of healthy environment. If Vilnius is a green city, it has clear objectives to save the best it has, according to the mayor’s office reply.

Since Eastern European capitals do not rely on heavy industry anymore, their air pollution is caused largely by urban traffic and the lack of green areas. “We are always thinking how to solve traffic problems in the city, especially in the Old Town. We are investigating most modern and environmentally friendly ideas to implement into our public transport in the city centre as well as across the city. Different financing structures are also being considered,” writes Zuokas. Vilnius was the first city in Europe to implement an electric bike renting system in the city centre, which helped reduce traffic in the city, he continues.

“Talking about air pollution, one of the latest Green City Indexes made by Siemens revealed that Vilnius could be proud to have the cleanest air among European capitals. Also infrastructural changes – new bypass roads that are being built – help  control and reduce pollution,” adds the mayor.

The air depends on a whole lotta more green though! Vingis Park, the largest green area in Vilnius, is an actual forest that dates back several centuries. Excluding the amphitheater and some playful venues, the 162 hectares park is a genuine forest ecosystem. Other parks in Vilnius are also noteworthy, as they are the city’s inner lungs.

“Vilnius has a number of green spaces that we are up to preserve, develop and manage properly. We are also looking for ways to expand these areas. In the near future we will renovate one of the oldest park of the city – Sereikiškės Park which is situated in the very heart of Vilnius, in the Old Town near the Gediminas Castle,” concludes Zuokas.

Vilnius city hall bears a sad history in the local memory: in 2008, the Municipal Council (Zuokas was not the mayor at the time) issued a construction permit for a shopping mall. The project would have created a 13 hectares rapture in the forest of Vingis Park. Citizens gathered up and after months of protests brushed corporate greed out of the urban forest.

Vingis Park. Photo: Berta Upe Talmantaitė

Must be a cultural thing…

Incredible green belts around the city and all over Lithuania provide a holistic approach on how urban ecology is supported from the outside. But why Lithuanians are not chopping down their trees in an age when forests are ravaged? It must be a cultural thing…

“The forest has always been a hiding place for Lithuanians,” states Bielskienė. It was also crucial for survival: humans could cater for all of their needs there. Later, the forest was replaced by gardens. “In the middle of the 20th century the main theme of forest in Lithuanian literature was gradually replaced by the theme of garden, or orchard. However, the forest is still there, and not only as a provider of warmth – wood, logs – but also art. Art is still full of forest and tree motives, especially in local sculpture,” concludes Bielskienė.

Forests are an inseparable part of the Lithuanian landscape – urban or rural, natural or cultural. Sadauskienė says, “All our greenery is tightly rooted into our consciousness through songs and stories. Nature is alive in all our literature. Even contemporary writers sometimes have difficulties trying to escape it. […] There is ‘moss as a soft cover’, ‘tree by the gate where mother waits’, ‘tree on the hill’, ‘forest where our brothers are hiding’, and eventually ‘sleeping’.”

Her last point relates to resistance to Soviet occupation, which involved forests, too. Partisans – anti-occupation guerillas – called themselves “miško broliai” (forest brothers), as their hideaways were amongst the trees.

Lithuanians have a very strong bond with the land, asserts Bielskienė: “Every Lithuanian tends to own some land. This special need and bond prevents from polluting it. Every generation was brought up with the belief that land is our home and bread, we eat and breathe what we put into it.”

Even the term „landless“ has very negative connotation in Lithuanian.

But seriously…

“Almost one third of our territory is covered with forests and all state forests are in good condition. Vilnius is luckily quite a green town shaped by the inclusions of forests,” says Sadauskienė.

Thirty-one per cent of Lithuanian territory was covered with forests during the Soviet occupation (1944-1990). Today the number is approaching 33 per cent. “Landowners are given financial EU incentives to plant trees on their land which has a fertility rate lower than 30 per cent. Quite a lot of Lithuanians use this incentive happily – the EU pays for the costs of planting work and for the plants and finances five years of expert care of the growing young forest,” says Jokūbas Margenis, an experienced and dedicated forest engineer who has been working in forests for five decades.

The positive thing is that EU subsidies change farming land into forestland, Bielskienė agrees. Some farmers abandon farming activities and start growing forest. “However, as there are large compensations for growing oak, most of them start planting only oak. The biggest problem now is the loss of ash trees,” she adds.

Forests are not necessarily centuries old, but planting is. “The first inspection of Lithuanian forests took place in Lithuania during the inter-bellum period in 1922 – this was the first time when the structure of Lithuanian forests was investigated thoroughly,” Margenis says. “Many forests were destroyed during the Second World War. After that, young forests were prevailing.”

While during the Soviet times it was allowed to deforest, the EU norms forbid it today. If protected species are found in the forest, a so-called “forest’s core residence” is established and absolutely no forestry activity is allowed in that area, Margenis explains.

Summing up

However, “size matters”, warns Sadauskienė. Lithuania is a small country (65,200 sq km, less than three million inhabitants). Consequently, Vilnius is small compared to other European capitals. Thus, it’s commonly asserted that the city’s top rankings for clean air is mainly due to its small size.

“There are lots of cars in our towns, and it’s real shame that even when distances are not long people still choose cars over public transport,” Sadauskienė says. “There is no public cycling scheme in any of our towns. There is no strong campaign to strengthen public transportation and to tie it with certain urban indicators.” She believes that the country’s and its capital’s small size is the main reason behind its clean air. “You know, all the green in town or around it is good, but we cannot just continue our harmful lifestyles hoping that those trees will compensate for all the harm…”

“Yes, one could say clean air numbers are reached because of the 33 per cent of forests that cover Lithuania, but also, Lithuania has almost no industry,” concludes Margenis on a moderate tone.

All Lithuanian forests, state-owned or private, are in really good shape, all interviewees agree. They are among the finest in Europe and, on a business turn, they also generate quite an income to the budget through taxes. The value of Lithuanian forests is constantly growing, according to Lithuanian Directorate General of State Forests.

However, despite different tackles and considerations, clean air, a fantastic landscape, improved public health, and an innate respect for a vivid treasure surpass the dull data related to urban ecology in Vilnius or any other Lithuanian town. This cultural approach to the substantial relation between Lithuanian forests and urban ecology makes this article getting down to a praise and a recommendation: take a walk in Vingis Park at dusk. You’ll see what I mean.

Photos and photo editing by Berta Upe Tilmantaitė.

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