A trip round Vilnius and Riga shows the other side of Britain's debates over immigration and EU membership

An emu menaces Lenin in Grutas Park. Image: James O'Malley.

Emus of the world, unite! Welcome to Lithuania, which along with Latvia and Estonia makes up the Baltic states. It also makes an interesting case study, when considering the two big contemporary debates in British politics.

Immigration and our continued membership of the EU are both hot topics – but we only ever see one side of the story. Coverage of last month’s  migration statistics was all about “How do those people coming here affect us?” rather than “What about the people left over there?”

Grutas Park is about an hour outside of the capital Vilnius. It’s a brilliantly weird graveyard of statues from the country’s past as one of the more reluctant constituent parts of the Soviet Union. Rather than simply pull down the monuments which used to stand in every town square, they have been collected together and bizarrely housed along with a number of zoo animals. It serves as a reminder of just how far the Baltic states have come in just 25 years.

The Baltics have not had a particularly happy history, used as a battlefield and treated by foreign armies as a source of people to murder. During my trip to Latvia and Lithuania, it seemed as though most tourist attractions were memorials to one massacre or another. The name of the Museum of Genocide Victims does a good job of managing your expectations. Thanks to decades of Soviet mismanagement, the countries are also some of the poorest in the European Union. The median wage in Lithuania is only €361 per month, compared to €2,080 per month in the UK

So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that, since 1990, when the countries declared their independence, they have faced a huge demographic crisis. People have been flooding out of the region, so much so that its population has fallen by around 20 per cent. Lithuania crashed from 3.7m people 1991 to 3m in 2013; Latvia fell from 2.7m to 2m; even Estonia, which has performed the best out of the three, has still fallen from 1.6m to 1.3m.

You can see this reflected on the ground, too. As my partner Liz and I drove around Lithuania and Latvia it was clear that they don’t need to build more bloody houses: instead they could do with finding some people to live in the ones they already have. Looking down at the Vilnius suburbs from the revolving restaurant at the top of the TV tower there are endless blocks of flats (the Soviets didn’t really do houses). The Khrushchyovka apartnements are built in long, identical blocks for maximum efficiency – on a scale that makes South London’s former Brutalist icon Heygate Estate look artisanal.

Look a little closer, though, and the decay becomes clear. The really shocking thing when you first arrive in the Baltics is just how many abandoned buildings there are. Blocks of flats will sit next to each other: one dilapidated but inhabited, the other seemingly an empty shell.

Annoyingly, the weather was too good to fully create a “Soviet dystopia” style aesthetic.

Even the grander homes sit empty. We stayed in a former palace built by Catherine the Great, which had been transformed into a four star hotel, for about £50 a night. When we arrived, it turned out that not only was most of the building still under renovation (those either side were still vacant). Bizarrely, we were the only guests.

Catherine the Great's Palace, Vilnius. Image: James O'Malley.

This meant we had the slightly surreal experience of – apart from three members of staff – having the whole former palace to ourselves. As we sat down to dinner that night I found myself wondering if we had in fact died. Were we stuck in some sort of weird purgatory? Perhaps the three members of staff waiting on us were actually ghosts?

The centre of Riga, the capital of Latvia, feels more like a small west European city than anywhere else in the country. Drive a few minutes out, though, and once again the sense of emptiness returns. Upon visiting Riga’s rival TV tower, we drove up a deserted road, parked in a deserted car park and edged towards a deserted entrance.

After a nervous prod of the door, it turned out that the tower was open – and after some hand-gesture driven negotiations with a security guard who spoke no English, he let us take the lift, alone, to the top. After a slightly unnerving few seconds waiting for the door to open again, we emerged in the viewing area, the only people in Latvia 300m in the air. With a decor that hasn’t been updated since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was like exploring the remnants of a post-apocalyptic civilisation.

There are new buildings too though. When the countries joined the European Union in 2004 there was a housing boom – one that ended abruptly with the onset of the 2008 financial crisis and with the Eurozone’s woes. In amongst the post-Soviet decay, there are also half-finished buildings that appear to have been abandoned mid-construction.

The demographic problem is also a bit of a time-bomb. As you might expect, most migrants are younger people looking for work: there’s a smaller pool of people left in the countries to pay for the welfare of the elderly. Like Britain, and pretty much everywhere, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia all have large cohorts of baby boomers nearing retirement. Unfortunately for people in the Baltics, many of the people who would help pay for their care are elsewhere, paying taxes into the British and German treasuries instead. Perhaps we should be pleased that people are coming to the UK to work to help us mitigate our future demographic burdens.

Away from the technocratic questions about running an economy, there are also broader issues of identity at play. In contrast to the relationship between Brussels and Britain, membership of the EU has created a sense of hope in the Baltics.

A view of Vilnius from above. Image: James O'Malley.

Since joining the union in 2004, wages have about doubled in all three states according to one study. Just as importantly, perhaps, European cash has flooded into the countries. The economic and political case for this should be unarguable for anyone who believes in free trade: If the Baltic states get richer, that is good for Britain as it means more people who can buy British stuff.

One of the most common pieces of street furniture on show in the region are street signs bearing the blue flag and 12 stars of European Union. Since joining the EU money has poured in, to help build roads, bridges and other vital infrastructure. It’s also helped to improve the Baltics as tourist destinations: Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses, a pilgrimage site made from crucifixes, has an EU funded gift shop. The EU’s investment strategy is centred on adding value to projects that are co-funded by national governments, to try and kick-start the motor of development and growth.

The best example of what EU cash can do to the region can be seen in the plan for a new railway linking Berlin to Talinn, and eventually Helsinki. It’s a project far beyond the scope of the individual small nations, yet one which could massively boost connectivity and the region’s economic prospects. Whenever British politicians talk about sending money to Brussels as though it is a waste, this is one of the things that they’re helping pay for.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, as a result, polls have shown high levels of support for European integration. Last year a survey in Lithuania found that 68 per cent of people there support the country’s continued membership of the EU, with only 14% wanting to pull out. (To be fair, support in the countries for the Euro, which they all joined after the recession, appears to be less enthusiastic.)

As a Briton visiting the countries, when I saw signs of development, I found myself thinking all sorts of patronising thoughts about how there’s so much potential in the cities of the Baltics. The signs are already there: the region is already one of the best in the world for broadband speeds, which can only be a good thing.

And it is pretty hard to begrudge the EU spending its cash on the Baltics – even if it comes at the supposed expense of the British taxpayer. After all, many of the roads outside of urban areas and trunk road are not even paved. Actually going to eastern Europe and being pulled out of the British solipsism, arguing about how much cash is disappearing to Brussels, and seeing where it actually goes at the other can give the debate some much needed perspective.

Similarly, the immigration debate in Britain is essentially viewed in terms of them coming over here with little consideration given to the places they’re leaving behind. Like so many things, immigration is a trade off – and we can have multiple desirable outcomes that are mutually incompatible.

Whilst the flow of people from the region no doubt poses challenges, having visited, I’m firmly of the opinion that continuing to participate in Europe will ultimately work out better for both Britain and the Baltics. Perhaps the debate in Britain would be better informed if it was less narcissistic.

James O’Malley tweets as @Psythor.

 
 
 
 

How bad is the air pollution on the average subway network?

The New York Subway. Image: Getty.

Four more major Indian cities will soon have their own metro lines, the country’s government has announced. On the other side of the Himalayas, Shanghai is building its 14th subway line, set to open in 2020, adding 38.5 km and 32 stations to the world’s largest subway network. And New Yorkers can finally enjoy their Second Avenue Subway line after waiting for almost 100 years for it to arrive.

In Europe alone, commuters in more than 60 cities use rail subways. Internationally, more than 120m people commute by them every day. We count around 4.8m riders per day in London, 5.3m in Paris, 6.8m in Tokyo, 9.7m in Moscow and 10m in Beijing.

Subways are vital for commuting in crowded cities, something that will become more and more important over time – according to a United Nations 2014 report, half of the world’s population is now urban. They can also play a part in reducing outdoor air pollution in large metropolises by helping to reduce motor-vehicle use.

Large amounts of breathable particles (particulate matter, or PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), produced in part by industrial emissions and road traffic, are responsible for shortening the lifespans of city dwellers. Public transportation systems such as subways have thus seemed like a solution to reduce air pollution in the urban environment.

But what is the air like that we breathe underground, on the rail platforms and inside trains?

Mixed air quality

Over the last decade, several pioneering studies have monitored subway air quality across a range of cities in Europe, Asia and the Americas. The database is incomplete, but is growing and is already valuable.

Subway, Tokyo, 2016. Image: Mildiou/Flickr/creative commons.

For example, comparing air quality on subway, bus, tram and walking journeys from the same origin to the same destination in Barcelona, revealed that subway air had higher levels of air pollution than in trams or walking in the street, but slightly lower than those in buses. Similar lower values for subway environments compared to other public transport modes have been demonstrated by studies in Hong Kong, Mexico City, Istanbul and Santiago de Chile.

Of wheels and brakes

Such differences have been attributed to different wheel materials and braking mechanisms, as well as to variations in ventilation and air conditioning systems, but may also relate to differences in measurement campaign protocols and choice of sampling sites.

Second Avenue Subway in the making, New York, 2013. Image: MTA Capital Construction/Rehema Trimiew/Wikimedia Commons.

Key factors influencing subway air pollution will include station depth, date of construction, type of ventilation (natural/air conditioning), types of brakes (electromagnetic or conventional brake pads) and wheels (rubber or steel) used on the trains, train frequency and more recently the presence or absence of platform screen-door systems.

In particular, much subway particulate matter is sourced from moving train parts such as wheels and brake pads, as well as from the steel rails and power-supply materials, making the particles dominantly iron-containing.


To date, there is no clear epidemiological indication of abnormal health effects on underground workers and commuters. New York subway workers have been exposed to such air without significant observed impacts on their health, and no increased risk of lung cancer was found among subway train drivers in the Stockholm subway system.

But a note of caution is struck by the observations of scholars who found that employees working on the platforms of Stockholm underground, where PM concentrations were greatest, tended to have higher levels of risk markers for cardiovascular disease than ticket sellers and train drivers.

The dominantly ferrous particles are mixed with particles from a range of other sources, including rock ballast from the track, biological aerosols (such as bacteria and viruses), and air from the outdoors, and driven through the tunnel system on turbulent air currents generated by the trains themselves and ventilation systems.

Comparing platforms

The most extensive measurement programme on subway platforms to date has been carried out in the Barcelona subway system, where 30 stations with differing designs were studied under the frame of IMPROVE LIFE project with additional support from the AXA Research Fund.

It reveals substantial variations in particle-matter concentrations. The stations with just a single tunnel with one rail track separated from the platform by glass barrier systems showed on average half the concentration of such particles in comparison with conventional stations, which have no barrier between the platform and tracks. The use of air-conditioning has been shown to produce lower particle-matter concentrations inside carriages.

In trains where it is possible to open the windows, such as in Athens, concentrations can be shown generally to increase inside the train when passing through tunnels and more specifically when the train enters the tunnel at high speed.

According to their construction material, you may breath different kind of particles on various platforms worldwide. Image: London Tube/Wikimedia Commons.

Monitoring stations

Although there are no existing legal controls on air quality in the subway environment, research should be moving towards realistic methods of mitigating particle pollution. Our experience in the Barcelona subway system, with its considerable range of different station designs and operating ventilation systems, is that each platform has its own specific atmospheric micro environment.

To design solutions, one will need to take into account local conditions of each station. Only then can researchers assess the influences of pollution generated from moving train parts.

The ConversationSuch research is still growing and will increase as subway operating companies are now more aware about how cleaner air leads directly to better health for city commuters.

Fulvio Amato is a tenured scientist at the Spanish National Research CouncilTeresa Moreno is a tenured scientist at the Institute of Environmental Assessment and Water Research (IDAEA), Spanish Scientific Research Council CSIC.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.