Towns and urbanisation

The rapidly changing Estonian society, together with the globalising world, have also changed the system and meaning of settlement. In a geopolitical sense, Estonia has changed from Russia’s west into Europe’s east. This development has been primarily influenced by Scandinavia, the most active region in Europe. A powerful new Tallinn — Helsinki axis has emerged, governing all the significant Estonian settlement-related processes. In Estonia, as in the rest of the world, the most striking feature is the increasing prominence of towns, with Tallinn acting a magnet for the entire state, while Tartu, Pärnu and Jõhvi play the same role on a regional level.

69 per cent of the Estonian population lives in towns, and 68 per cent in regional centres in Harju, East Viru, Tartu and Pärnu counties. The most densely populated are the northern and coastal areas. Three of the five biggest Estonian towns are also located there: Tallinn, Narva and Kohtla-Järve, encompassing the majority of the population, industrial potential, transport network and economic activity. A peculiar aspect of the post-WW II intensive urbanisation and industrialisation was the fact that these processes occurred due to immigration from other Soviet republics. Rural settlement has been strongly influenced by various land reforms at different times. The greatest impact on contemporary villages was exerted by the land reform of the 1920s, after Estonia gained independence, which covered the lands suitable for cultivation with a network of smallholdings.

The differentiation of land and town type settlements in Estonia started in approximately the 13th century. The first towns mentioned in historical records are Tartu (1030), Tallinn (1248; under the name Kolõvan in 1154), Narva (1256), Pärnu (1265), Haapsalu (1279), Viljandi (1283), and Paide (1291). Towns frequently sprang up around the strongholds of German conquerors, more often than not built on the spot of the conquered ancient fortifications. Even at that time, larger towns clustered near the coast and other bodies of water, which provided good trade and transport routes. The shaping of today’s town network was considerably influenced by the administrative reform of 1959–1962 that resulted in establishing 15 districts in Estonia, having the same borders as the present counties. Together with the new regional centres, new local centres emerged, e.g. Jõgeva, Rapla and Põlva. Altogether there are 51 towns in Estonia. As a result of the changes brought about by the regaining of independence, the role of regional and local centres was strikingly diminished in the 1990s; most activity in rural areas is now gathered around successful businesses and nearby towns.

Somewhat surprisingly, the statistical data demonstrate a positive migration from town to country in Estonia, which means that the number of townspeople should be decreasing. Research, however, has shown that the actual migration is the opposite — from country to town. The probable explanation is that most people moving from town to country register at their new address, while those moving from country to town, on the other hand, do not.

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