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On Thin Ice

By Andrew Buckman

Tallinn is a famously walkable city, its walled Old Town off-limits to motorized vehicles.

That makes the city’s inattention to sidewalk maintenance all the more surprising.

While I was walking around Tallinn, it became increasingly clear that this was a real problem, especially as I stupidly paraded around in various pairs of Nike shoes.

I obviously can’t blame anyone in Estonia for my poor packing decisions, but few shoes are made to walk on ice. And it’s hard not to be a little uneasy about the lack of clear sidewalks in the country.

Walking the icy sidewalks in Estonia can be a risky undertaking
Walking on icy sidewalks in Estonia can be a risky undertaking (Photo by Mackenzie Daly)

Hanah Lahe, a member of Estonia’s controlling parliamentary party — the Reform Party — said poor sidewalk maintenance boils down to failures on the local government level.

“You’re just visiting, and you’re understanding that things aren’t as they should be,” Lahe said. “In bus stops and tram stations, we have these bags filled with little rocks. And, if you want, you can pour it or put it on their pavements… but I don’t think they’re doing it from the city in every district, so I don’t really know what’s going on.”

Strictly speaking, it’s not only the government’s fault. By law, homeowners and businesses are required to shovel snow and deice sidewalks in front of their houses and workplaces.

In fact, the sidewalk in front of the Park Inn by Radisson where we’re staying, has been perfectly maintained each day, despite nightly snowfalls. But travel just 12 or so feet from the hotel’s grounds, while traversing an alleyway to the crosswalk, and you’ll struggle to remain on your feet.

Ice-laden snow covers the pathway for blocks along a major roadway before another clear sidewalk presents a brief, welcome patch of frost-free concrete.

“In Estonia, I think, it’s usually that the cars come first,” Lahe said. “Then, it’s public transportation. Then it’s humans — maybe.”

Estonia is beautiful in the winter, with its plethora of centuries-old domed and steepled churches lined with fresh snow, but it’d be even better if people could walk without feeling like they might meet the ground at any moment.

“I think you get used to it when you live here,” Lahe said. “It’s funny because, when I’m walking on the street, I don’t really think about it that much.”

Icy sidewalk (Photo by Carlos Garcia)

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