From Grey to Green: The Pollinator Highway as an Innovative Concept for Bringing Nature Back to the City

5 min

The Pollinator Highway of Tallinn is the capital’s green habitat. The name ‘Pollinator Highway’ refers to the fact that pollinators such as butterflies, bumblebees and honeybees as well as other animal groups use this natural space to move from one green area to the next. Human beings have an intrinsic need to spend time in nature, but an increase in city life means that natural habitats are under developmental pressure. New and innovative ways to preserve and plan urban nature habitats are needed.

Planning to establish green habitats for pollinators is a novel concept with which Tallinn hopes to become one of the leaders in Europe and other regions. Pollinators are extremely important for both the environment and people because they pollinate and take care of the crop yield of more than 150 food plants. The Pollinator Highway’s objective is to show that built and natural environments are not polar opposites; they can work in harmony if we can address some misleading beliefs even a little: If we allow over mowed lawns to grow into lush grass, if we use a high-speed tram or a bicycle instead of a car, we can grow fresh food in cities just like people grow it in rural areas and we can change people’s perceptions for the better when they view their surroundings.

The Pollinator Highway primarily values urban meadows in terms of natural environment. Urban meadows have the most developmental pressure of all natural habitats in the city. Precise requirements regarding the protection of trees and parks are usually set in stone in cities, but meadows are often viewed as unsafe, unkempt wastelands that require some ‘correction’. As a result, meadows are rather defenceless in regard to development, but often a great deal of biodiversity exists in those meadows.

An outdoor garden in the city

As early as 25 years ago, it was common for Estonian city dwellers to have summer homes with outdoor gardens located in the surrounding areas of the city. These homes were used for holidaying; everything was grown there, from potatoes to strawberries. This tradition is declining. A number of such summer house areas are repurposed for year-round living. The price of land in the surrounding areas of the city is too expensive for people to purchase a summer home; and public transport to distant rural areas where the land is affordable is infrequent. As a result, many Tallinn residents do not have any gardening opportunities. It is a recognised fact that urban areas highly depend on rural areas for their food production. As the world is becoming more urbanised, it is more important than ever to find other ways for cities to function independently of rural areas.

The objective is to offer every person in Tallinn a way to grow their own plants for food; therefore, the City of Tallinn has created community gardens in every city district. One of these operational community gardens –Pelguaed– is located on the Pollinator Highway. All interested individuals can get a free planting bed or planter to grow their own ornamental plants or food plants in the community garden. Gardening is a fantastic community pastime suitable for all age groups. It provides something to do, reduces stress and integrates the community.

Since individuals in Tallinn are becoming more interested in gardening every day, the first allotment garden will be created in Tallinn as part of the Pollinator Highway. Tallinn’s residents can use this novel idea and rent a 25 m2 allotment for a symbolic price, which they can use to grow both food and ornamental plants. The garden is essentially an organic garden that does not allow pesticides. A larger allotment will permit you to grow food in much larger quantities. The garden may also have a small pavilion (for example a summer kitchen) or a recreational area with a terrace. The allotments are for private use, but they come equipped with a shared compost pile, water source and tool shed. This way, urban allotment gardens will benefit both nature and humans: organically grown plants are a source of food for people and pollinators alike and the gardens diversify public areas. The community garden’s main target group is families with children, elderly people and economically vulnerable Tallinn residents who do not have any gardening opportunities; however, all Tallinn residents are welcome to rent allotments on a broader scale.

Flower meadows

Industrial agriculture is a heavy negative burden on the environment. The growing of monocultures, intensive management and the use of pesticides to combat pests lead to a reduction in biodiversity in rural areas. Cities like Tallinn do not use pesticides to maintain public green areas; green infrastructure has become vitally important for both pollinators and other animal groups because they offer better conditions for ecological systems than natural lands affected by various industries. One of the Pollinator Highway’s primary objectives is to further improve the living conditions of Tallinn’s pollinators.

In autumn 2019, an inventory of pollinators and flora was carried out along the Pollinator Highway. It revealed that the conditions for pollinators were excellent in a number of areas the Pollinator Highway passes through. The region has alvars with superb species diversity, where many rare and endangered pollinator species live. Forty-two species of butterfly (43% of total Estonian butterflies) and 22 species of bumblebee (78% of total Estonian bumblebees) have been found there in the last decade. Some habitats the Pollinator Highway passes through have a smaller number of species – whether because of the extent of the artificial environment or the flora having less species. Scientists believe that it is easy to fix areas which have less species – mow less often, replace grass with flower-rich meadows and create honey plants for pollinators from spring until autumn.

One Pollinator Highway urban nature prototype project was launched in the panel housing area of Väike-Õismäe (Little Flower Hill district) – a 1300 m2 flower meadow instead of the existing grass area with few species. The seeds planted in this meadow originated in Estonia’s vast nature. The flower meadow will fully bloom for three summers. It will be exciting to find out whether the labour-intensive process of establishing a flower meadow will provide more benefit than the easiest method of increasing biodiversity – less mowing.

Bee borders

The Stockholm Environment Institute conducted a green infrastructure study in 2021, which revealed that there are people who believe a vibrant city flower meadow is beautiful, but there are a many dissenting opinions, too. The low opinion regarding flower meadows is also due to the fact that Estonian style flora is not brightly coloured; it is more modest. In a sense, the Pollinator Highway project is a vision exercise – how can we draw residents’ attention to values which are unseen at first? We have realised that more classically beautiful solutions are required to achieve this. We created bee borders near the Pollinator Highway because of that.

The bee border is a large planted area consisting of brightly coloured perennial plants combined with other gramineous plants and native species. This results in an ecologically diverse and exuberant oasis that blooms from spring until autumn. Bee borders can be created as planting beds and also as edge markers between which it’s enjoyable to traverse. Bee borders are native to English gardening culture, but we are using them for the first time in Tallinn (in a northern climate).


Author: Kaidi Põldoja, Tallinn Strategic Management Office, Head of Space Creation Competence Centre

Tallinn Strategic Management Office’s Ruumiloome Centre of Excellence is the leader of the Pollinator Highway project. Find more exciting information about the Pollinator Highway project on the website.

B.Green – Baltic Green Urban Infrastructure Planning is co-funded by Interreg Central Baltic Programme 01.02.2020 – 31.12.2022.