1.1 History of the planning system

The first Estonian legal act on spatial planning came into force in 1939. It was the Building Act, regulating city planning only. The Act remained effective for mere two years until Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union during the summer of 1940. Yet the systematic planning of cities in Estonia began significantly earlier, during the time before the First World War when the rapid urbanisation and changes in economic life took place. The year of 1913 was a momentous landmark - comprehensive plan competition was held for Greater-Tallinn, won by the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. It was the first contemporary approach to a city's long term spatial planning in Estonia, and served as an example for all urban planning between the two wars, during Estonia's first independence. Within this period, only a few comprehensive plans for cities or city districts were prepared. The majority of planning efforts were focused on detailed planning, as it would be expressed in present-day terminology. In the mid-30ies, the projects dealing with spatial impact of major streets and squares in Tallinn were initiated. Their objective was to draft the aligned design of Tallinn's street and square front for the renovation of the streets and squares of the city centre. Content wise, these projects were similar to today's detailed plans. During the period of Estonia's first independence, quite a number of architectural competitions were held for planning and building new complete housing complexes. There were attempts to construct several of these complexes to set good examples to others.

During the occupation years, planning was carried out according to the rules that were in force in the Soviet Union. Although there was no Planning Act in the Soviet Union, the rules and regulations were in place, providing instructions for the content and organisation of the preparation of plans. Mostly densely populated areas were planned, for which the general plans of cities and towns, projects for rural settlements planning and housing, project plans for industrial zones, schemes of general plans for groups of enterprises and projects of detailed plans were prepared. At the end of the Soviet era, various regional plans as well as those for the whole Estonian territory were prepared. However, these plans remained mostly academic exercise in their nature and never influenced the development of the actual settlement. The preparation of plans was centralised and carried out by the State Institutes for Design and Engineering. The role of local authorities was to implement the confirmed plans, while having little say in the development of their content. Local governments as defined by the western world were nonexistent. The state was the sole owner of the land. Planning documents were kept in secrecy or for official use. Making plans public was not provided by the norms, however towards the end of the period it was gaining increasingly wider practice. Looking back, it may be concluded that during the years before Estonia regained its independence, the level of the content of plans was fairly good and balanced, and comparable to the level of planning in other European countries of that time.

The preparations for the modern Planning and Building Act began already before Estonia became independent on August 20th, 1991. The Planning and Building Act (PBA) came into force on July 22nd1995 and remained in effect without major amendments for more than 7 years. During that time, National Spatial Plan Estonia 2010 (adopted in September 2000), county plans dealing with general territorial-economic development in all counties (adopted during the period 1998 - 2002) and a number of comprehensive plans and detailed plans of rural municipalities and cities were prepared. The preparation of the thematic county plan ‘Environmental Preconditions for Settlement and Land Use' reached its final stage. The experience gained from the preparation of the aforementioned plans, planning debates and court judgements brought forth several shortcomings of the PBA and the necessity to specify and amend it.

The new Planning Act (PLA) that came into force on January 1st 2003 retained the structure and terminology of the previous Planning and Building Act as much as it was reasonable to ensure the continuity between the two acts. Amendments and supplements were introduced only if they were unavoidable. The most radical amendment compared to the PBA lies in dividing it into two separate acts: the Planning Act (issues related to planning) and the Building Act (issues pertaining to building and engineering). Both came into force on the same date. The main reason behind the separation was the transfer of building from the area of government of the Ministry of the Environment to that of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communication.

There has been hardly any further research into the history of planning in Estonia, therefore also the current attempt remains brief.