Jim McGeever, originally a Mancunian, is now living in Kaunas for the third time. He does consider the city his home – a home he wants to make better. Quite a handful of unexpected yet very interesting ideas sprung during our conversation. It’s obvious they’re based on empirical evidence and not only facts as Jim builds upon his experience from all over the world. If you do agree Kaunas needs a “Six Degrees of Separation” museum after you read the article, get in touch – we should totally start a petition.
First of all, what did you do before moving to Kaunas and what made you decide to try and live here?
My background in Britain was in new business development and marketing. Before coming here, I also worked as a volunteer with international development agencies and charities (such as Oxfam, Friends of the Earth, and CRISIS). For a long time, I had a vivid interest in all things Soviet and in all Central and Eastern European countries. So the opportunity to spend time working in a newly independent former Soviet Union state was a chance I had to take.
My first move to Lithuania was as a British Government-sponsored volunteer on a two-year placement at the newly formed Kaunas NGO Support Centre (now long gone but formerly based at the big old building behind the Presidents House on the corner of Gimnazijos/Gertrūdos streets). My second period here was between 2003 to 2008, splitting my working time between NGO community development projects and EU Project Management work at Kaunas Municipality. My third period started in 2012 still working mainly within transport and mobility, but also teaching creative and technical writing, as well developing strategic city development projects (including community creative arts).
What other countries have you lived in?
Not so many countries I have lived in full time but in the past, I have travelled for a full year visiting and staying in India, Nepal, Hong Kong, several South East Asian countries, Australia, NZ and then a short time crossing the USA. Within the EU, I’ve spent time and worked in cities within 26/28 EU member states and have also worked with human rights NGOs in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Belarus and Russia.
What is your teaching experience – do you feel the students you are involved with will stay in Kaunas (at least some of them) and make it a better city?
During time with the NGO sector here, I ran a number of classes teaching some fundamentals of business administration, marketing and fundraising: how to write well, how to present your ideas and so on. Later I did some formal teaching at VDU and KTU (as well as some guest lectures at ISM, KTU and also VU). About students and whether they will stay here, well, this is of course a big, big hope. We discuss the image of Kaunas, talk about what’s missing here for people of their age and what would keep them here after they have finished their studies. Of course, they have to feel valued and important to the city. Are we really planning the future of the city with the hopes and aspirations of our 30-40,000 students in mind (as well as the thousands of school pupils?). I’m not sure that we are. In the last year, the city was losing almost 1000 people every month, perhaps there should be a more regular and open forum for debate on issues affecting students and young people.
Is there something you would like your students to get rid of in the way they think?
Well, it seems that the system of teaching here can be quite autocratic which can lead to students having some inhibitions, and lack of confidence in speaking up or in questioning or disagreeing with what is being presented. I hope I encourage them to voice their true thoughts and feelings and to question what I present to them. Actually though, in almost all situations where I have worked with school pupils and students here, and have given them a creative task to develop and present, I have been really impressed by their initiative and innovation. Students clearly have the ability but they need to match this with confidence and the capacity to push their personalities centre stage!
What are your favourite bike routes in Kaunas? What are the places you would love to reach with a bike but you can’t – I believe there are some?
For long hikes, I route from Santaka along the river/road to the end of lower Šančiai and over the bridge to Panemunė; the one from the centre through Vilijampolė to Lampėdžių, and the Marvelė one through to Kačerginė. Obviously, the more urban Laisvės Alėja track – the first cycle route in Kaunas – remains a favourite! However, although I hear they are planned, we still don’t have very many urban trails on roads in the city that might encourage more commuters to travel by bike. I’ve lived in London for many years and cyclists do tend to be confident road users there. Here, I rarely see cyclists on the roads probably because of the condition of some streets and the stupidity of car drivers. Most of the cycling in Kaunas and most of our routes are for leisure, this has to change; it has to change in order to make car drivers wake up to the fact that they do not “own” the roads.
Do you think the residents of Kaunas are involved enough in the shaping and reforming of their city? Should they be given more rights or is that up to their enthusiasm?
Well, I’ve already mentioned this above in relation to students and pupils. We should also remember that last year the residents of Kaunas voted for a totally new city council leadership. In any democracy, it’s up to the citizens to keep a check on their elected representatives: are they delivering what they promised? If not, then knock on their doors and ask why not! So, if citizens/residents keep an eye on the delivery of promises made by their elected representatives – both local and national – then I think they are involved in shaping and reforming their city.
As for local ideas, when I see really smart, clever, interesting initiatives in and around the city, they are inevitably citizen initiatives that rely on local enthusiasm. I don’t think there is a need for more rights yet clearly more local control and ownership over public spaces might inspire more actions to be implemented in communities by residents.
What do you think could become the selling point of Kaunas to foreign tourists? What definitely couldn’t?
I don’t know the formula of “selling” Kaunas to foreigners as there really are so many destinations like Kaunas all offering the same. But instead of being one of many cities with budget airlines, why not promote Kaunas as a train travel city destination? Especially with the Rail Baltica providing a fast, direct service to and from Berlin (via Tallinn, Riga, and Warsaw); I think this is a brilliant opportunity to present the city. We can make some clear cultural connections between the two cities based on the Interwar period when Kaunas was the temporary capital and Berlin was experiencing a flourishing Weimar culture. I don’t see many other cities doing this yet.
On a general point, the city really needs to improve the information it provides in museums, art and exhibition centres. Here I mean not only to provide it all in English language but also to substantially improve quality, quantity and creative ideas that we use for promotional goods and merchandise. If we are proud of our large number of different museums, then at least make them interesting for foreign visitors.
Also, why not consider establishing a museum/exhibition centre promoting the impact Lithuanians have made around the world; the stories of famous “foreign” Lithuanians and emigrants who became famous outside their homeland. Split the museum into different categories: Science and Education (Minkovsky and his role in Einstein’s development of the Law of Relativity; Noam Chomsky), Music and Arts (Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, George Maciunas, Brian Epstein – Beatles’ manager, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pink, etc.), Stage/Theatre (Sir John Gielgud, Lawrence Harvey) and so on, you get the idea. We could treat it as a kind of six-degrees-of-separation museum, showing us that we all know somebody who is Lithuanian through a very small number of connections.
When friends ask you what Lithuania is like, what do you usually tell them? Has the answer changed through your time here?
The answer has certainly changed! The “attraction” in late 1990s was the general poor service and being shouted at by large ladies serving in local shops (great fun, especially in the old Skalsa store!). Of course, in recent years the whole city been transformed and I usually concentrate now on how easy it is to get to Kaunas, the increase in the number of good places to eat, great beer bars (like Vingiu Dubingiu) and the nightlife. We also still have quirky spots left, shops, bars, museums that have not changed in many years. It’s also probably a safer city for foreigners.
What do you hope to achieve in your full-time professional work of developing urban transport and mobility projects?
In some cases, it’s too late; for example, the new paving on Laisvės Alėja looks like it has been designed to allow traffic onto the pedestrian walkway. Regardless of what politicians say, this new design speaks volumes. Sadly, there is nothing here to assure me that the city is prioritising pedestrians and cyclists.
I would definitely like to see Kaunas become the cleanest, greenest city in Lithuania. To do this, we should be ready to match the expectations of our citizens. Take cycling: the numbers have increased substantially in the last 5-10 years but we are still short of cycle routes, shelters, and parking. I’d like to see the major universities here provide a least one quality, secure, under-cover cycle shelter for, let’s say, up to 100 cyclists! I joke sometimes that supermarket trolleys have a better shelter provided for them than the bikes of student cyclists. I’d also like to see reduction in parking inside the city, illegal parking outlawed and pedestrian paths to become paths for pedestrians and not obstacle courses full of vehicles.
The article was originally published in Kaunas Full of Culture magazine, December 2016
Questions by Kotryna Lingienė
Pictures by Donatas Stankevičius