Pro Helsinki 2.0 – The Urbanist Vision for Making Helsinki Denser and More Diverse

Today I have the great pleasure of introducing you to the alternative city plan for Helsinki that I have worked on with my fantastic colleagues from Urban Helsinki since early 2014. It’s our second land-use plan done completely in do-it-yourself fashion, and after the small project at the edge of Helsinki’s inner city we did some months earlier. I’ve written two posts about this project in Pikku Huopalahti, you’ll find them here and here.

Our experiences and insights from working with Pikku Huopalahti eventually got us even more excited about doing something substantial to stir up discussions about Helsinki’s future. The city has been in the process of drafting a new strategic city plan to guide the city’s growth until 2050. Once enforced, this plan will necessarily have a tremendous impact on what Helsinki will be like 35 years from now – for better or for worse. To help make sure it won’t be the latter, we decided to draft our own strategic plan.

We named the project Pro Helsinki 2.0 as a tribute to Eliel Saarinen, who published a plan called Pro Helsingfors in 1918 to guide how Helsinki could grow into a world city.

The Plan

Find the entire plan on our website (in Finnish only).

As my blogging and our earlier project might already entail, our attempt is to illustrate how Helsinki could become denser and more urban. In our vision for 2050, Helsinki has grown by half a million within its jurisdiction. And more precisely, mostly within Ring Road I.

Pro Helsinki 2.0
The Pro Helsinki 2.0 city plan. The new development we propose is marked with orange. Map by Urban Helsinki. View the full zoomable map here.

In his time, Eliel Saarinen envisioned a model for Helsinki’s outward expansion based on dense urban nodes and railway connections. Hardly any of his ideas ever materialized. Now a century later, we’ve envisioned a plan to turn Helsinki into a world city by drafting a model for growing inwards.

Here are a few key principles our work is grounded on:

Future growth will be accommodated by making the inner city larger as well as creating new and strong urban nodes not too far from the old urban core. This will create critical masses to introduce and upkeep a good choice of services also outside of the city center, give more people the possibility to walk to their everyday destinations, and allow the city to develop a comprehensive public transport network. Concentrating more people closer together also leads to more jobs. And finally, dense neighborhoods mitigate the need to build up parks and nature areas.

Land-use patterns in comparison. Two very different ways of making homes for 300 people. Image by Antti Auvinen.

Much of the new development will be built 1) along highways by retrofitting them into urban boulevards; 2) in previously strictly-for-business areas by retrofitting them into mixed-use neighborhoods; 3) on railway yards and other land-consuming functions that are hogging up valuable land in the middle of the city; 4) and between existing neighborhoods to connect them with each other.

A precondition for our plan to be successful is that Helsinki needs to learn how to make urban blocks, streets and public spaces again. Density is only attractive if coupled with the qualities associated with urban neighborhoods. Focus needs to be put on diverse streetscapes, buildings facing the street, shops and other businesses, and putting pedestrians first. Essentially, planning should be done from the perspective of pedestrians.

A future street in Helsinki, we hope. Image by Niilo Tenkanen.

Another precondition is that to build those urban neighborhoods, we need to evaluate our existing zoning and building codes critically. At the moment it would be illegal to build anything comparable to Helsinki’s most highly valued neighborhoods. It sounds ludicrous, but the inconvenient truth is that there are many regulations in place that effectively block all chances of applying time-tested concepts of good city-building. These have been summoned by authorities from various departments who all mean well, but concentrate on observing the world solely through their line of work. In the city-making business, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We need to put places first.

The motivation

So why are we doing what we’re doing? Well, besides that we really love Helsinki and want to see it prosper, we want to give citizens the opportunity to compare and contrast alternatives once the City Planning Department’s official plan draft is out. Urban planning is a complex topic to discuss and also plans at all scales are often very complex documents to grasp. This makes it extremely difficult for even professionals to give insightful feedback just based on a single vision.

Also, Helsinki hasn’t built any new truly urban areas since the 1930s or 40s. On the very contrary, Helsinki has evolved into one of the most sprawled out urban areas in Europe. In just over half a century, while the population of the urban area considered to be Helsinki has grown five-fold to well over a million, the city’s geographical scope has multiplied by nearly a hundred times.

Finnish sprawl in Helsinki’s suburbs. In our plan this spot will get retrofitted into urban blocks.

Helsinki’s expansion with a sprawl pattern has caused some very serious negative impacts that keep on getting worse if nothing is done. For instance, for many people and for most trips, driving is by far the most convenient way of getting around. Structuring life around walking is a privilege for those few who live in the inner city. And while Helsinki’s public transportation system is of very good quality in terms of trustworthiness and infrastructure, too often travel times between destinations are considerably longer than if you just got behind the wheel.

I’m not going to walk you through all of sprawl’s negative effects as most people are well aware of them. But I want to emphasize one equally important reason I and my colleagues have spent hours after hours to draft this plan in our free time: the need to offer people more choices. And especially for urbanites like us.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to note that there is an imbalance in how much good quality dense urban fabric Helsinki can offer to those seeking urban lifestyles. The story is that throughout the city’s significant growth period during the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st century, Helsinki’s inner city has pretty much stayed the same. Planners in Helsinki and neighboring municipalities focused on building suburban neighborhoods after suburban neighborhoods believing that this is what all people want. Of course that never was the case, but mainstream urban policy had just one goal in mind. Eventually, we’ve collectively managed to develop an urban area that offers inner-city housing options for only about 17% of the Capital Region’s residents. And even fever if looking at the entire City Region.

This is what many want, but for some reason it has been impossible to provide it. Now’s time to change things. Image by Niilo Tenkanen.

The best way to grasp the imbalance is to compare apartment prices. Choose any apartment in the inner city and you’ll need to pay considerably higher prices than in the rest of the city. Not to mention the rest of the country. With the price of a small studio in central Helsinki you could get a mansion in the countryside.

This brings us to the other side of the same problem: increasingly many won’t opt for the mansion even if they got it for free. Just like “Millennials” are changing the housing market in America’s sprawling metropolises, also Finnish young adults are often dreaming of settling into urban communities.

Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough supply to meet the demand. Many need to resort to a plan b and move someplace that “could be worse”. A story I keep on hearing all the time – most recently last week when catching up with an old friend who just relocated back to Helsinki from New York with her family.

The big question is what will happen if Helsinki proceeds with its new city plan and urban policies as if it still was 1960? I believe that ultimately, Helsinki can forget about competing with Stockholm, Copenhagen or any other European metropolis if it can’t offer good quality of life or affordable housing for people thinking about working there. Today’s economy is based on services and innovations, both of which need people interacting with each other. And more fundamentally, aren’t cities supposed to focus on delivering happiness for their residents?

Last Chance to Turn the Tide

On the bright side, the new city plan comes at a time when Helsinki still has hope. The city can still soothe damage caused by sprawl and focus on the needs of 21st-century urban dwellers. But it will need to turn around its current, sprawl-inducing, planning culture to do so.

Helsinki’s potential to develop into a diverse urban center is thanks to the fact that Finland has a low urbanization rate (around 70%), mostly due to our late industrialization process. The rate is however increasing constantly as new jobs are being formed in cities and because cities attract increasingly many urban lifestyle-seekers.

Construction cranes is what we’ll be seeing in our cities for a long time coming.

If we were to follow what has for example happened in neighboring Sweden (their urbanization rate is 85%), Finland’s future urbanization process translates into a pool of hundreds of thousands of people still moving into cities in the near future from rural areas. And also many others already statistically considered to be living in cities are on the lookout for better neighborhoods if they were available.

Because there are still a lot of people who are extremely likely to move in the coming years, I can’t stress the importance enough of focusing on the patterns of urban development Helsinki and other growing urban centers are viewing for their future growth.

Considering the already present imbalance in matching the city’s housing supply with living preferences now is Helsinki’s last chance to react and focus on zoning neighborhoods that offer urban settings for urban lifestyles. Suburbia is no longer a priority; there is more than enough of that to go around.

This is exactly why we decided to act and highlight the importance of looking at cities as diverse entities that offer options for everyone.

This is how Helsinki’s inner city could expand north to Pasila. Map by Urban Helsinki.

What will happen next?

I hope that our work not only creates intense discussions about Helsinki’s urban planning policies, but also brings about serious thoughts on the need to shift towards co-creation. It would be more fruitful to have citizens and authorities draft visions together instead of planning activists like us needing to crash the party with alternative plans to get their voice heard.

But in all honesty, we don’t have a clue what will happen next. Nothing similar to Pro Helsinki 2.0 has really ever been done before in Finland. Stay tuned to find out. And in the meanwhile, you can help our chances of making a serious impact by spreading the word.

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Yksi nykypäivän kaupunkisuunnittelun ydinongelmista on, että suunnittelua ohjaa joukko rakenteita, jotka eivät osaa lukea 2000-luvun kaupunkilaisten käsityksiä kiinnostavasta ja hyvästä kaupunkitilasta. Useimmat kaupunkien rakentamiseen liittyvät lakimme, virastomme ja käytäntömme on nimittäin luotu aikana, jolloin palvottiin modernismin alttaria ja sitä myötä tuottamaan takavuosien suunnittelijoiden ihanteiden mukaista yhtenäistä kaupunkitilaa ihmislähtöisyyden kustannuksella. Continue reading PehmoGIS-menetelmillä kohti asuintoiveita priorisoivaa kaupunkikehittämistä

Monotony Exposed – Finnish Cities Plagued with Overly Standardized and Worn Building Designs

Better cities. That was the topic I recently had the pleasure to discuss with an architect duo determined to realize a building that would act as a signpost for 21st-century Finnish architecture. Such a building would be built based on simple concepts such as a permeable and street-facing front, integral connection to the street and architecture that helps create inspiring public spaces.

This doesn’t sound like a very outlandish idea, but sadly, with little or non-existent resources, applying noble causes like theirs in the real world are distant dreams. The re-introduction of great time-tested concepts for shaping great cities would certainly be exceptional but that such a project would get support by e.g. getting allocated a piece of land somewhere, would truly be unprecedented. And by supporter I refer to local governments and authorities, developers, and established construction companies. Continue reading Monotony Exposed – Finnish Cities Plagued with Overly Standardized and Worn Building Designs

Finnish Suburbs Await Inspiring Retrofits

Last weekend I got invited to a couple’s house in Herttoniemi, one of Helsinki’s first suburbs, to experience the loud hum of a six-lane highway that runs just behind their house and is terrorizing their suburban dream (yes, it is loud). The city apparently hasn’t been interested in setting up a barrier to reduce noise despite it has expanded the road over the years. Furthermore, the area’s new infill development plan is suggesting too many new buildings to their neighborhood and right in their backyard too. The couple said they were proud Not-In-My-Backyard folk and don’t want changes to their surroundings. It seemed to be yet another NIMBY case. Continue reading Finnish Suburbs Await Inspiring Retrofits

Finland’s Energy Efficiency Boom Good for the Climate, but Trouble for Cities

In recent years, energy efficiency has been probably the most discussed issue within the urban development sphere here in Finland. The topic generally crosses all levels of planning and is present to a greater or lesser extent in all planning initiatives. I’m guessing the situation is similar in most European countries with the 2010 passing of the European Energy Performance of Buildings Directive as well as the recent explosion of green building codes such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and BREEAM. Our national government has additionally raised the bar by introducing an action plan for Finland to meet its 2020 EU climate goals already by 2017.

The resulting ERA17 program boldly sets out to place Finland no more or less than as the “leader in energy-efficient built environments”. Moreover, the “ultimate goal of the plan is that in 2050, Finland will be able to offer the world’s best living and operating environment for people and businesses”. There are six key action areas for achieving this: energy-efficient land use, distributed methods of energy production, steering of construction, ownership and use of real estate, and taking know-how further (read more here). Continue reading Finland’s Energy Efficiency Boom Good for the Climate, but Trouble for Cities

Helsinki’s ‘Daughter of the Baltic Sea’ Brand Needs a Ljubljana-Style Reboot

No nation can escape its geography” said Percy Spender, the Australian Minister for External Affairs back in 1950. He was talking about the need to reinvent Australia’s relationship towards Asia to make the most out of the nation’s factual geographical position and not see itself only as belonging to the circuits of the old British Empire. This same line of thought obviously applies to cities as well. I got a first-hand experience of this around the turning of the year when I had the pleasure to visit a good friend of mine in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The city naturally wasn’t repositioning its foreign and regional policy like the Aussies were but its relationship with River Ljubljanica. Continue reading Helsinki’s ‘Daughter of the Baltic Sea’ Brand Needs a Ljubljana-Style Reboot

Ten Reasons why Helsinki Needs Do-It-Yourself Urban Planning

Practice what you preach, they say. As of late 2013 and early 2014 I’m excited to reveal that this is exactly what I’ve been doing. Helsinki’s City Planning Department is in the process of expanding the city into a 5.5 hectare piece of land on the northern edge of a neighborhood called Pikku Huopalahti that now hosts obsolete university buildings and green buffer zones. I’ve had the privilege of being a member of a seven-strong team of passionate and creative urbanists who have taken the initiative of illustrating our own interpretation of what the area could look like in the future. More than anything, we are determined to introduce the “urban” back into Helsinki’s urban planning. Our message with this plan is ‘no more sprawl’. Continue reading Ten Reasons why Helsinki Needs Do-It-Yourself Urban Planning

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In a couple of my previous posts, I’ve stressed my amazement with the quick change in attitude among Helsinki’s urban planners. The message from the planning authorities is that they have chosen to increasingly question the conventional modernist planning ideology and are now actively seeking to add elements of a more urbanist approach to Helsinki’s upcoming steering document, the new city plan.

Now that the first excitement is slowly beginning to settle down, it’s time to start thinking ahead. And what I’ve been thinking about this time touches upon the management of links between planning ideologies and planning practice. Namely, I would like to see one classic planning debate enter the Helsinki discussions, because A) it has not been discussed at all in this process; and B) it plays a significant role in the on-the-ground implementation of the new city plan. Continue reading Design First or Last? A Fork in the Road for Helsinki’s New City Plan

Help Cure Finland’s Mall Fever

A couple of months ago I attended a seminar for planning-oriented geographers and the event has kept on circulating in my thoughts because of one comment in particular. During the discussion section, one of the speakers, Marketta Kyttä, was asked what in her opinion will most likely stand out as the most bizarre legacy of contemporary Finnish urban planning practice. Something which future generations will stare at wondering “what on earth were they thinking”. Her answer was our obsession with shopping centers and malls. Touché, I thought.

A clear-cut separation of commercial services from the rest of the city, typically in the form of a shopping mall, certainly is one distinct feature that has become a defining element in our city-making tradition during the modern era. And despite recent urban renaissance movements in the larger cities, there is little indication that we are anywhere near giving up this pattern of urban development. In my opinion much more attention should be targeted at this issue because mallification is very counterproductive if we truly want to create neighborhoods with an urban atmosphere. Continue reading Help Cure Finland’s Mall Fever

Urban Helsinki Versus the Building and Construction Industry

Many urbanists here in Helsinki have recently needed to double-check whether they’re dreaming or really wide awake. This is because last month Helsinki’s City Planning Department published new documentation on what the city will look like in 2050 and what are the basic pillars of the new city plan. Amazingly, the grand visions that have been in the air in recent years are again one notch closer to becoming reality: “In the Helsinki of 2050, densely constructed suburban centres will be connected by rail traffic. The downtown area will have expanded along the motorways, which have been converted into city boulevards. […] The Helsinki of the vision is more densely populated in all areas than that of today. New construction is mainly located around the suburban railway stations. The suburbs have become centres of urban living, services and workplaces (source)”. Continue reading Urban Helsinki Versus the Building and Construction Industry


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