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SoftGIS Mapita Helsinki

Can SoftGIS Tools Help Us Rediscover the “Human Element” for Shaping Livable High Density Urban Neighborhoods?

The field of geography is a brilliant academic discipline that gives you a thorough understanding of the world and lets you focus on whatever interests you. And being the urbanist geographer that I am, this summer I’ve been thinking a lot about what my colleagues could do to help with creating better cities. The more I’ve thought about it, I’ve begun to discover that the answer may lie in the area of specialization that I always liked the least: GIS.

GIS stands for Geographical Information Systems which in turn refers to applications that can be used to gather, maintain, store, process and visualize geographical information. Essentially it is modern day cartography with the power to integrate and play around with large quantities of data. The classic GIS approach is to focus on dealing  with quantitative and objective data about the world. What we did back in my study years was e.g. to map and analyze changes in the size of an Austrian glacier.

One conventional example of GIS-usage. Drive time isochrones around airports in northern Finland. Image source:

Now, I didn’t dislike taking GIS classes because I hate working with computers or maps, but because the methods and tools that we worked with required in-depth systemic understanding to the extent that you needed to be a technical expert for being able to do anything but follow written instructions to fulfill class goals.

And very much also because back then we weren’t able to do anything that really interested me with the available data sets and GIS tools we had. Not to say that studying glaciers isn’t an important topic to study, but it wasn’t something that would inspire me personally or professionally. I felt there was no way to do anything meaningful with cities.

But I’m excited to note that those days are now in the past and GIS is entering my niche from all sides with promising new approaches specifically for studying and, ultimately, shaping cities.

For instance, in April 2014 the MIT Social Computing Group launched You Are Here, an initiative to publish 100 maps of 100 cities because they “feel that maps can help people to make their city a better place”.

A You Are Here map showing the location of independent coffee shops in Cambridge and the walking-shed communities associated with them. Map source: You Are Here.

The group believes that each map is an “aggregation of thousands of microstories, tracing the narratives of our collective experience. We will make maps of the little things that make up life — from the trees we hug, to the places where we crashed our bikes, to the benches where we fell in love”. Essentially, sharing knowledge about the reality in our cities can “empower people to make their city — and therefore the world — a more beautiful place”.

What’s interesting is that even if focusing on objective phenomena, You Are Here’s emphasis is on soft factors – how we experience urban space.

In my opinion, this approach and attitude cuts to the very heart of today’s planning challenges.

One of the greatest issues to solve within the broader planning and urban development sphere in the post-industrial era is that we know too little about shaping inspiring places for today’s citizens.

In Finland, just like elsewhere in the Western world, highly skilled people have become the fuel that drives the economy. And as increasingly many of these not only need to work together, but also favor life in cities over suburbs, the reality is that “place” is increasingly regaining its role as a key determinant that divides cities into winners and losers.

As it stands, our cities have plenty of suburbs to go around for everyone, but not nearly enough of high density neighborhoods to offer options for those seeking urban lifestyles. The bottom line is that an increasingly large group of people give priority to qualities in cities and neighborhoods that currently seem to be invisible for the Finnish planning apparatus.

Over time, in Helsinki – and in all other larger urban areas in Finland for that matter – this has led to a situation what can be best described as a classic case of supply and demand not intersecting.

One illuminating symptom of this here in Helsinki is that while the city is busy developing hard-to-sell apartments in disconnected neighborhoods like Viikinmäki, they have for example needed to enforce restrictions in the inner-city area for blocking the transformation of street-level business spaces into apartments due to high apartment demand. You can also just talk to any young professional on the Helsinki housing market, and they will likely first dwell over intolerably high inner-city apartment prices and then move on to going through a long list of rationales for why they are eyeballing apartments in suburban locations instead.

Viikinmäki under construction in Helsinki. The area is being marketed as “urban and original”, but the demand for apartments hasn’t been very promising. One key problem is that the area is very disconnected from the rest of the city and served only by one bus line. Photo courtesy of Kuvaruutu.
Apartments in Helsinki’s inner city conversely are so sought after compared to the rest of the country that they usually need to be considered as a separate category in national real estate price analyses.

In my view, at the root of the problem why we are not able to make the supply and demand meet is that we have pushed aside a vital ingredient from the urban project which I’ll refer to as the “human element”.

Even if never completely so straightforward, what’s certainly true is that already decades ago our excitement in the promises of Modernism and engineering has made us shrug at certain “human elements” which used to transform cities into pieces of art.

We shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us”, is a famous quote by Sir Winston Churchill which originates from the 1940s when Britain’s House of Commons was set to be rebuilt back to how it was after being severely damaged in the London bombing raids. In later decades, the quote has been used to emphasize the simple truth what architecture and urban planning is ultimately about: people building buildings and urban environments for themselves and other people.

Indeed, our historic cities just always seem to result in neighborhoods that feel greater than the sum of their parts.

The inconvenient truth is that this concept of building urban environments for everyone’s needs and enjoyment has sunk deep into the dark abyss of zoning codes, building codes, faceless real estate investors and car-obsessed traffic planners. Simply put, our planning apparatus dates back to the mid-20th century and only speaks the “hard” language of codes and norms and not the “soft” language of how we feel about places today.

Today’s attempts to shape plazas are best summarized by William H. Whyte’s classic analysis: “It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.” In broader scope, the buildings and elements of the built environment of the past few decades all too often seem to sum up to what James Howard Kunstler calls a “Geography of Nowhere”, a “tragic landscape of highway strips, parking lots, housing tracts, mega-malls, junked cities, and ravaged countryside”.

Inspirational urban landscapes from Helsinki. NOT.

So what can we do to return to a “geography of somewhere” and re-establish a connection between urban planning and people’s aspirations?

I think first, we need to start accumulating knowledge about what makes some places better than others. This certainly is not a very outlandish idea as such, but our on-the-ground results do tell a different story about our fundamental understanding of these relationships.

Just look at the Danish champions Jan Gehl & his team who seem to be operating in every major city across the globe. It’s no secret that Mr. Gehl’s work is devoted to “creating cities for people” and neither is it a coincidence that they’re keeping busy with this concept. The number one asset that Jan Gehl and his team have is longstanding expertise in observing human environments and understanding what works and what doesn’t; they master in understanding “relationships between people’s quality of life and their built environment”.

It’s very much thanks to Jan Gehl why Copenhagen is considered one of the best places to live and often held as an example of desirable urban planning. Photo by Axel Kuhlmann.

This is exactly what we need to start doing to reconnect planning practice and people’s needs.

And while Mr. Gehl’s work is just plain awesome, I want to stress that cities in Finland and elsewhere needn’t necessarily have to wait for an opening in his calendar. All of us actually know what works for us and what doesn’t. Maybe not at the same level as high-profile professionals who may speak for many, but definitely for ourselves and in our immediate surroundings.

Enter geography and SoftGIS.

Nowadays we fortunately have new possibilities for exploring the qualitative, soft, side of the world, accumulating information about it, and, ultimately, harnessing this knowledge to guide our planning practice and decision-making.

The so-called SoftGIS method has been developed by Aalto University’s Land Use Planning and Urban Studies Group specifically to collect data on human experiences and everyday behavior in a spatial framework. Very basically, the SoftGIS approach means creating online map-based surveys. The method has for example been used to research places that make people feel unsafe. You simply do this online by marking any such locations to a map and giving your comments about why so.

Moreover, the SoftGIS method has also been used as a participatory planning tool to support urban planning and decision-making processes by empowering cities and municipalities to dynamically collect resident feedback online. This helps planners overcome the often-faced problems of low participation levels associated with old-fashioned public hearings.

SoftGIS and participatory urban planning focusing on Tuusula’s Rykmentinpuisto. Image courtesy of Julkisesti nähtävillä.

Since its initial development about ten years ago, the SoftGIS method is now increasingly being applied in different cities and contexts across Finland. A grand example of the new possibilities that SoftGIS offers for contemporary urban planning is the recent collaboration between Mapita – a service provider originating from the Aalto University research team – and Helsinki’s City Planning Department to empower residents to freely map “where they would like to see residential development, which areas need better transport connections, and where the city’s key recreational areas should be located”. The survey pieced together with Mapita’s Maptionnaire tool eventually attracted about 4 700 respondents to click a total of 33 000 location mappings.

Results from Mapita’s survey on potential development sites in Helsinki. The red spots mark areas that could use some more construction, the yellow ones areas that should be saved as recreational areas, and the blue ones are areas of conflict that divide respondents’ opinions. Map by Mapita.

A similar project is now taking place to shape Tampere’s future. The city is drafting a new master plan for its core areas and is now asking people to submit specific place-based ideas and concerns within the project area. With the assistance of online participation, Tampere has set a target to involve at least 5% of its citizens in the drafting process. The survey is provided by Ministry of the Environment backed Harava, a tool similar to Maptionnaire.

Harava is a SoftGIS tool developed by Dimenteq with the support of the Ministry of the Environment. I’m sure it works just fine, but I can’t really understand why – in the age of open data – the Ministry has spent public funds into developing a privately owned commercial service instead of an open source platform for everyone to benefit from? Image by Dimenteq.

The SoftGIS method is useful for many things, and especially for participatory planning. But I want to discuss its potential in helping us shape high-quality urban neighborhoods and inspiring public spaces.

Particularly, I can’t stop thinking about the possibility of empowering each of us to become little “Jan Gehls” for the benefit of being able to create more livable neighborhoods by providing information about the key elements and details that add up to e.g. interesting streets or enjoyable public spaces. SoftGIS surveys can be applied to areas of all scales and with diverse interests. How about mapping your favorite shop fronts or spots in a park?

Furthermore, surveys with such a focus could also include a function to incorporate pictures to the map, very much like Mapillary is doing with its mission to “create a photo representation of the world”. Experience-based information like this could also be combined to data collected with gps tracking on pedestrian or cyclist behavior.

Mapillary is a bit like Google Street View but it’s you who is in charge of adding the imagery and locations you want to map. Image screenshot of Mapillary.

The obvious benefit from accumulating place-specific and user-produced data on human experiences is that it can be connected to actual physical settings and particular planning or design solutions. To clearly illustrate what works and what doesn’t for our place-blind planning system, planners and decision-makers. To make the invisible visible.

And to be sure that planners and developers do understand what they’re being told, qualitative GIS can also be applied for qualitative assessment in the development phase of new buildings or neighborhoods by coupling 3D visualization to it. One interesting example in this regard is the yet-to-be-launched OurNeighborhood tool which promises to introduce this possibility of online co-working to the field of architecture and urban planning. I’m already very much looking forward to seeing it go live.

OurNeighborhood has its goals set for transforming collaborative architectural and urban planning. Image source: OurNeighborhood Facebook page.

And naturally, experience-based data about cities offers new avenues for inter-city collaboration. Urban areas all over the world could benefit from swapping data with each other to compare and evaluate what works or doesn’t in different settings and contexts.

But it’s not only the public or private sector that can benefit from SoftGIS tools and the new dawn of user-friendly environments. Also the world of self-organizing urban development can easily do the same to advance or legitimate their agendas. Community associations or for example planning activist groups like Urban Helsinki – which I am personally affiliated with – could facilitate their missions by collecting data to back their arguments or by drawing public interest to a specific issue. On this front, the community organization Beautiful PB from Pacific Beach, San Diego has actually recently engaged with SoftGIS to learn new ways for making Pacific Beach a better community.

Overview of the perceived environmental quality in Pacific Beach and selected comments of the respondents. Image courtesy of “SoftGIS survey in Pacific Beach – Selected findings” by Kaisa Schmidt-Thomé and Tiina Laatikainen.

Finally, the last point I want to highlight about these new SoftGIS/qualitative GIS tools is that they have brought GIS a long way from what it was (or felt) like when I was at university. Not only because there now are methods suitable for exploring cities from perspectives that I care most about, but also from the user point of view. All of these new tools and services I’ve been linking to have a common trait: they are simple and very visual. Even a GIS-cynic like me is getting excited about using them.

Responding to a survey or even creating one is an easy task using Mapita’s Maptionnaire, they actually offer you the possibility to try it out yourself for free. I would call it PopGIS already (explained below). I hope SoftGIS is already incorporated into University of Helsinki’s geography curriculum to get people not interested in super technical GIS engaged into spatial analysis. Image courtesy of Mapita.

This, in fact, reminds me of a conversation I had with my cousin some time ago. She currently studies geography and told me about the agony she has with needing to take GIS classes. We ended up discussing about the need for popularizing GIS. That is, the need of inventing what we called PopGIS tools for users like me who would like to engage with spatial analysis but don’t really care for having to first become an engineer to be able to do it.

With these new developments happening in the world of GIS, I now must admit that how wrong were we. GIS is definitely already on a pathway towards becoming a tool for everyone to benefit from.

My dream is that this would now get done to improve urban planning. SoftGIS and experience-based data could be applied to help cities update their 20th-century planning approaches to cater for the needs of the 21st-century urban dweller.

After all,  Jan Gehl, the go-to man in the cities-for-people business, will unfortunately retire sometime in the near future.

Edit: You should also check out what Third Dimension OÜ from Estonia could add to your planning tool box. Their freely navigable real time 3D models give citizens and other stakeholders a clearer understanding of the different phases of development projects and scenarios to stir up fruitful discussions.

Want to have your participatory planning tool listed here? Contact me!



Finnish Mall Enthusiasts Add Little Value to Local Economies

Jeez, not another mall”, I thought out loud to myself when I read that Helsinki’s City Board unanimously approved to reserve a 2.5-hectare piece of land in Roihupelto, in the middle of Helsinki’s eastern suburbs for the development of a new shopping destination. Two developers want to see new big box stores and to transform an existing modern but run down industrial building into retail space. If all goes as planned, construction of the shopping complex could start already this year with the introduction of Motonet, a chain that markets itself as a “department store for car owners”.

The other developer already owns a shopping mall called Lanterna that specializes in furniture and interior design just opposite to the proposed development’s site. I hear the numbers of shoppers visiting Lanterna have lately showed a decreasing trend, so I suppose this new project is strongly linked to wishes of attracting more customers to the area. Continue reading

Tampere car culture

Tampere’s Aimless Urban Strategy of Planning for Cars and People

I’ve mostly written about Helsinki in my blog but since I also follow many interesting planning projects and discussions elsewhere in Finland, I want to expand my geographical scope now and then to share thoughts and insights from different corners of this urbanizing country. May this be the first one of many more.

Beyond the beautiful streets of Helsinki, I’m especially actively curious about what’s going on in Finland’s second largest urban center, Tampere.

Tampere is located on an isthmus between lakes Näsijärvi and Pyhäjärvi, a bit less than 200km north from Helsinki. The city often gets dubbed as Finland's Manchester because of its industrial heritage. Map by Google Maps.
Tampere is located on an isthmus between lakes Näsijärvi and Pyhäjärvi, a bit less than 200km north from Helsinki. The city often gets dubbed as Finland’s Manchester because of its industrial heritage. Map by Google Maps.

Continue reading

A visualization from the street Mannerheimintie that runs past the project site.

DIY Urban Planning Revisited – Progress Report for Urban Helsinki’s Pikku Huopalahti Proposal

In February I wrote about a planning activism project I and my like-minded friends – we now call our group Urban Helsinki – initiated to promote dense urban living for a development site in Pikku Huopalahti on the northern edge of Helsinki’s inner city. In a nutshell, the story is that the land developer hired three architecture firms to draft ideas for transforming the site from its current rather useless state into an infill neighborhood. The city will eventually make a detailed plan for the site reflecting the ideas and discussions that follow the proposals. Gratefully, the city gave us a chance to submit our proposal along with the so-called official ones.

At the time of my earlier blog post we had just handed in our work. Nothing like this had been done before, so what would follow was a mystery for everyone. Continue reading

Lastenlehto May

Helsinki’s Lastenlehto Park a Benchmark for the Design of Contemporary Finnish Urban Open Spaces

Some of you readers have suggested that every once in a while I should focus on local projects that contribute positively to the creation of great cities. You’re absolutely right, and from now on I’ll keep on highlighting what I think are positive examples more conspicuously when I come across them. Also, do feel free to contact me if you have any already in mind!

To start off, this post is dedicated to praising a small park in Helsinki that hasn’t received the attention it deserves. This urban oasis is called Lastenlehto Park (Lastenlehdon puisto in Finnish) which has from the late 19th century onwards evolved as a neighborhood recreation space in one form or another to a very central triangular park in the district of Kamppi. What I specifically want to discuss is the outcome of the park’s recent transformation process which possibly has been the park’s most dramatic change in the course of its history. Continue reading


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

This is the immediate vicinity of the Mellunmäki Metro station you're looking at. I believe the picture speaks for itself.

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

I had to walk all the way around the parking lot to get up on the same level as the offices. I wonder if this would better as a football field?

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

I don't see any reason why anybody would go here unless in need of parking their car. Hakaniemi and the sea.

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

We are keen on re-introducing the urban block for Helsinki in our proposal.

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