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Retrofitting Suburbia – A New Life for Vantaa’s Myyrmäki

Goodbye underperforming asphalt. Bringing urban feel to the suburbs is now officially on the horizon in the Helsinki area.

In September a community-based do-it-yourself initiative called Myyrmäki-liike (Myyrmäki Movement) invited me to talk about contemporary urban development trends. They had staged an event to generate discussion around a set of nine proposals to transformation the commercial center of Myyrmäki, a 1970s & 80s railway suburb in Vantaa. The goal is to retrofit a big parking lot into mixed-use urban blocks.

I didn’t hesitate to accept the invite because there’s a lot to get excited about in this project.

Parking lot.
Soon no more: a big surface parking lot in the middle of Myyrmäki’s commercial heart. Note the pedestrian path running through the middle of it. Few parking lots have an official city street going through them. Photo: the city of Vantaa.

These nine proposals were the results of a forward-looking idea call that Vantaa’s planners announced last year for the first phase of their regeneration plans for Myyrmäki. The city’s wish was to get proposals which include high-quality architecture, a strong linkage to shaping the public sphere, and street-level shopping and services.

This is just the kind of mindset I’ve been anticipating. In the winter of 2014 I wrote that the goal of adding density and connectivity, mixing uses, and increasing the quality of the public realm in centrally located suburbs is in my opinion a crucial urban policy item for keeping Finnish cities viable and attractive.

Especially in the fast-growing Helsinki region we have many low-density suburbs along rail transit corridors that are screaming for something to happen. Their potential to accommodate more people is underlined by the fact that we strangely often have a lot of underused space around our suburban railway stops.

Underperforming space.
Parking lot after parking lot, matryoshka doll-style.  Right next to the Myyrmäki railway stop.

On top of all this, a fundamental but often-missed concern for suburban retrofit success is focusing on what makes a place desirable today. Adding a few new ugly “towers in the park” here and there in the name of “respecting the surrounding built environment” is not going to do the trick. We really need to start figuring out how to introduce urban feel to our suburbs. People are becoming more conscious and demanding about the urban qualities around them.

Such ideas of suburban compaction have been floating in the air for some time. With the plans now on the table for Myyrmäki, they’re a notch closer to actually being on the horizon.

The time is ripe

Vantaa definitely is an area where you might expect seeing retrofit activities. Urban amenities-wise, the city has little to offer apart from relatively cheap apartments.

Vantaa used to be just forest and farmland until Helsinki’s suburbs spilled over to the area from the mid-20th century onwards. Much of that development was never annexed to Helsinki but left to govern itself as its own municipality. Vantaa is now the fourth most inhabited city in Finland with about 214 00 residents.

Myyrmäki is the area between the railway stops of “Myyrmäki” and “Louhela”. This piece of land got built following a decision to expand Helsinki’s commuter railway network. A new north-leading branch was opened in 1975 and a string of new suburbs got built around it. These days there are over 50 000 residents in the greater area of Myyrmäki. About 15 000 of them live in the vicinity of the railway stops.

Mixing uses is definitely a timely concern in Myyrmäki. The area around the railway stop is pretty much a desert when it comes to living. Inside the red line there are only a very few residential units. The area that Vantaa seeks to retrofit with its call for proposals is marked with yellow. Satellite image courtesy of Google Maps.

You can already imagine what this kind of history implies for the cityscape. Almost everything in both Myyrmäki and Vantaa at large has been built from the 1960s onwards. Basically Myyrmäki can be described as a collection of stand-alone modernist apartment buildings scattered between the two railway stops and among wide and separated traffic zones, random patches of green buffer zones, and surface parking lots. There was also a burning urge to splurge on concrete back in those days. I always felt the area has a strong “Soviet” touch to it, if you can relate to this urban character concept.

Uomatie Soviet.
A glimpse into the beautiful surroundings of northern Myyrmäki.

Over time, the area around the “Myyrmäki” railway stop has evolved to become the center of the suburb. If you’re looking for a landmark, there’s of course a big shopping mall sitting in the middle of it all.

The more modern face of Myyrmäki. Myyrmanni. Focal point.
The more modern face of Myyrmäki. Myyrmanni shopping mall from 1994 is today the focal point of the suburb.

Myyrmäki was once considered progressive. Also my grandparents moved there from downtown Helsinki to score a modern apartment. But that was then. Fast-forward to this century, and the city is investing a lot of effort into reconstructing its notions about the “good city”. There’s a new architectural program favoring compaction and planners are rolling out programs to upgrade the city’s most important nodes.

Apart from the ugliness and dispersed urban form, here’s what makes Myyrmäki a top candidate for transformation:

  • The area was built quick and almost all at once, leading to a flux of home owners moving in simultaneously. The result is a lot of elderly residents today. Statistically, the proportion of over 65-year-olds is clearly higher than average in Vantaa. And especially high compared to Helsinki. This on the one hand obviously has a direct impact on the vibrancy of the area. On the other it highlights the need to add walkability and bring new services throughout the area. Many don’t have a corner store. And yes, should Myyrmäki transform into a magnet for younger citizens, many already-existing apartments are soon on the market.
  • The Helsinki region public transportation authority is changing the geography of its fare zones. And that’s a good thing for Myyrmäki. At the moment Myyrmäki’s location just outside Helsinki’s city limits is a big disadvantage. Moving in and out means getting the more expensive regional fare. If you live in Myyrmäki you’re likely to travel to Helsinki proper often because there’s not a whole lot going on in Myyrmäki or Vantaa. Thus the fare issue affects people’s choices a lot. This factor will however diminish in 2017. The fare border is set to move more north, giving people and businesses a reason to start viewing Myyrmäki with new eyes. Since this summer, there’s a rail connection to the airport stopping in Myyrmäki, too.
Metropolia Myyrmäki Campus. Like yesterday's science and tech park.
Metropolia’s Myyrmäki Campus will form around Metropolia Business School, located just outside Myyrmäki’s commercial core. The current premises has been built along the lines of yesterday’s leading science and tech park model. Nowadays many places built this way are hollowing out. Photo: Metropolia Business School.
  • The Metropolia University for Applied Sciences is concentrating its activities into four campuses. One of them will be in Myyrmäki. This will multiply the number of students at least visiting the area and create new kinds of demands for housing and services. Moreover, these are students with business majors. There’s a serious possibility for having students and graduates set up their start-ups and life in the area.
  • Myyrmäki may not have the neighborhood character of an appealing suburb, but it does have great recreational opportunities. There are expansive nature areas in all directions around the suburb and an art gallery for those into arts and crafts. And a concentration of facilities including swimming pools, ice hockey rinks, indoor football facilities, and so forth to serve sports buffs.
Station art.
Myyrmäki railway stop has gone from just another gray box to eye candy thanks to community efforts.
  • Last but not least, it’s getting more interesting all the time. So far the city hasn’t invested a lot in Myyrmäki to make it more lovable, but the residents have. In 2012 locals began to help in bettering Myyrmäki through proactive DIY initiatives. They’ve for instance had the previously gray and ugly train station painted into a piece of art and transformed a big waiting-for-something-to-happen construction site into an outdoor event space. Then there’s a cool Humans of New York spin-off called Humans of Myyr York, which does exactly the same as its Big Apple counterpart. These types of community-focused initiatives have a big role to play in drawing attention to the neighborhood.
Myyrmäki temporary event space.
Myyrmäki’s old health center got torn down a couple of years ago. It was supposed to be replaced by an extension of the shopping mall, but the idea (luckily) never picked up. Myyrmäki-liike have transformed the lot into a temporary event space until a new retrofit project emerges. Remains to be seen if one ever will because residents get too attached to this venue.

7 thoughts on the entries

Let’s get back to the proposals. What are they like? Well, definitely aiming to add urban feel for Myyrmäki. You can go and view the proposals in detail here (unfortunately only in Finnish).

There’s no point in delving into them one by one because the city’s review panel has already selected their two favorites. (Curiously, both are from the same consortium…). The winning proposals (I <3 Myyrmäki and #myrtsi by Hartela, VVO & HOAS) aren’t necessarily the most inspiring ones, but they do have some good ideas in them.

Winning proposal.
I <3 Myyrmäki. Image by Innovarch Oy.
Winning proposal.
#myrtsi. Image by Innovarch Oy.

What will officially happen next is that planners will begin to formulate the actual detailed plans based on the chosen pieces of work. Although it’s not set in stone what will ultimately come out of the process.

My preferred option would be to do some cherry picking and end up drafting the official plan using the best ideas of the proposals. Here’s my synthesis of key discussion points:

1) There are good ideas to re-introduce the urban block. It’s the perfect strategy to add density because the design also helps shape the streetscapes and public sphere. This is pretty much a requirement for starting to introduce some urban feel into the area. Here is also where the ambition is measured. There are strong forces working against implementing urban blocks. Building codes, local authorities and the developers themselves are not accustomed to supporting anything with an urban character. The developers are for example likely to eventually start lobbying for stand-alone apartment buildings. The winning proposals are already drafts in this direction.

Urban blocks.
Urban blocks from the entries Myyrhattan and I <3 My Rock City. Images by Huttunen-Lipasti-Pakkanen Arkkitehdit Oy and Arkkitehdit Anttila & Rusanen Oy.

2) Forcing the inclusion of parking spaces according to the city’s parking norm was not the smartest move from the idea call designers. Competitors should have been asked to come up with proposals without the conventional drag of accommodating expensive parking structures. Especially when there’s a mall directly next door with a massive, underused parking garage. Underground parking costs over 50 000€ per space. And the alternative of building decks with parking underneath and yards on top isn’t too smart either. This is also expensive infrastructure. It will need maintenance and eventually redevelopment when we don’t know what to do with it anymore.

3) Conversely, the competition requirement to introduce street-level retail is smart. Already now, the number of people arriving to the shopping mall on foot is relatively high in comparison to other malls in the Helsinki area. Thanks to these foot and cycling traffic flows, the retail spaces outside of the mall are doing well. There’s an almost 100% occupancy rate. This condition makes adding density with foot traffic-friendly designs a smart thing to do. And a word of friendly advice for the future: whatever you do, don’t expand the mall.

Saturday strolling along Myyrmäenraitti. The to-be-transformed parking lot is on the left and Paalupuisto park on the right.

4) The soul of the vibrant pedestrian scene is Myyrmäenraitti, a pedestrian and cycling path that stretches through the suburb in a north-south axis. This corridor captures a lot of pedestrians and offers massive potential for transforming Myyrmäki. Few places have a good pedestrian street to work with from the get-go. This aspect immediately turns eyes towards Paalupuisto, a forgotten forest-y “park” right across Myyrmäenraitti from the retrofit area. For the benefit of framing Myyrmäenraitti as a proper pedestrian street, it’s a good idea to chop a slice from Paalupuisto to accommodate a building or two on each side of the corridor. Paalupuisto itself also needs some beautification work for people to be able to use it.

Paalupuisto chop.
Three different proposals for slicing a piece of Paalupuisto to create a better street environment for Myyrmäenraitti. Images by Arkkitehtitoimisto HMV Oy (left), SRV Rakennus Oy (top right), and Innovarch Oy.

5) Paalutori, the square between the shopping mall and the to-be-retrofitted parking lot, is the third busiest outdoor marketplace in the Helsinki area. At least according to locals. Many submissions suggest reducing Paalutori’s size a bit to make it cozier. They also suggest adding in new functions such as ice skating. Generally, these are great ideas. Given the number of residents in the area, Paalutori in its current shape is too large to serve as a cozy urban plaza. Actually, it’s pretty much the same size as Times Square’s Duffy Square. I find it hard to imagine that overcrowding can become an issue for Paalutori.

Paalutori and Duffy Square in comparison. Satellite image courtesy of Google Maps.

6) And while on the topic of plazas, there really is no shortage of them in Myyrmäki. Just around Myyrmäki railway stop there are altogether four different plazas – or five if you count the temporary event space created by the community. On a sunny end-of-summer Saturday afternoon most of them were completely empty. Regardless of this, some of the retrofit proposals include renderings of new plazas. Makes you wonder if they’ve actually been to the area. No more underperforming squares, thanks!

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7) My last point comes from Petteri Niskanen, the main organizer of Myyrmäki-liike. He likes the suggestion of introducing a hotel to the area: “The recently opened rail connection to the airport brings a lot of visitor potential. For those just staying for a layover, it’s actually faster to take the train to Myyrmäki than to reach many of the airport hotels with public transport”. He makes a good point. Since there’s an emerging cultural scene and the area will hopefully become classier with future retrofits, many might consider this option. And it’s not far from downtown Helsinki either if one would fancy popping down there.

Emerging cultural scene.
Myyrmäki-liike placed a piano inside the polished-up railway stop. Cool idea!

From parking lot retrofit to strategy

All in all with what I’ve seen and heard so far, I’m intrigued about the retrofit ambitions in Myyrmäki. A lot more effort has been put into trying to breathe new life into a fading suburb than ever before.

Although for that to happen, there is no question about the need to keep the retrofit process going well into the future. Much more density is required to be able to introduce and maintain a level of services that lures people into the area. Luckily for Myyrmäki it’s not difficult to find places with intensification potential. Already the immediate surroundings of the current project provide plenty of parking lots, really wide streets, and otherwise obscure and underutilized spots. You don’t need to go further than the elevated railway stop. There’s virtually nothing underneath it.

Railway stop area.
The space below Myyrmäki railway stop is horrible. But it has potential to be put into better use. If you open up the mall’s wall a bit and construct structures to support businesses underneath the platforms, you’d end up with a cozy street.

The details in the idea call submissions highlight that there is a demand for a more holistic roadmap to redevelop Myyrmäki. Not having one will probably result in unnecessary fights over details and decisions that may turn out to be counterproductive for the big vision of ending up with a bustling suburb. Especially energy needs to be put in keeping interventions small in scale and collaborating with the community. We know that the bigger projects get, the less its about people.

Retrofitting is also not just about adding new sleek urban blocks. It’s equally important to keep in mind that for example Metropolia’s campus has to be better connected to the rest of “downtown Myyrmäki”. And those potential start-up students will need inexpensive spaces to set up shop. And the cultural scene will need to be nurtured throughout the transformation process. The list could go on.

But even if there’s still a lot of work left to be done, Vantaa is nonetheless in many ways teaching Finnish cities a lesson in how to engage in retrofitting suburbia.

Could Europe’s Refugee Influx Trigger a Shift Towards Leaner Urban Policies?

The sudden need to make room for asylum-seekers may gather momentum for inventing new ways to solve housing shortages in Finland’s growth centers.

Urbanization is a highly transformative force in Finland. Our seven biggest urban centers are projected to grow by one million new residents by 2050 thanks to rural-to-urban migration, the geography of natural population growth and immigration. This means cities are facing a need to find strategies for realizing about half a million new dwellings already by 2030. Continue reading Could Europe’s Refugee Influx Trigger a Shift Towards Leaner Urban Policies?

Intelligent Mobility and the Long Walk to Freedom from Cars

Finland’s revolutionary aim to curb car ownership with driverless cars and MaaS mustn’t evolve into an excuse for not making better cities.

Finland and especially Helsinki have lately received a fair share of global media attention thanks to ambitious plans for bettering urban life by making car ownership obsolete in the next decade. Or “to fill in those gaps in door-to-door mobility which lead us to choose our cars“, like Anne Berner, Finland’s Minister of Transport and Communications recently summarized the aim.

The number one avenue for making this vision real is revolutionizing the transportation system through welcoming digitalization and new technology. Going high-tech and getting serious with intelligent mobility.

The timing is certainly ideal. The nation’s youth seem more interested in smartphone ownership than car ownership – or even getting a license in the first place. Furthermore, servicization has changed the way we do business and the more recent phenomenon known as the “sharing economy” is altering the value of ownership. Not to mention that open data platforms are popping up everywhere to fuel the smart city progression.

To get on the intelligent mobility bandwagon, the focus within Finland’s transportation policy circles seems to be buzzing around two main pillars.

Kutsuplus Service.
Helsinki’s Kutsuplus service is an on-demand minibus. A bit like a public taxi. It’s one of the first experiments in Finland that tries to make transportation more connected to your smartphone. Image: HRT.

First, there’s an idea to transform the way we consume transportation services called Mobility as a Service (MaaS). It was introduced to the wider public in 2014 by Sonja Heikkilä as a new model how Helsinki could upgrade its transportation system. The idea has quickly diffused to other cities around the country, too. And this summer, Finland’s new central government is already thinking about how the state could help with advancing MaaS.

The main idea behind MaaS is to introduce one stop shops for transportation services. For customers, a single interface (an app or website) would thus serve as both travel planner and payment platform, integrating for example the use of public transportation, city bikes, shared rides, rental cars, and long-distance trains to one seamless mobility chain. Moving around could be sold based on usage or in bundles, much like the services on your mobile phone plan. Even delivery services could be included so you wouldn’t need to travel to get something if you didn’t feel like it.

Autonomous vehicles in Vantaa.
Autonomous vehicles were experimented in Vantaa this summer as part of the CityMobil2 project. I got to take a ride too. The setting in this photo displays one problem we may have with driverless cars in the future: we’ll want to keep them separated from people.

A parallel, but profoundly connected, idea to MaaS is the adoption of autonomous vehicles. In terms of urban transportation, driverless cars are specifically envisioned to be the primary provider of shared rides in the future. These may either come in the form of on-demand public transportation services, such as Helsinki’s already-operating Kutsuplus mini-bus service, or smaller private vehicles like taxis and/or via Uber-like services. Or all of them.

The vision for going “car-free” is based on assumptions that ride-sharing and car sharing could take cars of the streets. And driverless cars could amplify this with their promise of super efficiency. Now our non-autonomous cars are idle for 96% of their time. According to OECD estimates, a scenario like this could result in a 90% reduction in the number of cars on the street. This would leave 80% of the parking space we now need obsolete. An added benefit is that autonomous vehicles are also predicted to decrease the amount of accidents. There would be less human involvement messing things up.

Cars are idle much of their time.
This is how cars spend 96% of their day.

The benefits of Finland’s digitalization plans stretch beyond the issue of car ownership. For people, it could offer seamless multimodal trip-making, better way-finding, and thanks to increased competition between transportation service providers, personalized and more user-friendly services.

ICT companies are looking at opportunities to make big bucks. The value of the Finnish transportation sector is estimated at about 50 billion euros. Digital services have largely yet to enter this market. So figuring out a successful business model can take you to the stars.

For the public sector, new business of course means more resources. But intelligent mobility could also cut costs with more efficient infrastructure usage and better system management. This would enable allocating resources for services that need most support.

The cherry on top of the intelligent mobility vision is the urbanist’s daydream. A city with fewer cars and less traffic opens up avenues for giving more space to people as e.g. valuable urban space needn’t be turned into parking lots anymore.

The transportation people certainly have ambitious plans and with good goals. Digitalization and new technology are definitely one side of going car-free. But just one. There’s a low-tech side, too.

Prioritizing walking to discourage driving

This summer I toured the Philippines and got to experience the streets of Manila. The megacity infamous for its traffic problems. The Lonely Planet puts it well when they warn that “traffic is the big annoyance in Manila: you’ll probably spend half your time either stuck in it or talking about it”.

Traffic gets bad in Manila.
Traffic gets bad in Manila. And it’s at times very difficult to get across these monster streets.

It’s very hard to walk to many places, because there are cars everywhere. But it’s equally hard to get anywhere by car because there are cars everywhere. If traffic would get any worse, the city would just be one massive outdoor car park. Undeniably, Manila is a prime example of how a city gets completely choked if there is no efficient and comprehensive mass transportation for everyone.

Asking around, the traffic problems also very much irritate locals. Especially the dreadful commutes that mean early mornings, late evenings and a lot of time wasted sitting in vehicles of different sorts. However, at a canyoning adventure in Cebu, I ran into one exception. A woman from Manila told me she is happily free from much of these commuting worries because she has the luxury of being able to walk to work. A privilege she wouldn’t give up for the world.

Indeed, as it was for her, for many people walking is the most convenient form of transportation. Walking is the oldest and most natural way for humans to move around. All you really need is shoes. There is no need to find parking, no schedule to figure out, and no tickets to buy. Walking is true freedom.

Kallio Block Party.
This summer Kallio Block Party transformed closed down the streets close to where I live. This kind of Tactical Urbanism is a good way to remind people how space could also be used if it wasn’t just in the use of cars all the time.

Just like apps and self-driving cars, also “walkability” is creating excitement as an idea to curb driving. The walkable city is a strategy where the work of land-use planners, urban designers and transportation planners are integrated to create dense, mixed-use development patterns.  For many, car ownership becomes pointless because everything you need is within easy reach.

The benefits of prioritizing walking, cycling and transit over driving are essentially the same as in the intelligent mobility visions: moving more people using less money and less space.

With walkable cities, emphasis is not in the digital but the physical. And that’s a whole art of its own. Because cities are complex, there however is no single blueprint for creating walkable places. Multiple aspects contribute to a great walking experience. In his “General Theory of Walkability”, Jeff Speck  tries to crystallize what it’s all about by summing up that walkers are attracted by places which provide a walk that is simultaneously useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. Each of these qualities is essential and none alone is sufficient.

The walkable city concept is also catching on in Finland. Helsinki for one has ambitious goals in the air for making it possible to reach destinations with just your feet. In its new draft city plan, Helsinki views for expanding the inner city and retrofitting a number of cars-only highways to walkable boulevards.

Helsinki's visions for the future.
Helsinki dreams about transforming a bunch of highways into boulevards in the future. If all goes well, they should definitely enhance walkability. Image: City of Helsinki.

So all in all, looks like all is well and Finland’s urban landscape has cozy, car-ownership free cities on the horizon. Right?

How high is walking on the intelligent mobility agenda?

I can’t say I’m fully convinced. A massive part of the great visions for making car ownership obsolete is fixing the original problem of why so many need to own – and use – cars in the first place. Otherwise the situation is like Brent Toderian wrote in his open letter to Perth: “It’s kind of a cruel joke to design a suburb for cars and then tell everyone they should be walking, biking and taking public transportation more.”

And there’s work to be done on that side of the field. The truth is that thanks to a long era of making life easy for the automobile, only a tiny fraction of our urban areas constitute as walkable places. And similarly, our planning culture has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to progressing walkable cities – especially for those parties in the planning sphere who deal with mobility.

Just a couple of weeks before taking off for the Philippines I took part in a workshop set up by urban planning activists to generate ideas for designing downtown Helsinki  to become more attractive. Even if Helsinki is no Manila, the number one issue that was discussed was the need to prioritize pedestrians over cars.

Many deemed the pedestrian experience unpleasant due to noise resulting from unnecessary through traffic in several places around the center, poor pedestrian access, surface parking lots, and generally, the excess space allocated just for cars.

In Anna's doctoral thesis, the areas around Jumbo where found least walkable.
In her new PhD thesis, Anna Broberg’s research concluded that the areas around Jumbo shopping mall in Vantaa were the least walkable. The image tells more than a thousand words. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

And it’s not really unclear why. In their study on the utilization of cycling and walking potential in Finnish cities between 2009 and 2013, The Transport Research Centre Verne of Tampere University of Technology notes that: “Yet, even today, walking is not seen as a transport mode in its own right with a legitimate role in modern transport systems and urban planning. Equally surprising is the fact that there is not a lot of support material available for the pedestrian area planners.

Helsinki’s most recent report analyzing the development of traffic in the city paints a good picture of how close those working with transportation are to the idea of progressing walkable cities: it mentions pedestrians once. There are 52 pages. Cycling gets awarded four pages and  the rest is centered around motorized traffic.

Measure what you treasure, the saying goes.

And it certainly doesn’t get any better when you climb up the ladder of transport modes. There’s only one modern-ish bike share system in Finland. The Tampere City Bike system was installed in 2013. Yes, that’s right. Just one emerging system.

Sometimes even already approved plans for building proper bike lanes get built as something completely else.
This street in Helsinki’s Kalasatama was supposed to have separated one-way bike lanes on each side of the street. The kind all cyclists pressure the city of Helsinki to build. The plans were approved and all, but what materialized was one two-way bike line that cuts the sidewalk into half. This was in 2013. I wonder what would happen if we just decided not to build a couple of lanes on a highway?

Cycling advocates around the country have tirelessly tried to fight against traffic engineers for decent bike lanes and paths. This is especially a problem in denser urban contexts where the conventional suburban style of excessively separating vehicular traffic and walking/cycling to their own roadways can’t be done due to space constraints.

To my experience, despite the pretty outspoken goals of freeing us from the nuisances of needing to own cars, much of the tech visioning within the transportation circles is way too disinterested about integrating the enormous amount of work that still needs to be done with the physical realities of our cities to their future scenarios. Apps are not going to help you ride a bike to the nearest transit stop if the physical infrastructure doesn’t exist.

This also casts a shadow over the walkable city ambitions. We know from the auto-era that transportation policy-makers need to be on board if we are to encourage inwards-directed urban growth. Otherwise things can go very wrong.

Integrating the high-tech with the low-tech

Before moving on, I first must stress that to some extent this whole discussion on technology revolutionizing the transportation sector in the ways described, is theoretical. Who would have guessed we now have smartphones but still don’t have electric cars even though the technology was invented in the 19th century? In the same way, we don’t know what will happen with e.g. the driverless car. But it is nonetheless fun to speculate. And anyways, official policies are already made based on assumptions that all this new transportation-related technology will be ubiquitous sooner than we know it. So we also better be proactive with designing control measures to keep things going so that everyone wins.

University of Michigan.
This is a ghost town, built just for testing driverless cars. Image courtesy of the University of Michigan.

So, back to my story. What should we be doing then?

Along with the obvious must-haves of prioritizing transportation the right way (walking first) and making sure we’re making dense, mixed-use neighborhoods that can support transit and services, here are some ideas of what I gather we should be thinking about when adapting our urban policies towards the walkable city in the new age of transportation:

Overhauling zoning and building regulations

A huge obstacle for creating cities where you don’t need to own a car is a bunch of norms and regulations that make the creation of walkable cities impossible. At the moment it would be illegal to build anything comparable to Helsinki’s most walkable neighborhoods. The national and local regulatory frameworks have been summoned by well-meaning authorities from various departments to solve singular problems in their line of work. But when these regulations are put together, they effectively block all attempts for applying time-tested urbanism. The kind that will attract people to walk.

Reducing asphalt

Cars once took us to our destinations much faster and conveniently, but we took it too far (just ask the folk in Manila) and are now trying to get rid of them. With the advent of autonomous vehicles and more efficient vehicle-based mobility in general, we need to be careful that we’re not repeating the same mistakes again.

We know from experience that more asphalt leads to more cars and traffic. While we’re trying to make today’s traffic flows more efficient by having commuters share rides, there’s a chance we may be making room for other kinds of traffic. Moreover, with driverless cars also those who don’t have a license could theoretically become “drivers”. And as a safety measure, authorities may be inclined to segregate pedestrians and cyclists from the robocars to keep their flow undisturbed.

Things may go wrong with driverless cars.
Things may go wrong with driverless cars.Image by Copenhagenize.

We know how this ends. Soon we’ll be demanding for new roads and real-estate developers will start taking advantage of easily accessible cheap land. This will all encourage further dispersal and, ultimately, we’ll have even less reasons to walk.

Getting rid of car ownership through digitalization and technology is not enough on its own. We need to couple the vision with a strategy to stop building new road capacity and gradually plan for road diets where it makes sense.

Incentivizing smarter ways of getting around

Besides just making cities denser, we also need to streamline our institutional approach to driving. Key is to incentivize transportation modes based on their cost and space efficiency. Right now there is institutional support for driving in the form of tax breaks, allocation of infrastructure investments and so on. At the same time, driving is causing environmental damage and has negative health impacts. Altogether, driving appears much cheaper than it is. This needs to be reversed.

And while on the topic of public transportation, we should also think where it makes sense to use on-demand public transportation. Here in Helsinki, Kutsuplus is now for the most part servicing the densest and most walkable corners of the city. But only a few use it. This is not because people aren’t fond of the concept. I find that most people don’t use it simply because they don’t need it. I for one never do. All my destinations are within easy reach by either walking or scheduled mass transit. Both options are more convenient than using Kutsuplus. A point-to-point service is inconvenient especially if you want to get a coffee on the way or just experience the city. So maybe we ought to be figuring out what are the geographical areas where the concept is most useful.

Sometimes you may want to sit down while going from place to place.
Sometimes going from A to B can get distracted by something on the way. I wonder how they try to anticipate this in all those traffic models? The more we have walkable cities, the more complex our mobility becomes.
Encouraging infill development

For years, there has been a lot of talk about intensifying already built-up areas all around Finnish cities. But in large scale this has never happened and most new construction is still further dispersal to greenfield sites. The promise of fewer cars will however open new avenues and needs for making it happen. There are at least three transportation-related things we could do.

First, since we don’t need to build new roads, cities can let go of old road infrastructure reservations. Every larger city has a road project or two that are freezing attempts for adding density.

Second, we can reduce surface parking. We should start with places that either have most potential for infill purposes or for increasing high-quality open space in the city.

One of Helsinki's top tourist attractions, the South Harbor area and Market Square are now in very smart use.
One of Helsinki’s top tourist attractions, the South Harbor area and Market Square are now partially in very smart use.

And third, we should uncouple parking from building. Underground parking can cost as much 50 000€ per parking spot in an underground garage.  Overall, the math is simple. Building dense is just not possible, because the more you build, the more parking spaces you need to build. And that gets expensive for everyone. Except superficially to those who drive.

Figuring out a model to keep delivery traffic in control

E-commerce is on a path towards creating unnecessary traffic, pollution and nuisance. If we were to have further automation in the delivery process and will continue to have free return policies, the parcel business could boost traffic flows considerably as stuff would move in and out of homes favoring online shopping much more often.

We need to invent and pilot smart models for accommodating this in the walkable city. Maybe bike or other low impact kind of messengers? And of course there’s PiggyBaggy, the Uber of deliveries to help.

Whatever it may be, if the digital vision does in fact create less need for parking facilities, emptying underground parking garages in city centers could connect to the world of delivery traffic.

Getting serious about cycling

This is part incentivizing, but I wanted to give bikes their own point. Because the issue is simple: there is no way out of pulling the brakes on discouraging cycling. If the bicycle is an integral part of multimodal traveling, we need to make them happen. This means bike share systems, building cycling-friendly urban infrastructure; including making all transit stations bike-interchange friendly.

This list could probably go on endlessly, but my point is that the well-known wisdom of the trade is that land-use planning and transportation planning are not different things, but the essence of city planning.

If we want seamless mobility and livable car-free cities on the horizon, we need to be making sure there’s enough brainpower, energy and resources being invested in both the low-tech and high-tech dimensions of those places. That means progressing world-class pedestrian, cycling and transit conditions – not just new apps and driverless vehicles.

I don’t want to see MaaS, driverless cars or any other intelligent mobility vision evolve into another excuse for not making better cities.

Tactical Urbanism Can Help Cities Meet Changing Livability Demands

This spring, Finland’s second city Tampere has been the scene of an interesting urban planning spectacle. Or probably ‘drama’ is a better word to describe the turmoil around the city’s ambition to move on to the second phase of its experiment for temporarily transforming Tampere’s main street, Hämeenkatu, into a transit-only zone. The first phase was initiated last summer by cutting off the street’s eastern half from private cars. Access was left to buses, taxis, and logistics vehicles. The rationale behind the entire experiment is to prepare Tampere for the introduction of a new tram system in 2018 or 2019. Its arrival would make the transformation permanent.

A visalization of how Hömeenkatu could transform once the tramway gets built. Image courtesy of the City of Tampere.
A visualization of how Hämeenkatu could transform once the tramway gets built. Image courtesy of the City of Tampere.

The goal of the second phase is to slim down the now unnecessarily large space for vehicular traffic and to widen the sidewalk to add more people-space such as parklets, event stages, and room for terraces. Generally, the point is to set the scene for how the street could be like if the tram gets built. The budget for all of this is not high, only 70 000€.

The second phase of Hämeenkatu's experiment is set to bring more people-space. Image courtesy of the City of Tampere/Aihio Arkkitehdit.
The second phase of Hämeenkatu’s experiment is set to bring more people-space. Image courtesy of the City of Tampere/Aihio Arkkitehdit.

I’ve been very excited about this project because it represents exactly the kind of stuff Finnish cities should be doing today. But what happened next was a bit unexpected.

When the second phase of the experiment came in front of the Planning Committee for approval, they voted against it. This was preceded by an uprising against the entire Hämeenkatu experiment, mainly generated by a group of business owners outside of the project area as well as a demographic who are difficult to budge from behind their steering wheels. The main arguments against the experiment are that it has and will continue to make Tampere’s city center less attractive because limited access for cars leads to congestion and less parking spaces. Even despite the fact that just in 2012 a new 972-lot underground parking garage was opened directly underneath Hämeenkatu.

There's more parking space in the center of Tampere today than ever. P-Hämppi directly beneath Hämeenkatu offers 972 of them. And elevator access directly to shops and the street. Photo courtesy of Aihio Arkkitehdit.
There’s more parking space in the center of Tampere today than ever. P-Hämppi directly beneath Hämeenkatu offers 972 spots. And elevator access directly to shops and the street. Photo courtesy of Aihio Arkkitehdit.

And it’s not just the loss of car access that’s believed to push customers away. Also the idea of giving more space to people has been viewed as a dangerous avenue towards actually inviting more people to use the street. According to critics, this is likely to result in increased malicious behavior and thus is a public safety concern. The recipe for prosperity would be to stop with the nonsense and put cars back on the street.

Wow. As incredible as some of these arguments may seem, the sentiments flared up and began to amplify through social and conventional media outlets. Eventually they swam into the political decision-making process. But the attack against the experiment doesn’t necessarily mirror the current state of the main street.

Tampere's main street Hämeenkatu and a winter-y atmosphere. Doesn't look so dead, does it? Photo credit: Erkki Ottela.
Tampere’s main street Hämeenkatu and a wintry atmosphere. Doesn’t look so dead or dangerous, does it? Photo credit: Erkki Ottela.

To my experience Hämeenkatu has never been nicer and always when I’m in Tampere it’s full of people. I’ve never heard anyone not go there – or into the center more broadly – because of the transit street experiment. Furthermore, an interesting fact underlying this debate is that research suggests that business owners in city centers often know little about their clientele’s travel behavior. When tested about the degree that entrepreneurs in Tampere and Turku knew how their customers travel to the center and their establishment, they got it all wrong. It was strongly believed that an overwhelming majority (ca. 2/3 or more) of customers arrived by car compared to the segment that came with public transport, bicycle or by walking. But when researched, the numbers were pretty much the other way around.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t far that the entire experiment went to waste. Luckily Tampere’s Mayor Anna-Kaisa Ikonen stepped in and showed her leadership skills. She interfered and took the plan to be reviewed by the City Board. This time it got approved and this summer Tampere will be able to enjoy an even better Hämeenkatu. Or fundamentally, at least we’ll be able to tell whether this is all nonsense or progress after all. The good thing is that the experiment is low-cost and easily reversible if it turns out to be a death spell for the attractiveness of Tampere’s city center.

This disagreement about whether to build Tampere for cars and traffic or for people and places could actually have taken place in just about any Finnish city council. It captures the spirit and problems of contemporary urban planning and policy. The big picture is that our cities are undergoing a huge shift from outwards sprawling growth patterns towards welcoming inwards-oriented growth. This is greatly thanks to a new generation entering the housing and job markets, the changing nature of work as well as the pressing environmental and economic consequences of suburban sprawl.

Like Tampere’s efforts to introduce a tram system and Hämeenkatu’s experiment shows, cities have slowly began to react to the changing circumstances and are aligning their strategies to serve new sets of citizen-needs. Needless to say, I find this fantastic. But like Tampere’s example also shows, my concerns lie in the practical dimension. Putting those forward-thinking ideas in plans and getting on-the-ground results is no bootleg maneuver. Far from it. Big ships turn slowly, the saying goes.

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The truth is that there is a hefty generation divide in how the younger end of the age pyramid perceives urban life compared to the groups towards the top of the pyramid. Also, the modernist planning system doesn’t easily deliver anymore. Maybe it does for out-of-town greenfield projects, but definitely not when the focus is on intensifying the existing urban fabric. Endless bureaucracy featuring numerous evaluations, shallow public participation processes, and, significantly, the firm idea of planning until every last detail is fixed, all sum to lengthy, expensive and stalling planning projects.

Things may be slowly progressing in the right direction, but for a long time it’s simply not easy to build the necessary political, financial, and/or civic support to push forward projects that aim for long-term change and transformation.

But what if we didn’t just put our hope in the big stuff, but started to challenge the status quo with the small and simple?

Tactical Urbanism

Conveniently, the Hämeenkatu episode coincided with my discovery of Mike Lydon’s and Anthony Garcia’s Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change, a great book focusing on how little, low-cost, often immediate, and temporary interventions can help plant the seeds for those big 21st-century-urbanism ideas to dodge the opposition, and eventually materialize as permanent change. It’s an approach for citizens, city governments and as well as for example developers or non-profits to “hack the city” and “disturb the order of things in the interest of change”.

Intersection repair is one form of Tactical Urbanism. The goal is to slow down traffic and upgrade public space. Image source: Flickr.
Intersection repair is one form of Tactical Urbanism. The goal is to slow down traffic and upgrade public space. Image credit: Greg Raisman.

Lydon and Garcia link Tactical Urbanism with the above-mentioned contemporary circumstances that affect urban development, but additionally also to the rapid rise of the internet, social media, and, above all, the growth of a DIY culture among younger citizens. Indeed, the concept of Tactical Urbanism is inseparably married to the phenomenon of a rising number of self-confident young adults who are keen on taking part in planning processes as co-producers, not just as distant participants.

That said, Lydon and Garcia also underline that Tactical Urbanism is not synonymous with all dimensions of DIY Urbanism that take place in cities (like e.g. pop-up street art). The common umbrella for Tactical Urbanism initiatives is that they are powered by “a movement based on a positive vision for the future”.

I ran into several applications of the parklet concept in Vienna. Parklets are a popular form of Tactical Urbanism and the idea has spread around the world. I don't know the exact story behind Vienna's parklets.
I ran into several applications of the parklet concept in Vienna. San Francisco born parklets are a popular form of Tactical Urbanism to make streets more livable. The idea has spread around the world. I don’t know the exact story behind Vienna’s parklets.

For citizens this means that Tactical Urbanism is a way to inspire their local governments to embrace change; to underline and call out for updating outdated policies that serve another era or to show what is possible using different methods. Cities on the other hand can use Tactical Urbanism within their planning processes to reach out to and inspire their citizens. This means using temporary pilot projects to bring planning concepts for people to touch and experience physically.

Process-wise, a key idea is not to just make use of acting small, but also applying the open-ended philosophy “build-measure-learn” instead of the current top-down planning philosophy “design-present-defend”. For cities this means that long-term city development should begin to think about co-creation, fast prototyping and testing out new methods boldly.

Times Square before and after its "pavement to plazas" transformation. Image courtesy of NYCDOT/Earthpowernews.
Times Square before and after its “pavement to plazas” transformation. Image courtesy of NYCDOT/Earthpowernews.

A very well-known example of a city-led Tactical Urbanism intervention is New York’s Times Square transformation from car-friendly to people-friendly. After increasing pressure for giving more space to people in the traffic-congested square and debates over whether closing streets in the area would lead to gridlock in the city and cause people to go elsewhere, the city’s administration decided to try what would happen if they did remove cars from the area. Overnight, much of Times Square was cut off from cars and filled with cheap foldable chairs.

The result? People loved it. And by collecting data through the different phases of the project, the city learned that the restructuring led to less congestion, shorter travel times, less accidents, more pedestrians, and eventually upped Times Square into the top 10 of world’s most valuable retail destinations. And perhaps most importantly, as everyone was able to see and experience the results for themselves, support to make the temporary intervention permanent came on its own accord.

Rotterdam's Luchtsingel footbridge. The structure is not just a bridge but a tool for making the area more nicer and more attractive for investors.
Rotterdam’s Luchtsingel footbridge. The structure is not just a bridge but a tool for making the area nicer and more attractive for investors.

A cool example of bottom-up Tactical Urbanism comes from the Netherlands where Rotterdam‘s new Luchtsingel bridge got built using crowdfunding. Following Rotterdam’s city hall not being able to improve the walkability of a run-down but start-up-filled quarter between busy thoroughfares due to budget constraints, local advocates decided to act. They generated a plan for a wooden footbridge and set up a crowdfunding system to begin its piece-by-piece completion by selling planks. Donors got their name or message engraved on to the plank(s) they purchased. Rotterdam’s city government eventually pitched in to finish the project because it got chosen by citizens to receive city funding and support.

Finland’s Bottom-Up Buzz

The obvious link between my project example from Tampere and the one from Times Square means that Tactical Urbanism is a very relevant concept for Finland, too. Finnish cities have admittedly been doing plenty of experiments within the urban planning realm throughout the country, but I’ve haven’t seen any transformation success stories.

A lot of interesting stuff is however happening on the citizens-led front. Although, so far not so much around urban planning. But the cultural sector has certainly benefited from a recent influx of citizen-instigated initiatives. The often-cited Restaurant Day is probably the most known of them and it nicely displays characteristics of Tactical Urbanism.

Restaurant Day seeks to transform Helsinki's food and restaurant policies as well as to make the city more sociable. Photo credit: Roy Bäckström.
Restaurant Day seeks to transform Helsinki’s food and restaurant policies as well as to make the city more sociable. Photo credit: Roy Bäckström.

The engine powering Restaurant Day came from a frustration to the inflexible policies around restaurants, and especially mobile restaurants. So in 2011, a handful of people just decided to open their own pop-up restaurant for a day without asking for permission from the city and invited others to do the same. The first Restaurant Day was carried out with 45 restaurants. Almost exactly one year ago, the number of participating pop-up restaurants peaked at 2724 in 35 countries. And what’s interesting is that the inauguration of Restaurant Day pushed Helsinki to ease their policies around food trucks (that are now present at every event) as well as it has led to a number of jumps from just-for-fun pop-up restaurants to real restaurants. Restaurant Day has not only made the city more fun and sociable, but it has also been a powerful tool for putting Helsinki’s and Finland’s policies around restaurants and food in the spotlight.

So far, to my knowledge, there aren’t any Finnish citizens-led ‘tactical’ projects that relate directly to urban planning and that would have taken on-the-ground forms (I believe Park(ing) Day was tried once). But things may be changing quickly. The explosion in online discussion forums shows that people are clustering around the subject. All of Finland’s three biggest cities Helsinki, Tampere and Turku have thriving online communities on Facebook to discuss, exchange and advance ideas in urban planning. Especially in Helsinki and Tampere there are big groups that also have a clearly defined goal of supporting denser and more urban city building.

Following these developments, also a couple of more or less substantial tactical initiatives have emerged. They are not the same kind of hands-on stuff many projects that get defined as Tactical Urbanism are (at least not yet), but they’re nevertheless still direct attempts to shake the system from within by using the same tools planners are.

The first one of them is a project I’m involved in: a group of concerned urban planning activists called Urban Helsinki. Our idea has been to intervene in planning processes by drafting alternative plans to raise awareness about the needs of today’s urban living, challenge old planning ideas, and to call for more open public participation processes as well as clearer and more approachable ways of communicating plans.

Our (Urban Helsinki) Pro Helsinki 2.0 plan shows how the city should be planned to make it more livable for 21st-century urban life. Image by Urban Helsinki.
Our (Urban Helsinki) Pro Helsinki 2.0 plan shows how the city should be planned to make it more livable for 21st-century urban life. Image by Urban Helsinki.

The big achievement of our two plans, Haaganpuro and Pro Helsinki 2.0, has been in forcing Helsinki’s planners to reflect their thinking against ours and check the validity of their arguments for creating great cities. In the aftermath of our Haaganpuro project, I received an email from an architect within the City Planning Department: “Hopefully we’ll also start to be more receptive towards new ideas and won’t just hold on to ones once found good. The world is indeed changing quickly and few things are exactly as they used to be.”

Our Pro Helsinki 2.0 project has also other tactical aims. Firstly, it seeks to address a major issue in comprehensive planning: it is a very difficult topic to discuss about. Typically, things work so that the city drafts a plan which offers a suggestion for the future, and throws it out for public review. But the problem is that it can be difficult even for professionals to fruitfully comment on a draft plan when there is just one way of developing to discuss. So as Helsinki started to draft its new comprehensive city plan, we decided to offer an alternative, more urban, vision to compare against. Secondly, the plan is an attempt to help some of Helsinki’s planning ambitions move forward. With Pro Helsinki 2.0, we want to help the city gather support behind the good parts of their plan so that they don’t get watered down or ripped apart in political fights by city-building conservatives.

Before Urbaani Tampere, people from the local urban activist community already organized themselves to support a plan for upgrading Tampere's football stadium. The project also includes building apartments around the stadium and has thus raised a NIMBY movement. Also local brewery has been mobilized to support the YIMBY movement. Image credit:
Before Urbaani Tampere got founded, people from the local urban activist community already organized a movement to support a plan for upgrading Tampere’s football stadium. The project also has intensification aims and the stadium regeneration comes with apartments and offices attached to it. This has sparked a NIMBY reaction in the neighborhood. Last month, also a local brewery was mobilized to support the YIMBY movement. Photo credit:

A newer citizens-driven tactical initiative comes from Tampere. Or more precisely, it’s hopefully the groundwork for many projects to come. In March this year, a group of activists from the local urbanist Facebook group decided to form their own association called Urbaani Tampere (yes, the word ‘urban’ is threatened with inflation) to have a more structured approach for spreading and defending urbanist ideas in the city. A key driver in Urbaani Tampere’s emergence was and is to help the city “win” discourses around its new densification plans in the city center. So far they’ve drafted and submitted position papers to some key projects and they’ve also entered the public urban planning discourse to highlight that there are also YIMBY feelings in the city. I’m very much looking forward to seeing if the emergence of Urbaani Tampere leads to the hands-on sorts of Tactical Urbanism initiatives. Please invite me to take part if you do!

Time to Step Out from City Hall

This takes us back to Tampere’s Hämeenkatu experiment. The project thankfully got saved by the Mayor, but an important question to ask is would things have gotten to that point at all if there was deeper outreach to the city center’s business owners? And equally importantly, could the planners have taken YIMBY parties who speak the language of quality urbanism, like Urbaani Tampere, to work with them?

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In the context of trying to bring quality urbanism, these types of experiments haven’t really worked because there always seems to be shortcomings in coalition-building and/or programming. Last year we saw a policy-makers driven idea to pedestrianize a part of Helsinki’s Mannerheimintie get shot down using the exact same arguments that almost sank Tampere’s project. Another good example is Helsinki’s experiment from a couple of years ago to make Vaasankatu a pedestrian street. For one summer, the city removed cars from the street to see what would happen if it were pedestrianized. The result? Nothing happened. And I don’t really see what could have happened when you just remove cars from an ordinary side street. Had the city programmed the venture together with the local bars and restaurants and/or tested some cool street furniture, things could have been a lot different.

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Mike Lydon and Andy Garcia agree. Their message is that cities should start getting more ‘tactical’ in their experiments by “creating programs that are accessible and allow for citizens, organizations and small business owners to take a leadership role in making change” (source). Lydon and Andy Garcia also note that city halls shouldn’t immediately shrug at bottom-up initiatives that emerge around issues that aren’t currently on the planners’ desks and/or are technically not permitted: “municipal government can and should work proactively with citizen leaders rather than crack down on their activity. Such projects are highly visible and should be considered a low-cost way to engage a wider audience of people.”

Based on my experience of getting ‘tactical’, recent talks with experts, and following today’s debates around many Finnish planning projects, I’m also quite confident that these suggestions for cities to keep their antennae up for existing or emerging citizens-led projects is a pathway towards better participation, collaboration and coalition-building between the formal and informal.

Developers can also use Tactical Urbanism. This is a visualization of a temporary shopping center that will soon be built in Helsinki's work-in-progress neighborhood Kalasatama. It will serve as a "placeholder" until SRV will complete its mega mall complex that will serve as the center of the neighborhood. Sadly, the container city already looks like better urbanism than the awful mall. Image courtesy of Hansacontainers Oy.
Developers can also use Tactical Urbanism. This is a visualization of a temporary shopping center that will soon get built in Helsinki’s work-in-progress neighborhood Kalasatama. It will serve as a “placeholder” until SRV will complete its mega-mall complex that will serve as the center of the neighborhood. Sadly, in this case the container city already looks like better urbanism than the awful mall. Image courtesy of Hansacontainers Oy.

Following the hype around the modern DIY culture, I think it’s also crucial for cities not to believe that they can plan ahead and provoke citizen activism. Because that’s impossible. But cities can and should definitely encourage their citizens to push for change and then welcome it with open arms when and if that happens.

Lastly, Lydon and Garcia stress that Tactical Urbanism isn’t “the or even one solution for many of our most vexing urban problems” and that there is no ideal way for planners nor citizens to use the methodology. The scalability of ideas is a priority, but the bottom line is that Tactical Urbanism is an always unique method for people and authorities to join forces in thinking outside the box, discovering, testing and adapting new concepts, and, ultimately, making better cities.

Cities, start cultivating a culture of experimentation today!

Istanbul: Notes on the Eternal City’s Urban Problems and Ideas

I had the pleasure to visit to Istanbul last week. This was just a leisure trip to explore the city (and have a break from work), but when roaming the streets I quickly noted that there’s no way I can keep myself from reflecting on what I’m seeing and hearing. I also had the privilege to meet with two local university students and explore different faces of the city together with them. Based on our wonderful talks and my observations, I decided to write a special feature on Istanbul that on the one hand highlights pressing issues in the city’s planning scene and on the other displays ideas other cities could learn and benefit from. This piece is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of Istanbul’s urban planning and policies by any means, but a collection of different aspects a Finnish urbanist encountered and found interesting during five days in the city. Continue reading Istanbul: Notes on the Eternal City’s Urban Problems and Ideas

K+S Urbanism – Will Mega-Retailers Kesko and S Group Ever Think Outside the Box?

Last year my neighborhood in Helsinki experienced a small, but curious change. A stuffy Czech-themed beerhouse called Milenka got refurbished into a somewhat trendy Scandinavian-style one, Ølhus Oslo. Now, the incident that a worn-out joint got replaced by something more hip is not exceptional at all – new eateries and bars get opened all the time in my neighborhood which these days continuously shows up on all sorts of “hipster” lists. Continue reading K+S Urbanism – Will Mega-Retailers Kesko and S Group Ever Think Outside the Box?

Six Major Developments Shaping Finnish Cities: 2014 in Review

Another exciting year has passed! To wrap up 2014, I decided to piece together what I think are the six most important developments that shaped Finnish cities during the past year.

Most things obviously weren’t invented this year nor did they directly affect every city; it’s better to grasp my list as themes that peaked to dominate urban policy discussions or to guide planning practice. Nonetheless, I feel that exceptionally much has happened on the Finnish urban development front and I believe the items on my list are likely to profoundly shape our cities and activities in them in the years ahead. Some of them I’ve already blogged about, some I’m looking back on now.

Here goes. Continue reading Six Major Developments Shaping Finnish Cities: 2014 in Review

Changing Work Patterns and the Rise of Urban Innovation Districts – The Future in Finland?

The changing nature of how and where we work seems to be hollowing out Finland’s science & business parks and industrial areas. Is the geography of innovation shifting and leaving cities facing a choice between sticking with a landscape of vacant business premises and nurturing lively innovation districts?

Last month an over 10,000-strong horde of startup entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and media representatives flocked to Helsinki to attend Slush, a two-day technology and startup event that seeks to pair great ideas with investors. Even the Chinese Vice Prime Minister Wang Jang joined the party. This is quite noteworthy since the concept only got started in 2008 by a small group of Finnish entrepreneurs who wanted to bring the local startup scene together at least once every year. Now Slush is one of the leading tech and startup events in the world. Continue reading Changing Work Patterns and the Rise of Urban Innovation Districts – The Future in Finland?

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

City of Boulevards or City of Malls? Urban Transport Infrastructure Retrofits Are Changing the Urban Landscape in Helsinki and Tampere

This article has been written in collaboration with Panu Lehtovuori and was originally published in Project Baltia's issue 22 "Infrastructure". Project Baltia is a professional journal covering architecture, urban planning, and design in North-West Russia, Finland, and the Baltic states. The journal is published in St. Petersburg. Panu Lehtovuori is an architect and urbanist. Currently he works as the Professor of Planning Theory at Tampere University of Technology’s School of Architecture. Not all images were published in Project Baltia.

Substantial infrastructure investments are currently reshaping Helsinki and Tampere, Finland’s two largest urban centres. The aim of most ongoing projects is to create new hybrid urban landscapes which will replace or modify large-scale transport infrastructures. These changes are taking place, in particular, around rail terminals and mid-20th century urban highways. The Finnish projects echo transformations in many European and North American cities, where single-use traffic zones are being converted to mixed-use neighbourhoods and parks to boost cities’ livability. Continue reading City of Boulevards or City of Malls? Urban Transport Infrastructure Retrofits Are Changing the Urban Landscape in Helsinki and Tampere