Urban Lessons from Hong Kong and Tokyo

One of the best things is flaneuring across cities around the world. They’re all different, yet remarkably similar. It’s the perfect opportunity for reflecting how your own city or cities compare. Two places I’ve recently had the pleasure of exploring are Hong Kong and Tokyo.

These Far East mega cities may seem an odd couple at first, but there’s a key theme they share: they’ve been built over and over again. Hardcore redevelopment is part of their DNA.

Tokyo has been destroyed many times by war and other disasters. More recently it has been changing under the pressure of a back-to-the-city movement, especially around brownfield areas. Hong Kong has also gone through hard times, but here the primary force driving urban change has been quick population growth in a geographically limited area and the city’s strategy to generate fiscal revenue via land sales.

Each destruction point or wave of redevelopment has brought about a new way of developing the cities. Many of those layers are not there anymore. Including Tokyo’s 19th-century “bricktown” Ginza.
Similarly Hong Kong used to look a lot different than it does today.

I found Hong Kong and Tokyo fascinating and want to share some of my experiences as inspiration and reflection for cities in Finland and elsewhere in the world. Even if the duo undeniably would deserve their own in-depth posts.

On with the lessons and experiences!

1. The cities are a reminder that quality urbanism isn’t limited to historic neighborhoods

In Finland the only places you’ll find some traces of urban vibrancy and street life are the historic cores of cities. Anywhere more modern, forget about it.

The same can’t be said about Hong Kong and Tokyo. Despite having close to zero buildings that date from before World War II, their streets are so busy with people and activities that it can even get overwhelming. The beauty of it is that there’s economic activity of all kinds mixed into a huge web of enterprises ranging from street vendors to small businesses and global corporations.

If you don’t like crowds, Hong Kong (nor Tokyo) may not be for you. This is just another shopping street in Mong Kok.

The vibrant urban life in both cities is obviously powered by high-density living and an efficient public transportation system. But the key factor I want to stress is design. Hong Kong and Tokyo are largely fine-grained cities. Meaning that each city block consists of many buildings. Most buildings don’t stand out as architectural masterpieces, but the fine-grained structure enables an interesting mix of everything. And the buildings are designed to have very human-friendly and diverse streetfronts leading to endless to enjoy. A word that often came to my mind to describe these areas is “complex”.

Many Tokyo’s neighborhoods have a small-town feel to them while they’re also incredibly full of life. Many backstreets are so narrow you basically have to walk in the middle of them. This is no problem because there are very few cars.

In Tokyo much of the urban fabric is made up of buildings that are quite small (sometimes really tiny), narrow and diverse. There’s a certain hierarchy, too. Bigger buildings cluster along main avenues and behind them you’ll find lengthy networks of narrow, alley-like streets.

This is Kennedy Town in Hong Kong. The narrow high-rises are an interesting feat of the city. They also make the finer-grained city possible.

In Hong Kong buildings across the city tend to be much larger and also a lot taller than in Tokyo. The street network is also more grid-like but there are plenty of smaller streets and alleys to go around, too. These alleys usually accommodate market stalls of all sorts.

The smaller streets in Hong Kong feel sometimes like you’re walking through a shop or restaurant.

2. The global “super mixed use” is something to watch out for

Suburban sprawl has been the urbanists’ archenemy since the 20th century. Following a shift towards a rediscovery of city centers and backed up by intensified globalization, a new villain has emerged in the 21st century: the “super mixed use” real estate (re)development model.

While investment in the inner city is a good thing, the “super mixed use” is basically a mutation of the modernist urban project that’s feeding on today’s more city-friendly aspirations. The model incorporates offices, commerce and/or apartments into one giant complex. Part of the catch is that it’s sold as something intrinsically urban. Yet the ways the “super mixed use” materializes is gradually doing away with the complexity of urban neighborhoods with universalizing giant malls and towers.

Before: Kwun Tong Town is a bit run-down, but nonetheless it’s center is typically active and full of local businesses. This photo is from May 2016. Photo credit: CumulusHK.

A grand example of this type of a redevelopment process is showcased in Hong Kong’s 2030+ vision, where the Kwun Tong Town center gets demolished under the goals for achieving a “high-density livable city”. The replacement, a monstrous megastructure, will “adopt best practice planning and design concepts, including compact rail-based development, a good mix of daily convenience, urban living close to nature, and smart, green and resilient districts, etc.”

This is what Kwun Tong Town is going to get. It’s goodbye for the fine-grained city. Image credit: HK Urban Renewal Authority
The Tokyo Skytree Town complex is not a “town”. It’s a super big box that encloses shopping, restaurants, entertainment and of course the Skytree tower itself.

In Tokyo some prominent example projects include Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Skytree Town which have both landed like alien spacecraft in the middle of otherwise highly fine-grained neighborhoods. But if you want to see what the dystopic city preferred by this type of development philosophy looks like, go visit Odaiba Island. It’s supersized mallscape is the complete antithesis of the walkable, human-scaled Tokyo.

At man-made Odaiba Island the scale of everything is enormous. The liveliness of mainland Tokyo feels like a distant dream when you’re trying to navigate through the elevated walkways and vast, empty plazas.

3. Redevelopment and the global-local nexus

Yes, I’m in love with redevelopment. It’s clear that there’s a task for urban policy to come up with a model that supports the cities’ (or any city’s) valuable legacy of fine-grained structures (and economies) but also answers to the realities of global investment circuits and people’s lifestyle demands.

Moving socially upwards means getting a shot at being a true “Westerner” and so come the artsy cafes, microbreweries, and design shops swooping in.

An observation from Hong Kong. Unlike the more affluent Tokyo, Hong Kong is a city driven by strong social mobility. In the more traditional neighborhoods you can easily follow how the new urban class and their consumption patterns are taking over the city. Gentrification obviously is associated with problems that deserve a discussion of its own, but what I want to highlight is that the intense urban change within the “older” neighborhoods tells a compelling story about the adaptability/flexibility of the fine-grained city and traditional urban block to accommodate the pressures of modern lifestyle aspirations.

Cartier’s new building in Ginza doesn’t break the fine-grained pattern.

An observation from Tokyo. I came across interesting prototypes of new development that don’t necessarily kill the foundations for vibrant street life and are also clearly interesting for investors. For example many global fashion brands have set up shop in their own new buildings on the main streets in Harajuku and Ginza. This “fashion architecture” is often human-friendly and permeable at the street level. These examples from Tokyo don’t necessarily represent local capital or local character style-wise, but they nonetheless embrace the structure of the fine-grained city that is the foundation for a fine-grained and more resilient economy.

The point: it’s evidently also possible to build and develop viable cities in our time without the “super mixed use” monoliths.

4. A city can also work vertically

An interesting feature in Tokyo and Hong Kong is that many buildings have functions and activities also in the upper (and basement) floors. And not just upstairs from the street level but really on any floor.

For a European the vertical setup is quite puzzling because we’re used to interacting with commercial spaces at the street level.  It’s difficult to get a grip of the possibilities on the upper or lower floors. Is there anyone in the restaurant? Who are the clientele and is the interior appealing?

A street in Tokyo with activities in all three dimensions. Choosing where to go can be a daunting task.

There are any number of reasons for the vertical setups – the prices of on-street retail space in a bustling city not being the lightest – but there’s one that could have significance for other continents as well.

In Tokyo at least, “it has to do with curated lives” Greg Dvorak told me over lunch. He is a long-time resident and connoisseur of urban life in Tokyo – and especially the local bathscape which he’s written about in Tokyo Totem. What he means is that in a fractured, postmodern city with countless lifestyles and endless offerings “you create your own Tokyo and know exactly where to go”.

Indeed, perhaps Tokyo is an already existing expression of the hyper-connected urban world and its spatial service arrangement that other cities will confront sometime in the future.

5. Make the most out of whatever space you have

In the high-density environment the struggle for space is fierce. For directly fiscally “unproductive” public spaces and green spaces this means good negotiation skills and creative solutions.

A vertical public plaza in Hong Kong.

Especially in Hong Kong there are cool examples of how to fit in small plazas, small parks and other green structures wherever there’s space. Although overall the city isn’t very green – Singapore apparently being the Asian metropolis to benchmark in this respect. But then again that’s compensated by vast nature areas just a stone’s throw away from the city.

A compact garage in an apartment building in Tokyo.

Tokyo on the other hand has even fewer green spaces. And not too many public plazas either for that matter. Just try to find a bench to sit on. But the city offers many other inspiring ideas for smart use of space. Take for example the city’s parking facilities that often feature a “turntable” so you don’t need to turn your car around. Or the various robot car parks across the city. Another, rather surprising, idea is to integrate train stations literally seamlessly into neighborhoods.

In some Tokyo neighborhoods, you can practically live at the local train stop.

6. Small things can make density more livable

Hong Kong and Tokyo have both culturally formed around a necessity of working together, sharing and getting along. Even if cities in Finland are less cramped, here are some ideas worth considering stealing to make urban life more comfortable now or in the future.

Crowd management at Kiyomasa’s well near the Meiji shrine in Tokyo.

The well-known example from metro stations is staff that will help you fit into trains at rush hours. But at stations you’ll also appreciate the super clear signage for e.g. helping you find the right exit. At least in Tokyo at some busy stations they’ve also made sure everyone gets to plan their trip properly by having taped a queuing system on the floor in front of the train information boards. And all in all, in both cities you’ll discover queuing to be well organized wherever you go.

Hong Kong’s big with street markets. So there’s apparently an on-off system for them taking over some streets when necessary.

In Tokyo, they also care about your pedestrian experience. At the entrances to bigger car parks you’ll meet guards that control the flow of pedestrians on the sidewalk and cars trying to get in or out. The same applies for any construction site. There will be someone to see you won’t have any trouble passing by.

Got a wet umbrella or bags with you? No worries, they’ve always got your back in Tokyo.

When heading out to eat, in Hong Kong you might easily get seated in a table with strangers to make sure everyone can come in. Following a similar thought, in Tokyo you might come across restaurants with standing tables. The concept is supposedly invented to cut costs for people to eat out in an era of economic hardship. Most Tokyo restaurants will also offer convenient small baskets for you to store your jacket or bag. Got an umbrella? No worries, establishments in Tokyo have wonderful ways for making sure you don’t have any inconvenience taking one with you.

Hong Kong’s push carts are ubiquitous and you sometimes see amazing amounts of goods on them. Not sure how the system works, but you don’t see too many delivery vans parked in front of businesses.

Another cool thing is how they handle deliveries for businesses in dense and complex urban environments. In Hong Kong you’ll be amazed how they keep the city running with small push carts. In Tokyo you’ll see fewer carts, but at the world’s largest wholesale fish market they run the show with fascinating small electric vehicles that look a bit like R2D2.

I saw these R2D2 look-a-likes only at the Tsukiji fish market, but they’d make excellent delivery vans elsewhere, too. A bit like the upgraded version of the pushcart.

As a final thought, I must say that Hong Kong and Tokyo are actually more similar than different from Helsinki or any city. We often tend to think ideas and examples from other cities will not transfer to cities in our country. But it’s not true. Many urban problems and solutions are universal.

Want to have your own house and garden but don’t want to move out of the city? Consider moving to Tokyo.

The stereotypical Finnish dream is to have your own house in the middle of the city and by the water. Excluding the water, Tokyo’s small-scale development model has made this a normal way of living right in the middle of the world’s largest metropolitan area. How cool is that?

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: Prohattutemppu.net.
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: Prohattutemppu.net.

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

PehmoGIS-menetelmillä kohti asuintoiveita priorisoivaa kaupunkikehittämistä

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

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

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