In recent years, energy efficiency has been probably the most discussed issue within the urban development sphere here in Finland. The topic generally crosses all levels of planning and is present to a greater or lesser extent in all planning initiatives. I’m guessing the situation is similar in most European countries with the 2010 passing of the European Energy Performance of Buildings Directive as well as the recent explosion of green building codes such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and BREEAM. Our national government has additionally raised the bar by introducing an action plan for Finland to meet its 2020 EU climate goals already by 2017.
The resulting ERA17 program boldly sets out to place Finland no more or less than as the “leader in energy-efficient built environments”. Moreover, the “ultimate goal of the plan is that in 2050, Finland will be able to offer the world’s best living and operating environment for people and businesses”. There are six key action areas for achieving this: energy-efficient land use, distributed methods of energy production, steering of construction, ownership and use of real estate, and taking know-how further (read more here).
This all sounds very comprehensive and welcome. Still, there is an issue that has bugged me for some time now and which is present all too often with our ever-increasing projects and discussions related to energy-efficient urban development: an incapability to integrate concepts in environmental sustainability and urban livability.
Before going any further, I want to stress that I am not against the concept of energy efficiency or sustainability. On the contrary, I highly support measures to mitigate climate change. Global warming is the most pressing global issue at hand and we actively need to put forward initiatives to e.g. cut down CO2 emissions. Within the urban development sphere, measures can for instance be taken at the building-level by optimizing building materials and construction processes. In Finland we especially have great potential in using more wood as a building material for carbon emission savings.
At the city and regional levels, environmentally friendly actions can be done by planning walkable and dense neighborhoods that are efficiently connected with public transportation as opposed to sprawling cities where mobility is car-dependent.
These concepts that contribute to the environmental sustainability of cities are well-documented and largely acknowledged among all parties contributing to urban development at all scales. So where’s the problem?
Well, the unfortunate reality is that in Finland we all too often just focus on one dimension of climate change mitigation. The ERA17 initiative underscores this argument. As so typically with the Finnish planning culture, it focuses solely on the quantifiable dimensions of urban development. We are a nation run by engineers and it shows. For instance, in the ERA17 vision statement it is noted that in the desired future Finland will have cut carbon emissions by “increased use of public transport, cycling, and walking”. For “energy-efficient land use” – aka urban planning – this primarily means the adoption of “calculated effects of carbon emissions of energy supply solutions, transport services, and buildings in their planning of new housing areas“. In the future, this “will be the norm, not an exception”.
This is all important, but let me tell you that with what’s happening on the ground now, we are still light years away from offering the “world’s best living and operating environments”. The buildings we develop with calculator-led planning may technically be super sustainable, but what is it worth if they result in an urban environment that won’t stand the test of time?
One key thing we seem to have forgotten all about is how we treat spaces between buildings. This is the concern of urban design at large, and something I’ve specifically been inspired to look at after attending classes held by Professor Larry R. Ford while studying at San Diego State University.
Mr. Ford’s approach to assessing cities was not only to look at how individual buildings contribute to the character of a city (see photo above), but also how those buildings together along with other features that exist in between them add up to create the urban reality that we daily experience. Through his research he concluded to amplify the message Jane Jacobs and company brought about in the 1960s to challenge modernist urban planning concepts: cities with friendly, permeable facades and a great variety of street-level doors are more contributive to civic life than cities characterized by fortress-like structures with blank walls and invisible doors. Our recipe for sustainable world-class cities is missing this vital ingredient badly.
Furthermore, another key area of improvement is the same I’ve touched upon before in my blog when comparing the neighborhoods of Kartanonkoski and Sankt Erikskvarteren. Besides lively architecture, the location where we build things, how we mix different uses with each other, and the kind of pattern we choose for our development, all matter. If we build low-density and single-use neighborhoods that are far away from everything, we are not likely to get “increased use of public transport, cycling, and walking”.
To illustrate my concerns, I looked up some landmark initiatives for energy-efficient construction in the greater Helsinki area and photographed them for you. Here’s a walk-through of how our energy-efficient, world-class urban environments look like in reality at the moment.
The first neighborhood I went to is Viikki. It is often called Finland’s leading area of ecological building and among other eco-friendly features, it is home to Finland’s least energy-consuming office building, the Viikki Environment House. Another landmark project is a wood construction site of 104 apartments. Its development is setting standards for future wood construction implementation and the site naturally has a smaller than average carbon footprint.
Awesome. The downside however is that Viikki as a whole is very disconnected from the city. Besides the University of Helsinki’s Viikki campus, it is almost solely residential. The neighborhood didn’t even have a proper supermarket for years until the appearance of a gigantic hyper market at the side of the bordering highway. Despite an effort to develop Viikki as denser than the conventional suburban neighborhoods, you’re still best off by owning a car if you live there.
Viikki is however way more centrally located than the next two energy-efficient out-of-town office projects. The Plaza Business Park in Vantaa and the Alberga Business Park in Espoo both market themselves as attractive destinations where your company can make a difference environmentally by locating there. The premises certified with BREEAM “very good” standards will make sure of this. And undoubtedly will. But I’m not too sure about how these developments add to the attractiveness of their respective neighborhoods. Especially the project in Vantaa is a school-book example of the impacts of single-use zoning. The closest residential area must be about a kilometer away.
In all fairness, not all highly energy-efficient buildings get thrown to the suburbs. Some have been built within the inner city in locations such as Ruoholahti, Sörnäinen, Vallila and Töölönlahti. These office projects are well-located, contribute more or less to the mixing of uses as well as extend the inner city’s urban pattern. However, consulting services from Professor Ford would still have come in handy. Most of these buildings offer just one door to the street – if any.
The office complexes Manskun Rasti at the very northern edge of the inner city and Technopolis in Ruoholahti are quite extreme examples of this. At Manskun Rasti the buildings are generally nicely built in urban fashion with an immediate connection between the building and the street. Both of the Rasti buildings hold platinum-level LEED certifications and the project has won the title of Construction Site of the Year 2011 due to its innovative construction process. The problem just is that there are no doors (apart from two maintenance doors) to the street. The entrances to the two buildings are at the back next to the garage and parking lot. Curiously enough, the other building hosts the headquarters of Skanska Finland – one of our largest construction companies. Don’t expect prizes for best-practice in people-friendly design.
Also in Ruoholahti you’re expected to arrive by car. The LEED-certified Technopolis office complex is hidden behind a power plant and not very easily approachable on foot. I had a hard time even getting to the door of the building I had looked up. Had I come by car, I could have of course just driven into the parking garage and probably entered through there. In any case once you’re there, you can enjoy a nice view to the sea while roaming the premises. Or a massive parking lot. Or a six-lane highway.
The case examples in Sörnäinen and Vallilla offer a much more street-integrated approach. But also here the idea has been to build a blank wall and put just one door in the middle. The fortress-like designs don’t send a very inviting message to the bypasser. Well, at least in Sörnäinen you can enjoy the reflection of yourself if nothing else.
The remaining Töölönlahti example also follows this same ideology. And what’s more worrying is that the case building is developed into the very heart of the city along with a stretch of similar buildings. The developer claims to have been “strongly committed to promoting sustainable development and eco-efficiency” with the building at hand as well as others in the project area.
The last I heard, this Töölönlahti area was also envisioned to transform into an urban living room and cultural oasis for the city. Despite the project area in its entirety is not finished yet, critics are already voicing anger over the notion that such a dull concentration of office buildings was allowed to be erected in such a prime location. I too find it hard to believe that these new developments will stand the test of time and act as buildings contributing to a memorable experience of the city. At least not in the positive light.
To sum up, if we want to create the world’s best and most sustainable urban environments, we can’t just focus on building random buildings with great energy-efficiency solutions. These may have a significant impact on carbon emissions, but it’s what these buildings look like, where we place them, how they relate with one another and what we put in between them that matter in the art of making sustainable places where people will want live too. To avoid creating throw-away urban landscapes, we need to think outside of the “quantifiable” box and take on board “qualitative” dimensions of the built environment as well.
One great example that combines excellence in energy-efficiency and city-building is Helsinki University’s new library building, Kaisa-talo. It has been awarded gold-level LEED certification and designed to give a face for what modern Finnish urban architecture could be like. The building blends perfectly into the existing urban structure and despite being one huge structure, it is gracious and has two busy entrances on the pictured façade. And one more in the back too.
By extracting inspiration from this spirit, we would definitely start making some progress in designing world-class urban environments.