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.

Empty.
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 ❤ 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 ❤ 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 ❤ 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.

Myyrmäenraitti
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.
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.

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