Making Downtown Helsinki more Walkable – It’s Time for a Grassroots Revolution

The latest episode in my series of DIY urban planning efforts is out.

With my Urban Helsinki team members we’ve already crafted urbanist proposals on a detailed level for a site in the future expansion zone of Helsinki’s inner city. And on a city-wide level with an alternative Helsinki master plan.

The focus has dominantly been on questions related to new neighborhoods. As many choose urban living over suburbia today, we’ve emphasized the need for high-quality urban environments for a new generation of city dwellers. Not to mention the need for decreasing mobility footprints by increasing the “walkability” and “bikeability” of our urban areas (= more walking and biking, less driving).

Oslo’s waterfront is a nice place to stroll even on a gray winter day.

Despite being the most urban and walkable areas already, this time we want to highlight that city centers across Finland don’t necessarily always offer comfortable urban experiences.

In these contexts, the original setting of placing pedestrians first has all too often, little by little, been altered towards giving priority to cars. Leaving us with unpleasing pedestrian experiences due to increased noise levels, poor access on foot, surface parking lots, and generally, the excess space allocated just for cars.

Now it’s time to reverse the trend and begin investing energy, resources and brainpower into adapting our urban cores to the needs of 21st urban living at the expense of unnecessary car-dominated through traffic. Many cities around the world have already picked up on this and there’s no reason Finnish cities should make an exception.

Helsinki’s Railway Station and the Pursuit for a Walkable City

In Helsinki, it’s difficult to imagine a better site for making pedestrian-oriented streetscape improvements than the area around the central railway station. Over 200 000 people walk through the station each day. Many also pass it by bike.

Helsinki’s railway station area is always packed with people. Much of the space is however reserved for cars.

But it’s no pedestrian paradise. Over the years the station area has evolved to become an obscure place you just pass through to go somewhere else. The vast pedestrian flows meet a confusing and uninviting mix of car lanes, bike lanes, surface parking lots, and bus and tram stops. Many set a meeting in front of the main doors but few stay in the area. The view opening from the station’s doors is also the first impression many visitors get about our capital.

The station area is home to a mix of all sorts of traffic.

The surroundings of the architectural masterpiece by Eliel Saarinen deserve better. The area could be filled with more people, colors, smells, light and murmur. And it could be safe to move around for everyone.

The idea of “pedestrianizing” downtown Helsinki is actually not new. Such ambitions have emerged already starting from the late 1960s. And there have even been grandiose official plans decades ago.

Kävelykeskusta, periaatesuunnitelma 1989. Image: the City of Helsinki
This is an excerpt from the 1989 pedestrianization plan. Some of the main bits of it were completed a couple of years ago. Right now the city is apparently drafting a new pedestrianization vision again. Image: the City of Helsinki.

But enforcing these ideas has been incredibly slow. Only small fractions have been done here and there.

One of the biggest problems behind the slow pace lies in a design-related ambition to get everything done at once. Another is that the progression of many pedestrian projects is coupled with the materialization of impossibly huge mega projects. Many end up perceiving Helsinki’s pedestrianization projects as something we can’t afford.

The most notorious pedestrianization precondition many decision-makers and planners always return to is digging a tunnel beneath Helsinki’s city center. It would ensure undisturbed access by car should pedestrians get more freedom to roam the city’s streets. The price tag is estimated at over 500 million euros. It’s not going to happen anytime soon – if ever.

Crowdsourcing Problems and Solutions

So the surroundings of the station are uninviting. This is a fact almost everyone agrees on. But what to do about it isn’t such a straightforward question. What should be done and where to start exactly?

We decided to consult the users of the station area to find out. To kick off the project, we launched an interactive map-based questionnaire in November 2015 for collecting people’s experiences about the station area – including their ideas for making it better. The questionnaire was open until Christmas Eve and 203 people answered. Many were young adults.

Our consultation can be divided into three main parts.

Parannettava paikka.
The most intensely mapped areas for improvement. The tool we used for data collection and analysis: Maptionnaire.

First, we asked citizens to mark both detailed spots and larger areas that in their opinion need to be made nicer. Here are some examples of things that were mapped: the parking lot in front of the main doors, many street/bike lane crossings, the ugly metro entrance cubicles, the lack and quality of bike parking, the lack of greenery, and uninviting public spaces.

Kiva paikka.
These are spots people find most enjoyable.

Second, we also wanted to capture the features that make people happy. And there were plenty: the adjacent cultural institutions and restaurant services, the interiors of the railway station, the occasional events on Rautatientori, the line of trees on Postikatu and the flow of people on the west side of the station.

Bike routes.
The yellow lines are routes people marked they bike the most. The red ones are bike paths/lanes/connections they wish existed.

And third, since this project is about walkability (and bikeability, too) we of course wanted to grasp people’s experiences of moving around in the vicinity of the station. We asked them to draw the walking and cycling routes they use the most as well as where they feel important connections are missing. The most significant missing connections were the lack of an underground cycling passage on the north side of the station, and a cycling connection to Mannerheimintie. People also disliked that pedestrians need to walk unnecessarily long routes at times.

Here are examples of the improvement ideas and wishes we received:

”Restaurants, especially ones with terraces and a Central European feel, a market or trendy restaurant stalls, plantings, small trees, sculptures and other art installations, and a history wall that displays the story of the railway station and its surroundings over the years.”

”I mostly wish for the station area to become an active and lively part of Helsinki’s city center, a place where you can find services and displays one of the best sides of the city.”

“Less through traffic and bus terminals, more space for pedestrians and terraces. Better cycling lanes and bike racks.”

The Transformation Strategy

Now the problems become clearer. But making improvements happen is still another story.

There’s the preconditioned and/or megalomaniac investment policy that I described above. It stalls walkability projects. Then there’s a lack in skills. The low quality of recent planning projects around the country highlight that there’s catching up to do in the city-building sphere when it comes to shaping dense and cozy environments. And finally, there’s the battle against the status quo across all types of decision-making bodies and levels. Even though the demand for urbanist solutions has clearly accelerated in Finland, many such projects get stuck completely in the crossfire between different planning ideals. Big ships turn slowly.

Experience around the world has however taught us that the transformation from car-oriented to people-oriented doesn’t need to happen overnight. Mike Lydon and Andy Garcia stress in their concept of “Tactical Urbanism” that a useful recipe for getting things done under uncertain conditions is applying “short-term action for long-term change”. Indeed, the trip towards our railway station vision can begin with small interventions. And ones that get implemented over time but not necessarily simultaneously.

Starting in an iterative way can also be a useful idea considering that we have little experience in delivering attractive streetscapes. They don’t just happen by deciding so. Cities are complex and there is no single blueprint for creating walkable places. The concept extends to for example the scale of the urban environment, distances between destinations, pedestrian access, the quality of the service environment, the mixing of uses and the connectedness of pedestrian routes.

Undeniably, many aspects contribute to a great walking experience. In his “General Theory of Walkability, Jeff Speck crystallizes 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.

This is one possible scenario how the station are could be like in the long run if our strategy was implemented. Image by Antti Auvinen/Urban Helsinki.

Our suggestion for a strategy to transform the area around the railway station is to fuse these two planning concepts together. This includes packaging the different dimensions of walkability-thinking into thematic planning principles. The measures inside these reflect the feedback we got from citizens. The long-reaching walkability principles are then best made real here and there over time, applying the Tactical Urbanism approach. Meaning using small, immediate interventions and experiments.

This may be slow again considering big permanent changes, but, through trial and error, we are more likely to eventually end up with sustainable solutions. And it can be fun. The evolution progresses from immediate inexpensive temporary solutions to more ambitious and permanent ones.

The Urban Helsinki vision for a walkable Helsinki station area. Image by Niilo Tenkanen.
Another view on the Urban Helsinki “Steissi”-scenario. Image by Niilo Tenkanen.

 The principles and measures:

 More pedestrian and cycling-oriented transport infrastructure
Photo by Kai Brinker / CC BY.
Photo by Kai Brinker / CC BY.
  • Less car-oriented transport infrastructure
  • Make navigation more easy; clearly marked pedestrian routes, clearly marked and separated bike lanes, signage
  • More bike parking; indoors and outdoors
  • Consider making places safe enough for children
More sit-able outdoor public spaces
  • Include: benches and other sitting infrastructure
  • Wind shelter
  • Things to see and do
  • Art
  • Better lighting
  • Food stalls and trucks
More inviting indoor(-sy) spaces
  • Cover applicable areas with glass structures
  • Introduce pavilions
  • Terraces
More greenery
  • Parklets
  • Planting pots
  • Planting trees
  • Green walls
More events
More events.
  • Introduce different types of events to enliven the city and bring variety and recreation to the users of the area.

Especially in the beginning phase of the transformation process we should stick to experimenting with light changes. These are pop-up interventions that leave the existing infrastructure unaltered but let us gain experiences as if permanent changes were made. Also events are an easy and low-risk method for simulating change in urban surroundings.

This parking lot is ready for overhaul. There is ample underground parking right at the station and everywhere in the city center. After decades of allowing cars sit in the sun, maybe it’s time we try if people would enjoy it more.

Based on our citizen consultation results and by just looking at the area, a perfect and easy-to-use spot for launching the first experiments stands out. This is the parking lot just outside the station’s main doors.

Its pedestrian friendliness can be increased by just blocking access by cars. Moreover, replacing the cars with a few food trucks and adding chairs around them would invite people to linger. A simple pop-up parklet could also be introduced to bring some greenery into the area.

Urban Helsinki’s pedestrianization plan for downtown Helsinki. All areas colored in the map could be improved with our walkability transformation strategy. The existing pedestrian areas to become even more comfortable and the rest to begin their journey towards turning into more sociable places.

And finally, our transformation strategy is by no means limited to the railway station area. The expansion of a pedestrian-oriented city center can be done using the same approach. The principles should specifically be implemented inside the “triangle” of the railway station, Stockmann’s department store and Kamppi shopping center triangle, as well as along Pohjoisesplanadi to the Market Square. These are underperforming walking hotspots.

Gradual walkability projects should also be started in select locations within elsewhere in the inner city as well as all substantially densifying areas around the suburbs.

A Few Notes on Public Participation

In line with our other Urban Helsinki work, the aim of this project is to arouse discussion over the direction and quality of urban planning in Helsinki. It has been completed independently and out of sheer passion for pursuing a better city for everyone. Thus, our work is also about exploring the state of our public participation culture.

The experiences from this project are mixed. Our work is showcased publicly as part of the City Planning Department’s “Bicycle Traffic in Helsinki” exhibition and with full freedom over its content. This is awesome and much appreciated.

But it was difficult to get in touch with the planners who work with the city center’s pedestrianization schemes. Once it became clear that we weren’t going to stop asking, we managed to schedule a meeting to present the outcome of our public consultation and what we think ought to be done to help the center become more walkable.

It’s difficult to articulate what should have happened in our dialogue because we’re constantly sailing in uncharted waters with our DIY projects. But getting looked down upon, made feel that we’re only bothering, and having our skills undermined, certainly isn’t that something.

Our project and guests of the Bicycle Traffic in Helsinki exhibition’s opening ceremony.

The exhibition entry shows that on the surface there’s ambition in the City Planning Department for supporting citizens to take action on their own. Deeper inside, the ambition gradually wears off. But that’s where the plans are made.

We know our project isn’t perfect. It’s been made during evenings, nights, weekends, holidays, and without access to data or a wide spectrum of stakeholders we should have spoken with –and what not.

But there’s one thing it doesn’t lack: ambition to show what types of planning questions are important to younger generations. Less than 1% of our young-adult-dominated questionnaire respondents marked that the environs of the railway station are in a satisfactory state for pedestrians and cyclists. Over 99% agreed that improvements are needed. The primary message people’s responses conveyed is best summarized with this feedback: “Nice that someone is at least trying to make this better”.

This is hardly exact science, I know. But perhaps it’s the tip of a rising iceberg.

Learn more about our “Steissi” project here. Also, explore the results of our public consultation here or download the entire data to yourself (everything’s only in Finnish, unfortunately).





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