The Quest for Terrific Courtyards in Creating High-Class Density

Kallio, my neighborhood in central Helsinki is a fantastic and lively place to live in. Most services are within a couple of blocks, there are plenty of bars and restaurants to choose from, you can hang out in a number of characteristic parks, and the connections to elsewhere in Helsinki are superb. There’s little to complain about.

Except there’s one thing. When I’m feeling too lazy to go out to the park or the weather’s a bit unpredictable, I often envy my friends who have the luxury to lounge on their balcony or in their yard. I live in a building from the 1930s that doesn’t have balconies and I can’t really resort to the yard option either.

My yard.
My yard is very basic and small.

My courtyard’s a tiny stretch of asphalt with a table and seating for four. Three sides of the courtyard serve as bike racks and on the fourth there’s a small shack for the garbage bins coupled by some miserable plantings. No one in my building hangs out in the courtyard. The only people you see spending some time there are those who need to pop down for a smoke.

The garbage shack side of the courtyard also couples as a two-meter-tall wall that separates our courtyard from that of the building across the block. I can see from my window that they have some grass, two trees, at least three benches, and a small playground for kids.

It’s not perfect, but looks so much nicer than ours. I wouldn’t mind being able to sit under the trees and the family upstairs would probably value the playground. But none of us living in my building have access to their yard.

Our courtyard.
There’s plenty of space inside my block.

And the same goes for all the buildings in my perimeter block. The block itself is big and there’s ample unbuilt space enclosed inside it. But it’s all sliced and fenced into separate small courtyards that can each barely host anything more than very basic amenities. This is such a shame given that the space within our perimeter block is big enough to serve as a secret park for all of us.

I’m sure there are many Helsinkiers who can relate.

Once upon a time when Helsinki was more like a small town, many blocks included a number of smaller semi-public and fence-and-wall-free courtyards, often sheltered by low-rise wooden buildings. But when the city’s growth intensified in the latter half of the 19th century, multi-story apartment buildings began appearing on lots here and there, each of them eating up a space for themselves in different ways. In the oldest parts of Helsinki some courtyards shrank considerably, because it was customary to also develop the insides of perimeter blocks to achieve maximum density.

Later on, regulations were enforced to guide development towards more airy blocks (like mine). Fences, walls and random landscaping were nonetheless typical because construction around the blocks evolved rather organically. However, in the early 20th century some were designed and built entirely at once when the city expanded to new areas. In a few rare cases an entire block was completed by a single developer, leaving room for designing the insides of the block into a shared amenity.

Apinalinna’s courtyard could be mistaken for park if there wasn’t laundry hanging to dry.

A great example of this is the “Apinalinna” block in Vallila which was built between 1917 to 1929 by the engineering company Kone- ja Siltarakennus Oy to offer high-quality housing for its workers. The setup is simple: Apinalinna is a closed rectangular perimeter block and almost all the land inside it is like a park including for example a grill for barbecuing. A street-y stretch of asphalt circulates around the courtyard and separates the buildings and the green from each other. The designers even placed the buildings’ entrances to face the courtyard to maximize social interaction. All in all, the yard has a strong emphasis towards belonging to the private sphere, but it can also be accessed by anyone because some of the gates are not locked at certain times. A distinguishing feature of the courtyard is its size. It’s said to be the largest in the Nordic countries.

One corner of Apinalinna’s courtyard is dedicated for kids.

This “Apinalinna” courtyard model is what many living in blocks like mine idealize of having – were there no fences. But unfortunately in real life things have progressed to the opposite direction: many small courtyards have just gotten worse over the years, because they’ve been transformed into parking lots to serve the needs of an increasingly car-centric society.

From fragmented to shared

Things could indeed be different”, says Anne-Mari Ahonen over a cup of coffee. This is in fact more than a wish because she’s determined to make sure Helsinkiers’ courtyard dreams come true. Ahonen belongs to a recently formed group of activists called “Korttelipihat takaisin”, which essentially is a movement with a mission to pull down the fences that keep us from sharing our yards in perimeter blocks. “We don’t need to think about fire prevention in the same way as a hundred years ago. And much of the parking needs are obsolete, too”, she says.

Parking lot.
This courtyard in Kallio is dominated by a parking lot that belongs to a building housing students. It doesn’t get used very much.

This question has popped up in urban policy discussions time and again, but Ahonen thinks the time is now ripe for actually getting something done: “An interest for sociability and doing things together has risen [take for example Restaurant Day as proof]. In addition, there are increasingly more families with children in central Helsinki. This makes people look at their courtyards from a new angle”.

Living in downtowns is indeed getting more popular especially among younger Finns, which creates new demands for improving (or rather, maximizing) livability in these parts of the city. Moreover, the fences and walls are no longer such a strong barrier because for example social media is providing new platforms for discussion.

Kallio Block Party.
Last summer Kallio Block Party was celebrated right at my doorstep. The event is annually organized by residents for residents.

The emergence of the activists around this topic follows a familiar storyline from Helsinki and across Finland. A significant motivation to act is because the local government isn’t doing much to solve today’s livable city problems or their hands are tied. In this courtyard context it’s a bit of both.

In central Helsinki, the residents of a building own their lot and building via a “building association” (something closely related to a condominium) and all courtyard-related issues are decided by them. The city of Helsinki thus has no authority in changing courtyards one way or another. The city however has a lot of interest in seeing courtyard annexations happen just as the activists are. Their policy at the moment is to throw the general idea of the opportunity in the air when the detailed plans of a given lot/building are being altered because of adding new apartments or the like. The discreet suggestion is that the courtyard issue could be dealt with at the same time the documents are changed anyways.

Based on their close-to-zero success rate, perhaps a more robust approach could be considered. During my last visit to Copenhagen, I learned that the city has an active policy to encourage the upgrading of underperforming interiors of inner city blocks. In the Danish strategy the city and state pay for the transformation work. Once resident groups have agreed on pulling down the walls, they send an application to the city to send in experts for helping with the design and to pay for the bills. Every year 10 to 12 transformations take place.

Copenhagen example. Glentevejkaréen.
The proposal for a new, shared, courtyard in Copenhagen. Image: City of Copenhagen.

Take note, Helsinki’s city hall.

At the grassroots level there’s a strategy, too: “We’re planning on creating a toolbox to help persons and building associations that are interested in transforming their block’s interiors to get the wheels rolling”, Ahonen reveals. “There’s a serious need for raising awareness on this issue, because many people believe that the fences and walls within blocks have an important purpose (e.g. fire safety), but this is of course not true.

The contents of the toolbox will include for example:

  • Information about different strategies to get a transformation process underway among the residents of your own building or between neighboring building associations. For instance, you could organize a party in your courtyard to raise awareness about the topic and to get people talking.
  • An overview of the legal aspects for annexing courtyards in blocks so that residents could already have a foundation to build on. In this context, a crucial issue is to find solutions that don’t require a unanimous vote from the building association. Unanimity is nearly impossible to achieve because every building has that one nutcase who isn’t happy with anything.
  • A summary of the technical and economic details of the transformation. Combining the courtyards in a block could result in many positive outcomes; for example maintenance work would be easier because a single company could look after the entire yard, clearing snow would be more practical and recycling & waste management services costs could be shared.
  • A selection of arguments/facts that can be helpful in discussions over the future of courtyards and especially when confronting NIMBY-minded people.
Korttelipihat takaisin party. Photo courtesy of Korttelipihat takaisin [linkki Facebookiin].
Inviting residents for a little get-together may be the beginning of an upgraded courtyard. Photo courtesy of Korttelipihat takaisin.

Ahonen emphasizes that the toolbox would be only for guidance and reference because each courtyard is unique: “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for removing the fences”. Especially privacy is an aspect that needs contextual consideration. In more lively parts of neighborhoods, gated and locked entrances would probably work better whereas elsewhere courtyards could be semi-public.

In any case, Ahonen suggests that we should get started little by little. In a given courtyard cluster, residents could first open up some connections between the yards instead of knocking all the walls down at once.

 New blocks, new yards

Inner city living could definitely get even better than it is now if we manage to find solutions for opening up and “greening” the insides of old perimeter blocks. But if we forget the historic blocks for a while, a very interesting question is what we’re doing with new blocks. Could the ideal “Apinalinna” model act as a point of reference for courtyard design in new projects around central Helsinki?

In theory it should easily be possible because constructing blocks from scratch obviously leaves this as an option. And furthermore, with the lessons from the past in mind, I hear that Helsinki has banned erecting fences or walls in new blocks since the 1970s.

Today there are however new types of policy problems that keep Vallila-like courtyards a distant dream.

One fundamental obstacle is that we’ve more or less stopped making perimeter blocks altogether. Following the modernist planning ethos, there was a long period when “towers in the park” was the prioritized way to organize buildings into urban space. Gradually the perimeter block has been making a slow comeback and today its role in urban design is relatively strong as there’s a new-found desire to build denser neighborhoods.

Opening in block.
Our new blocks are always open from one or several sides. Usually the latter.

Nonetheless, the fully closed perimeter block has yet to reappear because we’re still leaving our blocks open on one or two sides. This means that all new courtyards are clearly semi-public spaces without any real control of access. This is a significant contrast to the “Apinalinna” setup which has a clearly stronger emphasis towards the private sphere than the public.

Waste management system.
No new courtyard comes close to the size of Apinalinna’s. New space-saving innovations like underground waste management systems however help to narrow the gap.

Another challenge is, unless there’s an underground parking garage, that many new courtyards are to some extent elevated because we’re placing them on top of parking decks. This means many courtyards get built on concrete slabs, leaving the possibilities for designing them very limited. At least their character is destined to be less green than what we can experience in Vallila.

Elevated yard.
Helsinki’s considerable minimum parking requirements can have a significant impact on block design. Not to mention the streetscapes. I always wonder if anyone has really thought this through from a longer term perspective. The upkeep must be expensive and concrete doesn’t age all that well.
Elevated yardscape.
The elevated yardscapes are never as green as Apinalinna’s. Sometimes barely green at all.

It’s obvious we won’t see the “Apinalinna” courtyard ideal happen without some regulatory overhauling and changes to our planning culture. But at the same time Anne-Mari Ahonen does make a good point about the importance of context. Not every courtyard needs to be set up like in Vallila to work well.

I can already think of two different courtyards or courtyard-like setups nearby that seem to work well in the dense urban context even if they’re not like “Apinalinna”.

Lintulahti yard.
The urban farming going on at Lintulahti shows that the courtyard is a place the residents really enjoy.

I frequent the Lintulahti block just a stone’s throw away from my home on my way to the gym and each time I’m amazed how their courtyard is full of life. Even if the courtyard is completely open from one side and discreetly accessible from two sides, parents don’t appear to have any problems letting their children roam free in it. The secret is that the entrances to the courtyard from the busier side of the block are small and rather unnoticeable. And the side that’s completely open faces a direction where there are (at the moment) only parking lots and a multi-lane road that leads out into the suburbs. There’s little reason for people to go there or come from there. And of course, the courtyard itself is quite nice.

Lintulahti block opening.
The Lintulahti block opens up towards a lovely zone of traffic and parking lots.

A stone’s throw away into the other direction is a leafy part of Kallio called Torkkelinmäki. There the setup is completely different because the buildings have very microscopic yards or almost no yards at all. But right at the middle there’s an intimate small park which is one of the local hangouts in the neighborhood. I often go there to read or to work on my blog posts and what not. Here the residents seem to have adopted the public park as their outdoor room. And thanks to the intimacy of the design, park-goers from elsewhere typically keep their visits more low key than in other parks of the area to respect the residents.

The yards in Torkkelinmäki are not big as you see on the left side of the photo. But the park compensates this to a certain extent. The buildings surround the park in a way that it resembles a courtyard.

So all in all, from the perspective of high-quality courtyards and courtyard life, it seems that the design of blocks and yards isn’t a very straightforward story. But Anne-Mari Ahonen reminds that there’s one thing we can count on in all cases: ownership (and resulting social control) is the glue that keeps courtyards actively used and taken care of. And ownership happens only when the design of the courtyard is inviting.

Indeed, when upgrading old courtyards or planning new ones, we need to remember to take a moment to absorb all the knowledge we can from the designs and setups of already existing fabulous examples. Parking lots definitely won’t result in lovable yards.

In the meanwhile, the best of luck to Korttelipihat takaisin for compiling your toolbox!


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