Global warming is slowly changing life in Finnish cities

Fighting climate change is unavoidable to save the planet. But for everyday life, the future has already arrived in urban Finland. To soften global warming’s impact on social sustainability, cities need to get active about adapting and keeping traditions going.

Finland’s chilly temperatures this summer have inspired many to talk about global warming. They’ve called it off, the typical joke goes. Obviously, they have not. While us Helsinkians needed to resort to our spring jackets in June, globally it was the fourth-warmest June in 137 years of modern record-keeping.

The wait for warmer summer days has made me focus on this topic, too. Well, truthfully, I’ve thought about it a lot since last September. I was then invited to an urban policy forum in Yekaterinburg, Russia, to share some ideas how Finnish cities are making themselves outdoorsy and more livable in winter despite freezing temperatures and endless piles of snow.

Lost Christmas Tree
A runaway Christmas tree on New Year’s Eve 2016 at Kauppi Sports Park, Tampere.

While drafting my presentation, it hit me that the ideas I was going to offer were mostly things we have been doing in the past. But not so much anymore. The cold and icy winter, at least in the southern parts of Finland, has slowly disappeared.

It’s understandable that the image foreigners have about Finland will alter sluggishly. But disturbing when similar thoughts drive local planning discussions right here. No matter if we’ve agreed to ambitious actions for climate change mitigation, ranging from clean energy to low-carbon construction, just whisper “walkability” and someone is bound to ensure you a quick return from utopia: “Are you crazy? There are just two months in the year when people can walk or bike!”.

Outdoor seating in March.
Helsinkians out for Sunday lunch in March.

It doesn’t stop there. Real estate developers will sell their shopping malls promising an “escape from the harsh climate”. And public authorities resort to regulations that are based on calendar dates before anything else.

Narinkkatori in December 2016
Contrary to popular belief, people do spend time outside in winter when there’s something to do. In the future, even more so. This is from December 2016 at Helsinki’s Narinkkatori.

I wonder if these folks ever go outside. Climate change is already affecting people’s lives in so many ways that we shouldn’t just focus on introducing a fleet of automated electric cars, but also attend to the less exciting things that directly or indirectly influence urban happiness.

Some of these are related to saving traditional winter-time activities that have served as cornerstones for community-building, others concern emerging initiatives and trends for making cities more enjoyable in the age of a milder climate.

Life Melting Away

Ice hockey has long been a favorite winter pastime across the nation. Growing up in the suburbs of the Finnish capital for ice hockey, Tampere, I also spent countless hours at the local outdoor hockey rink. Either playing, only skating or just hanging out as everyone from the ‘burb was there anyways. These days I play ice hockey in Helsinki. We have organized an active pool of people to play with, but you wouldn’t really have to. The outdoor rinks are magically communal places where people connect with strangers for the joy of playing.

Iskelä Hockey Rink
When I was a kid this hockey rink was the the main wintry attraction in my suburb. You could also sign up to practice and play in a team. Those days are now long gone. Photo taken on Christmas Day 2016.

But all this is now endangered. The winters are so warm that making ice has become nearly impossible. The vibrancy of my childhood rink is now just a memory. Skating days have dropped dramatically and today you’ll more often find sad puddles of water rather than beautiful smooth ice. And this is rather deep inland.

Brahe hockey rink
Kallio’s ice rink is one of the spots I play hockey in nowadays. The city always plans to open it at the end of November, but usually they can’t until sometime in December. The season ends at the end of February and, as in the photo, towards the end of March people are already preparing for the football season.

At the coast, natural ice is even more scarce – if not completely a thing of the past by now. Helsinki’s few open outdoor rinks are refrigerated. Sometimes even this type of ice-making is impossible (or too expensive) and the outdoor hockey season can get slashed down to just 2,5 months.

Skiing in Tampere
This is the only open ski track in Tampere’s Kauppi Sports Park on New Year’s Eve. It looks like the bigger cities will be only places that offer cross-country skiing in the Southern parts of Finland in the near future. Making ski tracks in warm weather is not cheap.

Same story for other recreational winter activities. We used to have a municipal cross-country ski track run right by our house, but it has become a rare sight. I believe last winter the track couldn’t be done at all. These days cross-country skiers in the southern parts of Finland need to resort to tracks made with snow cannons. That’s the same strategy used to support alpine skiing for a long time now. There are still slopes in the south of the country to serve urbanites, but these tiny ski centers are struggling to survive by offering just skiing and snowboarding.

The disappearing winter is not a worry only for those into winter sports. It also affects other cultural institutions, like kids’ possibilities to go sledding. It’s hard to think of a more common winter activity to do with friends and family in Finland.

Sledding no more
Last Christmas holiday season families in Tampere had to think of other activities than go sledding.

Or how about a full Finnish winter time sauna experience including some rolling in the snow or a dip into a hole in the ice? No problem with the sauna, but the snow and ice bits are fading to luxury experiences. Ice fishing near urban waterfronts is also on the list of activities facing an increasingly shorter season and, ultimately, extinction.

The list could go on, but the point is that climate change has indeed crept in to alter things we’ve used to take for granted. The good part is they’re making people think about climate change more than any lecture on the Paris Agreement could.

Yet, the damage presents a serious challenge for urban policy-makers: coming up with environmentally sustainable solutions for keeping our wintry traditions going because of their important role in creating a sense of community and increasing happiness.

I’m hardly a tech fan, but this is one problem where technological innovation is necessarily part of the solution. Others are already experimenting: Canada for ice hockey and Norway for skiing.

Adaptation Work Ahead

The truth is, even if we manage to avoid global warming’s worst-case scenarios, there’s no return to the climate we had before. So, it’s also smart to begin adapting. Parallel to breathing life into the slowly declining winter traditions, the changing climate also offers cities new opportunities to increase social interaction and help bridge the gap.

New Bikeshare Helsinki
Helsinki got a new bikeshare system last year. It functions from May to the end of October. This photo from early April 2016 on the installation work shows there’s little reason to wait until May.

For example cycling, despite always getting bad rap due to our “incompatible climate”, is now easier than ever. The city of Mikkeli offers us an illuminating example from the last two winters: their plans for experimenting with new methods of clearing snow and ice to support increasingly popular winter cycling have melted away with too little snow and ice to even begin with.

Moving around on bikes not only helps fight climate change, but also has a positive impact on sociability. Cycling has become significantly more popular in recent years, partly thanks to cities finally catching up with investing into bikeways. We mustn’t forget to design them specifically with socializing in mind.

Outdoors in March.
Skateboarding and playground fun in action last March.

As with cycling, also the season for walking and lingering outdoors comfortably is extending. Conventionally many (Finns) like to think that after the summer months people just stay at home or resort to seeking refuge from the terrible weather in one of the ubiquitous shopping malls. Partly thanks to these attitudes, planning for life on streets and plazas has received very little attention. Climate change is now working towards breaking the stubborn myth about our outdoor inactivity.

Bar Passion
Bar Passion’s outdoor seating waiting for Easter holiday folks in Tampere right after opening its doors. When asked about climate change, the bar manager told me “the city should ease their outdoor seating permits, because the calendar is no longer a good point of reference. Midsummer and Christmas have started to resemble each other weather-wise.”

For example, many cities issue outdoor seating permits to restaurants and bars from April through September or October. If you’d like to keep your bar’s outdoor seating available for longer, say until Christmas, you’ll need to apply for a winter permit. This will cover every month until the end of March – even though the wintriness of November and December is getting all the time iffier. Adding some flexibility to this scheme could add up to having vibrant sidewalks for a longer period. And what about extending the season for different types of outdoor festivals our summers are packed with? The new Winter Solstice festival in Helsinki is already pioneering on this front.

Another emerging activity with a social edge is urban agriculture. Increased environmental awareness has been one of the main drivers behind this trend, but now extending growing seasons are helping make it even more popular and productive. Because of the activity’s many positive traits, some cities, like Turku, are already adopting policies to encourage more people to get together and start growing their own food.

Growing wine near Helsinki
A warmer climate will open new avenues for experimenting with plants, like vine, that are known to foster a culture of togetherness. This Helsingin Sanomat news story is about an already existing wineyard near Helsinki.

Finally, the sauna is clearly also reclaiming its role as a social arena in the urban. Not so much because of climate change as general re-found interest for in-city living, but nonetheless, new types of sauna complexes coupled with restaurant and bar services (and other types of experiences like at wonderful Sompasauna) have started to emerge around city centers. These projects build on our long-standing sauna culture in ways that’ll make them thrive no matter how the climate evolves. To increase the number of venues for togetherness, city managers should work to welcome more of them.

Löyly in Helsinki’s Hernesaari is probably the best-known new-generation public sauna. There are more and the concept is catching on also in other cities. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Roopeank (CC BY-SA 4.0).

I think we too often forget that climate change is not just melting polar ice caps, but it’s also actively shaping our lives. These are some of many examples how we could nudge our urban policies to support community-building and make cities more enjoyable while we fight the big fight to level carbon emissions.

It’s adios for the winter’s-here-for-10-months attitudes.




6 responses to “Global warming is slowly changing life in Finnish cities”

  1. Edvard Johansson Avatar
    Edvard Johansson

    Seriously good writing as always by Timo Hämäläinen!

    1. Timo H. Avatar

      Thank you Edvard!

  2. tanssityttö Avatar

    You have good points! What I have been thinking it’s not only we loose our white beautiful winter, it also means we got more grey, rainy days…and more fall storms. That’s what will replace winter when it’s warmer and that’s depressive thought! It’s maybe nice thought for us to have longer summer but it’s not nice if we don’t get snow which is lighting everything at winter. If we’re now suffering darkness, it will be more dark in the future at winter.

  3. Samuel B Avatar
    Samuel B

    It’s very refreshing to read your article because the attitude of long winter in Finland that many people have annoys me.

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