What Is the Future for Helsinki’s ‘Mini Deserts’?

The pandemic years have been fruitful times for public spaces in cities across Finland. People have spent more time enjoying their local parks, cities have allowed large new terraces on city squares, and more on-street parking has been allocated for people-friendly use than ever before.

Another enjoyable development was to see a small beer garden breathe life into the odd and always empty corner of Karhupuisto, one of my neighborhood parks. Normally, you’d find a triangular gravel field at the corner that is empty for around 90 percent of the time—a kind of miniature desert in the middle of the city. But come the summer of 2020 and the addition of a beer garden, and it’s suddenly packed with people!

Bar Femma’s beer garden on a late summer evening in Karhupuisto.

Before the change, people occasionally used the gravel field for playing park games like mölkky or pétanque. During weekends, people also sometimes set up flea market tables on the gravel, but they always seemed to prefer to stay at the center of the park whenever possible.

The beer garden made the spot so much nicer and livelier that it made one question why such a great idea to improve the park never materialized before. There was still room left for the occasional pétanque group, too.

Karhupuisto’s gravel field today. In this form, the space gets occasionally used for park games and small events. People like to sit on its bench-like edges.

Sadly, the bliss was short-lived. The beer garden didn’t return the following summer, downgrading the space back to being the desolate gravel field it had long been. The owner told me he wanted to keep the beer garden in the park but that the city authorities, for one reason or another, didn’t allow it. Today, it’s even more depressing to pass the empty park corner when you’ve seen its potential to be a joyful gathering place for people.

The fate of the Karhupuisto gravel field is a topical story for two important reasons.

First, providing access to multifunctional and good-quality public spaces is a growing priority for improving urban livability. This is especially true for the most densely populated and built-up areas. The COVID-19 lockdown days underscored the value of neighborhood parks and other public spaces as places to socialize, connect with nature, recreate, and have access to services. Moreover, there’s a pressing need to think about how urban green infrastructure can help in improving climate resilience and mitigating biodiversity loss.

Cities are increasingly expected to offer co-existing layers of uses and activities throughout their public space network. Maintaining a rarely-used gravel field in one of Helsinki’s most densely populated neighborhoods is an example of doing the complete opposite. As the temporary bar showed, the space has a huge potential to add value to the community by offering something more than just gravel.

Second, Karhupuisto’s odd corner is not a unique park feature in Helsinki. There are more similar gravel patches—many more. I took it as my summer project to explore how many I could find within the inner city’s parks and how they are used in beautiful summer weather.

The result: I found nearly 60 areas of gravel-surfaced parkland that were—with a few exceptions—just as deserted as their peer in Karhupuisto. Combined, they form an enormous blank canvas for public space improvement.

I documented the gravel fields I found and put them on a map. Let me know if there’s any I should definitely add!

Here’s a rough typology of the diverse “mini deserts” I’m talking about.

The random parcel

Like with Karhupuisto, these are the rather arbitrary patches of gravel that make up a corner of a park or lie inside them. Their purpose is a bit of a mystery. The most popular activity in these areas is the occasional park game.

Sinebrychoff Park. There’s a very random gravel field in the upper part of the park.
Hesperianpuisto includes an odd oval-shaped patch of gravel surface. The space is decorated by a few big run-down chess boards and two benches. One of them was surprisingly occupied by a human.

The gravel-centric park

Some parks are designed to have a large gravel field in the middle and a bit of green space around the edges. Typically, you’ll find people enjoying the green space and avoiding the desert in the middle.

Pergerpuisto is an example of a gravel-centric park. The edges are popular hangouts – the gravel less so. The center isn’t, however, completely dead. There are two groups playing Mölkky in the photo.
Nervanderin puistikko is a gravel-centric park with a very poor green-space-to-gravel ratio.

The design element

The city’s formal parks and gardens also occasionally include relatively vast gravel surfaces. In most cases, they reflect the values and material choices of historical park management. Fair enough, but perhaps in some limited instances, we could imagine having them feature something other than plain gravel surface as well.

Köydenpunojanpuisto has a modern park design with different activity zones. They include a stretch of gravel which seems to be the least active part of the park.
This gravel field is the large center piece of the Topeliuksenpuisto formal gardens. It was also the busiest spot I came across. People had gathered there for a Mölkky meet-up of some sorts.

The bloated footpath

A few parks include footpath segments that appear unnecessarily wide. Some of them lean toward the design elements category, others toward the random patches type. The latter is especially an interesting opportunity for introducing something new to a park.

Hollolan puisto and a bloated footpath.
Stadioninpuistikko is a small park that has three wide gravel footpaths running through it. They’re obviously part of the historic design.

The forgotten gravel field

Some of the sites lack use and attention to the extent that they’re soon more grass and weeds than gravel. These sites present great opportunities for coming up with something completely new.

Hartolanpuisto is a seemingly forgotten plot which actually comprises of three different gravel fields on different levels. The largest one includes ancient pull-up bars and is known to host a Vappu dance event every spring.
This old gravel field in Munkinpuisto has almost completely transitioned into a grass field instead.

The loosely built playground

There are several gravel fields that are connected to a playground. Or perhaps better put, there are vast open spaces with a couple of play elements in one corner.

Ensipuistikko has some playground equipment scattered across two gravel fields.
Linnankoskenpuisto is another example of a loosely built playground.

The sports field

Finally, many of the gravel fields are supposed to function as sports fields, mostly for soccer. In real life, however, few people choose to play soccer on gravel, as it’s a terrible experience. The gravel surface, on the other hand, is great for playing Finnish baseball. But it’s such a marginal sport that people don’t necessarily need a playing field around every corner.

The gravel sports field at Hesperian esplanadi. This very large open space is a true desert in the middle of an otherwise green park corridor. People use it as a shortcut.
This large sports field in Pikku Huopalahden puisto has a printed announcement from 2004 by its entrance to indicate when the field is reserved for soccer practice. It wasn’t very often even back then.

As you can see, my collection includes any sizeable open area with a gravel surface that is associated with a park in the inner city. They’re spots in neighborhoods that in my eyes scream for attention. But please don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to say that we should just do away with all of them. I understand that their development opportunities are just as varied as the spaces themselves.

The mini-desert collection undoubtedly includes several borderline cases as most of them obviously serve some purpose today.

During my exploration, I saw a few people enjoy park games (mölkky, pétanque) or sports (football, Finnish baseball, basketball), someone practicing their frisbee skills, children riding bikes, and people sitting on benches on the edges of the open spaces.

Some of the sports fields will also have more users as the school year starts again. And for short periods during winter (increasingly less often, sadly), they also provide a place to enjoy ice skating.

Some of the gravel fields may arguably embody such historic value that they’re best left untouched. And there’s, of course, also value in just having open space. The spaces sometimes host concerts and other events. I also recognize there’s a practical angle to their existence: gravel is an economical and durable surface that is easy to maintain.

Nonetheless, the current state of these areas constitutes a substantial pool of clearly underutilized public spaces that hold many easily obtainable potentials for creating more diverse and attractive parks for Helsinkiers to enjoy.

There’s definitely room for a discussion on having some of the most underperforming gravel fields undergo complete makeovers and making others more inviting by adding new uses to them. There are so many that even focusing on a few would already have a significant impact.

So, what to do with them? Here are some ideas for starters.

Greening them

A very simple solution is to replace some of the gravel surfaces with new green infrastructure.

Building more and improved playgrounds

The gravel fields present a great opportunity for introducing a playground to a park or area that doesn’t have one yet. An equally great idea is to add more play infrastructure to the gravel patches that already have some around them.

The future is already being made in Pikku Huopalahden puisto. New play equipment is being set up in a gravel field.

Urban farming

Another idea is to allocate some of the areas for urban farming. This can be done inexpensively with planting boxes.

A sizeable part of Hermannin puisto is used for urban farming. And there’s still also gravel for anyone who enjoys it.

Services

Echoing the experience from Karhupuisto, the gravel fields are prime real estate for introducing services to the park.

More seating areas and picnic tables 

Many people come to parks to sit on the grass and have picnics. People never do that on a gravel field. Why not use them to introduce new picnic tables and seating areas to provide alternatives for sitting on the grass?

My neighborhood’s library put out chairs and tables in the small plaza in front them. You’re free to sit on them. And people do. Let’s do the same with parks.

Sports field surface improvement

Gravel sports fields are not inviting places for doing sports, but venues with top-of-the-notch surfaces are a different story. With any surface improvements, however, we must also consider the ecological footprint of artificial materials.

Tehtaanpuisto’s soccer field has an artificial turf and it had more people using it than all of the gravel sports fields I studied combined. Funnily enough, it’s made to look like gravel.

New sports venues

Some of the gravel surfaces could also be used to introduce new sports activities.

Installing outdoor gym equipment is one idea for inviting new users to a park.

Toilets

Helsinki’s parks don’t always come with toilets. How about using the empty gravel fields for adding more of them? Choosing to add good and clean toilets will also make the park attractive to a more diverse group of people.

DIY space

It’s also an excellent idea to invite the community to invent whatever solutions and activities they want in their parks. Who knows, maybe this will lead to solutions that end up improving parks all over the world.

Now, let’s start envisioning a future with less gravel and more exciting park amenities!

4 thoughts on “What Is the Future for Helsinki’s ‘Mini Deserts’?”

  1. Excellent column with well reasoned points and ideas. I have been a resident of Helsinki for almost 4 years and think this is a lovely city. Your ideas around greening up and urban farming are of particular interest to me. I look forward to your next post!

  2. After 25 years in Helsinki… I can only say this is a very ignorant and naive view. The gravel areas are actually engineered to the climate / weather conditions… they are flat to accommodate ball playing (even if you personally do not care for Pesäpallo) while they… and this is critical… DRAIN quickly without turning into muddy bogs. Winter freezes the subsoil, snow melts and water puddles on the surface. If you ever tried to play on a natural grassy area in the spring you would know what I mean. Fact is, if the play fields were not gravel with proper sub-level draining they would be unusable in spring and after every summer rain. And sorry, but the term ”Desert” is a climate type, not just any flat area actually designed to remain as dry (and usable) as possible… though using the negative implication of ”desert” surely serves the author’s negative intent. As to usage of the areas, perhaps you could have spent some time to discover that the city allows permits for all kinds of activities, be it a beer garden, block party, even religious tent revivals… the space is available, just contact the city (permits also via the police in some cases). As to the ”overly wide paths”… sheesh… those are to accommodate equipment for snow removal (yes, the street snow is often stored at these places for later removal) and also for the equipment used for mowing, maintenance, etc. As to those bathrooms… we have gone through that: TOTAL DISASTER. I live between two parks, including a gravel play area… and we HAD the toilets until the drug users burned it down… the needles littering the play area (including next to a daycare play area) were a plague. The toiles became drug stores and we were constantly calling 112 for the overdoses… some WC solution is needed, but those ”green toilets” at 250k € each??? No Thank You.

  3. These are the few remaining places where the citizens can spend time without paying to someone or participating into some organized activity. Giving them to businesses or other organizations is a bad idea. There are enough places for serving alcohol already, so no new beer gardens are needed. The gravel surface is suitable for many activities, not only pesäpallo and mölkky. You can play football without paying anybody or joining a sports association. These places are peaceful and nice and make the city look less packed. No way are they deserts. I really think they should be left as they are.

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