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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Another idea is to allocate some of the areas for urban farming. This can be done inexpensively with planting boxes.
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?
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.
New sports venues
Some of the gravel surfaces could also be used to introduce new sports activities.
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.
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!