The metamorphosis of suburban landscapes has lit up debates in Finland’s urban centers. Continuing urbanization, evolving lifestyles, and the growing appetite for sustainability have steered cities to rapidly open parcels of the ample space the ‘burbs offer as new construction land. Over the past decade, as construction volume has steadily increased to accommodate the burgeoning urban population, areas ranging from transit station surroundings to pockets of brownfield, grayfield, and greenfield sites have emerged as prime hotspots for housing projects.
And it hasn’t happened without turmoil. Planners and developers are constantly challenged with a range of reactions spanning from NIMBY sentiments (“no new neighbors”) to more nuanced concerns over the loss of green spaces and altering of the architectural ethos.
Recently, the discourse has incorporated social sustainability aspects of the developments, particularly emphasizing housing quality. For example, in early summer Professor Mari Vaattovaara and statistician Pekka Vuori published a study which highlighted a growing preference for building small units in distant suburbs that mostly end up on the rental market.
This trend, they warned, creates less affluent enclaves that will be difficult to transform in the future. The new Vermonniitty project in Espoo / Helsinki’s western suburbs, with a whopping 71% of its apartments being studios or one-bedroom spaces, was spotlighted in Helsingin Sanomat as a symbol of this trend.
The message? We might be missing the mark in our quest for sustainable densification.
However, while the nature of housing is undeniably crucial, there’s another dimension relating to the nature of the suburban development pattern that I’d contend is at least equally vital as the concerns mentioned above: How committed are suburban retrofitters to creating places that aren’t just dense but also delightful, pedestrian-friendly, and endearing?
Vermonniitty stands as the quintessential case study for this question, too. Beyond its housing mix, it serves as an exemplar of density done poorly. Three interrelated design missteps emerge prominently:
Though Vermonniitty markets itself as central to all, a ground-level inspection tells a different tale. It doesn’t augment a local hub; it’s more an offshoot of Perkkaa, an isolated older suburb from the 70s & 80s era. Surrounded by wide roads, industrial zones, a horseracing track, and green belts, Vermonniitty feels like an island. The nearest suburban center, Leppävaara, is about a kilometer away.
The imminent Jokeri Light Rail connection promises enhanced public transport, yet its design is less than optimal. The line only runs on the northern edge of the area behind a four-lane road. It’s evident why “using your own car” gets mentioned first in the transport section of the project’s website.
Monotony in Use
Beyond a school and kindergarten on Vermonniitty’s fringes, services are sparse. The district is decisively residential. I could find only three (!) commercial establishments: a hairdresser, a barbershop and an ice cream stand. The omnipresence of the Leppävaara mall a kilometer away is clearly tied to this service scarcity —a dynamic to which city planners should be attuned.
In the future, it is possible that a new office and retail complex will be developed between Leppävaara and Vermonniitty, which would form its own little enclave between the two.
Absence of Streets
Mixed-use neighborhoods champion pedestrian movement and social synergy. The enabling medium obviously being a network of inviting streets. But this is, with its car-dominated roads and lack of street-focused architecture, something you can forget about experiencing in Vermonniitty. In almost every instance the relationship between the buildings and the public space is poor or non-existent, a fact most evident in large, impersonal towers atop extensive parking garages.
Although there’s a quite nicely landscaped linear park in the area’s heart with some sports and playground equipment, it doesn’t quite replace having a communal hub in the form of a main street of sorts.
Much more could be said, but I think the idea is clear.
Vermonniitty’s characteristics aren’t unique. Despite marketing claims to the contrary, similar issues permeate many suburban retrofit projects throughout the country, jeopardizing the vision of creating desirable and lasting places.
Ultimately, our planning and development practices have lagged in innovation. Case in point: besides having larger buildings, smaller apartments, and more expansive parking structures, Vermonniitty very much mirrors Perkkaa, the neighboring older suburb. Both, interestingly, aren’t favorites in the popularity game.
My view is that if our aim is to sustainably transform our suburban landscape, it’s imperative we adopt a fresh model. One that intensifies and interlinks existing focal points, blends diverse uses and elements, and creates authentic streets.