All posts by Timo H.

I'm a geographer specialized in urban and regional planning issues, but above all, I’m interested in cities, Europe and the world. Cities have always been where it all happens. Culture, science, innovation, politics – you name it. I am not really interested in the technical details of constructing urban environments but instead in embracing them as cultural products. I enjoy exploring cities, understanding their history and contemporary circumstances as well as envisioning where they are on course for. The great thing about cities is that they are always changing and so complex in nature that you can’t ever understand them holistically. There’s an ongoing need for some more exploration.

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!

Seven Takeaways from the Urban Future Conference

After two years of webinars and online meetings, 2022 is building up to be the year of reconnecting in 3D. In early June, I joined in on the fun and participated in the Urban Future Conference, which staged their comeback in Helsingborg, Sweden. An extra pull to attend was that the urbanist rally coincided with the citywide H22 Expo showcasing Helsingborg’s achievements in sustainable urban development.

The experience of exchanging ideas with fellow urbanites was such a treat that I decided to write a conference edition of my rarely—but occasionally—appearing “lessons from” blog series.

Here are the ideas and lessons for improving cities that caught my attention during the sessions.

Continue reading Seven Takeaways from the Urban Future Conference

Collaborative learning and an updated toolbox: two ideas for cities to make a U-turn on car-centric planning

Helsinki’s feistiest urban policy debate in a while occurred last fall when the city’s councilors were faced with the question of whether or not to clear the way for the 1.6 kilometer, €180 million Sörnäinen car tunnel. The project seeks to make it easier for drivers to bypass the center of Kalasatama, a developing district on the eastern edge of the inner city. Its proponents argued that the tunnel was needed because it would grant more space for a planned tram line and calm traffic in the heart of the district. Of course, the tunnel would, as an additional bonus, also facilitate car traffic flows in the area, the reasoning went. Those in opposition weren’t convinced that digging a tunnel was the only solution for achieving the said aims. Congestion charges, for example, could also do the trick.

Continue reading Collaborative learning and an updated toolbox: two ideas for cities to make a U-turn on car-centric planning

Kallion “Luuppi” ja Fleminginkadun kävelykatukokeilu

Mitä jos Kallion vilkkaana sykkivälle kaupunkielämälle olisi oma olohuonemainen kaupunkitilansa? Kuvittele asukkaita, vierailijoita ja kaupunkikulttuuria yhteen tuova alueen läpi kiemurteleva valtasuoni. Paikka, jonne tietäisi suunnistaa ja jota pitkin voisi rauhassa flaneerata ihmisiä katsellen. Paikka, jonka kautta voisi kulkea turvallisesti tärkeimpiin kohteisiin, ja jonka varrelta löytyvät katukirpputorit ja -juhlat sekä kiinnostavimmat kohtaamispaikat. Paikka, joka tarjoaisi nuorimmille kalliolaisille leikkimahdollisuuksia ja vanhimmille penkkejä, joilla hengähtää hetkeksi.

Tämä on visiomme elämästä tulevaisuuden Kalliossa. Mahdollisuus kävellä ympäri Kalliota viihtyisiä kävelykatuja ja turvallisia kävelypainotteisia katuja pitkin.

Kallion Luuppi on visio rengasmaisesta reitistä, joka muuttaisi alueen vilkkaimpia katuja aiempaa selkeämmin kaikille avoimiksi kaupunkitiloiksi ja toimisi ihmisiä ja kaupunkikulttuuria yhteen tuovana valtasuonena keskellä alueen merkittävimpien puisto- ja oleskelualueiden verkostoa.

Saattaa kuulostaa utopistiselta, mutta Kallion alueen historiassa mikään ei ole ollut niin varmaa kuin muutos. Työväen kaupunginosaksi alun perin ensin puutaloina ja sitten kivitaloina rakentuneen alueen lähihistorian tarina on pikkuhiljaa tapahtunut kehitys Suomen kaupunkikulttuurin sydämeksi.

Taidemyyjä Vaasankadulla

80-luvulta alkaen yhä useamman huulilta kuultiin sanapari ”Suomen Soho”, kun alue alkoi keskiluokkaistua ja saada boheemia ilmapiiriä opiskelijoiden ja muusikoiden löydettyä alueen. Vuosituhannen vaihteen jälkeisellä vuosikymmenellä Kallio kiilasi Punavuoren rinnalle kantakaupungin kiehtovimman ravintola- ja kulttuurielämän sekä trendiliikkeiden kolkkana. Vietettiin Kuula-kahvilan, Om’Pun, ja Kolan avajaisia. Punavuorelainen Hiutale-baarikin perusti sisarpisteen Porthaninkadulle.

Viime vuosikymmenellä Kalliossa koettu ruokaravintoloiden esiinmarssi on puolestaan generoinut herkuttelijoille monipuolisen valikoiman ruokapaikkoja eksoottisista keittiöistä katuruokaan ja fine diningiin asti. Samalla kaduille on ilmestynyt lukuisia leipomoita ja valoisia kahviloita brunsseineen. Entisen Elannon korttelin, eli nk. Kompleksin yökerhot ovat sementoineet alueesta yöelämän keskuksen ja vintageliikkeet trenditietoisten ykköskohteen.

Reitti Hakaniemestä Porthaninkadun, Fleminginkadun ja Vaasankadun kautta Sörnäisiin on Kallion alueen ravintolaelämän keskus. Lämpökartta korostaa alueen terassien ja parkletien klusteroitumista. Pohjakartta Openstreetmap, data Helsingin kaupunki.

Erityisin ja ihastuttavin 2010-luvun muutos Kalliossa on ollut omaehtoisen ja yhteisöllisen kaupunkikulttuurin kukoistus. Alueen kaduille ja puistoihin ovat tuoneet kuhinaa vuorotellen mm. Ravintolapäivä, Siivouspäivä, kirpputorit ja Kallio Block Partyt.

Uudistuminen on ollut läpileikkaavaa, mutta silti keskittynyttä. Kallion tapahtumat sekä ajanvietto- ja asiointipaikat ovat selkeästi klusteroituneet nauhamaisesti paljon käytettyjen kulkureittien ja kiintopisteiden yhteyteen.

Luonnollinen askel Kallion kehittymiselle oli sitoa näitä kalliolaisuuden ytimiä tiiviimmin toisiinsa ja tehdä lisää tilaa ihmisille. Antaa kaupunkielämälle valtaväylä kukoistaa. Parhaiten tätä voisi soveltaa rengasmaisella reitillä Porthaninkatu-Fleminginkatu-Vaasankatu-Hämeentie. Vyöhykkeen voisi nimetä vaikka Kallion Luupiksi.

Hämeentie
Uusittu Hämeentie on pitkälti valmis Luupin palanen. Yrityksiä voisi edelleen kannustaa ottamaan haltuun laajennettuja jalkakäytäviä ja kaupunki voisi mm. lisätä katuvihreää.

Luuppi-visio ei edellyttäisi suuria investointeja, mutta sillä olisi valtava potentiaali tehdä Kalliosta entistäkin kutkuttavampi ja luoda mahdollisuuksia paisuttaa paikallistaloutta. Sen lisäksi, että rengasmainen reitti loisi turvallista ja viihtyisää kävely-ympäristöä, se kytkisi toisiinsa alueen erilaisia aukioita, puistoja ja virkistyspaikkoja. Samalla se varmistaisi, että nopeasti muuttuvan kaupunginosan yhtenä keskeisimpänä ulottuvuutena säilyisi kaikille avoin kaupunkitila.

Reitti Ympyrätalolta Kallion kirjastolle on vilkas. Parklet-terassien perustaminen on jo aloittanut autoille pyhitetyn tilan valtaamisen ihmiskeskeisempään käyttöön. Luuppi-visiossa näin voisi tehdä koko kadun matkalta erilaisia tekemis- ja oleskelumahdollisuuksia lisäten.

Reitin eteläosassa Ympyrätalon seudun ja Kallion kirjaston välillä voitaisiin kadunvarsipysäköintipaikkojen poistamisella ja autoliikenteen vähentämisellä leventää jalkakäytäviä ja siten lisätä vehreyttä, penkkejä ja tilaa liikkeiden ja ravintoloiden toiminnan ulottumiselle oviensa ulkopuolelle. Ratikat ja bussit voisivat jäädä kulkemaan Porthaninkadun keskelle vanhaan malliin. Ympyrätalon Linjojen puoleiselle aukiolle voisi samalla puhaltaa uutta elämää.

Fleminginkadun muuttaminen kävelykaduksi loisi Kallion kirjaston tuntumaan yhden laajan puistoalueen.

Kallion kirjaston kohdalla reitti muuttuisi kävelykaduksi, joka jatkuisi Fleminginkatua aina Helsinginkadulle asti. Se ensin yhdistäisi Karhupuiston, Matti Heleniuksen puiston ja kirjaston etupihan yhtenäiseksi puistoalueeksi ja loisi mahdollisuuden lisätä esim. palveluja ja istumapaikkoja puiston käyttäjille. Kirjastolta edemmäs Flemaria kulkiessa voitaisiin muutoksella lisätä vehreyttä kadun varrelle, laajentaa ravintoloiden terassialueita, ja luoda Frantzéninaukiosta monipuolinen ajanviettopaikka.

Franzeninaukio.

Helsinginkadun ylitettyä vastaan tulee Tenhon lippakioskin aukio, jonka ohi Luuppi jatkuisi edelleen kohti Vaasankatua, joka myös muutettaisiin kävelykaduksi aina Vaasanpuistikkoon asti. Autoilta vapautuvaa tilaa voisi piristää istutuksilla ja antaa ravintoloiden ja kauppojen käyttöön. Luupin täydentäisi hiljattain uudistunut Hämeentie, jonka varrelle voisi lisätä vehreyttä katutilaa pehmentämään.

Vaasankatu on kaupungin eläväisimpiä katuja.

Miten edetä? On selvää, että katujen muuttaminen joksikin kertaheitolla voi johtaa puolivillaiseen toteutukseen. Paras tapa tehdä Luuppi-visiosta todellisuutta onkin kevyiden kokeilujen sarja. Pysyvät muutokset tehtäisiin niistä kertyneisiin oppeihin perustuen.

Tältä pohjalta ehdotamme, että Kallion Luupin, eli “keskustan”, kehittäminen aloitetaan toteuttamalla kesän mittainen kävelykatukokeilu eteläisellä Fleminginkadulla. Tämä tarkoittaa Helsinginkadun ja Porthaninkadun välistä osuutta.

Kokeilun keinovalikoimaan kuuluisivat vain kevyet toimenpiteet. Katualueelle voidaan lisätä vehreyttä laatikkoistutuksin ja erilaisin puisin rakentein mm. istumapaikkoja ja pöytiä. Sopivaan kohtaan voi sijoittaa pienen esiintymislavan tai -alueen. Ravintoloille annettaisiin lupa laajentaa terassialueitaan ja kaupat saisivat toteuttaa ulkomyyntiä.

Tunnelmaa Fleminginkadulla kävelykatukokeilukesänä 2022. Kuva: Niilo Tenkanen.

Kadulle jäisi kapea jaetun tilan ajoväylä tonteille ajoa ja tavarantoimituksia varten. Asukaspysäköintipaikat poistetaan kokeilualueelta väliaikaisesti ja lähikatujen ajojärjestelyjä muutetaan tarvittaessa kokeilun ajaksi (esim. yksisuuntaisesta kaksisuuntaiseksi). Flemaria käyttävät bussit reititettäisiin uudelleen kokeilun ajaksi (esim. Kaarlenkadulle) ja taksitolpalle etsittäisiin uusi tilapäinen paikka.

Kokeilun lopulliset ratkaisut tehtäisiin vuorovaikutuksessa asukkaiden ja muiden toimijoiden kanssa.

Idea Fleminginkadun kävelykatukokeilusta ja Kallion Luupin kehittämisen lähtölaukauksesta on mukana syksyn osallistuvan budjetoinnin äänestyksessä. Voimme yhdessä tehdä käveltävien kaupunkitilojen Kalliosta todellisuutta.

Timo Hämäläinen & Miika Norppa

The Rise of the Parklet

The provided momentum for rethinking how to make more room for public life in our public spaces and streets is one of the few positive impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. The grandiose experiments to transform iconic squares, like Helsinki’s Senate Square, into vast pop-up terraces have hardly gone unnoticed by anyone. The interventions have quickly turned often-empty plazas into places where there are constantly people about to socialize, dine, and enjoy life.

The conversion of on-street parking spaces into outdoor seating areas for bars and restaurants – the spread of parklets – has, in contrast, increased “people space” in a more subtle and organic way. For example, on Helsinki’s Vaasankatu, the street at my corner, the number of parklets has seemingly doubled during the pandemic. And you could say the same about the number of people that flock there. At least there’s little difference compared to the pre-pandemic days.

I’ve been following this incremental shift towards more human-centric streets with great interest and delight. It wasn’t very long ago when the space between the sidewalk and driving lanes was strictly car territory: Helsinki’s first parklets were introduced in 2016.

The concept itself is of course an older innovation. Its roots are in San Francisco where three activists, the Rebar design collective, got an idea in 2005 to draw attention to the quality of public space in the city by occupying a metered parking space for a couple of hours. Not to park a car, but to change it into a DIY miniature public park. The project was an instant success and it gave birth to the PARK(ing) Day event which encourages people to do the same in their city.

A Parking Day initiative from 2008. Photo: sv johnson/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

A few years later, the idea was institutionalized by San Francisco’s city hall. The city made it possible for businesses to apply for permits for converting parking spaces in front of their premises into small parks, public seating areas, or outdoor dining areas – calling them parklets.

Fast forward to 2015, and the Finnish parklet is born. It was initiated by Helsinki’s city council member Hannu Oskala who, inspired by the experiences from San Francisco, suggested that Helsinki could also run a similar pilot program. This eventually happened during the summer of 2016, opening the door for the parklet to slowly become a familiar sight on busy streets and around restaurant districts.

The pandemic has, however, provided a real breakthrough for the parklet. People have discovered new value in spending time outdoors and the capacity restrictions imposed on the restaurant sector have been lighter for open air seating areas. This has been fertile ground for putting parking spaces into more efficient use than storing cars. According to the city’s database, there are currently 132 active parklet permits in Helsinki. (There are slightly fewer of them on the ground because some areas are affected by construction activities and some restaurants haven’t installed their parklet).

The geography of the parklet is almost exclusively limited to the densest parts of the inner city. In the south, they concentrate around the Summer Streets initiative near Kasarmintori, as well as the streets in Kamppi, Punavuori, and Ullanlinna. Data source: City of Helsinki Map Service.
In the northern part of the inner city, parklets are easiest to find in Kallio, Harju, and Sörnäinen. They form a linear concentration along Porthaninkatu, Fleminginkatu, Vaasankantu, and Kulmavuorenkatu.

The concept also found its way to the streets of Finland’s other major cities Tampere and Turku during the pandemic. Both have initiated similar pilot program as Helsinki earlier did. At least in Tampere, the idea of replacing cars with people is catching on fast: last year there were two parklets (according to my observations), and now you can already find 8.

For inspiration and interest, I compiled a selection of the innovations, designs, and features that define the Finnish world of parklets.

Habitat

Most parklets are found on regular side streets, but they also thrive in the so-called Summer Streets of Helsinki, Tampere and Turku (short street sections with reduced driving speeds and more space for pedestrians and cyclists).

The Summer Street experiment in Tampere is home to two parklets.
Most, if not all, of Turku’s parklets are along the city’s Summer Street initiative.

On flat and sloping land

Most parklets sit on flat or nearly flat surfaces, which obviously is favorable for designing and furnishing them. Hills have, however, not proven to be any obstacle for businesses who want to set up a parklet. The ones sitting on sloping land are usually divided into two or more levels.

Varying levels of enclosure and protection

The typical parklet has sturdy wooden boxes at both ends and a lighter wooden or metal fence that separates them from the driving lane. There are many exceptions to this “rule”. Some parklets are very enclosed from all three sides, and some don’t really have edges at all – just an area separated by rope. Some businesses provide extra protection for their customers by having back-to-back parklets with their neighbor. In car-centric environments, parklets are protected by concrete barriers.

Gate A21’s parklet is where Helsinki’s first parklet stood in 2016 (then set up by bar A21). Today it has been joined by a back-to-back neighbor from Bar Loose.
Cars are king in Tampere and it shows in the local parkletscape.

Asphalt, wooden decks, or carpets

There’s asphalt under every parklet, and some businesses have chosen to leave it as their parklet floor. The most popular option is, however, to add a wooden deck to ensure the floor is leveled. Some roll out a carpet on the asphalt or on the wooden deck to add some extra comfort. The most popular carpet color is green.

Seating arrangements

The majority of parklets have individual chairs set up around their tables. This set-up obviously allows for most flexibility in accommodating groups of varying sizes. Some have benches and therefore a more static (and often sturdier) seating arrangement. Interestingly, you can also spot some seating arrangements that are designed to foster interaction between patrons by having them sit face-to-face or in some other engaging way.

Majava Baari’s parklet has a seating arrangement where people have their backs to the edges and everyone faces those sitting on the opposite side.

Protection from the sun

A feature that clearly defines Finnish parklets is whether they provide any protection from the sun or not. This summer has been very warm, leaving many parklets empty that don’t offer any shade during the day.

Plantings and decorations

Plantings of varying sorts and sizes are by far the most popular decorative element with parklets. Many businesses are committed to taking care of real plants but there is also plenty of plastic “green” out there. There are of course also those who have chosen not to include anything green or otherwise on their parklet. Besides all things green, some parklets include decorative lights or their own branding.

A no frills parklet.

Additional services

Parklets typically offer patrons nothing more than tables and chairs. But there are a handful of exceptions out there that (at least occasionally) provide something more. One additional service you might come across is an outdoor bar or service point. Another is bringing the TV out for entertainment.

Level of completeness

Another defining factor is how much effort and businesses have (seemingly) put into the design, materials and furnishing of their parklets. Many are like small pieces of art, others appear as something that was created and pieced together overnight.

Pub Heinähattu’s parklet has plywood edges and it appeared overnight in summer 2020.

Uses beyond dining and drinking

Finally, while the Finnish parklet concept is first and foremost designed to serve the needs of bars and restaurants, it can also benefit other types of businesses. And in one case (as far as I know) it already does. Inside Helsinki’s Summer Street project there is one parklet that has been set up by a furniture store!

What comes next?

The triumph of the parklet is proving to be a great asset for making streets in urban Finland more sociable places and for reducing the impact of the car on cities. Its backstory is also terrific proof of concept for the idea that active citizens can truly shape the future of cities, no matter how small you start.

I think that Rebar’s original parklet scheme is also something that especially Helsinki should revisit. The streets of the inner city all too often have very little green infrastructure along them. On-street parking is, however, ample. Helsinki’s planners could easily begin to use the parklet mechanism themselves to create more public space and green patches by converting parking spaces into small pocket parks.

It’s well worth another pilot program.

Inspiration for a “15-Minute City” Action Plan

A possible legacy of the coronavirus pandemic is the accelerated advancement of sustainability goals, which are mostly things we should have been addressing before the ongoing societal disruptions. One chapter in this story is increasing interest in the “15-minute city” or “neighborhood” as the next urban development agenda. This idea hit the headlines after the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, made it part of her re-election campaign in early 2020. Since then, policymakers and experts in a growing number of countries, Finland included, have started to explore the potential of the concept as a strategic green post-Covid-19 recovery policy.

This is no surprise. The 15-minute city is a simple and catchy vision for improving the quality of life in cities and building a more sustainable future. Professor Carlos Moreno, instigator of the concept, describes the 15-minute city as a place where the rhythm of the city reflects the pace of humans (not cars), every square meter serves multiple purposes, and no one needs to commute elsewhere to fulfill basic daily needs. In other words, the 15-minute city is about living in walkable places that offer jobs, services, and other necessities and amenities within easy reach. It’s essentially the experience you are already likely to have in urban centers and inner-city districts.

(For reference, people generally walk about one kilometer and cycle about five kilometers in 15 minutes. However, the most important aspect of this is possibly what someone considers to be 15 minutes.)

This map of open restaurants in my neighborhood during Helsinki’s “lockdown” shows the possibilities for cheering yourself up with a delicious takeaway meal when everyone was mostly stuck at home. Explore the story behind the map here.

In my opinion, one significant reason for the growing interest in the 15-minute city is the fact that the various inconveniences of the pandemic have pushed people to see their cities and neighborhoods from a different perspective than before. The lockdowns and work-from-home requirements have showed how densely built, walkable neighborhoods are practical for running daily errands and socializing, no matter what the circumstances are. Having open-air access to services via streets and other public spaces is a valuable feature of walkable neighborhoods that not many people probably actively thought about prior to many daily activities becoming public health concerns.

Conversely, many of those trapped in less dense and more monofunctional areas have realized what their neighborhoods lack. It has become timely to think ahead. Many experts predict that life will become more neighborhood-orientated in the post-Covid-19 era as people continue with a more flexible work lifestyle. What kind of places do we want to spend our more localized lives in?

The ideals of the 15-minute city vision are not new for planners. They have been promoted by many urbanists in a variety of ways from the days of Jane Jacobs. Championing walkable and complex neighborhoods is also the common thread of this blog and the work of many urbanists across Finland. The general goals of the 15-minute city vision have also been the core of our do-it-yourself urban planning activities with the Urban Helsinki group, most prominently with the alternative master plan Pro Helsinki 2.0.

The Pro Helsinki 2.0 plan map. You can explore a zoomable online version here.

This was created in 2014, partly to nudge Helsinki’s official master plan process in a more urbanistic direction, but also to generally comment on the state of Finnish urban planning. You can read more about the plan here, but to summarize, Pro Helsinki 2.0 showed how it would be possible to fit twice as many new Helsinkians into the city than the official master plan intended, while simultaneously addressing the pressing planning-related needs of curbing suburban sprawl in the metropolitan area and increasing housing provision in a way that suits the high demand for living environments that resemble the city’s most desired neighborhoods – the “old” inner city.

The dawn of the 15-minute city is happening in a very different planning climate than when we were busy drafting Pro Helsinki 2.0. While not setting up new sustainability targets, many Finnish cities have for some years already been including rhetoric in their development manifestos that could have come straight from a 15-minute city pitch.

But walking the talk is still a completely different story. Letting go of the policies that drive sprawling development patterns and fossil fuel-based mobility continues to be a sluggish process. Take for example the case of Tampere, where people have recently been out on the streets to celebrate the first test drive of the city’s new tram system. At the same time, policymakers have been discussing the prospect of investing in new highway ramps and other driving infrastructure in the name of “facilitating traffic”.

Illustration from Pro Helsinki 2.0. Image by Niilo Tenkanen.

It is very positive to see Finnish policymakers take further steps in the direction of advancing urban sustainability by moving towards the 15-minute city vision. However, the important part that is still missing is the accompanying policy framework for taking action. I imagine this is something that can also be found in many other places.

There can, of course, never be a very detailed way to plan for the 15-minute city; cities are complex creatures and always evade attempts to define them completely. However, it is equally certain that our dreams of creating places with certain types of characteristics are unlikely to materialize if we don’t treat them as central goals, aligning policies to work in their direction.

In his work on 20-minute cities, Professor Kim Dovey from Melbourne nicely points out how such place-led development concepts are linked to the interplay of design choices made at different planning levels. It all boils down to how we choose to play with the urban DMA qualities (density, mix, and access) that jointly set the stage for what kind of urban experience is achievable (or not). Dovey and colleague Elek Pafka sum it up in this way: “Like biological DNA, urban DMA doesn’t determine outcomes, but establishes what is possible.”

Illustration from Pro Helsinki 2.0. Image by Niilo Tenkanen.

One day, it occurred to me that the ideas in our Pro Helsinki 2.0 plan could be repurposed to inspire the discussion on advancing the 15-minute city. The plan is essentially a strategic framework for turning Helsinki into a metropolis of vibrant and walkable neighborhoods. So, applying Dovey’s multi-scalar approach, I extracted its strategic underpinnings and have summarized them below.

Pro Helsinki 2.0’s themes for organizing development and amenities in each planning scale can essentially be stripped down to three goals: “centralizing” at the scale of the city, “spreading out” at the scale of the neighborhood, and “incorporating” at the scale of the block.

City scale

On the scale of the city, the main planning philosophy is to focus on “centralizing” development in a few selected areas (growth nodes). In other words, adding density. For small towns, this means that the entire place has to be thought of as a 15-minute city that should not increase in geographical area, just in density.

Create critical mass: A fundamental backbone for achieving urban and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods is pooling together enough people to support a rich array of services and jobs. Therefore, planners should seek to establish a multi-centered city with sub-centers no smaller than 30,000–100,000 residents.

Ensure intensity: Since the aim is to establish short distances, the growth nodes need to be shaped with a development model that enables densities of at least 15,000 inhabitants/sq.km. and 7,000 jobs/sq.km. Where applicable, conventional wisdom suggests a grid-based, low to mid-rise, urban form, which both ensures the delivery of relevant densities and leaves possibilities for future intensification. Compact nodes also make it possible to concentrate homes near large green areas, bodies of water, and other natural amenities, securing quality recreational opportunities for residents.

The Munkkiniemi-Pitäjänmäki-Konala growth node in Pro Helsinki 2.0. The plan designates a lot of new development around the local train station and turns four major thoroughfares into tram-equipped boulevards to unite several small neighborhoods.

Unify: Since large-scale greenfield developments are yesterday’s news and large brownfield sites scarce, densification should focus on connecting previously built isolated areas into larger districts. For instance, turning in-city highways into boulevards will open up underperforming urban space for development between already built-up areas. To support the active interaction of people, ideas, and businesses, imagine the city as a series of overlapping 15-minute cities and development corridors (not separate villages).

Couple densification and public transport development: Rail-based transport is the backbone of sustainable city-wide mobility, and significant intensification needs to be coordinated with the introduction of a spider-web-modeled network to ensure a high enough service capacity. A dense enough rail transport web will ensure each neighborhood has stops in central locations, and most apartments and jobs will be within less than 500 meters from some form of rail transport.

This is the rail transport system for Pro Helsinki 2.0. We suggested adding multiple light-rail lines on top of the current tram, metro, and commuter train lines to upgrade to a spider-web system. Image by Christoffer Weckström.

Neighborhood scale

A key ingredient for achieving vibrancy and enabling shorter journeys is spreading everyday destinations throughout the neighborhood and ensuring they are easy to reach by walking or cycling.

Mix uses: Forget the functionalist land-use model of separating uses into their own areas within the neighborhood and use a model that enables their coexistence. A simple solution could be to introduce two new zoning codes, “predominantly residential mixed use” and “predominantly commercial mixed use”. This would both leave flexibility for the random mingling of different use types and enable planners to maintain some steering power to suit local conditions.

REDI shopping center in Helsinki. In past years Helsinki (and elsewhere in Finland) has been quite poor at mixing retail and residential development. Shopping centers have been widely favored solutions in new and redeveloped neighborhoods, sometimes with the addition of public amenities. While this in a way makes services easily accessible, the practice contradicts the idea of having vibrant and interesting streets. Photo: REDI.

Spread out public and green amenities: Public services are often best located near transport stops, but where applicable, it can be a good idea to compliment the mixing of uses by scattering them throughout various parts of the compact neighborhood. This is especially true for parks and other recreational areas that ought to be thought of as a network of green spaces encompassing the neighborhood.

Plan for low-speed mobility: Form and adapt streets by prioritizing walking and cycling and minimize barriers for sustainable mobility within the neighborhood. Downplaying the role of cars in transport planning will invite people to use public spaces and enables residential development along streets.

Block scale

At the block scale, the main philosophy is to make including a variety of functional, aesthetic, and social elements into the block structure a priority. In essence, incorporating many things together to end up with a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Make it multifunctional: Extend the idea of mixing uses to the blocks and buildings. Most residential and office buildings should have retail spaces or other active uses on their ground floors, and buildings containing both apartments and offices should be encouraged. Civic buildings can also serve multiple purposes. Ample common yards will provide residents with private or semi-private recreational spaces, and this will extend to the inclusion of sauna facilities, rooftop terraces, and green roofs.

Make room for diversity: A sound social policy is to follow Helsinki’s long-standing social mixing practice. This means systematically planning for different housing types (condominiums, private and public rental housing, right of occupancy, student housing, etc.) to be included in each of the blocks.

Fine-grained blocks are a platform that ensures variation in the built environment, both over long periods of time and instantly (in new areas) if lots are developed by many actors and a wide mix of ideas.

Promote inviting streetscapes: Preventing monotonous or too coarse-grained cityscapes will help to achieve attractive neighborhoods with character and promote public life. This can be achieved by having different developers work on assorted buildings and encouraging a variety of architectural styles. The blocks can also be divided into separately sold or rented small lots to make them accessible for smaller developers and joint building ventures. In all cases, the emphasis for developers should be focusing on how the first three meters of each building looks, feels, and performs.

Take a place-first regulatory approach: There are numerous planning and building-related codes and norms ranging from parking minimums to energy efficiency regulations that affect the development of buildings and blocks. Their collective enforcement often means problems in terms of creating buildings in the form of a dense and pedestrian-friendly urban environment. A way to overcome this would be to remodel this approach, by prioritizing the enforcement of regulations to support the main goals of delivering walkable urbanism and adequate density.

Helsinki is trialing decoupling parking and housing development in designated areas, which is promising for 15-minute city aspirations. Mandatory parking minimums can result in half-submerged parking lots that impact the first three meters of buildings, often limiting opportunities for offering other functions or amenities in the part of blocks where it is most important for public life.

So, there you have it. These are the things we should be considering if we want to achieve 15-minute cities according to our Pro Helsinki 2.0 plan.

These are all easier said than done, obviously. Beneath its catchiness, the adoption of the 15-minute city as a guiding principle for urban development would entail major changes to our planning practice.

Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see whether the coronavirus-born 15-minute city enthusiasm will continue in the long run, truly nudging us further into advancing sustainable urbanism.

It’s particularly exciting that more attention is being placed on valuing something that already exists in many of our cities, expediting the prospect of policymakers beginning to understand how these qualities can (and cannot) be expanded to more residents.  

“2021, the year of the 15-minute city” is a catchphrase to root for.

Did the Virus Kill Helsinki? I Don’t Think So.

Debating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cities has occupied the urban discussion airspace across the globe. Finland is no exception. The mainstream narrative, also boosted by the media, is that people are fleeing cities in search of a healthier life in the exurbs, if not venturing even further to the solitude of the countryside. And they might not be returning, we’re warned. Migration data from the worst lockdown months hints that increasingly many are preferring to look at cities from the rearview mirrors of their cars. Helsinki and other urban hotspots have lost their allure. The fear of the virus has killed the city.

Well, hello from the graveyard.

Continue reading Did the Virus Kill Helsinki? I Don’t Think So.

Kallion noutolounaat – Take-Out Lunch Options in Kallio

Koronaviruksen aiheuttaman poikkeustilan takia moni viettää nyt aikaansa pääasiassa kotona. Niin teen minäkin. Näinä sosiaalista etäisyyttä täynnä olevien päivien yhtenä ilonpilkkuna on toiminut mahdollisuus pitää tauko etäpuurtamisesta ja rientää noutamaan lounasta jostain lukuisista lähiravintoloista. Samalla tulee hieman sosialisoitua ja tietysti tuettua paikallisia yrittäjiä, joiden ahdingon suuruutta en ala edes arvailla. Mitä kauemmin poikkeusolot ovat jatkuneet ja enemmän palveluja koskevia määräyksiä on tiukennettu, sitä useampi noutoruokaa tarjoava ravintola on päätynyt sulkemaan ovensa kokonaan. Tällä viikolla kohtaamieni sulkemisilmoitusten myötä tuntui, kuin olisin menettänyt useamman vanhan ystävän. Continue reading Kallion noutolounaat – Take-Out Lunch Options in Kallio

The Power of DIY Urbanism: How a Group of Skateboarders Changed the City

There’s a lot of talk nowadays (this blog included) about how bottom up movements have become more important in shaping and solving problems of the 21st century city. The drivers behind the trend include the rise of the internet and social media: It has become very easy to mobilize people around any issue. In addition, access to information has been democratized, making top-down governance models seem outdated and inefficient in their responses to today’s urban challenges. People are taking the initiative to improve their surroundings themselves.

While we’re experiencing all kinds of fascinating Do-It-Yourself (DIY) urbanisms or Tactical Urbanisms emerge in our cities, we, typically, just manage to see a snapshot of their activities. Many initiatives also fade away as soon as we hear about them. It’s rarely easy to get a nuanced understanding of the projects or evaluate their full potential in bringing change. Continue reading The Power of DIY Urbanism: How a Group of Skateboarders Changed the City

‘This Waterfront Needs a Highway’: The Huge Mistakes Cities Keep Making

Making mistakes is an important part of life. It’s an opportunity for growth and a lesson to others. Unless, of course, you’re a city. Too often, cities think they’re unique and repeat the blunders that others have made before them. Here are three of the worst ideas that keep getting recycled.

This article was originally published in The Guardian. The images in this post are different than in the original article. Continue reading ‘This Waterfront Needs a Highway’: The Huge Mistakes Cities Keep Making