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.

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.


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/ and 7,000 jobs/ 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

Contrasting Smart City Approaches: Dubai vs. Vienna

Go to any urban or regional development conference and you will be dazzled with whimsical “Smart City” visions. Usually, this covers a mix of presentations about making cities better places to live in together with tech companies by the application of rapidly developing digital technologies ranging from block chain technology to 3D printing and artificial intelligence. But the presentations could include anything, really. The Smart City is a broad concept and circulates the conferencesphere and urban strategies without any solid definition.

I recently got a dose of Smart City talk at the World Government Summit in Dubai and the Urban Future Global Conference in Vienna. I had no intention for writing about Smart Cities when I attended, but experiences both in and outside of the conference halls got me thinking otherwise. The main takeaway from this conference combo turned out to be a peek into the fundamentally different ways cities can understand and approach evolving and potentially disruptive new technologies.

This was particularly clear around the narratives of a specific smart city niche: the emergence of autonomous vehicles (AVs). The kind of urban future autonomous vehicles promise is very well known. We shall experience less congestion, fewer accidents, less pollution, minimal needs for parking, and so forth.

Opinions about when our cities might be like this vary tremendously. Some think it’s only a dream.

The recent fatal accident in Arizona is, however, an unfortunate reminder about the fact that we must keep Smart Cities firmly in the center of urban discussions even if we can’t clearly see where we are going. The real-life dimension even to the flashiest Smart City visions is already here. And everywhere. There are only a handful of cities that aren’t on a quest to become Smart. Dubai and Vienna certainly are.

The City of Superlatives

The World Government Summit didn’t have a specific focus on urbanism, but the conference was ultimately very much about Dubai and its ambitions. And these are not modest. The city aims to become one of the most sustainable cities, the world’s happiest city, and, of course, the smartest city on earth. Dubai will soon also host Expo 2020, the first world fair in the Middle East, to flex its muscles.

Museum of the future pic
During the Summit, we got to have a sneak preview of Dubai’s Museum of the Future, which will open in 2019. The museum will focus on the potentials of artificial intelligence. This image is an AI-powered artsy recreation of a photo of me.

To push for progress, they’ve founded Smart Dubai, a special government body with a mission to leverage technology to meet the city’s grandiose visions. Strong support is given from the national government, which now includes the world’s first minister for artificial intelligence.

One of Smart Dubai’s key initiatives is the provision of “Smart Mobility”. In other words, the introduction of autonomous vehicles. Dubai’s aim is to have 25% of all trips running autonomously by 2030.

And they’re serious. During the Summit, they were testing self-driving pods and announced a 5-million-dollar global challenge for providing solutions that will help Dubai meet their AV goals. Moreover, Dubai has already been testing with small “flying taxis”, they’ve just hired HERE to map the city with high-definition technology, and Tesla is already supplying Dubai with a fleet of vehicles with self-driving capabilities. At Expo 2020, they plan to test flying cars. That’s right, flying cars.

Dubai streetscape not walkable
A glimpse of the streetscape in the newer part of Dubai.

When in Dubai, smarter mobility was indeed at times a thing that felt needed. When you needed to travel somewhere, especially from the conference venue, you had to wait forever to have a ride arranged for you. Walking was impossible and there was no bus to hop into. The chaotic waiting lines had an upside, though: they were a very good opportunity for networking.

While I sat in morning traffic and watched people jog next to a highway-like road with no real sidewalks, I could not help keep thinking about whether Dubai’s Smart City project will ever deliver. Their approach reminds me of a pattern that cities have experimented with around the world at the expense of sustainability. Dubai very much included.

Dubai streetscape walkable
A street in the older and walkable part of Dubai.

In just a few decades, Dubai has grown from a sleepy fishing village to a global metropolis of 3 million. The wonder happened in tandem with opening up to Western industries and ways of getting things done, including economic activity, real-estate development, and lifestyle. From an urbanistic point of view, this meant a transformation from a walkable Middle-Eastern town to one of the most dispersed cities I’ve ever seen.

Yes, Dubai has, without blinking an eye, embraced and enforced foreign-born policies and planning principles that have enabled extremely rapid growth, but also turned the city into the poster child of sprawl. The city’s goal for becoming one of the most sustainable cities on the planet could not sound more utopian.

A Chat with Angelika Winkler

Soon after the sun and warmth of Dubai, I was in freezing Vienna, and again listening to Smart City talk. On the AV front, discussions at the Urban Future conference unsurprisingly dealt with the potentials of self-driving cars in improving urban life. Or so it was until this came up: a session dedicated to singling out and mitigating the risks of autonomous mobility.

I’m glad I chose to attend. I learned that Vienna’s AV policy differs from that of Dubai’s. In fact, it seems to be exactly the opposite.

Vienna’s Head of the Mobility Strategies division, Angelika Winkler, enlightened us session attendees that for the past few years her team has been working a kind of response strategy to mitigate any unwanted outcomes AVs may bring. They want to be ahead of the game.

I got the chance to talk to Winkler about what this could mean in practice.

For starters, Vienna is thinking about enforcing a policy on routing, she told me: “AVs are designed to operate from an individualistic perspective, to take the quickest route from A to B. But this can be at odds with the interests of the community: sometimes the fastest route will go through quiet streets. We are planning to enforce some restrictions for concentrating most of AV traffic to streets where they don’t bother people.”

And they’re not too far away from this: “We are working on digitizing our traffic controls (traffic signs, etc.). Adding ‘community zones’ into the system will be quite easy.”

Vienna’s Mariahilfer Straße has become more lively and enjoyable following recent transformation work, which added pedestrian and shared space segments.

What AV evangelists always tell us is that the number of cars will decrease tremendously as a single robot-operated car can replace many human drivers and their cars. The urbanists fear this will backfire. The risk is that adopting AVs too eagerly will only amplify what cars did to cities: fuel the Dubaiesque dispersal pattern.

Winkler assures that this will not be the case in Vienna: “Autonomous or not, Vienna wants fewer cars altogether.” And more significantly, she mentioned there are tools to halt AV-related sprawl: “Cities can potentially prevent the sprawl scenario by not distributing support infrastructure for AVs in out-of-town sites”.

And speaking of support infrastructure, Winkler thinks Vienna should keep their engagement with AV tech and operating software to a minimum: “We think AV tech should be contained to the cars themselves, because the city management will never have enough resources to keep up with the tech/software development.”

Vienna graffiti zone
The low tech way to fight unwanted graffiti: create zones where you’re allowed to make cool graffiti.

Finally, Winkler encourages cities to intensify their prep work: “AV thinking within city halls has been slow. In Vienna, just in the last two years the attitudes have made it possible to form a group working on this.” A good way to make risk mitigation more effective is to network. “Vienna has just taken part in a new Eurocities working group on AVs”, she concluded.

Later, I joined a conference walking tour that was aptly called the “invisible smart city”. We, for example, dove into to why more than half of Viennese use public transit every day, how a refugee-run hotel works, and explored a project to turn empty shops into tourist rooms.

Walzing in the street
During one walking tour, we took a moment to celebrate Vienna’s vibrant and walkable streets with a little wintry waltz.

The tour stops were all, essentially, examples of the details that add up to Vienna getting repeatedly judged as one of the most livable cities in the world. Things that are “socially smart”, as our tour guide Eugene Quinn put it. This is what I would also extend to Vienna’s approach for dealing with the AV question. People are placed in the center of the equation.

How Will Cities Get Smart?

The Smart City may for the most part act as a nice umbrella term for activities that happen in dialogue between cities and the global market of tech innovations. A dialogue that is rather hidden and uninteresting besides the flashy headlines and imagery, and therefore not discussed in such detail as for example the question of adding more bike lanes.

But interesting or not, one thing is crystal clear: we are in the early stage of the digital age and sooner or later faced with disruptive innovations that will shape urban life as we know it.

We will only much later know what policies are wise in addressing their emergence. The experiences from Dubai and Vienna, however, offer food for thought to the role and philosophy of cities can take in this process.

Do they understand Smart City advancement as a top down project, positioning themselves as key stakeholders in clearing the way for the adoption of new technologies? Or do they perceive Smart City visions as impulses that rise from the bottom up, driven by external players, forcing cities to respond and readjust, if needed?

At the World Government Summit, UNDP leader Achim Steiner summarized what a city’s main goal should be, whichever approach they may champion: “Governments need to make sure technology contributes in a way that helps solve sustainability problems and not amplify them.”

From Life-Filled Imagery to Dead Plazas – Why Cities Need a Place-Driven Future

Does anyone else pay attention to this: many times the renderings of new urban development projects include a plaza or similar open space, sitting somewhere in front or between the proposed new buildings. Scaling purposes aside, the glitzy visualizations paint pictures of future plazas teeming with life. People are lounging around, meeting each other and having a good time, actively engaging in public life.

Kankaan keskusta
The city of Jyväskylä organized an architectural competition in 2016 to compile ideas for shaping the central blocks of their landmark development project Kangas. This one’s the winning entry. Image: Schauman & Nordgren Architects Oy / ApS

But wander off to anywhere in Helsinki (or any Finnish city, really) and you will find dead plazas galore. Reality is far from the imagery. Most of today’s plazas were planned before digital tools came into play and made adding people easy, but the story has been quite the same for a long time: once materialized, our plazas typically end up being void of the public life they’re envisioned to support. Continue reading From Life-Filled Imagery to Dead Plazas – Why Cities Need a Place-Driven Future

Urban Lessons from Naples, Potenza and Matera

This summer’s visit to southern Italy for a project meeting was a great opportunity to include a few extra days for absorbing local urban experiences. Italy is one of the most-studied scenes in the world among urbanists. Not to mention architecture lovers.

Like so many after their travels to Italy, I also felt compelled to share my experiences and continue my article series on ideas worth stealing (or not) from other cities around the globe. (See the previous ones on Tokyo & Hong Kong here and Istanbul here). Continue reading Urban Lessons from Naples, Potenza and Matera

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. Continue reading Global warming is slowly changing life in Finnish cities