Tag Archives: Cities

‘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.

Build a big mall to ‘revitalise’ the city

The gigantic out-of-town complex Centro was the centrepiece of Oberhausen’s efforts to halt economic decline and turn the German city toward post-industrial success.

Centro Oberhausen
Oberhausen’s Centro Shopping Centre is the largest in Europe – but devastated the city’s centre rather than helping to revitalise it. Photo: Tuxyso / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

With glitzy shopping, entertainment venues and cultural offerings in repurposed factory buildings, Centro did indeed have a transformative impact – but not in the way the city imagined. As much of the retail and service activity in the city gravitated to the new mall, many mom-and-pop businesses downtown couldn’t stay afloat. The once-vibrant streets of the city centre were gradually taken over by discount stores, empty shop fronts and visible decay.

Devastated by the loss, Oberhausen is now focused on revitalising the downtown area – in short, recovering from its main recovery project.

Nor is Oberhausen alone. Many cities have welcomed remote shopping centres in the hope of making economic gains, only to face unintended consequences. So you’d guess new cities would have learned from these mistakes.

Veturi Shopping Centre
Since the Veturi mall opened in Kouvola, Finland, the city has been best-known for its dying city centre and the desperate efforts to resuscitate it. Photo: Htm / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Guess again. In Finland, the city of Kouvola believed a big shopping mall on the edge of town was just the strategic intervention needed to reinvent a declining economy. Since the mall opened in 2012, Kouvola has been best-known for its dying city centre and the desperate efforts to resuscitate it. And the city of Seinäjoki has enthusiastically approved a new peripheral shopping paradise, arguing that the mall will boost Seinäjoki’s attractiveness as a regional shopping destination, and in some magical way also support the city’s strategy to strengthen its downtown.

No guesses as to what will happen next.

‘Bury’ cars to improve the downtown core

The “Five Star” development strategy of the city of Tampere involves adding new housing and jobs, a new tram system, and prioritising pedestrians and cyclists. In order to achieve this deluxe downtown experience, the city is building underground parking facilities and a tunnel to clear the roads of cars. A clear and effective concept, one might think.

But congestion in the city wasn’t even an issue before the city completed two costly Five Star projects: a 1,000-space parking garage, and a tunneled highway section. The effect has been to increase the number of cars the city centre can accommodate – and the number of cars has duly increased.

Big Dig_Rose Kennedy Greenway
Boston diverted a downtown expressway into a tunnel. The project ran a decade late and cost $15bn. Photo: MKdeJong / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

So how is Tampere responding? It is proposing to to build an additional entry from the tunnel to the city centre – increasing capacity yet further – and planning yet another colossal parking garage. Meanwhile, improvements for pedestrians and cyclists have been minimal. The most remarkable result of the project, many locals now believe, will be its astonishing price tag.

The city would have done well to look across the Atlantic for lessons. In the late 1980s, Boston took a leap of faith to see whether burying cars underground could be the magic bullet that could both alleviate congestion and increase downtown walkability. The so-called Big Dig project ambitiously set to divert a downtown expressway into a tunnel, to offer new transit options, and to refurbish the expressway corridor with parks and plazas.

What happened? The project was finished a decade later than planned, the construction costs bloated to $15bn, the transit plans were forgotten – and Bostonians today spend more time in traffic than ever.

Build a highway on the waterfront

As Jacques Cousteau once wrote: “The Sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” As “placemaking” has become a key element of the urban economy, some intelligently planned cities have embraced their blue gold. In Oslo, for example, the “Fjord City” strategy has seen the redevelopment of a once-industrial shoreline into vibrant neighbourhoods packed with apartments, jobs, shops and restaurants. Famed for its opera house, Oslo’s waterfront has helped the city to evolve into one of the most competitive in Europe.

Toronto Gardiner Expressway
Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, which cuts the city’s waterfront off from the rest of its downtown area. Photo: Nayuki / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Other cities prefer to completely ignore these successes and instead repeat the mistakes of the past. In 2015, despite lengthy community campaigns for tearing it down and plans for high-quality waterfront urbanist interventions, Toronto decided to keep the Gardiner Expressway in place, cutting the city’s waterfront off from the rest of its downtown.

Other cities swim even harder against the current. The Estonian capital of Tallinn has decided to invest in a brand-new downtown highway, in order to grant easier harbor access to trucks. In the process, it will pave over one of the city’s only seaside parks. As a kind of absurd flourish, the city has promised to build a shiny promenade and public space in the only narrow stretch of land that now remains between the sea and multiple lanes of traffic.


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

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

Istanbul: Notes on the Eternal City’s Urban Problems and Ideas

I had the pleasure to visit to Istanbul last week. This was just a leisure trip to explore the city (and have a break from work), but when roaming the streets I quickly noted that there’s no way I can keep myself from reflecting on what I’m seeing and hearing. I also had the privilege to meet with two local university students and explore different faces of the city together with them. Based on our wonderful talks and my observations, I decided to write a special feature on Istanbul that on the one hand highlights pressing issues in the city’s planning scene and on the other displays ideas other cities could learn and benefit from. This piece is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of Istanbul’s urban planning and policies by any means, but a collection of different aspects a Finnish urbanist encountered and found interesting during five days in the city. Continue reading Istanbul: Notes on the Eternal City’s Urban Problems and Ideas

Changing Work Patterns and the Rise of Urban Innovation Districts – The Future in Finland?

The changing nature of how and where we work seems to be hollowing out Finland’s science & business parks and industrial areas. Is the geography of innovation shifting and leaving cities facing a choice between sticking with a landscape of vacant business premises and nurturing lively innovation districts?

Last month an over 10,000-strong horde of startup entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and media representatives flocked to Helsinki to attend Slush, a two-day technology and startup event that seeks to pair great ideas with investors. Even the Chinese Vice Prime Minister Wang Jang joined the party. This is quite noteworthy since the concept only got started in 2008 by a small group of Finnish entrepreneurs who wanted to bring the local startup scene together at least once every year. Now Slush is one of the leading tech and startup events in the world. Continue reading Changing Work Patterns and the Rise of Urban Innovation Districts – The Future in Finland?

DIY Urban Planning Revisited – Progress Report for Urban Helsinki’s Pikku Huopalahti Proposal

In February I wrote about a planning activism project I and my like-minded friends – we now call our group Urban Helsinki – initiated to promote dense urban living for a development site in Pikku Huopalahti on the northern edge of Helsinki’s inner city. In a nutshell, the story is that the land developer hired three architecture firms to draft ideas for transforming the site from its current rather useless state into an infill neighborhood. The city will eventually make a detailed plan for the site reflecting the ideas and discussions that follow the proposals. Gratefully, the city gave us a chance to submit our proposal along with the so-called official ones.

At the time of my earlier blog post we had just handed in our work. Nothing like this had been done before, so what would follow was a mystery for everyone. Continue reading DIY Urban Planning Revisited – Progress Report for Urban Helsinki’s Pikku Huopalahti Proposal

Helsinki’s Lastenlehto Park a Benchmark for the Design of Contemporary Finnish Urban Open Spaces

Some of you readers have suggested that every once in a while I should focus on local projects that contribute positively to the creation of great cities. You’re absolutely right, and from now on I’ll keep on highlighting what I think are positive examples more conspicuously when I come across them. Also, do feel free to contact me if you have any already in mind!

To start off, this post is dedicated to praising a small park in Helsinki that hasn’t received the attention it deserves. This urban oasis is called Lastenlehto Park (Lastenlehdon puisto in Finnish) which has from the late 19th century onwards evolved as a neighborhood recreation space in one form or another to a very central triangular park in the district of Kamppi. What I specifically want to discuss is the outcome of the park’s recent transformation process which possibly has been the park’s most dramatic change in the course of its history. Continue reading Helsinki’s Lastenlehto Park a Benchmark for the Design of Contemporary Finnish Urban Open Spaces