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
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 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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Kallio, my neighborhood in central Helsinki is a fantastic and lively place to live in. Most services are within a couple of blocks, there are plenty of bars and restaurants to choose from, you can hang out in a number of characteristic parks, and the connections to elsewhere in Helsinki are superb. There’s little to complain about.
Except there’s one thing. When I’m feeling too lazy to go out to the park or the weather’s a bit unpredictable, I often envy my friends who have the luxury to lounge on their balcony or in their yard. I live in a building from the 1930s that doesn’t have balconies and I can’t really resort to the yard option either. Continue reading The Quest for Terrific Courtyards in Creating High-Class Density
It’s been a bit more than a year since I and my urbanist comrades accomplished one of the most exciting things ever – well, at least as far as urban planning goes. Following about 10 months of work during evenings, weekends, and holidays, in October 2014 we finally published Pro Helsinki 2.0, the alternative master plan for Helsinki.
For those not familiar with the project, head here to learn more about its contents. But in short, it’s a DIY urbanism initiative that emerged out of a need to diversify discussions around Helsinki’s official new master plan project. And, essentially, to propose something better than the city administration is. Pro Helsinki 2.0 illustrates how Helsinki could develop in a more sustainable way than its counterpart and offer more choice to the housing market by reviving the urban block. Continue reading Could Your City Benefit from DIY Urban Planning? Yes, the Experience from Pro Helsinki 2.0 Suggests
Goodbye underperforming asphalt. Bringing urban feel to the suburbs is now officially on the horizon in the Helsinki area.
In September a community-based do-it-yourself initiative called Myyrmäki-liike (Myyrmäki Movement) invited me to talk about contemporary urban development trends. They had staged an event to generate discussion around a set of nine proposals to transformation the commercial center of Myyrmäki, a 1970s & 80s railway suburb in Vantaa. The goal is to retrofit a big parking lot into mixed-use urban blocks.
I didn’t hesitate to accept the invite because there’s a lot to get excited about in this project. Continue reading Retrofitting Suburbia – A New Life for Vantaa’s Myyrmäki
The sudden need to make room for asylum-seekers may gather momentum for inventing new ways to solve housing shortages in Finland’s growth centers.
Urbanization is a highly transformative force in Finland. Our seven biggest urban centers are projected to grow by one million new residents by 2050 thanks to rural-to-urban migration, the geography of natural population growth and immigration. This means cities are facing a need to find strategies for realizing about half a million new dwellings already by 2030. Continue reading Could Europe’s Refugee Influx Trigger a Shift Towards Leaner Urban Policies?
This spring, Finland’s second city Tampere has been the scene of an interesting urban planning spectacle. Or probably ‘drama’ is a better word to describe the turmoil around the city’s ambition to move on to the second phase of its experiment for temporarily transforming Tampere’s main street, Hämeenkatu, into a transit-only zone. The first phase was initiated last summer by cutting off the street’s eastern half from private cars. Access was left to buses, taxis, and logistics vehicles. The rationale behind the entire experiment is to prepare Tampere for the introduction of a new tram system in 2018 or 2019. Its arrival would make the transformation permanent.
The goal of the second phase is to slim down the now unnecessarily large space for vehicular traffic and to widen the sidewalk to add more people-space such as parklets, event stages, and room for terraces. Generally, the point is to set the scene for how the street could be like if the tram gets built. The budget for all of this is not high, only 70 000€.
I’ve been very excited about this project because it represents exactly the kind of stuff Finnish cities should be doing today. But what happened next was a bit unexpected.
Last year my neighborhood in Helsinki experienced a small, but curious change. A stuffy Czech-themed beerhouse called Milenka got refurbished into a somewhat trendy Scandinavian-style one, Ølhus Oslo. Now, the incident that a worn-out joint got replaced by something more hip is not exceptional at all – new eateries and bars get opened all the time in my neighborhood which these days continuously shows up on all sorts of “hipster” lists. Continue reading K+S Urbanism – Will Mega-Retailers Kesko and S Group Ever Think Outside the Box?