Tag Archives: Placemaking

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!

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.

Design First or Last? A Fork in the Road for Helsinki’s New City Plan

In a couple of my previous posts, I’ve stressed my amazement with the quick change in attitude among Helsinki’s urban planners. The message from the planning authorities is that they have chosen to increasingly question the conventional modernist planning ideology and are now actively seeking to add elements of a more urbanist approach to Helsinki’s upcoming steering document, the new city plan.

Now that the first excitement is slowly beginning to settle down, it’s time to start thinking ahead. And what I’ve been thinking about this time touches upon the management of links between planning ideologies and planning practice. Namely, I would like to see one classic planning debate enter the Helsinki discussions, because A) it has not been discussed at all in this process; and B) it plays a significant role in the on-the-ground implementation of the new city plan. Continue reading Design First or Last? A Fork in the Road for Helsinki’s New City Plan