Tag Archives: Public Spaces

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.

Ruoholahti Square
Helsinki’s Ruoholahti Square (Ruoholahdentori) represents the kind of experience you might expect with the average plaza. See the photo credit link for a 360° view. Photo: Vladimir Kourakevitch

Indeed, the contrast to, for example, the well-known festive atmospheres of Italian life-rich piazzas is striking. They underline how and why public plazas are vital to cities. Like streets, they act as venues for social interactions and activities. It would be superb to spread some of that piazza energy to plazas and squares across Finland, too.

Palermo night life
A snapshot of the weekend crowd in Palermo. The city’s piazzas are the most extreme people magnets I’ve seen. It’s like there was a block party going on throughout the city center every weekend.

Wishful thinking, many say: “forget about it, we don’t have the climate or culture for that kind of vibrancy to happen”.

No, in many ways we don’t. But then again, we do have some examples in our plazascape that are rather alive, too. In Helsinki, Senate Square is where tourists gather to absorb the city’s history. And in wintertime, there are periods with more people at the square than in summer. This is thanks to major events like the Christmas market and LUX Helsinki light festival. Some other plazas or plaza-like spaces are used as popular meeting places. Kallio’s Karhupuisto area and the “steps” next to Kansalaistori square, for example, attract people for casual lingering or to take part in one of many cool grassroots events.

The area around Kallio’s Karhupuisto attracts people throughout the non-winter period to chill out on rocks and in the plaza proper. It is also a center of attention to those wishing to take part in many of Helsinki’s new urban events. These folks are enjoying Restaurant Day.

Lifeless plazas are clearly not only about climate and cultural factors. People’s needs to be social are universal.

Obviously, not all urban open spaces are supposed to resemble Italian piazzas at night. But large amounts of paved surface throughout the city without anyone there is hardly a desirable outcome either. In most cases public plazas aren’t urban amenities that add value to neighborhoods if they don’t succeed in bringing people together.

Supporting public life is a topic we must discuss more about. The public and policy atmosphere is shifting towards a future of living in denser and more urban neighborhoods. This makes having high-quality public realms a top priority for livability.

The dead plazas are a symptom of our failures to have any strategies for creating quality places. Thus, thinking about why we have so many of them also helps advance the broader discussion for smarter urban planning.

At the Scale of Blocks

The starting point for our cityscape of dead plazas is that, in recent times, we have never genuinely figured out what to do with them in the first place.

The legacy of building monumental neoclassical squares, a deep love with modernist planning ideals, and the gradual decline of yesterday’s activities in urban open space (different types of markets, etc.), has left downtown Helsinki struggling with a stock of older plazas that are too big and/or not designed to support public life. There has been no real interest in repurposing or reactivating them.

Hakaniemi Square_Signe Brander
Hakaniemi Square in 1913. Photo: Signe Brander/Helsinki City Museum

One example is Hakaniemi Square, which was the main market place on the (then) eastern edge of the city. It was once filled with small shacks selling everyday items and food. Today, that legacy lives on, but the shacks are long gone and replaced by a handful of vegetable stands and cafes in tents. The market activity has diminished, and, unless there’s an occasional larger event, the gigantic space always feels rather empty.

Hakaniemi Square nowadays. Or how it has been for a long time, to be exact. Right now there’s a new temporary market hall in the middle of the plaza because the old one (the smaller red-brick building in the background) is undergoing renovation (see the difference). Following this, one of the tent cafe keepers told me many people now like the plaza and its tent services better because the temporary market has squeezed everything outside it closer together. The atmosphere is more cozy. Maybe it’s not a bad idea to make the concept permanent. Photo: Marco Hannukka

Today, plazas are obviously places that you choose to go rather than must for survival. William H. Whyte, one of the most famous public space researchers, concluded that in modern times a successful plaza is founded on careful user-centered design and programming work. He summarized that people are drawn to places that 1) are generous with inviting options for sitting and relaxing; 2) are easily accessible; 3) offer attractions such as trees, sculptures, food vendors, fountains, etc.; 4) and finally, offer a crucial element he famously put in the following words: “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.”

While Whyte underlined the key to sustaining life in plazas is a combination of these elements, ours typically lack most of them, regardless if they’re old or new.

For example, Vaasanpuistikko, the plaza right across the street from my building, is highly accessible and always quite full of people. But not in the same way as at the Italian piazza. Most people are there to rush through the space, not to linger. They’re going in or out of the metro station, visiting the supermarket, or pass by to be someplace else. Or well, some do linger. Vaasanpuistikko is better known as “Piritori” (Speed Market) because drug dealers and junkies, among other marginalized groups, are not easily driven away from these types spaces.

Vaasanpuistikko, Vaasanaukio or Piritori, whatever you want to call it, is a plaza I observe every day. It holds great potential to get transformed it into a hangout for a wider group of users. It has very good accessibility, it’s fairly small and the neighborhood is densely populated. It could be popular throughout the year with the right kind of attractions.

Many generally won’t stick around because there are zero places to sit down and activities are scarce. And the local grassroots events scene stays away because it’s too burdensome to get permits etc. for organizing activities.

This obvious lack of attractions, seating and active management isn’t any different from most modern-day plazas. Many of them are built with an emphasis on aesthetics over thinking about their use.

Porvoo Taidetehdas
A random example of an envisioned plaza. This is from the city of Porvoo’s plans to extend its downtown to the west. Note the minimalist design in the rendering. If built as such, experience from elsewhere suggests you’ll find far fewer people here in the future than in the visualization. Image: City of Porvoo

They often end up being large and barren, only covered with stone pavement. A few are more artsy or detail-rich, like the expensive-to-build but no-one-ever-uses-it Tapio Wirkkala park (which I’ve written about before). I mean literally, I’ve yet to see a single person use it for anything other than to take a shortcut through it. Even kids seem to keep away. But hey, it looks nice from high above!

Tapio Wirkkala Park
Tapio Wirkkala Park is a kind of a mixture between a park and a plaza. It’s not really usable either way. The space is an extreme example of what can come out when the design professions are in control.

The problem is that the process of designing or managing public spaces is dominantly a top-down exercise. The user perspective isn’t truly included. Often this approach fails, no matter how much money you pour into the (re)creation of a plaza.

Gdansk Tactical Urbanism
The Targ Weglowy Square in Gdansk, Poland, was a long-standing parking lot until the city decided to get rid of the cars. Later on, the local Gdyby group launched a project to take over the barren plaza with light urban furniture and activities to begin iterating future possibilities. Photo: Gdyby group

A better strategy would be to focus on the opposite: to work through community involvement and trial & error. This entails starting with small and temporary interventions to iterate for site-specific solutions. Probably minimalist landscaping design isn’t one. Especially when enlivening existing plazas, their programming and management should be handed over to local actors as much as possible.

Some form of design policy would also help to, for example, ensure new plazas aren’t built too vast to sustain a cozy atmosphere in them.

At the Scale of Neighborhoods

Just focusing on enlivening our current plazas and making sure we create people-friendly new ones isn’t going to be enough. Another dimension to the dead plaza problem is that we may be building too many. This might sound a bit odd, but bear with me.

Almost any random plan proposing more than one or two buildings could be chosen as an example, but let’s look at a well-known one from Arabianranta. In this new-ish suburb the real estate owner has an ambitious plan to make the heart of the area, the Arabia factory block, more downtown-like by adding apartments and offices. An architecture competition was launched to get ideas for the intensification. Unsurprisingly, all finalist entries suggested the establishment of a new (vibrant) central plaza. (I’m not sure if including a plaza was a competition rule or not).

Arabia renderings
Plaza and public life scenery from the winning entries of the Arabia 135 competition. Left is “Kilta” by Verstas Arkkitehdit and on the right “Frank” by Anttinen Oiva Arkkitehdit.

And why not? Most entries did suggest adding highrises to the very large and already built up block. A plaza would soften and balance the infill. It does sound like a smart idea.

However, when you zoom out a bit, the question of adding a new plaza becomes more complex. The surroundings of the competition area aren’t exactly lacking plazas or urban open spaces. By only circling the block you will find at least 10 of them (this includes Tapio Wirkkala park). Many don’t have a clear purpose or any users in sight.

Arabia Plazas gallery 1
Some of the plazascape attached to the Arabia Factory block. I kind of felt sorry for that foodtruck guy. Most of the time it was just him and that very strange plaza.

The new project will eventually add more people to the area, but, by also adding another plaza, the plaza-to-people ratio will remain unfavorable. It’s difficult to see how the public life in the renderings will become a reality with all this plaza space and low density.

Arabia Plazas gallery 2
More of the plazascape attached to the Arabia Factory block. The second one from the left is a bit iffy to include in this collage: it’s an empty lot that some people use for urban gardening.

Arabianranta is of course one example among many. I touched upon another similar case when writing about an idea competition to transform a big parking lot into mixed use urban blocks in Myyrmäki:

“And while on the topic of plazas, there really is no shortage of them in Myyrmäki. Just around Myyrmäki railway stop there are altogether four different plazas – or five if you count the temporary event space created by the community. On a sunny end-of-summer Saturday afternoon most of them were completely empty. Regardless of this, some of the retrofit proposals include renderings of new plazas. Makes you wonder if they’ve actually been to the area. No more underperforming squares, thanks!”

Myrtsi_Tori galore
Plaza galore in Myyrmäki.

The underlying problem is that the managers of urban infill projects have good intentions to provide new public spaces, but no one effectively manages public space at the scale of the entire neighborhood. Currently it’s not very clear what urban form or community-related goals (beyond adding housing, jobs, and services) individual projects should help to accomplish.

Myrtsi_No more plazas
Of course the Myyrmäki competition entries all pretty much suggested to add a plaza or two. In this winning one, a new plaza would be added even though there are plazas already around. To be sure there’s enough open space,  they’ve also designed parks and open courtyards. And in the renderings, naturally, all are filled with life. Base image by Innovarch Oy

As a result, architectural competitions and detailed plans are reviewed and processed individually. This increases pressure for each of them “needing” to prove the public good is not forgotten. It may be tempting to include that wonderful plaza.

Something like strategic neighborhood-level visions would help, but they don’t exist. With every new development project, it’s worthwhile to stop and ask whether that new plaza in it is really needed. Likely, the neighborhood already has a few lifeless plazas waiting to benefit from an increase in density. Some form of catchment analysis is usually done with other services, why not extend it to plazas as well?

In some rare cases, it could even be considered that an existing underperforming plaza gets developed or repurposed for the sake of the whole. This will of course not be an easy task.

At the Scale of Cities

The things we build around plazas must also be considered. With completely new neighborhoods the number and location of plazas at least should be easy to solve, right? Maybe in theory, but practice shows that also these masterplanned projects often fail to establish frameworks that support vibrant public life.

The brownfield site Jätkäsaari is a good lens to look at this. Especially because it is built as a direct extension to downtown Helsinki and with an ambition to make the area also feel like that. The foreseen hustle and bustle is facilitated by e.g. increased density and attempting a revival of the perimeter block.

One of the new plazas in Jätkäsaari. At least there is a bench for sitting down. Not sure why many would, though.

The feature of interest there is a pedestrian alley that runs between a few of the blocks and connects a string of four small plazas. In terms of massing and plaza dimensions there is a true sense of cityness in the air. Many local urbanists consider this setting a sign of hope that the urban is finally returning into urban planning.

But there’s a problem in paradise. The plazas are just as dead as elsewhere. I of course don’t expect to find Times Square here, but getting some “urban feel” would need a little public life around, too.

Up the alley, another exciting plaza.

The entire area is not yet finished, but already now it’s quite evident that the vibrancy is unlikely to emerge. The dimensions of the plazas may be spot on, but their edges are mostly blank walls. I mean there are doors to apartment buildings, bike storage, and other technical facilities, but few possibilities for establishing services to make the plazas a destination people would want to reach.

Passersby will also be few. Jätkäsaari may be denser than most new neighborhoods, but the area around the plazas is overwhelmingly residential. Areas without a diversity of uses are likely to be empty for most of the day. There is little reason to be in Jätkäsaari unless you live there.

This one’s got the most promising shop space on one of its edges for adding some chairs and tables to the plaza. To have at least something other than a big sliced egg. Now the shop space is occupied by a beauty salon.

The number one fan of chaotic street life, Jane Jacobs, warned not to approach planning with simple or piecemeal solutions. To create or sustain urban vibrancy, she argued for a deep understanding of many interrelated elements like a mix of uses, small blocks, density, and many more. Jacobs’s teachings are a bit like scaling Whyte’s analysis of successful plazas to the neighborhood level.

From this perspective, Jätkäsaari’s development doesn’t look very promising. First, architects and planners designed an entire area for 18 000 residents in their separate offices (and made sure it will become helicopter-view friendly). Then developers/builders took over, opened an excel spreadsheet, and started working with pre-destined land uses, gross floor areas, and parking. Urban life has a low priority, if a priority at all.

The plaza closest to the harbor is more like a widening of the street or an intersection. I don’t know if that has been the plan or not. But someone drew it in line with the other plazas.

Ideally, the process would begin with the consideration of the public realm and what’s needed to ensure the neighborhood becomes attractive for 21st century urban dwellers. Designing the rest will follow later. An even better idea would be to get rid of the centralized design-and-build-from-scratch model altogether. And begin building cities in small increments and with small developers.

A Shift Towards Creating Places

There are surely many other things that contribute to the landscape of lifeless plazas as well. But the main point is that it’s not a very easy problem to solve with today’s planning methods.

The plazas that do manage to bring people together or have the greatest revitalization potential are in the older parts of our cities. These neighborhoods have grown organically and through times when street life was abundant due to necessary everyday activities. Public life was at the core of city shaping.

Now urban spaces are generated following a very different logic. Today’s city and plaza-building would benefit greatly if there was more multi-scale thinking involved. And at each scale, our priorities must be reconsidered, too. “Italian piazzas” are unlikely to happen if we don’t center having them as a goal and align everything else to work in that direction.

In Helsinki’s Herttoniemi neighborhood, I’m currently working with a project where we’re testing what happens if we try to apply a more place-led approach and create a vision for the area together with the community and public officials. Ideally, the conditions for having more public life and things like Herttoniemi Block Party will improve in the long run. Photo: Herttoniemi Block Party Instagram

It’s not going to be easy or quick. A place-led approach will require making our governance and planning models more horizontal. Otherwise we won’t be able to tackle all the interrelated dimensions that feed into the process of creating places. Helsinki’s new organizational structure, based on squeezing around 30 isolated departments into four thematic divisions, is a welcome step in the right direction.

To deliver great public plazas, we’d still need the divisions to work together and to partner up with community members and the development industry. Placemaking is a collective effort.

Until then, it’s healthy to be skeptical about the future those renderings of bustling public plazas promise to deliver.

Finnish Suburbs Await Inspiring Retrofits

Last weekend I got invited to a couple’s house in Herttoniemi, one of Helsinki’s first suburbs, to experience the loud hum of a six-lane highway that runs just behind their house and is terrorizing their suburban dream (yes, it is loud). The city apparently hasn’t been interested in setting up a barrier to reduce noise despite it has expanded the road over the years. Furthermore, the area’s new infill development plan is suggesting too many new buildings to their neighborhood and right in their backyard too. The couple said they were proud Not-In-My-Backyard folk and don’t want changes to their surroundings. It seemed to be yet another NIMBY case. Continue reading Finnish Suburbs Await Inspiring Retrofits

Finland’s Energy Efficiency Boom Good for the Climate, but Trouble for Cities

In recent years, energy efficiency has been probably the most discussed issue within the urban development sphere here in Finland. The topic generally crosses all levels of planning and is present to a greater or lesser extent in all planning initiatives. I’m guessing the situation is similar in most European countries with the 2010 passing of the European Energy Performance of Buildings Directive as well as the recent explosion of green building codes such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and BREEAM. Our national government has additionally raised the bar by introducing an action plan for Finland to meet its 2020 EU climate goals already by 2017.

The resulting ERA17 program boldly sets out to place Finland no more or less than as the “leader in energy-efficient built environments”. Moreover, the “ultimate goal of the plan is that in 2050, Finland will be able to offer the world’s best living and operating environment for people and businesses”. There are six key action areas for achieving this: energy-efficient land use, distributed methods of energy production, steering of construction, ownership and use of real estate, and taking know-how further (read more here). Continue reading Finland’s Energy Efficiency Boom Good for the Climate, but Trouble for Cities

Helsinki’s ‘Daughter of the Baltic Sea’ Brand Needs a Ljubljana-Style Reboot

No nation can escape its geography” said Percy Spender, the Australian Minister for External Affairs back in 1950. He was talking about the need to reinvent Australia’s relationship towards Asia to make the most out of the nation’s factual geographical position and not see itself only as belonging to the circuits of the old British Empire. This same line of thought obviously applies to cities as well. I got a first-hand experience of this around the turning of the year when I had the pleasure to visit a good friend of mine in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The city naturally wasn’t repositioning its foreign and regional policy like the Aussies were but its relationship with River Ljubljanica. Continue reading Helsinki’s ‘Daughter of the Baltic Sea’ Brand Needs a Ljubljana-Style Reboot

Help Cure Finland’s Mall Fever

A couple of months ago I attended a seminar for planning-oriented geographers and the event has kept on circulating in my thoughts because of one comment in particular. During the discussion section, one of the speakers, Marketta Kyttä, was asked what in her opinion will most likely stand out as the most bizarre legacy of contemporary Finnish urban planning practice. Something which future generations will stare at wondering “what on earth were they thinking”. Her answer was our obsession with shopping centers and malls. Touché, I thought.

A clear-cut separation of commercial services from the rest of the city, typically in the form of a shopping mall, certainly is one distinct feature that has become a defining element in our city-making tradition during the modern era. And despite recent urban renaissance movements in the larger cities, there is little indication that we are anywhere near giving up this pattern of urban development. In my opinion much more attention should be targeted at this issue because mallification is very counterproductive if we truly want to create neighborhoods with an urban atmosphere. Continue reading Help Cure Finland’s Mall Fever

Public Art – Through a Windshield

Public art is a wonderful thing and installing more of it is always to root for. The kind you invest in and where you install it will however tell a lot about what the public and public policy makers value. Here, we value enjoying public art from our car.

If you would tour through Finland’s towns and cities by car, you will notice that we have put a lot of effort in making your drive a pleasant one. Just about every roundabout you meet will be decorated with an installment of some sort or at least with nice plantings. Not to mention larger art installments freeway-side or on crossing bridges. In inhabited areas, we will also make sure the grass next to the roads and ramps is nice and tidy. Continue reading Public Art – Through a Windshield