Tag Archives: Urban Policy

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).

The cities I now had the chance to visit are a curious trio. Naples is perhaps best known for pizza and the Camorra mafia. Potenza for, well, not really anything. Or possibly for some as a place to bypass on the way to Matera and its UNESCO-protected cave city.

Here are the top 5 takeaways I gathered flaneuring in them.

1. The Via Caracciolo Liberation

Urban waterfronts can tell a lot about the aspirations of a city. In the past, waterfronts were often devoted to industrial and other unpleasant uses. Now cities are working towards making these places more people-friendly.

Naples has also joined the movement with a goal of reconquering their picture-postcard waterfront, along Via Caracciolo, from the congested, many-laned arterial road it had turned into during the 20th century.

Naples Lungomare 1
The old pavement markings show it wasn’t always calm and quiet at the waterfront.

The action began in 2012. Naples saw their hosting of the America’s Cup World Series as an opportunity to advance their Lungomare Liberato (liberate the waterfront) initiative. Car access was blocked from a 3km-long section of Via Caracciolo to make room for activities related to the event.

This temporary intervention has over the years become more or less permanent, resulting in a real waterfront promenade for strolling along the sea, hosting various events and enjoying other recreational activities. The restaurants at the Castel dell’Ovo end of the Lungomare have also managed to increase their outdoor seating areas considerably after the cars have vanished.

Naples Lungomare 2
The stretch of the liberated Lungomare that’s sided by buildings is full of restaurants.

The liberation project is in many ways a landmark initiative for immediate quality of life improvement in a congested city. But how things are today offers an extra lesson: adding people-space successfully doesn’t end with blocking access from cars.

It’s now five years on from the original liberation. But the place still looks as if the traffic disappeared yesterday. I was there just on one day, admittedly, but it looks like the Neapolitans’ honeymoon with the newly opened space is over. There’s not much going on at the Lungomare.

Naples Lungomare 3
Beyond the restaurants, there’s not much happening at the liberated space. Nor did it look like much had happened recently. Interestingly only a couple of the few pedestrians I saw walked in the middle of the road. The same happened with Helsinki’s unsuccessful Vaasankatu pedestrianization experiment, troubled by a lack of everything.

This is a reminder about the importance of coupling public space transformations with investments or policies to support the emergence of new activities at the site. Peace and quiet on an empty road is not enough to keep people returning in the long run. I’m not sure if there are active plans for a phase two with the Lungomare liberation project, but it desperately needs new interventions from someone.

2. Escalator Transit Lines FTW. Or Not.

The city of Potenza has an interesting design: It consists of a rather small historic “uptown” on top of a steep hill and a more modern “low town” that spreads around it. The uptown is the center of public life whereas the lower parts are more like suburbs.

Potenza stairway
In Potenza, it’s not difficult to add everyday exercise into your routines.

Potenza’s history is thus one of many stairways. Cars have made climbing up and down less of a necessity, but there’s only so many of them you can squeeze into the narrow uptown streets. Buses don’t really fit at all.

So Potenza has come up with an unconventional idea for providing public transportation: installing giant escalators. After the opening of Santa Lucia, a 600-meters long, U-shaped stretch of moving stairs, the city has bragged about operating the world’s second-longest escalator system (1.3km in total). Altogether there are four such escalator “transit lines”, all equipped with ticket sales booths and grandiose entrances like if you were at a subway station.

Potenza escalator 1
Like at any big transit line, the Santa Lucia escalator has a park & ride facility at the bottom of its U shape. The small huts at the bottom of the connecting promenade apparently belong to a Christmas market. This photo is from June.

You can’t blame the city’s leadership for being unimaginative. The solution does at first seem exciting. But its performance is another matter.

Riding the escalator system is not for those into speedy travel. And more importantly, using the escalators is obviously not like being seated in a bus. You need to stand, which makes having anything with you an extra burden. What’s more, you never take an unbroken ride up or down, but must walk between many shorter escalators. For example, the Santa Lucia is broken up into 26 separate ramps and there’s a 120-meter platform to cross at the bottom.

Potenza Escalator 2
Using any of the city’s escalator lines requires some walking between different ramps. Although none as intensely as with Santa Lucia. In the photo you can see one of the main problems with the system: the next ramp down is closed.

On top of this, maintenance has been neglected and you may need to use muscle power to tackle some sections. Even though you paid for a ticket to avoid that. As you might already guess, it doesn’t seem as many people use the escalators as has been envisioned. I saw only a handful of people using the escalators any time I was on them. Which is very little considering the capacity of just Santa Lucia is 9,000 riders per hour.

Potenza’s escalators show that coming up with whimsical public transportation alternatives is rarely a great idea.

3. Complexity and Modernism Don’t Match

Because I was visiting Potenza anyways for my project, I had to include an excursion to nearby Matera in my trip. Matera’s main sight is its amazing ancient cave city, the Sassi, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The dwellings in the Sassi – partially carved into steep rocky hills, partially built like regular stone houses – are stacked along narrow alleys and on top of each other. The result is unreal.

Spectacular Sassi 1
The Sassi di Matera is an experience to remember.

Besides its unique surroundings to explore, the city’s history also offers a classroom example of the damaging effect modernist planning ideas can have on organically grown communities. In a way, the Sassi has been a victim of a slum-clearance process in the mid parts of the 20th century.

Long story short, the so-called slum clearing happened following the city’s gradual expansion much beyond the district with cave dwellings. Over time, many residents with the means began to move to the more recent parts of town that offered running water and other amenities. But the poorest of the poor stayed to inhabit the Sassi and its archaic living conditions. During the rise of high modernism right after WWII, these poor peasants were taken as a national eyesore. The lifestyle of the cave city, untouched by the advancements of society at large, was the antithesis of the modernist project.

Matera Cave Dwelling
A reconstruction of a cave kitchen. The cave dwellings didn’t have electricity, running water, ventilation or natural light. And many shared their cave with domestic animals. Families were large. Much of the daily life in the Sassi happened in public because staying indoors wasn’t very enjoyable until recently.

A team of architects and other experts were called in to save the day. Their solution was to depopulate the Sassi and relocate the community to a carefully and holistically designed out-of-town neighborhood that would offer similar urban surroundings the people of the Sassi were familiar with. (Later development came as regular modernist housing towers).

It didn’t work out. The people of the Sassi couldn’t continue their original livelihoods and the design of the new area(s) didn’t support the social interaction they were used to. The community eventually dissolved and people went on their ways to start over a new life. Some emigrated to America.

Matera New Town
The grand plan for improving the lives of the impoverished Sassi community was to build a disconnected new town(s) for them. Ludovico Quaroni led a team of architects and other planners to design the village of La Martella as the first vehicle to do so. It was completed in 1954. Image credit: Doyoucity.

The authorities and architects destroyed the social fabric of the cave city with their depopulation schemes and top-down visions very efficiently. But unlike with other slum-clearing schemes, the fine-grained and small-scaled physical fabric of the cave city was luckily left untouched.

Today the cave district is experiencing a new golden age. Creatives and later the tourist industry have slowly repopulated the area and transformed it into a highly valued place. Now it’s driving the economy of Matera. It’s kind of ironic.

The Sassi may be structure-wise one of a kind, but its story in many ways isn’t. Jane Jacobs in New York and her peer across the world fought against similar plans to tidy up the most complex neighborhoods in our cities.

Spectacular Sassi 2
Today Matera is preparing to be the 2019 European Capital of Culture. The Sassi is slowly being repopulated and already acts as a tourist hub and source of creativity.

The understanding they helped to spread is that we are much better off with dense cities that mix uses, have small blocks, and a diverse mix of buildings – both in terms of age and form. Despite the criticism, the order-embracing, top-down, modernist planning approach has become deeply rooted into our institutions.

Despite its harsh history, the Sassi is living proof of how fine-grained urban forms can last societal changes and adapt to new times. Their biggest threat comes from “improvements” that are not made together with the local community when (re-)developing them.

4. Bless the Mess

The world’s pizza capital Naples gets often commented as a gritty, chaotic and rough city that may feel unwelcoming to visitors. But I’m with those who invented the saying “Rome is the heart of Italy, but Naples is its soul.”

Naples feeling
A brief snapshot of that Naples feeling.

It’s true that Naples has an atmosphere rarely experienced in Europe. The streets are bustling with people from all walks of life and traffic is loud and unpredictable. Many buildings are run-down, some of them close to literally falling apart. There’s litter on the streets and graffiti on the walls. Grass and trees grow on roofs. Street furniture is haphazard and neglected.

Old town Naples
The pretty and the crumbled often stand side by side in Naples at various scales. The cracks in the city offer endless opportunities for reinvention and micro-planning for incremental change from the bottom up.

The city may not be shiny and neat, but there’s so much more to it. It obtains traces of qualities often sought in today’s development strategies: communality, social inclusion, a wealth of creative activity and a locally rooted economy.

The streets in Naples are lined with local services. There’s a mix of everything old and new: bars, Michelin-praised pizzerias, car repair shops, meat shops, designer shops, and whatnot.

Naples 0
Naples is much about everything very local. Especially in the downtown areas.

Street markets selling everything imaginable flood narrow alleys. Some of the street vending is very informal and run by migrants with nothing but a piece of cloth on the street or a DIY street food cart. People selling cigarettes (singles or packs) out of boxes stand here and there between market stalls. Some shopping streets blur the boundaries between street market and main street with shops expanding their shelves deep into to the street.

Laundry
It seems there often is no real boundary between the private and the public on the streets of Naples.

You won’t find just apartments along residential streets, but you’ll often feel like you’re trespassing in someone’s front or backyard. Many apartments open directly to the street and people dry their laundry on the streets. Suddenly a bucket may be lowered from the upper floors to pull up something to one of the upper-floor homes. Occasionally there are small street cafes where adults socialize while watching kids play soccer in the middle of the street.

Indeed, with all its “messiness”, Naples has managed to maintain many aspects of the self-organized, organic, urbanism that we’ve so often lost. The city is like a giant placemaking effort: incrementally built, maintained and continuously re-envisioned from the bottom up through the transactions and activities of a variety of local actors.

Naples 2
Almost a century ago, philosopher Walter Benjamin defined Naples as a “porous city”, referring to the great qualities of the city’s messy urbanism that are still present today. There’s always room for change: the physical and organizational structures are constantly at the intersection between the formal/informal, building/action, order/disorder, static/unfixed – leaving things open for renegotiation and improvisation based on the daily transactions between local actors.

Thanks to any number of reasons, administrative control in Naples has long been relatively minimal. Especially compared to Finland where the management of every tiny detail from the top-down is mainstream policy.

Everyday life in Naples underlines how people-driven cities have great potential to evolve into original, and physically, socially, and economically diverse places that possess built-in resilience and, with their open nature, offer a platform for upwards-directed social mobility.

Naples 3
The “porous” nature of Naples leaves pathways for marginalized groups to participate in society, the cornerstone of upwards-directed social mobility. Could this same thought translate to the scale of cities or neighborhoods which are, under the powers of globalization, increasingly suffering from processes of gentrification/inequality?

Therefore, the city offers an intriguing perspective to review the contemporary ambitions in a growing number of cities to empower the grassroots to participate in the development of their neighborhoods.

Places like Naples can give important lessons on where we need more policy to boost local ownership and where we are better off with less. Tolerating more of the unplanned and uncontrolled may be an important future pathway to achieving resilient cities.

5. The Recipe for Great Piazzas

Italian cities are well-known for their vibrant and beautiful piazzas. It’s indeed a fascinating show to see people of all ages come out to socialize at the local square as if they owned the place. And people will happily hang out close to midnight on a weekday.

In Naples, I took Piazza Bellini as my relaxation spot after long days of exploring. It turned out be a wonderful source of inspiration for creating public spaces in other cities. Not because it has jaw-dropping architecture or can host mighty parades. But because it doesn’t and can’t.

Piazza Bellini 1
One side of Piazza Bellini is for those into proper seating and cocktails.

Piazza Bellini is no larger than roughly a third of a soccer field. No landmark buildings sit by it. The only things to “see” are a small monument in the center and a dug-out stretch of ancient city walls. But it’s amazingly lively.

One side of the square has restaurants and cafes with abundant and atmospheric outdoor seating. It seems to attract a fashionable crowd. The opposite side of the piazza is home to less fancy, kiosk-like, shops that serve fast food and drinks. They also have some tables and chairs available, but takeout seems to be a bigger business. People wander with their drinks and snacks to the middle of the piazza to enjoy them under leafy trees either sitting on the monument’s steps or leaning on small fences.

Piazza Bellini 2
The middle parts of the piazza are for a very mixed crowd and people use whatever they can to lounge around on.

While the Italians’ long-standing culture of embracing public life is certainly a factor, the liveliness is heavily backed up by a set of design principles that can be applied anywhere.

  • It’s a good idea to have different types of zones that attract different types of groups.
  • The square should have activities on its edges.
  • People will linger when there are different types of spaces and street furniture that make it easy to do so.
  • Size matters: a small square is always better than a big one. Also, the different zones and spaces within it work best when they are close to one another, even overlapping.
Piazza Bellini from above
Piazza Bellini is not very large but packed with life. The open space in the upper right corner is what Finnish “piazzas” often end up being like. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

There’s a lot of magic to Italian cities and urban life that you can only experience by going there. One of my dreams is to visit Rome, the mother of all cities, sometime soon to get exposed to its many layers of urbanisms. (Yes, I still haven’t. Fancy a small excursion, anyone?)

At the same time, I must emphasize something I’ve mentioned before but can’t really stress enough. These experiences from Italy may at first seem distant for Finnish cities. But they are not. Many urban problems and solutions are universal.

Cities around the globe are more similar than they are different and we should keep sharing ideas to improve urban life everywhere.

Urban Lessons from Hong Kong and Tokyo

One of the best things is flaneuring across cities around the world. They’re all different, yet remarkably similar. It’s the perfect opportunity for reflecting how your own city or cities compare. Two places I’ve recently had the pleasure of exploring are Hong Kong and Tokyo.

These Far East mega cities may seem an odd couple at first, but there’s a key theme they share: they’ve been built over and over again. Hardcore redevelopment is part of their DNA. Continue reading Urban Lessons from Hong Kong and Tokyo

Tactical Urbanism Can Help Cities Meet Changing Livability Demands

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.

A visalization of how Hömeenkatu could transform once the tramway gets built. Image courtesy of the City of Tampere.
A visualization of how Hämeenkatu could transform once the tramway gets built. Image courtesy of the City of Tampere.

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€.

The second phase of Hämeenkatu's experiment is set to bring more people-space. Image courtesy of the City of Tampere/Aihio Arkkitehdit.
The second phase of Hämeenkatu’s experiment is set to bring more people-space. Image courtesy of the City of Tampere/Aihio Arkkitehdit.

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.

When the second phase of the experiment came in front of the Planning Committee for approval, they voted against it. This was preceded by an uprising against the entire Hämeenkatu experiment, mainly generated by a group of business owners outside of the project area as well as a demographic who are difficult to budge from behind their steering wheels. The main arguments against the experiment are that it has and will continue to make Tampere’s city center less attractive because limited access for cars leads to congestion and less parking spaces. Even despite the fact that just in 2012 a new 972-lot underground parking garage was opened directly underneath Hämeenkatu.

There's more parking space in the center of Tampere today than ever. P-Hämppi directly beneath Hämeenkatu offers 972 of them. And elevator access directly to shops and the street. Photo courtesy of Aihio Arkkitehdit.
There’s more parking space in the center of Tampere today than ever. P-Hämppi directly beneath Hämeenkatu offers 972 spots. And elevator access directly to shops and the street. Photo courtesy of Aihio Arkkitehdit.

And it’s not just the loss of car access that’s believed to push customers away. Also the idea of giving more space to people has been viewed as a dangerous avenue towards actually inviting more people to use the street. According to critics, this is likely to result in increased malicious behavior and thus is a public safety concern. The recipe for prosperity would be to stop with the nonsense and put cars back on the street.

Wow. As incredible as some of these arguments may seem, the sentiments flared up and began to amplify through social and conventional media outlets. Eventually they swam into the political decision-making process. But the attack against the experiment doesn’t necessarily mirror the current state of the main street.

Tampere's main street Hämeenkatu and a winter-y atmosphere. Doesn't look so dead, does it? Photo credit: Erkki Ottela.
Tampere’s main street Hämeenkatu and a wintry atmosphere. Doesn’t look so dead or dangerous, does it? Photo credit: Erkki Ottela.

To my experience Hämeenkatu has never been nicer and always when I’m in Tampere it’s full of people. I’ve never heard anyone not go there – or into the center more broadly – because of the transit street experiment. Furthermore, an interesting fact underlying this debate is that research suggests that business owners in city centers often know little about their clientele’s travel behavior. When tested about the degree that entrepreneurs in Tampere and Turku knew how their customers travel to the center and their establishment, they got it all wrong. It was strongly believed that an overwhelming majority (ca. 2/3 or more) of customers arrived by car compared to the segment that came with public transport, bicycle or by walking. But when researched, the numbers were pretty much the other way around.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t far that the entire experiment went to waste. Luckily Tampere’s Mayor Anna-Kaisa Ikonen stepped in and showed her leadership skills. She interfered and took the plan to be reviewed by the City Board. This time it got approved and this summer Tampere will be able to enjoy an even better Hämeenkatu. Or fundamentally, at least we’ll be able to tell whether this is all nonsense or progress after all. The good thing is that the experiment is low-cost and easily reversible if it turns out to be a death spell for the attractiveness of Tampere’s city center.

This disagreement about whether to build Tampere for cars and traffic or for people and places could actually have taken place in just about any Finnish city council. It captures the spirit and problems of contemporary urban planning and policy. The big picture is that our cities are undergoing a huge shift from outwards sprawling growth patterns towards welcoming inwards-oriented growth. This is greatly thanks to a new generation entering the housing and job markets, the changing nature of work as well as the pressing environmental and economic consequences of suburban sprawl.

Like Tampere’s efforts to introduce a tram system and Hämeenkatu’s experiment shows, cities have slowly began to react to the changing circumstances and are aligning their strategies to serve new sets of citizen-needs. Needless to say, I find this fantastic. But like Tampere’s example also shows, my concerns lie in the practical dimension. Putting those forward-thinking ideas in plans and getting on-the-ground results is no bootleg maneuver. Far from it. Big ships turn slowly, the saying goes.

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The truth is that there is a hefty generation divide in how the younger end of the age pyramid perceives urban life compared to the groups towards the top of the pyramid. Also, the modernist planning system doesn’t easily deliver anymore. Maybe it does for out-of-town greenfield projects, but definitely not when the focus is on intensifying the existing urban fabric. Endless bureaucracy featuring numerous evaluations, shallow public participation processes, and, significantly, the firm idea of planning until every last detail is fixed, all sum to lengthy, expensive and stalling planning projects.

Things may be slowly progressing in the right direction, but for a long time it’s simply not easy to build the necessary political, financial, and/or civic support to push forward projects that aim for long-term change and transformation.

But what if we didn’t just put our hope in the big stuff, but started to challenge the status quo with the small and simple?

Tactical Urbanism

Conveniently, the Hämeenkatu episode coincided with my discovery of Mike Lydon’s and Anthony Garcia’s Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change, a great book focusing on how little, low-cost, often immediate, and temporary interventions can help plant the seeds for those big 21st-century-urbanism ideas to dodge the opposition, and eventually materialize as permanent change. It’s an approach for citizens, city governments and as well as for example developers or non-profits to “hack the city” and “disturb the order of things in the interest of change”.

Intersection repair is one form of Tactical Urbanism. The goal is to slow down traffic and upgrade public space. Image source: Flickr.
Intersection repair is one form of Tactical Urbanism. The goal is to slow down traffic and upgrade public space. Image credit: Greg Raisman.

Lydon and Garcia link Tactical Urbanism with the above-mentioned contemporary circumstances that affect urban development, but additionally also to the rapid rise of the internet, social media, and, above all, the growth of a DIY culture among younger citizens. Indeed, the concept of Tactical Urbanism is inseparably married to the phenomenon of a rising number of self-confident young adults who are keen on taking part in planning processes as co-producers, not just as distant participants.

That said, Lydon and Garcia also underline that Tactical Urbanism is not synonymous with all dimensions of DIY Urbanism that take place in cities (like e.g. pop-up street art). The common umbrella for Tactical Urbanism initiatives is that they are powered by “a movement based on a positive vision for the future”.

I ran into several applications of the parklet concept in Vienna. Parklets are a popular form of Tactical Urbanism and the idea has spread around the world. I don't know the exact story behind Vienna's parklets.
I ran into several applications of the parklet concept in Vienna. San Francisco born parklets are a popular form of Tactical Urbanism to make streets more livable. The idea has spread around the world. I don’t know the exact story behind Vienna’s parklets.

For citizens this means that Tactical Urbanism is a way to inspire their local governments to embrace change; to underline and call out for updating outdated policies that serve another era or to show what is possible using different methods. Cities on the other hand can use Tactical Urbanism within their planning processes to reach out to and inspire their citizens. This means using temporary pilot projects to bring planning concepts for people to touch and experience physically.

Process-wise, a key idea is not to just make use of acting small, but also applying the open-ended philosophy “build-measure-learn” instead of the current top-down planning philosophy “design-present-defend”. For cities this means that long-term city development should begin to think about co-creation, fast prototyping and testing out new methods boldly.

Times Square before and after its "pavement to plazas" transformation. Image courtesy of NYCDOT/Earthpowernews.
Times Square before and after its “pavement to plazas” transformation. Image courtesy of NYCDOT/Earthpowernews.

A very well-known example of a city-led Tactical Urbanism intervention is New York’s Times Square transformation from car-friendly to people-friendly. After increasing pressure for giving more space to people in the traffic-congested square and debates over whether closing streets in the area would lead to gridlock in the city and cause people to go elsewhere, the city’s administration decided to try what would happen if they did remove cars from the area. Overnight, much of Times Square was cut off from cars and filled with cheap foldable chairs.

The result? People loved it. And by collecting data through the different phases of the project, the city learned that the restructuring led to less congestion, shorter travel times, less accidents, more pedestrians, and eventually upped Times Square into the top 10 of world’s most valuable retail destinations. And perhaps most importantly, as everyone was able to see and experience the results for themselves, support to make the temporary intervention permanent came on its own accord.

Rotterdam's Luchtsingel footbridge. The structure is not just a bridge but a tool for making the area more nicer and more attractive for investors.
Rotterdam’s Luchtsingel footbridge. The structure is not just a bridge but a tool for making the area nicer and more attractive for investors.

A cool example of bottom-up Tactical Urbanism comes from the Netherlands where Rotterdam‘s new Luchtsingel bridge got built using crowdfunding. Following Rotterdam’s city hall not being able to improve the walkability of a run-down but start-up-filled quarter between busy thoroughfares due to budget constraints, local advocates decided to act. They generated a plan for a wooden footbridge and set up a crowdfunding system to begin its piece-by-piece completion by selling planks. Donors got their name or message engraved on to the plank(s) they purchased. Rotterdam’s city government eventually pitched in to finish the project because it got chosen by citizens to receive city funding and support.

Finland’s Bottom-Up Buzz

The obvious link between my project example from Tampere and the one from Times Square means that Tactical Urbanism is a very relevant concept for Finland, too. Finnish cities have admittedly been doing plenty of experiments within the urban planning realm throughout the country, but I’ve haven’t seen any transformation success stories.

A lot of interesting stuff is however happening on the citizens-led front. Although, so far not so much around urban planning. But the cultural sector has certainly benefited from a recent influx of citizen-instigated initiatives. The often-cited Restaurant Day is probably the most known of them and it nicely displays characteristics of Tactical Urbanism.

Restaurant Day seeks to transform Helsinki's food and restaurant policies as well as to make the city more sociable. Photo credit: Roy Bäckström.
Restaurant Day seeks to transform Helsinki’s food and restaurant policies as well as to make the city more sociable. Photo credit: Roy Bäckström.

The engine powering Restaurant Day came from a frustration to the inflexible policies around restaurants, and especially mobile restaurants. So in 2011, a handful of people just decided to open their own pop-up restaurant for a day without asking for permission from the city and invited others to do the same. The first Restaurant Day was carried out with 45 restaurants. Almost exactly one year ago, the number of participating pop-up restaurants peaked at 2724 in 35 countries. And what’s interesting is that the inauguration of Restaurant Day pushed Helsinki to ease their policies around food trucks (that are now present at every event) as well as it has led to a number of jumps from just-for-fun pop-up restaurants to real restaurants. Restaurant Day has not only made the city more fun and sociable, but it has also been a powerful tool for putting Helsinki’s and Finland’s policies around restaurants and food in the spotlight.

So far, to my knowledge, there aren’t any Finnish citizens-led ‘tactical’ projects that relate directly to urban planning and that would have taken on-the-ground forms (I believe Park(ing) Day was tried once). But things may be changing quickly. The explosion in online discussion forums shows that people are clustering around the subject. All of Finland’s three biggest cities Helsinki, Tampere and Turku have thriving online communities on Facebook to discuss, exchange and advance ideas in urban planning. Especially in Helsinki and Tampere there are big groups that also have a clearly defined goal of supporting denser and more urban city building.

Following these developments, also a couple of more or less substantial tactical initiatives have emerged. They are not the same kind of hands-on stuff many projects that get defined as Tactical Urbanism are (at least not yet), but they’re nevertheless still direct attempts to shake the system from within by using the same tools planners are.

The first one of them is a project I’m involved in: a group of concerned urban planning activists called Urban Helsinki. Our idea has been to intervene in planning processes by drafting alternative plans to raise awareness about the needs of today’s urban living, challenge old planning ideas, and to call for more open public participation processes as well as clearer and more approachable ways of communicating plans.

Our (Urban Helsinki) Pro Helsinki 2.0 plan shows how the city should be planned to make it more livable for 21st-century urban life. Image by Urban Helsinki.
Our (Urban Helsinki) Pro Helsinki 2.0 plan shows how the city should be planned to make it more livable for 21st-century urban life. Image by Urban Helsinki.

The big achievement of our two plans, Haaganpuro and Pro Helsinki 2.0, has been in forcing Helsinki’s planners to reflect their thinking against ours and check the validity of their arguments for creating great cities. In the aftermath of our Haaganpuro project, I received an email from an architect within the City Planning Department: “Hopefully we’ll also start to be more receptive towards new ideas and won’t just hold on to ones once found good. The world is indeed changing quickly and few things are exactly as they used to be.”

Our Pro Helsinki 2.0 project has also other tactical aims. Firstly, it seeks to address a major issue in comprehensive planning: it is a very difficult topic to discuss about. Typically, things work so that the city drafts a plan which offers a suggestion for the future, and throws it out for public review. But the problem is that it can be difficult even for professionals to fruitfully comment on a draft plan when there is just one way of developing to discuss. So as Helsinki started to draft its new comprehensive city plan, we decided to offer an alternative, more urban, vision to compare against. Secondly, the plan is an attempt to help some of Helsinki’s planning ambitions move forward. With Pro Helsinki 2.0, we want to help the city gather support behind the good parts of their plan so that they don’t get watered down or ripped apart in political fights by city-building conservatives.

Before Urbaani Tampere, people from the local urban activist community already organized themselves to support a plan for upgrading Tampere's football stadium. The project also includes building apartments around the stadium and has thus raised a NIMBY movement. Also local brewery has been mobilized to support the YIMBY movement. Image credit: Prohattutemppu.net.
Before Urbaani Tampere got founded, people from the local urban activist community already organized a movement to support a plan for upgrading Tampere’s football stadium. The project also has intensification aims and the stadium regeneration comes with apartments and offices attached to it. This has sparked a NIMBY reaction in the neighborhood. Last month, also a local brewery was mobilized to support the YIMBY movement. Photo credit: Prohattutemppu.net.

A newer citizens-driven tactical initiative comes from Tampere. Or more precisely, it’s hopefully the groundwork for many projects to come. In March this year, a group of activists from the local urbanist Facebook group decided to form their own association called Urbaani Tampere (yes, the word ‘urban’ is threatened with inflation) to have a more structured approach for spreading and defending urbanist ideas in the city. A key driver in Urbaani Tampere’s emergence was and is to help the city “win” discourses around its new densification plans in the city center. So far they’ve drafted and submitted position papers to some key projects and they’ve also entered the public urban planning discourse to highlight that there are also YIMBY feelings in the city. I’m very much looking forward to seeing if the emergence of Urbaani Tampere leads to the hands-on sorts of Tactical Urbanism initiatives. Please invite me to take part if you do!

Time to Step Out from City Hall

This takes us back to Tampere’s Hämeenkatu experiment. The project thankfully got saved by the Mayor, but an important question to ask is would things have gotten to that point at all if there was deeper outreach to the city center’s business owners? And equally importantly, could the planners have taken YIMBY parties who speak the language of quality urbanism, like Urbaani Tampere, to work with them?

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In the context of trying to bring quality urbanism, these types of experiments haven’t really worked because there always seems to be shortcomings in coalition-building and/or programming. Last year we saw a policy-makers driven idea to pedestrianize a part of Helsinki’s Mannerheimintie get shot down using the exact same arguments that almost sank Tampere’s project. Another good example is Helsinki’s experiment from a couple of years ago to make Vaasankatu a pedestrian street. For one summer, the city removed cars from the street to see what would happen if it were pedestrianized. The result? Nothing happened. And I don’t really see what could have happened when you just remove cars from an ordinary side street. Had the city programmed the venture together with the local bars and restaurants and/or tested some cool street furniture, things could have been a lot different.

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Mike Lydon and Andy Garcia agree. Their message is that cities should start getting more ‘tactical’ in their experiments by “creating programs that are accessible and allow for citizens, organizations and small business owners to take a leadership role in making change” (source). Lydon and Andy Garcia also note that city halls shouldn’t immediately shrug at bottom-up initiatives that emerge around issues that aren’t currently on the planners’ desks and/or are technically not permitted: “municipal government can and should work proactively with citizen leaders rather than crack down on their activity. Such projects are highly visible and should be considered a low-cost way to engage a wider audience of people.”

Based on my experience of getting ‘tactical’, recent talks with experts, and following today’s debates around many Finnish planning projects, I’m also quite confident that these suggestions for cities to keep their antennae up for existing or emerging citizens-led projects is a pathway towards better participation, collaboration and coalition-building between the formal and informal.

Developers can also use Tactical Urbanism. This is a visualization of a temporary shopping center that will soon be built in Helsinki's work-in-progress neighborhood Kalasatama. It will serve as a "placeholder" until SRV will complete its mega mall complex that will serve as the center of the neighborhood. Sadly, the container city already looks like better urbanism than the awful mall. Image courtesy of Hansacontainers Oy.
Developers can also use Tactical Urbanism. This is a visualization of a temporary shopping center that will soon get built in Helsinki’s work-in-progress neighborhood Kalasatama. It will serve as a “placeholder” until SRV will complete its mega-mall complex that will serve as the center of the neighborhood. Sadly, in this case the container city already looks like better urbanism than the awful mall. Image courtesy of Hansacontainers Oy.

Following the hype around the modern DIY culture, I think it’s also crucial for cities not to believe that they can plan ahead and provoke citizen activism. Because that’s impossible. But cities can and should definitely encourage their citizens to push for change and then welcome it with open arms when and if that happens.

Lastly, Lydon and Garcia stress that Tactical Urbanism isn’t “the or even one solution for many of our most vexing urban problems” and that there is no ideal way for planners nor citizens to use the methodology. The scalability of ideas is a priority, but the bottom line is that Tactical Urbanism is an always unique method for people and authorities to join forces in thinking outside the box, discovering, testing and adapting new concepts, and, ultimately, making better cities.

Cities, start cultivating a culture of experimentation today!

Six Major Developments Shaping Finnish Cities: 2014 in Review

Another exciting year has passed! To wrap up 2014, I decided to piece together what I think are the six most important developments that shaped Finnish cities during the past year.

Most things obviously weren’t invented this year nor did they directly affect every city; it’s better to grasp my list as themes that peaked to dominate urban policy discussions or to guide planning practice. Nonetheless, I feel that exceptionally much has happened on the Finnish urban development front and I believe the items on my list are likely to profoundly shape our cities and activities in them in the years ahead. Some of them I’ve already blogged about, some I’m looking back on now.

Here goes. Continue reading Six Major Developments Shaping Finnish Cities: 2014 in Review

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?

Pro Helsinki 2.0 – The Urbanist Vision for Making Helsinki Denser and More Diverse

Today I have the great pleasure of introducing you to the alternative city plan for Helsinki that I have worked on with my fantastic colleagues from Urban Helsinki since early 2014. It’s our second land-use plan done completely in do-it-yourself fashion, and after the small project at the edge of Helsinki’s inner city we did some months earlier. I’ve written two posts about this project in Pikku Huopalahti, you’ll find them here and here.

Our experiences and insights from working with Pikku Huopalahti eventually got us even more excited about doing something substantial to stir up discussions about Helsinki’s future. The city has been in the process of drafting a new strategic city plan to guide the city’s growth until 2050. Once enforced, this plan will necessarily have a tremendous impact on what Helsinki will be like 35 years from now – for better or for worse. To help make sure it won’t be the latter, we decided to draft our own strategic plan. Continue reading Pro Helsinki 2.0 – The Urbanist Vision for Making Helsinki Denser and More Diverse

Finnish Mall Enthusiasts Add Little Value to Local Economies

Jeez, not another mall”, I thought out loud to myself when I read that Helsinki’s City Board unanimously approved to reserve a 2.5-hectare piece of land in Roihupelto, in the middle of Helsinki’s eastern suburbs for the development of a new shopping destination. Two developers want to see new big box stores and to transform an existing modern but run down industrial building into retail space. If all goes as planned, construction of the shopping complex could start already this year with the introduction of Motonet, a chain that markets itself as a “department store for car owners”.

The other developer already owns a shopping mall called Lanterna that specializes in furniture and interior design just opposite to the proposed development’s site. I hear the numbers of shoppers visiting Lanterna have lately showed a decreasing trend, so I suppose this new project is strongly linked to wishes of attracting more customers to the area. Continue reading Finnish Mall Enthusiasts Add Little Value to Local Economies

Tampere’s Aimless Urban Strategy of Planning for Cars and People

I’ve mostly written about Helsinki in my blog but since I also follow many interesting planning projects and discussions elsewhere in Finland, I want to expand my geographical scope now and then to share thoughts and insights from different corners of this urbanizing country. May this be the first one of many more.

Beyond the beautiful streets of Helsinki, I’m especially actively curious about what’s going on in Finland’s second largest urban center, Tampere.

Tampere is located on an isthmus between lakes Näsijärvi and Pyhäjärvi, a bit less than 200km north from Helsinki. The city often gets dubbed as Finland's Manchester because of its industrial heritage. Map by Google Maps.
Tampere is located on an isthmus between lakes Näsijärvi and Pyhäjärvi, a bit less than 200km north from Helsinki. The city often gets dubbed as Finland’s Manchester because of its industrial heritage. Map by Google Maps.

Continue reading Tampere’s Aimless Urban Strategy of Planning for Cars and People

Insights into Townhouse Development in Helsinki and Stockholm

Back in the winter of 2012 I wrote about Helsinki’s interests towards introducing townhouses as a new housing concept. The topic is interesting, because the townhouse building type doesn’t have a history in Helsinki like it does in Central and Western Europe. Despite grand visions, only a few developments labeled as townhouses have been built so far.

Later on at my previous employer, we organized a seminar to create discussion around the topic. To add some out-of-the-box flavored thinking on the issue, we invited a speaker from Stockholm to share insights from there as structures referred to as ”townhouses” had also gained more attention in the Swedish capital.

Townhouses in Malminkartano, Helsinki.
Townhouses in Malminkartano, Helsinki.

Continue reading Insights into Townhouse Development in Helsinki and Stockholm