Finnish Urbanity – A Learning Process Underway

Suburbanization and sprawl. Call it what you will, but that’s what urban development has been all about for so long that only a privileged few have seen times when it wasn’t. This is especially true in North America, where cities started to sprawl much before they did here in Europe.

But in European context, Finland is an interesting anomaly among the other nations. While most European cities are mainly characterized by dense mixed-use neighborhoods, the dominant landscape of our cities is the kind that the main photo of this blog underlines. Most people would associate the landscape with North American urban environments and not Europe. A shopping mall next to a highway intersection is not something that comes to mind when picturing Paris or Rome in your head. But in this aspect Finland is very different from the rest of Europe. Our urban landscape is a shopping mall next to a highway intersection.

The reason for this is that urbanity is a relatively new thing for us Finns. We had always been a rather poorly developed and rural society up until the 1950’s and 60’s in comparison to almost anywhere else in Europe. The World Bank even categorized us as a third world country still in the 60’s. After the war, we however jumped on the same wagon as the rest of Western Europe and transformed our society with American-born models of production etc.

The reform turned out to be very successful for our economy. The demand for workforce grew quickly in the cities and towns while at the same time new technology freed the majority of the rural population to answer to the need. Finland began to urbanize at a fast pace. It was at this very junction in time when Finland’s cities grew to be so different from the rest of urban Europe because this was when we really even started to build cities.

Along with the American toolbox for boosting our economy, came the lifestyle as well. In this ideology suburban urban design was considered as superior to traditional urban designs. Consequently, suburban development took over the conventional European city-building tradition in Finland almost overnight after WWII. It’s fair to say that you could count the number of traditional city blocks built after the war with your fingers. You might even only need one hand.

The above-mentioned dynamics similarly apply to elsewhere in Western Europe, but one differentiating factor from the Finnish context is that these areas had already been highly urbanized before the war and therefore needed far less new development. And more importantly, the old traditions and urban culture were – and still are – stronger in “the more sophisticated” parts of Europe. New development had and has much more need to make compromises with the old.

Traditional European urban culture was on the other hand very weak in Finland since we never really did have cities. The result is that we had fewer obstacles in adopting American-born models for urban development. Finns – being overwhelmingly of rural origin – could very easily relate to the suburban ideals which reflect a certain skepticism towards the city. A rurban culture was born, where the nation spiritually has one foot in the urban world and the other one still standing firmly next to the family farm-house. A sort of compromise between the old and new of our own.

A very typical urban setting for a Finn is comparable to the outer suburb of Tampere where I grew up. The neighborhood was created – quite literally – from scratch in the 1950′s in order to build housing for new factory workers moving to the Tampere area from the rural parts of the country. From then on, the community has grown substantially with families seeking for inexpensive land to build their own house on. The neighborhood has a very rural appearance, yet – apart from one or two farms – people have little to do with agriculture. Everyone drives to the city to work.

The problem is that our feet are still placed in the same positions as when the urbanization process began. In this state of mind we build urban environments that are ugly, expensive, time-consuming, segregating, socially and physically unhealthy, and a disaster to the environment. And perhaps most importantly lack a sense of place. You can read more about sprawl costs in this article by The Environmental Magazine.

Although most of the Finnish planning profession and academia don’t share my views, I think that much more needs to be done to develop the way we build cities. I picture the situation as if we as a nation are in the process of learning what urban living is all about. But we are finding it difficult to go ahead without someone leading the way towards that last step of letting go of our rural past. We shouldn’t be afraid to experiment with de facto urban designs, because we can only find a sustainable way of urban living for Finland through real-life experiences of living in truly urban environments. We should take best-practice from the time when we still knew how to build beautiful cities and match them to fit the modern-world needs of today.

While doing that would by far be no walk in the park, experiences from the US prove that change is an option. Ever since the 1980’s an increasing number of social movements have started to challenge the way cities are being built in America. The new movements argue for more compact development based on walkable neighborhoods, public transportation and conventional methods of urban design in stead of sprawl.

And they are making an impact. Even though in 2011 the outer fringe of metropolitan areas in the US were still the fastest growing ones, the second fastest sector were the inner city neighborhoods. Pioneers, such as the city of Miami, have even thrown the sprawl book out of the window and renewed their zoning codes to embrace methods of conventional urban design.

Change is what we need too.

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5 thoughts on “Finnish Urbanity – A Learning Process Underway”

  1. Very awesome blog !! I couldnt have wrote this any better than you if I tried super hard hehe!! I like your style too!! it’s very unique & refreshing…

  2. very interesting. Thanks for sharing!
    I am trying to find out more about finnish urban environments, particularly when it comes walking. Who would you say is the finnish spokesman promoting more walkable cities?

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