I feel I am a little more confused these days than I have been. Enthused by my typically eclectic reading of academic texts (e.g. this), I’ve been trying to link them to what is happening in or to Helsinki. How are the weird things happening here (and I’m not just talking about yesterday’s elections) connected to news and academic reflections about how urban development is affecting people, the Earth and democracy elsewhere? If the built environment really is crucially important both for social order and individual life, as I believe it is, then how should I understand policies towards it right here in Helsinki?
To help figure out, I am committing to this blog post some rather raw thoughts. They revolve around the fact that I found myself going on three consecutive days to the wonderful Lapinlahti hospital, which is gradually becoming known to at least some Helsinkians as a fascinating place of quirkiness, peace and cultural heritage. But the best things going on there appear to be threatened.
First, the tiniest bit of background (for more, follow the links and/or dream up your own research project on it. It opens doors to countless fascinating streams of historically significant events).
From 1841 to 2008 Lapinlahti served as the country’s foremost mental institution. Most of that time, it was closed off to ordinary residents, a fact recalled in the sign on display at the small Mental Museum operating there.
After the last psychiatric units were rehoused, it remained in city owndership but was left abandoned until volunteers gradually got it back on its feet. They struck a very short-term tenancy agreement with the city and have been able, despite little monetary support, to turn it into a life-affirming, quietly and preciously special place a hub of makers and doers whose future is, however, now uncertain.
Two years ago already I was concerned about this and helped organise a discussion about the contested future of the place. Fed up then as now with planning for shopping, I wrote:
… Lapinlahti outshines, in every possible dimension, the tawrdy stuff of the retail therapy that Helsinki is currently building …
Its two main tenants were concerned about how their activities, which were then getting off to a good start, would be able to continue. In one wing the Tilajakamo cooperative provides affordable (really affordable) space to artists. In the other, the social enterprise Lapinlahden Lähde rents out space for voluntary and cultural activities with a special focus on wellbeing and mental health.
Instead of taking responsibility for developing the good work already underway here, the city wants someone to take the troublesome hospital area off its hands.
At Christmas last year, the city launched an ideas competition to come up with a high quality, functionally efficient and feasible “solution” to the “problem” of Lapinlahti. This would involve just one instance (investor? visionary?) to realize it. The brief does require, however that an endangered moth’s protection be secured and the area remain open to the public for recreational uses.
There is also the option to rent the whole to a suitable tenant. Several sources tell me that this is only in the call because of their lobbying. Many talk of the “so-called” ideas competition, adding hand-signal-scare-quotes as they speak.
Money. The city wants first of all to sell, not to care for or develop. According to an article in Helsingin Sanomat from December 2018 (screen shot below), to make its offer more attractive to investors, the city is even considering rezoning for new building rights on the edge of the park. The first round of the competition closes 31.5.2019.
One explanation for the craziness going on here now is that Helsinki has adopted policies that legally oblige it to manage the structures it owns for profit. Having said that, a city government is also legally obliged to look after its citizens’ wellbeing. It must ensure access to recreational spaces. To me and many others it seems clear that its first priority should be to support the activities that can already be found there. What amazing things could happen if the energy one feels there were supported with just a little bit of funding. The place needs maintenance. It does not need to be turned into luxury.
It also worries me that such a high profile place is so hard-pressed to gain support for activities that support social and use value over financial value. While I was on a guided history tour, former president Tarja Halonen was opening a new exhibition of Roma Culture. I only hope this kind of support will also lead to the material support that we people of Helsinki are bound to need as the threats to people, earth and democracy I began with remain with us.
(No wonder this is tricky to write about. There is so much to care about in Lapinlahti. And so much is endangered here: architectural heritage merges into cultural patrimony merges into personal and family histories merges into social fabric merges into walking in the cemetary and eating together (Loop) merges into the restorative joy of gardening merges into urban planning merges into land use requirements merges into Helsinki’s geography merges into loss of (bio)diversity merges into pollution merges into the growth imperative merges into climate change merges into troubles with Earth systems merges into foreshortened futures merges into school strikes merges into climate anxiety merges into all of the above… Aaarrggghhh. But it helped to write and to meet all those people who work every day to develop good things for us neighbours.)
(On my outings this past weekend, I also went to buy bread from the remarkable baker who can be found on weekends in the red-brick Venetsia building on the right in the picture above. Discovering him was a fabulous bonus. Do try, for instance, his Totally Nuts loaf, sold by the kilo and worth every cent!)