A pamphlet for Helsinki

City life thrives on pamphlets and manifestos, like the 1970 classic, Kenen Helsinki? or Whose Helsinki, which arguably prevented wholesale demolition of many places Helsinkians still love.

We just got another pamphlet.

Kenen Kaupunki? Helsingin Kaupunkisuunnittelu ja kulttuuriympäristö törmäyskurssilla – Whose City? Helsinki urban planning and cultural heritage on a collision course (my translation) – was published this spring.

The authors are architectural experts, deeply unhappy with current planning in Helsinki. They view it as participation-washed as well as green-washed, and even more opaque and conflict-ridden than before. Worse still (perhaps), the environment it produces is not up to the standard that Finnish architecture has historically aspired to – and often achieved.

As we gear up to local elections on June 13th, people and the media really are interested. What the administration’s growth ambitions and the needs [sic] of foreign capital mean for life in future Helsinki are, it seems, finally news.

The book approaches current planning through fifteen controversial proposals in or close to the city centre. If these go ahead, the book suggests, they will smother and spoil the low-rise and breathable cityscape Helsinki now enjoys. The iconic South Harbour is a particular area of concern, the surroundings of our equally iconic main railway station another. The authors also point out that the city’s plans are often contrary either to the international principles of heritage preservation, for instance, we have signed up to or actually illegal.

Echoing the book, letters to editors and online commentary by citizens is overwhelmingly opposed to the city’s visions. People don’t like the scale and the bling. A prominent example concerns building over the open-air but covered bus terminus between the former main post office and the railways station: below a screenshot from the city’s online consultation.

It’s not just the buildings people oppose, it’s how they will block out the sky and slowly suffocate life at street level. The pamphlet is in fact refreshingly alert to the pedestrian experience of a place. This is a welcome feature in its architectural approach, it is after all, jointly published by Docomomo Finland, Icomos, the Finnish Association of Architects SAFA and the society for built heritage (my translation).

The old pamphlet is now a precious antiquarian collector’s item.

The new pamphlet is available in not just neat print but also as handy pdf, in Finnish, as it should be, and I am certainly hoping it will have a similar impact to the 1970 publication.

The problems are neither unique nor new, but imaginations and hopes for good futures have been clawed back since 1970. The institutional structures for making good cities are simply wrong (some references as they relate to Helsinki can be found in a paper I co-wrote here). Any city now deemed successful has to cope with financialization and its costs on people and lively surroundings. As the documentary film Push showed so nicely, heavyweight lobbying and dominant financial practices push people out while pulling investors in. Democratic accountability and social fabric suffer, as does built heritage.

What’s strange is how long it took the public in Helsinki to notice that this is also happening here.

A slow waking up was prompted by the rather unhappy process of drawing up Helsinki’s City Plan or the 2016 development plan. This plan explicitly encourages finance-led construction: dense, high, efficient and efficiently built, remorselessly marketed, where the new squeezes out the old. The atmosphere will be less that of Helsinki’s low-rise cityscape, which suits our peculiar light conditions so well. What is in the pipeline also threatens the quiet elegance of the city centre and many suburbs, and in cramming formatted and over-designed novelties across the city, will weaken the quirky attractions Helsinki still nurtures. So much of this place-based good has already been replaced by bland sameness because this is what big investors and their accomplices want.

British architecture critic Jonathan Glancey reflected on the effects of this on Helsinki in wistful language back in 2015, in the book Cindy Kohtala and I edited. Helsinki, which Glancey had once experienced as a gem, had started losing its shine. Cheap global brands had displaced a dear local uniqueness. What, Glancey mused, was the point of coming to Helsinki at all.

If the public were unconcerned in 2015, things have changed. I was told that the first print run of Kenen Kaupunki? quickly sold out. I did get mine – eventually.

Caring for the neighbourhood and following planning is still hard work. The outpouring of property porn (as in a picture I’ve used before, flogging Kalasatama, below) and populist talk of housing shortage constantly narrows down public debate. Large and ever more complex development proposals are presented to council representatives as black boxes too complicated to be opened up (to use one councillor’s term). With these black boxes in hand, the construction sector and its friends, offer great futures but also make demands that, the pamphlet argues, go against any notion of the greater good. They allow our parks, protected cultural heritage, our streets and squares to be turned into construction sites while private interests usually trample over public value.

Harri Hautajärvi, one of the editors, does a great job of linking the troubles in our city to global patterns, calling out as he does so, the falseness of any claims to save the planet with “efficient” construction. The other editors, Timo Tuomi and Juhana Heikonen, write chapters detailing just how, exactly, the tensions between short-termism and historical values affect planning in Helsinki today. Now that Helsinki is recognized as an excellent place to invest, telling this story is more important than ever. Indeed, a great strength of the pamphlet is that it zooms out to comparative situations from other places and other times.

The fact is that cities everywhere have to worry about how “form follows finance”. Most municipalities probably struggle against economic imaginaries that make it impossible or difficult to support the social good, like publicly financed homes or inspiring school buildings. And, as the book notes, the anarchy of markets has never been known to solve housing crisis. Of course, when we look back into history, as Maria Kaika and Korinna Thielen argued (in 2006), we do find that of course architecture has long glorified power, individual companies, for example. Think in Helsinki of the corporate headquarters like the telephone company, HPY, or the insurance company, Pohjola. But now, what gets built in your town now simply glorifies big-companies-in-general, the point being to extract rent from businesses that are passing through more than putting down roots.

Helsinki’s administration, and even its Green Party representatives, do not actually deny the main criticisms made in the pamphlet, appealing simply to the TINA-doctrine (there-is-no-alternative) or stereotyping opponents as backward. It is indeed city strategy to “to enable private interests access to those places they want” (our outgoing mayor Jan Vapaavuori, who is about to start working for an international property developer, as quoted on p. 18).

It’s a complicated thing, running a city. Talking about its planning in an era of grave Earth Systems imbalances and other novel vulnerabilities, one can’t ignore the nonhumans that are also part of the complex kaleidoscope of social relations and urban metabolisms. (Which point gives me the excuse to nod towards Helsinki’s Sustainability Science Days last week, where we enjoyed a viewing of Matthew Gandy’s wonderful documentary, Natura Urbana, about Berlin and its politically generated ecology).

By concentrating on built form, the Kenen Kaupunki? pamphlet turns a messy reality into a compelling and important story. It also opens up the terrain for wider and deeper treatment of the issues, and for different approaches.

Understandably its authority lies largely in the writers’ and publishers’ professional status and appeals to international treaties on cultural heritage and interpretations of planning law and policy. Hence the many references to how decision making has run roughshod over cultural heritage values, policy on historic buildings (weak as it is in Finland), and so on. Several chapters are about the histories of the old, largely 19th century, buildings still here for us to enjoy, low-rise, wooden and appreciated not just by the connoisseur but by all of us who live here.

The expert-lay divide matters here, because the city’s built form, which is overseen by the planning system and architects, is everybody’s world. No wonder they can tend towards the arrogant, their work concerns nothing less than the environment in which we Helsinkians dwell. Bearing this in mind, the rather social angle in the pamphlet is a welcome exception in Finnish architectural discourse, I would say. It also addresses another Helsinki blind-spot, the way our troubles are connected to world-wide issues.

For it is the case that people around the world, in many social movements, are spending inordinate energies simply preserving what they love and need, in the global North (a shrinking German town, say) as much as the South (as environmental defenders, say). Heritage is shared and extends beyond individual stories, and so gives meaning to place and to life. It grounds shared future horizons. Writing about heritage as a current issue, the pamphlet has already encouraged a lively local debate.

The thing is, the city (of Helsinki) is an experience. But this is not the brief encounter you can sell to a tourist, nor is it the nicely formatted spatial configurations created by today’s huge urban development projects. Like any city worth the visit – for tourist or other – Helsinki is above all made up of people who are committed to being here rather than somewhere else.

What is so great about the pamphlet is how it is inspiring people to share diverse ways of knowing and breathing life into the city. These are out there in letters to and copy in newspapers, online discussions and countless exchanges people are having in their daily encounters. It’s also the case that Helsinki is becoming big enough and its people perhaps self-confident enough, that there is room for many Helsinkis (as we put it with Cindy and the contributors to our book back in 2015). Different people and different publics make visible different aspects of Helsinki.

I’m hoping to see more stories of people valuing Helsinki simply because it is our home, whether ancestral (which in Helsinki means about three generations) or recent. These stories aren’t opposed to those of architectural historians, but they are different. Importantly, they are not the stories of the “demands” made by large-scale development companies or retail conglomerates. When city leaders cosying up to big money talk about supply and demand, they are talking about the need for big companies to make profits and please their shareholders. Meanwhile we Helsinkians need accessible and affordable places to live, but we also need beautiful and meaningful surroundings, to support everyday life and to nurture our physical, social and mental health. We need places like the Lapinlahti former asylum (above), frequently discussed on this blog and one of the cases in the pamphlet.

Delightfully, the complex development situation with Lappari, as I call it, was also a topic taken up in a panel debate in anticipation of those elections. In that discussion the debate did not, I’m pleased to report, get flattened into the lazy binary – for versus against – that the city and too many developers tend towards.

Thank you to the creators! Kenen Kaupunki? helps us non-experts be bolder about our demands for good living in our cherished city and for everyone to start debating with more depth and breadth.

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