The other day I wrote a letter to the newspaper. It wasn’t on a topic I ordinarily write about. It was for Helsingin Sanomat, photo below of the paper version, which I still indulge in on weekends.
Here’s my translation.
“Starting in August, Helsinki’s Youth Station will be restricting access to mental health and substance abuse services directed at 13 – 23 year-olds (as covered in the paper 23.7.2022). Thenceforth receiving help will always require a referral, presenting either moderate mental health problems or severe substance abuse issues.
Alongside all the other depressing streams of news, the short Helsingin Sanomat piece has stuck in my mind, even though I’m getting closer to being sixty. Should Helsinki not be focussing on the young, and where necessary be investing more rather than fewer resources into youth social work? At least there has been ample coverage in recent times of the challenges experienced by young people and children, who are growing up in the shadow of a pandemic, ecological crises and wars, and exhausted by all manner of competitions.
I am confused and a little frightened that the Youth Station’s work is to be reduced. Not taking responsibility for our young people erodes everybody’s wellbeing. At the moment is sounds as if the city is suggesting the young go seek help somewhere else.”
I wasn’t expecting them to publish it, but I’m pleased they did. They cut off a sentence from the end, noting that it’s not as if social enterprises abound that make up for this. Maybe it was for the better.
I consider my main occupation to be engaging in environmental politics through education and research. I can’t do that, nor do I believe can anyone, if the existential security of young people is dismissed in the way that Helsinki appears to be doing.
I didn’t dig into the reasons for the shift in municipal policy. I do know that in years gone by this service was considered a low-entry and easy-to-access form of support for people with difficulties that are usually very, very difficult to talk about.
I also spotted (on doing an online search for writing this post) that a psychiatric publication had shared the letter on Facebook where it appears to have collected a few likes.
Yours truly/angry expects to continue such little letter writing exercises in the future too.
Some weeks before formerly taken-for-granted pleasures like classroom teaching began to be curtailed, I sent an abstract to an ERC/UEF conference on sensory methodologies, for a paper I called ‘Meandering in modern landscapes’. I thought of it as a sympathetic critique of sensory methods. I imagined that I could base at least some of it on walks I would do with students in the Design Department at Aalto over the spring of 2020.
Instead, in the past months I have mostly walked with like-minded friends and I have read about walking. Fortunately I did get to walk with Lucy Davis, intrepid enquirer into migrantecologies and member of the Art Department at Aalto University, whose students have been doing a lot of walking recently, as I’ll explain below.
When I sent in my paper abstract last spring, I was particularly concerned with the way sensory research can slip into ‘romanticism’. I had noted that not everyone who is extolling the virtues of embodied and slow methods like walking has the (anthropologists’) luck of being familiar with the endless variety of ways that humans can arrange but also experience their worlds. Celebrating the human body and one’s own senses can, namely, lead to simplifying and parochial habits, like talking about human experience as if it were a transparent thing. I worried that sensory methods can forget one of the key lessons of the anthropology of the senses: the senses are made, not given (David Howes 2019).
This important lesson (that human life is culturally constructed) has been forgotten or, more exactly not appreciated, by many environmentalists. We European green types still channel heroic efforts from 200 years ago even, to get in touch with the most awesome aspects of nature in solitude, as if climbing up a rugged mountain were a route to universal insight. The standard example is Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog. A typical experience of the sublime, I was indulging in it a few weekends ago here in Helsinki, with Lucy and Guy Julier, see the photo below. What a lovely afternoon we had. But though this kind of communing is rewarding, readers may know that it has been eloquently critiqued by William Cronon and other environmental historians.
Sensory methods can also limit inquiry to the small scale and the low-tech. If, like me, you are interested in landscapes and lifeways that are largely shaped by capital-intensive digital infrastructures, that is a shortcoming.
In research around environmental politics more generally, turning away from the large-scale technical structures and related forms of mess left by modernity (to borrow from Kim Fortun), leads to dead ends, I think.
Where changing the world (for the greener) is part of one’s motivation for working on better research methods, there’s even a danger that disciplines favouring sensory methods (anthropology and design are those that I know) may become irrelevant if they mainly indulge in and celebrate our embodied experience. After all, to respond to real and shared threats like a heating climate, we unambiguously need seriously sophisticated extensions of the human senses – technoscientific apparatuses of one kind or another.
My immediate environment and those pesky global processes
Several critical voices, Alf Hornborg among them (e.g. here), are pointing out these problems. It’s fine to attend to the “sensory, perceptual engagement of humans with their immediate environment”. But those scholars promoting sensory methods, while also extolling the arts and critiquing academia as Tim Ingold has been known to do (e.g. in this paper), can end up downplaying “the abstract territory of global political economy” (from Hornborg). But it is this which has created the conditions we (sic) now experience as problematic. Power politics, from the most discursive (elite talk, say) to the most materially embodied (the production and consumption of digital devices, say) “increasingly constrain most humans from experiencing the world in the way Ingold advocates”, Hornborg writes.
By my reading, this would include the extra-linguistic involvements of sensory (or multimodal) methodologies and the emotional rewards of, say, climbing up snowy artificial hillsides with like-minded colleagues, as I did with Lucy and Guy.
There is also the problem that enquiry involving affect-saturated sensory methods will fail to connect with the hegemonic, often (digital-)data-driven, knowledge practices of those with the greatest technical and economic power, on the other.
A similar problem was picked up some time ago by my colleague, Cindy Kohtala, in a different context, sustainable design. (Her blog post should be compulsory reading for all who are going into that field.)
In it Cindy took aim at manifesto-like mainstream publications gushing about how lovely are the grassroots initiatives seeking alternatives to destructive practices. She exhorted junior researchers, perhaps themselves involved in those initiatives, to get out there and study the world beyond them. She also advised researchers to be precise about what sustainability means in their work. Specifically, she encouraged being clear about what one is studying, the “‘sustainability’ of a system, or participants’ beliefs about the sustainability of the system”.
Here, I suppose, is the core of my discomfort. While capital-intensive infrastructures and toxic relationships of all kinds continue to be rolled out through business-as-usual, creating patchy anthropocene landscapes around the world, as Anna Tsing’s research team argues, can sensory research engage in non-trivial ways with the design of collective futures? Isn’t it in constant danger of confusing beliefs and hopes on one side with actual processes on the other?
But wandering is often also wondering
Well, from my reading around the topic recently, beliefs and hopes, but more importantly, narratives, compose knowledge anyway. We all tell stories, including engineers, scientists and financiers. The infrastructure projects that have created the landscapes we now call home – the Vuosaari landfill, the international port next to it, the massive and rather recent transport infrastructure that dominates the route we walked – are all also the result of competitive storytelling.
And even as we all use our bodies, we all rely on technical apparatuses for knowing. I guess I’m trying to say that even as we use those apparatuses or draw on our specialist expertise, a kind of eclecticism and superficiality is always part of learning. It’s nurtured in particularly acute ways when you’re walking, and particularly walking with others. Everything is up to be focussed on, to be questioned and even marvelled at, whether natural or artificial.
So I’ve turned around on myself before even having written up that ‘sympathetic critique of sensory methods’, to say, we need it the walking and the sensory as well as the technologically mediated knowledge. We need it all!
Let’s then continue with the walking, the multimodal research, the burying ourselves into others’ texts, the conversations with the experts on whatever particular site concerns us at any given time.
Next to Vuosaari’s new-ish port is also one of my favourite industrial buildings, Paulig coffee roastery. This ensemble is a handy visualization of globalization and its materiality – the port and railway taking stuff coming and going, the roastery fuelling our bodies with the energies needed to sustain lives as we have come to know them and bringing colonialism right into our very bodies on a daily basis…
So, Lucy also sent her students up the hill on what no doubt became quite fun ambulatory explorations. The thing is, she had given them very fine company: art historical perspectives on animals at Medieval religious sites, Eero Hyvönen, a local journalist who gave a talk, the Feral Atlas and Robin Wall Kimmerer. Lucy’s course is Art &/in Ecology, in the Art department, not in environmental politics. Yet I found the materials she shared from her teaching absolutely enthralling and totally germane to my own efforts to understand environmental conflict and management.
To those companions for the students, in a zoom lecture I added my own thoughts about how layers of history have been materialized in today’s Vuosaari. I also shared some of what we learned a few years ago when, with the Narratiimi collective, we did several walks in the area. We put particular emphasis on the beauty of walking together: side by side, walkers may come from different places but they are, for a while at least, moving towards and looking at the same thing. Makes for mutual understanding as well as opening up opportunities to learn from each other.
I hope I get to discuss the students’ walk or hike, and to learn how it has affected their explorations of Helsinki’s urban ecologies. To that end I have invited myself to tomorrow’s online session.
One of the students last week asked me if I’ve written about walking. Well, no, I’ve not. Hence, in part, this blog post. But lots of people have written about walking – in many, many ways. I will do a part II of this blog in the form of a short list of references. For now I’ll mention two new books. Both are about walking in the city and both contribute in important ways to filling out new, better, non-trivial narratives.
Cindy (mentioned above) gave me Matthew Beaumont’s (2020) The walker: on finding and losing yourself in the modern city. This is a great book of wandering and wondering, words and steps, navigating mostly English-language literature on urban walking. It draws generously from many writers and teaches, without being stolid or didactic, about pedestrian life and its value(s).
The other is Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson’s Urban Awakenings: Disturbance and Enchantment in the Industrial City, Melbourne in fact. Reaching across the divide that is pre-Covid and post-Covid, their ability to walk a city so designed for other modes of being is quite remarkable.
A relevant insight towards the start of their book, which serves as an endorsement to develop sensory experience more, not less, is this: “everyday modern life conspires remorselessly to stultify human sensibility and insight” (p. 32). Part of my teaching task will thus be making effort to counter this.
I wonder if I ever will write at length about walking, as sympathetic critic or otherwise. If I did, this quotation, from environmental historians Henrik Ernstson and Sverker Sörlin (eds) Grounding Urban Natures: Histories and Futures of Urban Ecologies published in 2019, would be a good starting point.
“If there is anything that the rich traditions of urban studies, critical environmental studies, and environmental history has shown, it is that place and time matter for how things play out.”
Over the holidays my colleague, expert on social enterprise Eeva Houtbeckers and I both reacted to the same opinion piece in a Finnish newspaper.
The letter we reacted to had a provocative headline. It exhorted young people to “work for the environment, protest doesn’t help”. The letter by turn was a response to earlier editorial content on environmental fears and activism among young people. The paper has recently written rather sympathetically about activism, for instance about Extinction Rebellion. The movement gained new visibility in Finland in October, when its activists were peppersprayed by the police after they refused to stop blocking a busy street. The event provoked considerable debate about policing.
My disagreement stems from a political conviction, but also from having studied social movements on and off for the last thirty years. They very much do change the world.
Here’s our response:
Markku Metsäranta (K&k 17.12.) encourages young people to solve our epoch’s terrifying threats by pursuing familiar modern paths. He mentions science, engineering, enterprise, parliamentarianism and progress.
The letter’s concluding claim – decision makers are totally dependent on enterprise – is partly true. Economic growth has been made synonymous with progress and is said to guarantee social peace.
At the same time, we forget or ignore how many different ways there have been over the centuries to organize life on this human-friendly planet. But as progress became reduced to economic growth, our imagination was narrowed.
From such a perspective, enterprise does appears like the foundation of many things and it seems it is best served by engineers and scientists, marketing and financial professionals. Social enterprises is also on the rise, but it is more of an accommodation than a challenge.
In the lives of the young people, who protest by sitting on the streets or going on school strike, and whose lives are affected by affected by the slowdown in economic growth that predates the pandemic, this recipy for progress is outdated. It is not possible for them to continue as before, or to deny the ever more palpable ecological crisis.
For that reason, our message to youth would be quite different: we value your energy and activism, we hear your imagination-expanding activism, which brings comfort. After all, though we have been taught to worship enterprise, we know that at the end of the day that is not what we depend on.
We also both discovered, somewhat to our surprise, that we actually read this “free” paper published by the Lutheran (State) Church in Finland. It is still delivered, on paper, to (tax-paying) members.
No chance then of incorporating walking into my courses this spring as I’d hoped. That means we won’t be able to approach environmental sustainability on foot, using all our senses. No chance to develop my idea of infrastructure walks with the students.
We are having to consider in more cerebral and discursive ways the nodes and lines that connect us here in Helsinki with far-away things, people and processes. Shame, since in one way or another, to support sustainability creatively (it’s in the name of the master’s programme), we need to understand those connections.
Still, a while ago, as part of Helsinki Design Week 2019 I did instigate a small walk on the Aalto campus. Walking seemed a natural fit for the theme, Designs for a Cooler Planet.
Walking is the speed for noticing, as Anna Tsing reminds us, so walking together offered a way of noticing more richly. In the pitch I’d made for the Otaniemi Walk, I boasted that like the Ancients, we would stroll together to learn. No great innovation there, I suppose, walking has swiftly become an approach-of-choice for many of us curious about the environment, and I will continue making notes on it on this blog.
Photo by Eeva Berglund
And so, with Anna Kholina (above), who has walked, talked, sketched, listened, photographed and videoed most of Otaniemi campus for her doctorate, we ventured into a sunny September (!) evening. We attended particularly to the infrastructures or foundations that our ways of life depend on.
I got to indulge my passion for pipes, handles and boxes. We all got to quiz each other about such things – as experts in ways of life (culture and history you might say, though I take an anthropological view on that stuff – pretty much everything is included!), others as technical experts, still others shared local stories. (The masculine bias of those stories, though, in this hub of Finnish engineering prowess, meant we didn’t dwell on those*.)
Photo by Guy Julier
We were a small but enthusiastic group. I was also glad to have Samir Bhowmik along to share his knowledge of the subterranean supports of our Finnish normal. We need archaeologists of contemporary (and recent) media infrastructures like him, to help us attend to things like underground cables that are ordinarily invisible.
Back in September I was nurturing the idea of attending to such technical networks with the students. We could perhaps work out some grounded and easy-to-point-at examples of how the nearby and far-away are linked in ways that affect their sustainability. We could maybe also develop a new awareness of what it might mean to speak of the environment, nature, infrastructure and so on. We might work out ways to analyze how seamlessly – or not – growing things, manufactured things and ideas are blended into the landscape and how they operate in our everyday worlds.
I thought that if we built up our conversations from the act of walking to notice, the courses would work differently. My hope was that walking might help us all consider the environment as irredeemably historical and surprisingly human without ever ceasing to be natural.
Over the months since then I have found afficionados of learning from the immediate and sensory – walking for example – keen to understand urban networks, whether (easily) sensed by us or not. There are so many papers, books and online references for one to get lost in… I want to indulge in infrastructural tourism. I’ve even started daydreaming of being twenty-something again, starting university studies over again, since these days it is possible to seriously research such modern things as cables, toxic materials or city streets and still be an anthropologist. Despite its colonial baggage, i.e. an early interest in precisely the non-modern, anthropology can be a fabulous way to study things that are overtly modern, technological and industrial (like waste disposal) in character.
That folks with such sophisticated and up-to-date knowledge of technological innovation are also into walking has been a particularly welcome discovery.
It’s a change from the common tendency for emphasizing the body and the senses in quiet, out-of-the-way or relatively solitary contexts. As beautiful and empowering as such accounts can be, I still get the impression that walking methods are overwhelmingly for researching worlds and experiences that are earth-bound in a pre-anthropocene way – without cables, wires, magnetic fields and monetizable digital data. Without those, though, it’s hard to acknowledge and analyze, let alone to start redesigning, the normality that industrialism has bequeathed. To turn away from current unsustainability towards real sustainability, it’s the damaging mainstream that needs analysis more – I think.
So it feels sad that I can’t do those infrastructure walks with the students right now.
That being said, student-led initiatives flourish at Aalto. They demonstrate that students already do appreciate the entanglements and connections I wanted to work through by walking. Better still, students are actually acting to change things.
Our September walk, for instance, ended up (see image below) at a student-led experiment in sustainability that is known as the Test Site (I might blog on the irony of that term at some point). Besides the garden, it has a host of initiatives that put into practice design with nature, low-tech systems and social innovation.
I know it’s stupidly late to thank our hosts from September, but it was a wonderful place and a great way to conclude our walk, with food, foot-bath and conviviality and much talk.
Thank you Andrea, Ada, Jinwook and everyone else. A mix of fast and slow, of tech and nature, of infrastructure and event, its a place where learning the here and now goes together with learning the far away. Making those connections, in my view, is precisely what sustainability expertise must be about.
So it’s a pleasure to note that there will be another walk at the Helsinki Design Week this year. Surely whatever Covid19 does, the collective – small – walk will survive through it.
Photo by Hwang Jinwook
* It’s coming up to vappu, valborg, Mayday eve, that crucial festival of light towards the end of a Nordic winter. It is a fascinating cultural phenomenon whichever way you look at it. Otaniemi campus has a particular role in the festival here in Finland. Otaniemi as Technical University has long been the fount of engineering skills and of a particular kind of masculine student humour and pranks. The students have always also made a publication distributed to the public, which at least in my experience, has traded in gendered jokes that are understandably not equally appreciated across the current student body. Anyway, all of the above is noticeable by its absence in this year of Covid19, but anthropologist of technology, Vincent Ialenti noted its salience among technical experts in a short article.
I’ve been keeping busy with all sorts of things that I have been thinking would be worth sharing, but in the absence of time to write coherently about these things, I’m sharing a blog post that I wrote for the Arts in the Environment Symposium to be held in Helsinki at the end of the summer.
The symposium will be held on Vartiosaari island, a place cherished by all who know it. It is, however facing the state-sponsored vandalism misleadingly known as “urban development”. We could more honestly call the process a legalised form of theft that encloses shared heritage – like some epic views – for the enjoyment of the few. My post begins below this picture, taken in winter 2016. Other images of the island are from one of my first visits in 2014. More can be found in an earlier post here.
To consider art and the environment I would start with cities. The more they are pressured to grow, the more every environment beyond them is also put under pressure. The world as a whole is now required to service cities, providing them with everything they cannot provide for themselves. That means most things, from construction materials and food to landfill. It is also breathing space to ‘get away from it all’, whether this be a golf course or a supposedly pristine wilderness. And, as some would have it, cities need to be constantly pumped up with ‘talent’.
And the more cities grow, the more we all need art.
I am not quite sure how to define ‘art’ but my own most exquisite moments of gratitude for life are bound up with it. An encounter with art can produce a similar delight to what I feel sometimes towards the elements – the earth, air, fire, water and their descendants. I say descendants because history has technologized them. Earth, air, fire and water are now mixed with the artefacts of culture, particularly of the culture I call my own, that of the urban, colonially created, commodity-intensive global North.
Towns and cities are human technological creations too. I am not sure, though, whether cities can properly be considered art, or indeed, if everyone agrees with me that cities are, for most people today, our environment.
Over the centuries though, many cities have been experienced much like as art might have been, not just as beautiful or stylish, but as entire worlds that speak to us. Some cities, like uninhabited landscapes, have more magic than others, but most places reward both tourists and locals who explore or just pay attention to them.
As someone who organizes occasional urban walks, I know how some people truly delight in (re)discovering familiar surroundings with others and take pleasure in discovering and creating new meanings through this shared activity. Like field-scientists fascinated by the workings of the environment, more and more urban dwellers are turning to different forms of local exploration. Perhaps they are intrigued by what anthropologist Tim Ingold has recently called “the sheer richness and complexity of a world which human beings have irrevocably altered through their activities and yet in which they are puny by comparison to the forces they have unleashed” (Ingold 2016: 19).
The urban environment in Helsinki is, obviously, unique. I say obviously, because so far cities pretty much are unique, though that is changing. Helsinki has been incredibly lucky to have been able to develop both a distinctive architectural style and an identity so seamlessly tied to its location.
We know its trees are reducing in number, but only a handful of people would be able to say by how much. The waterfront is comparatively more researched. Depending on the season, on who is measuring, how and for what, Helsinki currently has near about 100km of it, with more stretching out both East and West.
And in Vartiosaari it has an irreplaceable landscape where cultural and natural have colluded over time to produce an environment with clearly paradisiac qualities within city limits.
It’s not just that Helsinki seems somehow ‘close to nature’. Architects, designers, musicians, artists and many other visitors from around the world have long appreciated Helsinki for its special built environment, as architectural critic and friend of Helsinki Jonathan Glancey so movingly writes (2015). Like no other city, it has pushed itself up and out from the local granite to become an original and above all environmentally well adapted city. Its buildings have been mainly low-rise, which makes the best of sparse sunlight and tempers harsh winds from the sea, and it still has a rather pleasing mix of old and new, of the engineered and the organic.
Unfortunately it cannot be taken for granted that these qualities will be enhanced into the future. Even in Helsinki landscapes are at risk of becoming less local, less easy to cherish, less worth exploring. As in so many cities in Helsinki there is a housing crisis, but arguably the more significant pressure to build comes from the city administration wanting to make the city more ‘competitive’, a vague term that seems to favor wealthy taxpayers and tourists. By comparison, existing strategies for nature conservation and dealing with climate change tend to get de-emphasized. And as local and global interests jostle for space in these situations, there can be a strong feeling that democracy is being hollowed out.
In this context someone with an interest in sustainable urban development like myself is going to have to start paying attention to art.
On first reflection, I think of two opposing ways in which the term ‘art’ could be involved in directing the course of events and shape of the future. I might think of the proliferation of what used to be called ‘artist’s’ renderings’ or pretty pictures of the future city. The production of such imagery has intensified in the last two or three decades though it is a very old practice. After all, the seductions of the drawn image were important in persuading Renaissance princes just as they are necessary to urban politics today. Ridiculous computer-generated visuals of utopian future cityscapes are now peddled around the globe in efforts to sell an almost identical and equally fantastical product commonly but less and less accurately called ‘city’.
Though of course, to use the term ‘artist’s renderings’ is absurd. Actually one increasingly hears more apt names for these creations, like ‘property porn’ or even ‘horrenderings’, as urban scholar Geci Karuri-Sebina has suggested.
Looking for a more contemporary and hopeful role for art, I am drawn to its capacity for exploration, for questioning, for exploding simplified binaries and false choices. As art activism or ‘artivism’ art combines with all manner of locally committed as well as spatially mobile people to lavish both attention and care on the environment. Often it awakens political instincts, whether quietly or more brashly and rudely. Artivism alerts us to the necessity of friction in life in general, wary of commercially driven dreams of happiness and designed well-being.
In fact maybe it isn’t artivism as an overtly political standpoint that achieves these necessary outcomes, but art in general. From the better funded performing arts to conceptual works in and out of gallery spaces, and to the tiniest community initiatives and street art, what nurtures our humanity – common or not – in ways that few other things do, is the care and the collective imagining that flows through artistic practice.
Now retired, with a distinguished career behind him but wielding ever more influence across art, design and architecture as well as the social sciences, Tim Ingold whom I quoted above also raises art above his earlier passion, science. Art is also more ecological now, he suggests. Meanwhile science, Ingold worries, is seduced by innovation and by numbers and is anyway in the hands of a global scientific elite in collusion with corporate power. In such a context we need art more than ever.
Indeed we do. I wonder, however, if with art we might also destabilize the seemingly hard boundary between art and science itself. Building on that virtue that Ingold values so highly, of curiosity, it might be possible yet to care and imagine collectively among the scientists too, maybe even the economists (who knows?). Like him, however, I’m looking more and more to art.
Glancey, Jonathan. 2015. ‘Here and nowhere else’, in E. Berglund and C. Kohtala (eds) Changing Helsinki? 11 Views on a City Unfolding, Helsinki: Nemo, pp. 124-131.
Ingold, Tim. 2016. ‘From science to art and back again: The pendulum of an anthropologist’, ANUAC. VOL . 5, N ° 1, GIUGNO 2016: 5-23.
So, I learned a new skill today. It is called urban hitchhiking. Find out more about this excellent pursuit via this Facebook page from last year. And harken to possible encounters with it anon.
Even before hearing the papers at the Urban Studies Days in Helsinki, I was primed for thinking about walking. Spring is, or should be, the season for walking. Through most of history, cities grew up to accommodate the needs and express the meaning of people on foot.
Masses of people on foot have made history in the world’s towns and cities, a phenomenon that is beginning to irritate those people for whom political protest has become more and more necessary and therefore ordinary in recent months.
Cities also grew up to be diverse and full of surprises.
She also encouraged us urbanites to reconnect with earth.
It used to be so that dirt or earth didn’t so much come into one’s thoughts in relation to urban living. The rise and rise of urban gardening has changed that, for good I hope. Still, I was startled by her invitation for us to think about how many times a day, a week, we get into contact with earth, with dirt, in our city lives. Not often, unless you are very active in a community or other garden, I’d guess.
This picture from London (Glengall wharf), from last year, the idea of green shoots on this late and cold April day in Helsinki feels depressingly distant.
Karuri-Sebina also asked her audience this morning how often we come into contact with people who live very different lives from ours: people not in the same workplaces, not part of our family, not at the same schools. Those famous strangers that 20th-century urbanists celebrated.
She explained that as cities get bigger and denser, it seems they also get more disconnected socially, more “exclusive”. She mentioned a billboard advertising a luxury development in South Africa that actually explicitly said that it was aimed at the “fortunate few”!
It’s possible that some places called cities (‘shopping city’, ‘movie city’, ‘eco-city’, ‘smart-city’) are largely made up of those things. Yet those are things that probably shouldn’t be confused with cities as such.
You’d know, because you’d not be able to inhabit them let alone get to them on foot. It would be escalators, elevators and a myriad contraptions you might call disconnectors. It all makes me think of George Clooney Up in the Air (and that was, I guess, the point of the film).
So in just over a week I’m going to reconnect with Helsinki by walking and talking, hopefully with lots of people I don’t know yet, many of whom will hopefully also have different working lives from mine.
Yes, Jane’s Walk season is upon us and there are 2 walks coming up in Helsinki.
The first in Vuosaari on Friday 5.5.2017 is kin to the series of walks we did with my Narratiimi partner Hanna Kaisa Vainio last summer. Among other things, those memorable forest-walks helped generate the almost-one-off newspaper, Skutsi Huutaa (Call of the Forest) now available at Vuotalo (Mosaiikkitori 2). The walk will explore the city spilling into the forest and the woods spilling into urban life. Everyone is welcome!
Two days later, with experienced urban explorer Pauliina Jalonen we head off towards Lauttasaari, at 2pm from Sähinä (address Heikkiläntie 10), a hotbed of cultural and community activity with a great vegan cafe.
“Investigating integrated landscapes” could be one way of capturing what we’ve been thinking about doing. Though usually Jane’s Walks are led by residents, we do have an aim, namely to map out and sketch those things in the townscape that don’t usually merit our attention (more on that here via Facebook). We hope locals together with visitors can more easily pick out what to see.
I realise that all these variations on walking seem to be making it rather contemporary: walking-plus, a bit of value added. Hitchhiking, gardening, telling stories (narratiimi is a kind of narrating team), sketching.
We kind of captured this on the front page headline of our paper. We put a shocking story there more or less about “people found walking”.
Recalling Keruri-Sbeina’s talk at the conference, changing perspective is actually quite easy when you’re on foot. Just turn around for a moment.
On February 11th, forty or more Helsinkians gathered in the small auditorium of the former mental hospital in Lapinlahti to hear a panel debate. It was dubbed simply Lapinlahti’s Value (“Lapinlahden Arvo”).
Designed by Carl Ludvig Engel and opened to patients in 1841, the hospital’s value as architectural heritage is not (or should not be) in doubt. Yet it has required remarkable persistence from poorly resourced volunteers to prevent it from falling into disuse.
Right now – and for at least one more year – Lapinlahti offers natural and architectural beauty near the city centre. There is also a range of unique small-scale commercial activity, a national hub for mental health and good living Lapihlahden Lähde, work spaces for producers of arts and crafts, a cafe, restaurant Loop, and not surprisingly, a sauna.
As one of the organisers of the event, I was surprised and very gratified that so many people came. And they came to listen and debate, not just to enjoy one of the most beautiful and interesting waterside walks in Helsinki. Until 2008 the hospital operated as a psychiatric unit and was for most of us admired from a distance (below, a snapshot taken from Hietaniemi cemetary last weekend).
For several years after that, the beautiful and serene site was left idle and the buildings fell into disrepair. There were fears its fate would be the same as that of so much city elsewhere: to be turned into luxury properties. Instead, it is a lively and open place of activity. This was achieved largely by the tireless efforts of people in and around the Finnish Association for Mental Health.
As a sporadically active member of the environmental organisation Dodo, I helped contrive the discussion with Katja Seppinen, long-time active member of the organisation. It was effectively a case of us Dodos inviting ourselves to do an event in Lapinlahti.
Four other speakers completed the panel. Katja Liuksiala, chair of Pro Lapinlahti and a manager at Lapinlahden Lähde, Kimmo Lehtonen of the work-space coop Tilajakamo, writer Maija Kerko and artist and PhD candidate in interdisciplinary environmental studies, Antti Majava.
A winter flu meant we didn’t get the recording we planned to post online, so the notes that follow are based on an audio tape.
I pick up just on a few themes. Each talk was a gem in itself, and each one very different. I sincerely hope that they will be developed into texts, connections or joint activities. They would all nourish the good life in Helsinki.
The first theme I want to pick up on is the one we organisers rather had in mind: freedom to just be. As Helsinki’s decision-makers plan for more shopping malls, the public is feeling the downsides of the attendant privatization of public space, relentless surveillance, and architecture shaped to suit profit more than people.
Katja Liuksiala’s connection with the place goes back to when she worked at the psychiatric hospital as an occupational therapist. Channelling Lefebvrian ideals of the right to the city – though I have no idea if she has ever read Henri Lefebvre’s work – Liuksiala talked about the people who have come to Lapinlahti recently because here they are free to just be, free to find they own passion and free to have impact the life of the place. Indeed, free to affect its fate. There is openness and looseness to Lapinlahti that most contemporary urban space simply cannot even aspire to.
Indeed, the grounds are now open, and much of the main building also, plus the sauna. Residents have found the place. Still, although the “keep out” signs at the entrance from the road have been replaced with inviting posters, for many locals the site probably still has associations that are ambivalent at best.
Below and further down are some photos from April 2015.
Another theme of our discussion was how market values in real estate, dominant in public debate on urban space, actually make little sense.
“We pulled out 2 euros” recalled Kimmo Lehtonen of the Tilajakamo work-space co-operative, talking about their negotiations with the authorities. The city kept insisting on what they called market rent for the site. Well, since there were no other takers, the going rate might be considered close to zero, so 2 euros wasn’t bad!
Although considerable sums went into fixing plumbing, Lehtonen explained, the low rents and low-key maintenance they offer, make a stark contrast with the sums that the city administration deemed necessary for ensuring a future for the site. Tilajakamo (literally translated sort of as “Space Division”) is bringing life into the building as it is. Of course, to run a modern hospital within a site of architectural heritage would, Lehtonen mused, be prohibitively expensive.
In Lapinlahti history speaks. It is not just in the classical architecture or in the tiny room where author Aleksis Kivi was a patient, but in the corridors that are both sombre and light-filled, and in the bunches of wires and other twentieth-century trappings of institutional life.
Patients must have felt the Nature outside the windows calling them. Even today the gardens are beautiful (below two years ago). In Lapinlahti it is easy to appreciate how an environment that so obviously invites gardening has been recognised over the generations as a force for healing.
Maija Kerko is writing a book about the campaign organisation, Pro Lapinlahti, which was started in the late 1980s to defend the hospital from the combined forces of notional progress and intensifying urban growth. I can’t begin to do justice to her finely crafted talk about the hospital as a place that symbolises a right to vulnerability at the same time as being, in the most concrete way possible, a place of care. She drew on the words of many people, including many former patients, who have been spelling out why Lapinlahti has been so cherished since Tsar Alexander I set it aside for the care of the most vulnerable. I look forward to Kerko’s book!
Antti Majava’s interest in Lapinlahti turned out to have an unexpected source, namely having been brought up as the son of a psychiatrist! His presentation picked up on freedom, vulnerability and markets, but also expertise in financial accounting, and spun from these an intriguing image of a society – ours – severly out of kilter. Antti surmised that it is society, surely, that is mad here, as Erich Fromm suggested.
Lapinlahti may no longer be suited to being a psychiatric hospital. But Majava made the point that “care in the community” has also failed the country. Psychiatric units have been torn down and not replaced. While this is happening, places that make us sick are practically forced upon us. Urban development is a cavalcade of endless shopping opportunities, never mind that this devastates the inter-personal commerce of any town or city.
One take-home message from our evening’s debate was then that Lapinlahti outshines, in every possible dimension, the tawrdy stuff of the retail therapy that Helsinki is currently building in so many parts of the city.
The challenge is to convey that message to elected politicians and other decision makers. Perhaps the message also needs to go out to the dedicated volunteers involved. For it has begun to seem like the generative capacities and the healing powers of Helsinki’s most valued places need spaces “left over” by retail-led real estate “requirements”. Wellbeing of place and people here rests, for better or worse, on the shoulders of ordinary citizens.
There are clear similarities but also differences between the debates on planetary crisis today and forty-fifty years ago. As a major similarity, there is a hunger and a thirst for different ways of doing things and living lives. This goes for Helsinki, London and Budapest, right now hosting the 5th international Degrowth Conference.
The climate march in London two years ago offered lots of examples, for instance capitalism portrayed as the grim reaper. Other examples are legion.
Based on texts I’ve read and footage I’ve seen, the drive to think and live differently in the 1960s was quite similar to the efforts taking place today on DIY, post-growth and other alternatives to profit and competition-driven social arrangements.
I was a little surprised that even in the academic degrowth community, currently converged in Budapest, not many appear to know about and realise how relevant those 1960s and 1970s experiences were to today. Whatever you think about their long-term effects (Fred Turner’s view is worth pondering), they certainly captured the imaginations of many smart young people.
But as an anthropologist I’m bound to keep reminding myself and others, imaginations, even global imaginations, are shaped in historical context.
So here is a short text I wrote on how some young Finns in the 1960s responded then to the palpable sense of urgent crisis. Without a doubt, these people shaped many dimensions of recent Finnish history.
Along with the radical 1960s came more than illegal drugs and rebelliousness; in architecture the permissive mood of the times opened up new techno-utopian possibilities. A central figure of the new thinking was the American Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983), a nonconformist preacher of technological salvation. His views on how to solve the socio-economic problems of the twentieth century made an impression on business and military circles as well as on hippies. Fuller was also invited to lecture in Finland. In July 1968 he participated in a seminar held on the historic Suomenlinna fortress island under the title “Industry, Environment and Product Design”.
I’m not a historian or a design theorist. I hope someone who is both, or at least one of those things, will delve into this fascinating story in more depth and with local nuance.
With a focus on the San Francisco Bay Area, Greg Castillo has, however, written a great text available here.
Today and tomorrow Finland’s impressively growing band of urban scholars and people interested in the future or fate of cities are gathering in Helsinki’s House of Arts and Sciences for a conference under the title City of Actors.
This is not a reference to the increasing significance of dissimulation in collective life (though branding has come up from time to time) but a way to capture all those who may potentially be making the city, activists in particular.
So, I was delighted when one of my pet topics, the heroism of small shopkeepers, was taken up in the lunch-time panel by a Janne Viitamies, PhD candidate and urban entrepreneur active in the town of Lahti. For Viitamies there is no question: shopkeepers are not conservatives who resist pedestrianisation (as portrayed in the Finnish media). They are passionate and energetic, and their undervalued efforts are what make cities good places.
In the short presentations, designed more to be uplifting than to be analytical or deeply critical, the economics of what makes shops such a fraught issue was barely touched on. This is not going to be about economics either, but does present a slightly less optimistic view.
As it turns out, I had already written about the place of shops in place-making after a deeply unhappy experience of some classic non-places, airports. Maybe it’s a good time to share them here.
Let’s start with an image that I like so much I’ve probably used it before.
It may bring to mind any modern city. But if you are familiar with Helsinki, you will probably recognise it as a particular place. These small, eye-level, independent shops, open as usual for business, are in Yrjönkatu.
Cemented in granite, beautiful and simple, those doors make Helsinki just a little more welcoming, and a little more intriguing. OK, it’s not just the architectural detailing but the shoes, the ballet paraphernalia and other necessaries that draw us in. As Viitamies emphasised, it’s the conversations and social encounters we have inside the shops. (Well, I’d add, some shops. A forced smile from a part time employee of a global brand doesn’t quite do it).
Architecturally too, without shops, it’s hard to imagine what could make ordinary city streets this lovely.
Of course, commerce and markets have always been a big part of city life. The Finnish word for town or city (kaupunki) actually has the word shop (kauppa) embedded in it. In the UK, the New Economics Foundation has been trying for over a decade to argue that “clone towns” are not something to wish for. Unfortunately it’s usually only the generic brands with their global distribution that can afford to pay the high rents. But as far as city life is concerned, they attract only the unimaginative or the desperate (such as teenagers testing out new freedoms).
High quality shopping (by which I do not mean expensive!) requires highly motivated (maybe even moderately mad) shopkeepers. Their passions and personalities are reflected in their shops and hence in our city. This is what gives commerce entertainment as well as market value. We should celebrate it and praise those who make it possible, those crazy, lovely shopkeepers.
Alas, alack, the twenty-first century has done terrible things to the idea of shopping. I think in the same process it’s doing awful things to city life everywhere that there is money to spare.
But let’s look first, not at real places like Helsinki or Rome or Totnes, but at airports. These are the ultimate non-places where commerce too has become a nightmare for the would-be customer.
I know so many people now who wince at the way they have to meander through the brightly-lit identical shopping-hell that now takes up most of any airport’s public areas.
Even the plastic bags toted by passengers as they transit past one another are identical. “The world’s airport”. Yes, just the one, the same in Helsinki and London at least, as I recently noticed.
The other day, flying between Helsinki and London, I raged at commerce of the wrong, that’s to say, global, kind. I walked as fast as I could through Helsinki-Vantaa’s airport. The main terminal, built 1969, was once airy and open and, yes, characterful. Living abroad in decades past, each time I arrived there, it gave me a sense of coming home to something I’d never find in the USA or the UK. And their airports were horrid already in the 1980s and 1990s.
But today, the airiness of Helsinki-Vantaa’s terminal building is gone. The retail designers have stuffed it full of crummy and tacky identikit shops. The same as the ones in London, Copenhagen or Denver, or anywhere actually. All are staffed by underpaid staff whose friendliness doesn’t come from the heart but from customer liaison guidelines.
More distressing still was the discovery that choice has gone. At Helsinki-Vantaa I looked for blueberry soup in a small carton and round rye-bread sandwiches. Rye bread is on offer, kind of, but I just could not bring myself to try the spicy chicken versions sitting forlornly on the shelf. Had I wanted a faux-baguette with filling, identical to what I used to buy in London railway stations in the early 1990s, I’d have been fine. Alas, like many people, I don’t eat wheat.
No, I’m definitely not against shopping (or window-shopping) as a pastime. In fact, I think shopkeepers, the independent kind, should be given medals!
Not that I despair of all large shops either. When in the 1920s Stockmann’s commissioned the magnificent modern emporium we can still enjoy today, they weren’t just about selling nice stuff to a populace aspiring to reach the next ladder, they were doing something for Helsinki.
The goods inside made possible the normal and the everyday: dairy and meat products, paper goods, mixed goods, colonial goods, shoes, underwear and overwear and many kinds of other wear. All manner of newly necessary services could also be found close by, like banks and post offices. In addition to stuff, these provided us with identities, and ways of being.
Actually, as an anthropologist I realise that to a large extent I became who I am through shops.
I’m not exaggerating. As a child of the sixties, shops were probably rather important in teaching me manners and how to do that supremely urban thing, interact with familiar strangers. I also have a recollection of a peculiarity that non-Finns and many young Finns won’t know about. The identities on offer were kind of divided into two camps. As a small girl, I knew that Saludo coffee was exactly the same as Kulta Katriina (Golden Katriina) coffee and yet I knew that the two should not be confused with each other.
I learned about my social world through going to grocery shops. These came in two versions (which sort of still exist in the infamous S and K chains).
A few hundred metres from our home, I could find Lehmuskoski and Sons, a small self-service supermarket with a familiar blue “K” over the door. Mamma and Pappa, my grandparents, lived a few hundred metres in the other direction. On my way there I’d pass an Elanto co-op. We kids were always reminded that we were to remember to keep Elanto receipts, as my grandparents would get dividends with them.
My other grandparents would probably not have been seen dead in an Elanto. They were not that kind of people. And so I learned about social divisions, about what’s the same, what’s different and what is valued and by whom.
To the chagrin of many Finns and the detriment of many a Finnish town, the split has continued and worse, it’s carved up Finnish retail into the two camps: entrepreneurs under the sign of the K, socialists and co-operative members under a range of more regional signs (often with a bee symbol like co-operatives around the world). These have gradually merged into the no-longer-quite-co-operative sign of the S.
Actually, come to think of it, supposedly consensus-driven Finland was divided along similar lines in most areas. There were workers’ sports clubs and national ones, workers’ theatres and municipal ones. Helsinki even had a workers’ cultural centre in use as a classical music venue. Alvar Aalto, our most famous architect to date, designed it. He also did the Finlandia Hall, thus showing that an architect could straddle these opposing political worlds, and create beauty for all kinds of clients.
What’s interesting in hindsight, it how much moral weight grown ups seemed to give to these differences between places that were, after all, functionally identical if identity-wise opposing.
Morality still comes into it. At least I feel indignant at the way corporate power has come to limit my options of consumer goods and homogenise the built environment in the process. OK, finding airport shopping traumatic is a huge privilege. But it should not be a privilege to enjoy shopping built on local passions rather than global invasions or even national quasi-monopolies like the K and S chains.
The speakers at today’s panel called for sustainable and above all fun things to improve street-level life (as always, using pictures of the short Finnish summer!)
I really applaud their efforts and want the shopkeepers to make good profits. I also hope that retail policy will be recognised as the planning problem that it is.
Alas, I’m not too, too hopeful. I still see the stunning desire of decision makers to be nice to big capital taking us in the wrong direction: not lively streets close to where real people with real needs live but rather, the mass appeal and libidinal fantasies of Europe’s airports.
Friday 4th December 2015 saw a good crowd at the City of Helsinki Planning Department’s exhibition space, Laituri. There’ll be a full write-up of the event later on the new blog changinghelsinki.fi. (For now there’s a short overview there to scroll down to, at ‘recent posts’.)
The new blog has been set up as a space to continue the conversation started by the book Cindy Kohtala and I edited: Changing Helsinki?which, if you follow this blog, you must know about by now.
Eeva, Aleksi Niemeläinen, Eva Nekylaeva, Matti Kaijansinkko, Elina Alatalo
Hopefully the mainstream and architectural media will pick up on the book as well. To round off the discussion at Laituri, architect Aleksi Niemeläinen gave the book a fabulously unexpected plug. Not only had he enjoyed reading it, he felt there is a need for the debate to expand or deepen. I was particularly pleased that he agreed that an important debate that still needs to be had is the one on ways to make the city more dense. That is the main subject of the chapter co-written by architect Tistan Hughes and myself about Meri-Rastila.
The party was held afterwards at what I still call Hietsu Pavilion, but is now known as Töölön kylätalo. It’s like a village hall for my own neighbourhood of Töölö, located under some beautiful pine trees between the beach and the cemetery. The workmen were barely gone by the time the catering team arrived to set up the party.
Another architect – and perhaps also a bit of an activist – Ville Ylönen, wrote the story of the pavilion for the book. The wooden building, which Ylönen calls the ‘Chameleon on the Beach’, was abandoned by the city for years, left to rot. But it did not rot.
Built in the 1930s to designs by Gunnar Taucher, city architect at the time, the calmly elegant pavilion had served for years as changing rooms and cafe for the beach outside. Local activists of many generations banded together to prevent its demolition, as I reported a couple of years back on this blog in Finnish. They did manage to purchase the building from the city for the nominal sum of 1 €. The graffiti was removed, funds collected and the whole building restored to new uses: a handful of workspaces for rent and the wonderful event space where we partied.
We did so to the accompaniment of old Finnish hits played by dj Mikko Mattlar (of Radio Helsinki’s Sunday evenings for instance) and to the delightful Helsinki-themed old songs performed by the duo of Marko Puro and Mauri Saarikoski.