Archive

Uncategorized

I’ve been musing again on a life-long problem: why doesn’t everyone react with the same alarm to environmental change as I do? Why won’t everyone (and not just isolated if amazing heroes like the striking Swedish school girl) demand that those with power use it to stop the Eart from broiling?

Too Late shaded 2018

As ever, I’ve looked for clues in literature.

I particularly enjoyed a volume on Economic Science Fictions edited by Goldsmiths-based William Davies (2018) and a short book cited therein, by Peter Frase called Four Futures from 2016. I also looked at David Pilling’s journalistic Growth Delusion, and finished going through a special issue of Ephemera Journal on Degrowth from 2017.

I’ve also been reflecting the readings against the freakishly hot summer.

I started to write this post, laptop on lap, from a small island in the Baltic. I sat not uncomfortably on the end of our jetty enjoying the best of a weirdly warm breeze.

Undoubtedly the most significant inspiration for my becoming an environmental anthropologist has been that place. Like many Helsinki kids, I was transported each year to be “close to nature” away from school and city distractions. A few weeks in a comfortable if simply equipped cabin with water to swim and fish in and rocks and woods to run around in.

verkkoja laskemassa july2018

Drinking-water still has to be carried there. Waste is composted or combusted or it gets carted back to the mainland. Here is a perfect spot for learning about environmental change: annual fluctuations in seaweed and algae express the state of the Baltic. Not good.

Over the years it’s been wonderful watching sunsets. Gradually I’ve learned to listen to birds and look out for fish, elk, deer, and lately, ticks. But the small changes have been incremental and often for the worse.

This year for the first time, I ended up doing what I could to keep the cabin cool. (See the photo above, top).

I also cut reeds for the first time. Although good for cleaning impurities from the water, they were also threatening to suffocate a lagoon. People have been enjoying warm swimming there since the late 1950s and no doubt before. A “first world” loss and not THAT unpleasant a job. But not an insignificant thing in terms of ecological health.

Nice to escape into books. What was a pleasure about my summer reading was that the texts spell out confident versions of environmentalism. They have no truck with so-called climate sceptics, and they are happy to muddle along in a broad-brush cognitive space in which events out there in the world demand radical responses.

Now, as fellow anthropologist Hannah Knox argues so lucidly, we can’t be sure the heatwaves were “caused” by carbon emissions. But we can be pretty sure that what we think of as normal and even desirable is paving the way to climate chaos. If economic growth continues as the default aspiration through which we try to maintain something like social cohesion, disasters small and large, of many kinds, are sure to come, and quite soon at that.

july-2018-heat-map.pngThat all sounds a bit vague. So did the rather alarming heat maps that peppered the media this year. But then progress and economic growth are really extraordinarily vague co-ordianates by which to order social life too.

So, those books. They make vague but strong claims about how we, the primary beneficiaries of global capitalism, have produced this mess.

It was rewarding to read about what we know has happened and what kinds of responses are already being undertaken. These were more than could-be and should-be sustainability talk of the kind my friend Cindy Kohtala has warned students about. (Although there was inevitably a little of that too.)

Particularly Davies’ edited volume stridently turns on its head the economic thought I’ve always felt surrounded and suffocated by. The volume explores imagined worlds from literature, film and planning, whose notions of economics highly consequential and yet also fantasies. Embarrassing perhaps, but I had no idea so much science fiction, and “cli-fi”, was out there, dedicated to questioning progress, innovation, economic growth and other Europe-centred modern virtues!

There is still a problem though. For all that the zeitgeist encourages talk of the harms created by devotion to economic growth, to mention growth scepticism still courts ridicule or disapproval. Somehow it just isn’t polite to talk about climate change.

What is and isn’t polite is of course the stuff of anthropology. In all societies there are some things that are considered too dirty or shaming or dangerous to talk about. And usually the most powerful people are able to ignore them or pretend they don’t apply to them.

Which links climate and other environmental crises to the not-so-thorny problem of whether or not royalty goes to the toilet.

What a depressing thought, that link.

Making it does, I suppose, reinforce my belief in the importance of environmental anthropology. I see few signs of it getting much support or authority, but perhaps this is about to shift. The zeitgeist and those temperatures, after all. Of course they go to the toilet.

p.s. This poster by Finnish graphic designer Kyösti Varis riffed on a similar theme back in 1970. “The ball is in our hands” it says.

Varis Pallo on nyt

Advertisements

I recently wrote a review, in Finnish, of a book with an intriguing looking take on urban futures as re-industrialised. As I tend to do, I first wrote it in English, so here is the draft.

Urban Re-Industrialization, Krzysztof Nawratek, editor. punctum books, e-book. 2017

This intriguing volume of short texts (frustratingly short mostly) argues for the creation of more production-oriented or industrial rather than consumption-led spaces in urban areas. In his introduction, the editor Krzysztof Nawratek promises thinking to break neoliberal path-dependencies that have long enfeebled cities. The volume in fact contains some great deconstructions of the double-speak that offers improvement while instituting ever more exploitative systems of supervision and control deep into the social and technical systems underpinning ordinary life. (I particularly recommend Chapter 1 by Michael Edwards & Myfanwy Taylor). Indeed, the analyses and proposals put forward in the book are tantalizing – at times.

As a whole the book, however, is a strange ensemble. It offers sharp and well researched analysis on the one hand and surprisingly vacuous rhetoric from writers promoting supposedly “alternative” urbanism, on the other.

What is even more odd is that the critical analyses come first, followed  by several texts that these would seem to be perfectly poised to debunk. There is quite a lot there, of what, in his (critical) contribution to the volume, Jeffrey T. Kruth dubs the “re-invention of fads, ideas, technology and marketing strategies” related to “cappuccino culture”.

Arising out of teaching and two mini-conferences, Urban Re-Industrialization makes a plea for something more real and more just than the “cappuccino city”. In any case, argues Nawratek very reasonably, that was built on a fantasy of creative talent and spurred on by magical thinking that “doesn’t bother to ask questions about where the middle classes (or indeed their money) are coming from”.

Unfortunately, however, cappuccino culture remains promoted and often publicly supported, and, like gentrification, it too is  decried and promoted by the same actors. (At least this is the case in my home town of Helsinki, and my former home, London.)

But the volume’s practice-based texts aim for a “more just and more democratic” society (don’t we all?) by reproducing naïve rhetoric about, for instance, the possibilities of the Third Industrial Revolution of digital manufacturing and the personalized, customized, craft-based and always somehow environmentally benign consumer items it heralds. Even more irritatingly, sometimes they echo the biggest developers and construction firms, by using a vaguely declamatory future tense – “these developments will…” and asserting equally vaguely that the changes will have important implications for our cities and homes. We also hear of the attractions of a fuller sensory experience to be gained once work is returned from grim industrial zones on the edge of town into the hubbub of everyday life. Besides being platitudinous, such prose comes close to justifying the circus of vanity projects in arts and culture that still try to target struggling municipal governments with their promises of “global” visibility and streams of money-spending tourists.

Not, I should add, that any of the chapters would do anything so ghastly as promote the creation of staged spaces of consumer safety. And its contributions make an often compelling case for reinserting productive rather than consumptive functions back into urban areas, for stopping the deadly sanitizing of urban culture, in short.

Much of the book argues for some serious economic and institutional reorganization as well as rethinking. It is after all incredibly difficult if not impossible in public governance to prevent – and not just pretend to disapprove of – the perverse and enfeebling impacts of land speculation and wealth accumulation based on rent and transfers of wealth from public to private hands.

A strange mix of texts indeed, perhaps some of them will be developed further and published in more thorough treatments of a truly problematic contemporary condition!

 

A month or so ago, I had the pleasure of “delegating” a teaching slot in my environmental anthropology course to Tim Ingold. He was keynote speaker at the Aalto University’s Art of Research Conference 2017, so I required my students to show up to that.

In a talk that substantially reflected his 2016 autobiographical paper, ‘From science to art and back again’, in the online journal ANUAC, he certainly inspired them.

Around the same time I was asked to prepare some comments on a paper, a version of which will appear in Suomen Antropologi, on “urban hitchhiking”. A method for engaging with strangers that was born of artistic practices, urban hitchhiking was presented at the conference by the authors Tuuli Malla, Anna Kholina and Lauri Jäntti. I was happy to write a comment on the paper, particularly since back in April 2017 I had tried out urban hitchhiking at the Finnish Urban Studies Days (conference).

This description is from their paper:

Take a sign that says “May I walk with you for a while? Place yourself along a pedestrian route. Stand somewhere along that path, raise your thumb and make eye contact with people who are passing. Wait fairly passively, looking for eye contact until someone approaches you. Let the journey begin. Often the person who is giving you a lift will ask what this is about. You may answer as you like.
This is experimental, an intervention into the course of everyday urban life whose results can be fun, intriguing and unanticipated.

Walking is now part of many an ethnographer’s toolkit. Some urban walks I have done for seemingly unrelated reasons in hindsight feel like they were ethnographic exercises. Such as this Narratiimi-walk to Helsinki’s Kruunuvuorenranta, pre-development, last year.IMG_6184 (1)

That Malla’s and Jäntti’s hitchhiking exercises were productive is, by contrast, not in question. They had an exhibition at the Helsinki Art Museum. Who know where they will go with their innovation!

Such unorthodox research methods need not be an end in themselves. As a way to open up the researcher to the city in all its fullness and unpredictability, urban hitchhiking has analytical and critical potential, though exactly how, remains to be fleshed out. Then again, it has value whether or not it’s turned to scholarly use. I hope to adapt it for teaching quite soon.

Malla and Jäntti are artists. They listen and observe carefully. Kholina is a PhD candidate in the Department of Design at Aalto and seems to do the same. Their joint exercise again raised the question about producing, documenting and authorizing knowledge, and about who does these things – scholars, professionals or so-called lay-people.

These things have always been part of my own research. Much of it has involved working with well-educated environmental activists, whose expertise and viewpoints, though epistemologically defensible by any criteria, have often been side-lined, suppressed and even ridiculed as utopian.

IMG_4712

Not so long ago, even those, like the active citizens that set up London’s Glengall Wharf Garden (above), were no doubt thought of like that.

As a social scientist, I have often interrupted the lives of middle-class environmentalists in seeking research material. It’s meant huge overlaps in my analysis and their analysis of any situation. When anthropology still equalled the study of exotic peoples, this kind of “horizontal” relationship with one’s ethnographic interlocutors used to be noteworthy.

These days we are more likely to see such situations as ordinary, even as imperatives to “experiment” with and redistribute the work of research. Returning to urban hitchhiking, to encourage reciprocity and collaboration (if not equivalence) between academic and non-academic questioning, is no longer gimmicky.

As my former colleague Les Back insists, experimenting with the aim of paying closer attention, describing more carefully and still applying critical judgement, is epistemologically as well as ethically the most defensible kind of social research. Exploring multiple perspectives with empathy as well as with the analytical and documentary resources available to academics, is what academics should do. If others can join in and help the process, so much the better, I think.

Anyway, I expect that what is today called experimental or unorthodox will one day be quite standard. Their popularity may also reflect a feeling that the very point of research practice is being rethought. No longer the purview of professional researchers alone, perhaps social research isn’t even aimed any more at creating new knowledge. And certainly I don’t think it is motivated by a desire to help manage unwieldy yet high-profile (and high-stakes) contemporary collectives like cities!

I’ll end on cities and their management. As lovely as it would be to turn back the clock and wish away talk of the “smart city” (brilliantly deconstructed here) or even “urban policy”, the incontrovertible fact is that just coping with cities of the scale and scope we have today, requries massive inputs of intellectual, esoteric and technical power. And it requires critical, academic, reflection to discern work out how to adapt global “development” fads to local conditions or, indeed, to reject them.

If exercises such as urban hitchhiking were to be promoted as part of urban research, it could have interesting effects. In a fit of optimism, I think it could benefit Helsinki.

Could it not be used to educate our planning professionals about the famous social bubbles that worry us all so much? Or about what it feels like to walk in over-designed or over-commercialised parts of the city? Like past this illuminated monstrosity that is currently taking up 1/3 of the wall of the Music Centre (which, BTW, I would prefer to see called the Music Building)?

Black WEek on musiikkitalo 2017

In fact, I suggest Helsinki planners should go urban hitchhiking as much as they can during Helsinki’s darkest months (there are still a couple left!) I recommend that they loiter with intent in the vicinity of these vast advertising surfaces.

Sources

Back, Les (2007) The Art of Listening, Oxford and New York: Berg.

Berglund E (1998)  Knowing Nature, Knowing Science: An ethnography of local environmental activism. White Horse Press.

Berglund, E. (2017) ‘Steering clear of politics: local virtues in Helsinki’s design activism’, Journal of Political Ecology Vol.24, 566 – 580.

Clifford, J., & Marcus, G. E. (Eds.) (1986) Writing Culture. The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: California University Press.

Corsin Jimenez A (2013) An anthropological trompe l’oeil for a common world: An essay on the economy of knowledge. Berghahn.

Estalella, A. & Criado, T.S. (Eds.) (2018) Experimental Collaborations: Ethnography through Fieldwork Devices. Oxford: Berghahn.

Marcus GE (2016) Jostling Ethnography Between Design and Participatory Art Practices, and the Collaborative Relations It Engenders, in Smith RC, KT Vangkilde, MG Kjaersgaard, T Otto,  J Halse, T Binder (eds) 2016 Design Anthropological Futures, London & New York: Bloomsbury: 105-119.

 

 

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.

IMG_4309

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. IMG_2256

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.

IMG_2136

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.

Be good to Helsinki 2010-ish

“Be good to Helsinki”

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.

IMG_6155

Cities also grew up to be diverse and full of surprises.

This morning’s plenary speaker, Geci Karuri-Sebina, reminded us about that.

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.

IMG_4679

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”!

After leaving the conference, I learned that thousands of farmers across Europe woke up this morning to see devastation wrought by unprecedented frosts. These things are all results of how modernity didn’t just forget in general (to recall Paul Connerton’s great read), but forgot the body specifically.

There’s no city, no life, in fact, that will survive on the augmented, enhanced, digitally rendered (“horrenderings” as Karuri-Sebina called them) that guide most planners’ urban visions and dreams.

Horrendering is indeed a great name for this property porn used to titillate Helsinki’s leadership over the possible future of Pasila a couple of years ago!

YIT.fi:images:businesspremises: etc Uusi Pasila Pohjoisesta

A city is not a computer, wrote Shannon Mattern in a great article recently, and nor is it code or software or informatics.

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!

Skutsi huutaa kansi

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.

In my travels through Helsinki’s tiny social movements, I meet countless wonderful, interesting and enthusiastic people. Sometimes these encounters yield unexpected results. Yesterday I found myself featured in a professionally written newspaper article.

Some weeks ago I contacted Marko Leppänen, a well known friend of the forest in Finland. He is known for his intriguing and compelling thoughts on the importance of including both city centre and forested periphery in the good urban life (e.g. here in Finnish).

I asked Marko to share what he knows about the island of Vartiosaari, whose unique environment may be destroyed to make room for housing. I knew he could help me produce content for the publication/art-work we have been putting together with community art maker, Hanna Kaisa Vainio. Our project, under the title Narratiimi (Narrateam) began last summer with walks in some of Helsinki’s forests, currently under tremendous pressure from plans for residential development.

img_5653Land on or close to the waterfront is increasingly treated simply as potential real estate, and not as forest, as un-designed space to share, play or walk in, or simply as cherished places that contribute to our sense of home. Scientists increasingly see local forests such as those still standing in Helsinki, as ecosystem services, crucial to the health of human and all other life.

With Marko had a long and enjoyable conversation about Helsinki’s past, present and expected future. He admitted to being nostalgic for a time before he was born, the late 1950s. That was when Helsinki was at its peak as a city: a compact and stylish centre surrounded by unique and highly livable suburban areas of different kinds, often thoughtfully created to suit their physical settings.

Alas, subsequent development has been aimed at turning everywhere into notional “centre”. Yet what makes a place great, what gives it interest, is precisely the dynamic between centres and peripheries.

I hope to write more about this, and maybe to translate some of Marko’s fascinating ideas about a good urban life, in weeks to come. His blogs about these things himself in Finnish.

So Marko published a short profile of me for Kirkko & Kaupunki, which is published weekly by Helsinki’s Lutheran parishes (and recommended to me by many people who have little interest in the church).

This also gave a little much-needed publicity for the book I co-edited with Cindy Kohtala, that we put together for the growing numbers of people interested in pondering Helsinki’s development in a more nuanced way than we are used to.

uusi-helsinki-LO-RGB-200x262 P.S. The book is still available at booky.fi.

vartiosaari-talli-elo-2015-ebA few short lines today, Friday, in anticipation of a small action by committed defenders of urban nature scheduled for tomorrow, Saturday, 22 October 2016, in front of the Railway Station from 11 to 4pm. The city councillors will decide next week, on a controversial long-term plan for the whole city.

The plan includes several extremely controversial sections, covering green spaces and the open, big-skies character of the city in particular, elements that residents cherish – as the city’s own research shows.

Given the shortness of the days already – and winter is only just beginning – one can appreciate the preference here for low-lying architecture and fully public access to the long seafront.

Below some lines from our book (the one in three languages!) on the topic.

“Vartiosaari island in Helsinki’s eastern archipelago covers over 80 ha. Its recreational value and biological diversity have survived because it lacks a bridge to the mainland. Though it was designated as having heritage value in 2009 already, the city opted to build a bridge to open it up to wider use. In 2013 planning principles were adopted aiming for a densely inhabited urban neighbourhood with recreational elements. The controversial planning process rumbles on.

The is one of Helsinki’s most intact historic clusters of country villas (a nicely illustrated Finnish-language report can be found here), with about 50 houses in holiday use and a hundred or so other buildings. They all have their own stories to tell. Some are extremely important from a built heritage perspective, their value only enhanced by the island’s exceptional natural beauty. In the last century many companies used the island and shared its buildings among staff, allowing a range of workers some access to the villa lifestyle. The retail co-operative Elanto was one of several institutions that ran summer programs for children there.

The city owns about one half of the building stock on the island and 90% of the land. In the 1960s the Kansallis Osake Bank controlled over 80% of the area and considered development. The bank’s property went to the city in 1979.”

So sad to see Helsinki’s decision makers denigrating their cultural history, the fundamental importance of rich biotic landscapes (or naturecultures as my colleagues would say) and residents’ efforts to ensure future access to the quietly forested and often very meaningful remaining areas of truly spectacular urban nature.