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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.

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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.

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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”

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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.

2014 grim reaping capitalism

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.

The text was published in Ark, The Finnish Journal of Architecture, issue 1, 2016, and came out in the winter already. Below is the start of the text, here a pdf.  The text is in both Finnish and English.

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.

A heady mix of positive action, unseasonably warm weather, widely different ideas of what creativity in the city might be, but also some feelings of frustration accompanied last Friday’s seminar in St Petersburg on Arts for the City.

The seminar, held in the Finnish Institute’s airy space, was asking about similarities and differences in the institutional environments of grassroots urban culture projects in Helsinki and St Petersburg, and about the goals and mechanisms for organizing them. Some of these similarities and differences are, I think, captured to an extent in the built heritage of these two beautiful Baltic Sea cities, with their historical affinities but vastly divergent scales.

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The wider project, steered by Alexandra Nenko and supported by several cultural exchange networks, brings together citizens, artists and researchers to make the city more liveable.

In just a short visit and having lost even the rudimentary Russian I once had, there was a lot to take in in just a couple of days. My own short presentation or statement wanted to highlight the stark contrasts between temporary and more permanent presence in the cityscape (a problem for the activist) but also the multiple roles that all those involved necessarily play in making the city (a source of optimism).

Put another way, and inspired by the work of political philosopher William Connolly, particularly his 2013 book,  The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Systems, Neoliberal Fantasies and Democratic Activism, I suggested that even short-term activities and encounters, between artists and researchers, or between activists and bureacrats, build up new, more sustainable, ways of inhabiting our cities.

The key Helsinki partner was Yhteismaa, fun-producing, administration-challenging powerhouse of urban activisim. Pasi Mäenpää, reseracher on activism brought a Finnish perspective onto the rise of activism, something he sees as fundamentally spurred on by opportunities for online organising.

The next day we got to see just how enlivening a short-term event can be.

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At the public library on Zanevskyi Prospekt, all kinds of examples of urban commoning flourished in the sunshine. There were master classes in crafts, a street kitchen offering salmon soup Finnish style, eagerly prepared by local residents with a Finnish chef (differences of opinion on spicing principles were happily overcome), a book and plant exchange and many hours of terrific togetherness. (More here, in Russian).

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Locals are understandably preoccupied with the problems of overcoming a highly regulated urban environment with its myriad administrative organs. And yet, as the presentations at the seminar made abundantly clear, many people have long been engaged in enlivening the city and much is happening at many scales. In addition to the Arts 4 the City pages, see the Centre for Independent Social Research. Lilia Voronkova’s seminar presentation was a fabulous lesson in what can be gained when research and artistic creativity merge in a power point presentation!

One local challenge has to do with the character of St Petersburg as an unparalleled outdoor museum, one celebrating nothing less than vast empire. The grass in this city, then, is not for sitting and playing on, but for admiring. Including in the parks, it would seem.

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Another problem, one that struck a more familiar chord with a former London resident, was traffic. A city of straight, long roads, though not originally built for the motorcar, St Petersburg roads positively invite high speeds. Chicanes, underpasses and all the rest of the twentieth century’s innovations to keep motorised traffic moving, were in evidence near the library too. As a crow flies, the route from the metro would have been short indeed. As a St Petersburg pedestrian advances, it took the best part of 15 minutes. The grocery shop across the road was equally inaccessible, cut off from us as it was by six lanes of traffic with fences to deter any would-be jaywalkers.

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Looking forward to more cooperation and exchanges!

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.

AvoinnaIt 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.

Pay Here (Airport)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.

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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.