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.


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.


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).

IMG_5015  IMG_5005

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.


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.


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.


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.

I just spent an afternoon in Tampere‘s old library discussing nimble uses of space. Mostly the discussion was about connecting under-utilized spaces with people who need them: small businesses, musicians and artists, purveyors of psychological services, neighbours wanting to do things together.

Though activists in the room despaired of persuading municipal officers to respond to their innovative proposals, it became clear that there are many remarkable initiatives that sustain Tampere’s urban fabric as well as its historic identity. Given that the event was organised by Tampere’s own Culture and Leisure department, it seems the city also recognises the importance of fostering creative, even experimental forms of occupancy.

If there was a core message in my presentation today it was that without small-scale, activist-led projects to sustain their identity and, even more importantly, their capacity to reproduce themselves, cities will soon not be worth the name.

With a focus on activism, I compared Helsinki and London. I found myself telling the audience that in growing swathes of London space for sociability, culture and even for sleeping, is disapperaing fast. And without these ingredients, one should not speak of urban culture.

Attack of the cranes

But I’m not the only one in dismay at what is happening to London. Under attack from the cranes (the poster above spotted at 56a, the Infoshop social centre near the ginormous, much discussed, Elephant & Castle regeneration project), life seems to be ebbing out of this wonderful city.

Creativity, experimentation and simple need inspire still, but in conditions of unprecedented difficulty. On the hoardings that are everywhere, fantasy reigns.

Delancey Hoarding 2016

Meanwhile social housing, like the 1970s-built Heygage estate that once stood behind these hoardings, was demolished. This has left long-term tenants homeless or forced to move to places of cheaper land values that they don’t know.

In the rest of this post I’ll share a few photographs and thoughts of what I found over the last four weeks of revisiting old haunts in London’s south-eastern quadrant. It’s still a landscape of steep hills, much unexpected cultural heritage and alarmingly short generation spans. But the cranes are never far away.

The key driver of the madness seems to be the way the world’s rich treat London property as an excellent place to park their money. I’d say another problem is that many Brits consider individualism – for instance aspiring to home ownership rather than renting – to be natural. Finding no security in state institutions, they treat their houses as their castles, bulwarks against outside danger. They want to own them.

Of course among those with power, loud voices rejoice – perhaps in good faith – at the onward march of this techno-fuelled, demography-altering, capitalist boom.

One Blackfriars 2016

Where once were solid walls with doors and windows, hoardings now scream with inane promises of luxury, sustainability and vibrancy. Mostly they peddle all this in hygienic solitude or, at best, in tantalising twosomes. The rise in promotional property porn has not gone unnoticed. If anyone has seen it adbusted, I’d love to know!

What is disorienting is that what is being built is doing nothing to help those who need shelter. It is creating homelessness and alienation, and it is stifling enterprise. Is this gentrification? No, said a couple of activists, that’s too polite. It’s social cleansing.

More interestingly, there are also many, many quieter but certainly not feeble voices join with actions to protect urban life in the cracks of this frenetic construction. The urban garden flourishes here too! Sometimes it gets co-opted for developer branding – “developer compliant” as one disgruntled activist called it – elsewhere it just turns its back on the madness and gets on with constructive pursuits like permaculture.

Glengall Wharf 2016

My sense is that it is only low-capital ventures that can halt or at least temper the trajectory towards non-places. While the new normal creates environments where bringing up the next generation is unaffordable (unthinkable?) except for the very wealthy, it is in places like Glengall Wharf in Peckham or at New Cross’s The Field, that I found the kinds of things that do reproduce place and do nurture society.

The Field vegan meal sign 2016

Solidarity, small enterprise and creativity, sensual experiences of making, growing and tending, community and togetherness – are being trampled by the construction boom but nurtured by people I call activists.

I am certain that Helsinki’s boom is of a kin with London’s disaster even if the scale – London’s sheer mega-ness – is much smaller. The similarities and the differences will bear closer analysis. Tampere’s real-estate sector too, though the town is lucky to have enthusiastic activists, is now part of a global game that puts profit making over life making.

But for now I sign off with images of the soon-to-be-demolished Elephant and Castle shopping centre. Here too you’ll find enterprise, community and place (for now), and an amazing repository of local history, recent and older, online! In a sense, there’s maybe more place than ever here, now that it’s under threat. Funny that. Or not.

E&C shopping centre 2016

E&C elephant & fruit stall 2016




Hyvästä kaupungista voi kertoa monenlaisia tarinoita. Kun aloimme Cindy Kohtalan kanssa pohtia kirjan tekemistä Helsingin rajusta muutoksesta, olimme yhtä mieltä siitä että tuloksesta piti tullla moniääninen.

Se pitäisi myös kirjoittaa eri kielillä. Suomeksi, in English (kuten allekirjoittanut postasi taannoin täällä), ja myös toisella kotimaisella, jota Stadissa paljon kuulee.

Jos on monta tarinaa, saattaa myös olla monta Helsinkiä. Tai sitten on vain yksi. Se, jonka tulevaisuudesta olen huolissani.

Lukumaa Teatterikorkeakoulu

Kuva: Jaakko Lukumaa

Nimittäin graniittisten kivijalkojen Helsinki nousee kuin luonnostaan maasta itsestään. Se on teknologinen maailma metsän keskellä, selkeästi eurooppalainen ja kuitenkin omanlaisensa pääkaupunki. Täällä matalat kivikorttelit hohtavat matalalta paistavassa pohjoisessa auringossa.

Helsinki on myös katoavaa yhteistä perintöä: rakennuksia ja muita historiallisia maamerkkejä.

Myös kallioista, metsäistä ja merellistä luonnonperintöä. Kaupungin rajojen sisällä on silti paikkoja, joissa kaikki tämä yhdistyy (kuten asfaltoitavaksi kummallisesti osoitettu Vartiosaari!) (Ks. myös kannanottoni kaupungille).

Helsingissä on ainutlaatuinen ajan saatossa kehittynyt asuinympäristö, jossa ihmisillä on hyvät edellytykset voida hyvin.

Ihmiskunnan enemmistö asuu nykyään urbaanisti. Kaupungistumisen vauhti ja jättimäinen mittakaava rikkovat jatkuvasti ennätyksiä. Tämän taloudelliset vaikutukset ovat ennennäkemättömiä ja usein pelottavia. Jotkut tutkijat ovat jopa sitä mieltä, ettei kaikkea viime vuosien urbaania rakentamista voi ajatella kaupungistumisena.

Ei bisnespuistosta eikä prekaarin työvoiman asuntoloista, eikä liioin valvotuista mutta puolityhjistä uusista luksusalueista ole kaupungiksi, saati sitten eläväksi sellaiseksi.

Tuhansien vuosien ajan kaupungit ovat olleet itse-organisoitumisen ja erilaisuuden paikkoja. Vaan ei välttämättä enää.

Muutama vuosi sitten Helsingissäkin alkoi kova kasvu, jopa vuosisadan rakennusbuumi. Helsingistä olisi tulossa samalla niin sanotusti metropoli, kansainvälisesti merkittävä toiminnan keskus.

BrandnewhelsinkiSanotaan, että on pakko brändätä, investoida ja luoda vetovoimaisuutta. Kansainvälisen kiinnostavuuden sanotaan tuovan työtä ja lisäävän hyvinvointia. Näihin asioihin keskittyy nyt Helsingin markkinointi.

Helsingin muutosta siivittää joskus värikkäinkin sanakääntein käyty väittely. Erilaiset näkemykset kaupungin mahdollisuuksista luovat kärjekkäitäkin vastakkainasetteluja niin poliittisella kentällä kuin somessakin. Töölönlahdelle viime vuosina nousseita toimisto- ja kulttuurirakennuksia taas haukutaan yli puolue- ja kuplarajojen.


Töölönlahti by Lukumaa

Kuva: Jaakko Lukumaa

Tähän soppaan päätimme Cindyn kanssa puuttua, kun olimme siitä tarpeeksi monta kertaa tuohtuneina keskustelleet. Helsinkiläisinä, mutta myös ulkopuolisina – Cindy on Kanadan kansalainen, minä olen asunut puolet elämästäni Suomen ulkopuolella – katsoimme, että keskustelusta puuttui kaupungin merkitys, niin, merkityksenä.

Toimitimme kirjan jonka keskeinen viesti on, että pääkaupungista voi keskustella moniulotteisemmin kuin tähän asti on ollut tapana. Ei ole yhtä totuutta, eikä edes kahta.  Kokemuksellisesti on monta eri Helsinkiä, (ks. esim. Arkkitehtuurin tiedotuskuksen kirjoitus julkaisutilaisuudesta).

Runsaasti kuvitetun kirjan tekstit ovat 14 kirjoittajan (Andrew Paterson, Harry Schulman, Pasi Mäenpää, Jonathan Glancey, Tarja Nurmi, Lieven Ameel,  Tristan Hughes, Ville Ylönen, Vesa Peipinen, Pia Ilonen, Hella Hernberg, Juha Ilonen ja toimittajat) näkemyksiä jostain kaupungin alueesta tai ilmiöstä. Paitsi brittikriitikko Jonathan Glancey, kaikki ovat helsinkiläisiä, mutta Glanceynkin tekstistä paistaa läpi rakkaus tätä kaupunkia kohtaan.

Kirjamme korostaa sitä, että Helsinki on muutakin kuin tonttimaata, investointimahdollisuuksia tai asunto- ja muita jonoja. Helsinki on paikka. Se on kulttuuria, yhteistyötä ja bio-fyysisiä prosesseja, joihin kaupunkilaiset sitoutuvat..


Sompasauna, 2014. Kuva: Jaakko Lukumaa

Samalla, kuten kukoistavat uuden urbaanin muodot Helsingissäkin kertovat, kaupunkilaiset yhä aktiivisemmin pyrkivät tekemään ympäristönsä itse. Pop-up saunat, kaupunkiviljelmät, ravintolapäivät ja aktiiviset kaupunginosayhdistykset eivät ole mitään pintakoristusta: yhä selkeämmin ne ovat kaupunkielämän uusintamisen tae.

Helsingissä onkin kiinnostavia esimerkkejä siitä, miten protestiliikkeistä ja ruohonjuuritason aktivismista lähtenyt toiminta on kehittynyt toimivaksi hallinnoksi. Toisaalta poliittinen kulttuuri Suomessa helposti suitsee keskustelun muutoksesta, kytkemällä erimielisyydet puolueisiin. Kuitenkin erilaiset mielepiteet ja toiveet ovat elimellinen osa kaikkea yhteistä toimintaa.

EIhän kaupunkien elinvoima toki historiallisesti ole perustunutkaan hallintokoneistoihin, eikä liioin korporaatioihin. Sen sijaan kaupungeissa yhteiskunnan heikommatkin ovat voineet osallistua historiaan ja kulttuurin kehitykseen.

Rakentaminen taas on selkeästi kietoutunut valtaan ja politiikkaan. Kirjan johdannossa siteeraammekin yhdysvaltalaista arkkitehtia ja kriitikkoa Michael Sorkinia, joka toteaa, että arkkitehtuuri ”tuotetaan taiteen ja omistusten yhtymäkohdassa, ja siksi siitä on niin helppotajuisesti lukea yhteisen elämämme historia”

Siksi kaupungissa tapahtuvaa muutosta kannattaa mielestämme pohtia, ja siitä keskustella ja kirjoittaa huolella, hitaasti ja harkiten, yhdessä muidenkin kuin arkkitehtien, rakennuttajien, grynderien ja kaupunkisuunnittelijoiden kanssa.

Kirjaa saa hyvistä kirjakaupoista, esimerkiksi uudesta upeasta kivijalkaliikkeestä nimeltä Nide, osoitteessa Fredrikinkatu 35.

Myös online kirjakaupasta,

Uusi Helsinki? 11 näkökulmaa kaupungin mahdollisuuksiin, toim. Eeva Berglund ja Cindy Kohtala, ISBN 978-952-240-292-9 Sivumäärä 365 Ovh 35 €.


Thoughts on an emerging field, finally organized in writing and rather random hyperlinks, with thanks to Zoy Anastassakis who introduced me to these networks and encouraged me to write up my thoughts. What is design anthropology? In addition to essaying an answer to that question, I ponder how it speaks to those concerned with the destruction and degrading of our environments.

Design anthropology may be an emerging academic field, but even more it can be thought of as a collective imagining[1] that draws together professional roles, personal biographies and embodied experience. It uses eclectic and self-consciously inventive research methods, which are simultaneously tools for intervening in socio-technical and eco-geological arrangements. Design anthropology continues to produce variants of itself and seek institutional homes, but its potential to engage fruitfully with frightening problems of an ecological nature is beyond question.

I became persuaded of this after attending the Entremeios symposium in Rio de Janeiro under the auspices of the Design and Anthropology Laboratory (LaDA)/State University of Rio de Janeiro, in August 2014, and then at the Research Network for Design Anthropology’s meeting a year later in Copenhagen. The contents of these meetings are impossible to summarise. Topics ranged from the design of beautiful bodies and profitable architecture to the ontological status of algorithms or potential for applying Aristotelian phronesis to policy making (O’Rafferty 2015). A recognizable methodological framework or underpinning for the practice of something discernible as design anthropology is, however, already in place. Descriptive, analytical and interventionist all at the same time, design anthropology appears to be not so much about problem solving as about problem making (Lindström & Ståhl 2015) or issue making.

The contrast with capitalist technocracies – for example the Finnish state – that make endless calls for solving problems of their own creation and then respond with replicant innovations and prefigured solutions that often deepen socio-ecological troubles, is stark. Instead, design anthropology develops a countervailing tendency: to generate and sustain critical debate and perhaps, if the Rio meeting is a model, to generate and support particular urban publics whose voices and very existence otherwise threaten to disappear.Rio view 2014

Renewing anthropology

In a sense every human being designs (as Ezio Manzini has recently put it), professional designers just do it differently and sometimes they do it for pay.

For anthropologists and other social scientist, to invoke design as a necessary human propensity rather than a professional practice (Ingold 2014) is an intuitive way to deal with the fallout of centuries of the institutionalized division of intellectual labour, which has divorced the work of heads (disembodied rational minds at the top of the social hierarchy) from the work of bodies (fleshy mortals whose physicality puts them at the bottom of the social hierarchy). Design as an idea offers a compelling bridge across many troublesome pairs of terms (Latour 2008 and 2011). It means working simultaneously with the conceptual and the material; it builds on the past even as it builds into or for the future; and to borrow from Tim Ingold, design is capable, at its best, of respecting the way “the forces of ambition rub up against the rough edges of the world” (2013: 72). Such characteristics make design an attractive conceptual toolbox for anthropologists like myself, who are interested in environmental (including urban) change and what produces it.

Anecdotally speaking, recent decades have seen many places or landscapes, about which anthropology claims expertise – environments – transformed to the point of being unrecognizable as the places they once researched. Where two decades ago was agricultural land, now there may be a city of hundreds of thousands or millions (think Shenzhen), a power plant or a mining operation.

As reorganizing the planet progresses at all scales, it would seem that the not everyone is attentive to the edges of the world or to their obduracy in the face of human designs as Ingold is! Gargantuan projects and violent evictions at least draw our attention to professional design projects that are technology-intensive and capital-intensive. As these futures and not those are made real, history, linear and irreversible, becomes more and more interesting to a scholar-activist or scholar-citizen. The linear temporality of a designed world appears to contrast, after all, with the predominantly cyclical temporal dynamics documented by early generations of anthropologists.

As shorthand terms for this empirically observable change-making, design, experiment and the prototype also become academically interesting tropes. These words indeed capture something of contemporary society with its economics-led government, in general. Certainly under the banner of global environmental management – climate change politics in particular – the redesign of environments has become a widespread preoccupation. The imperative to design better so that the future might prove habitable if not more, has become a recognized personal, professional and policy goal.

Design anthropology offers a way to reflect on all this: against the background of only a few hundred years of fossil-fuel-based industrialism and a little over 100 years of professional design, perhaps design anthropology might even allow us to take seriously the politically explosive possibility that the modern-industrialist era really is anomalous and coming to an end or at least some kind of revolution.

WDC balloonSuch thoughts may appear dramatic, overdrawn and naïve, but it is undeniable that the last two or so decades are certainly discernible as a historical shift to an age of design. Design and its products are overtly and increasingly valued and promoted across economic, political and cultural domains. Today design is recognised not just as a source of economic value, but also as a route to better cities and more public good (Julier & Leerberg 2014) (though frequently also a sticking plaster-type substitute for the adequately resourced public infrastructure of weakened social welfare systems).

The timeliness of design as an actor in everyday life as well as policy was clear from the Rio meeting in 2014. LaDA-based advanced scholars as well as masters students demonstrated how interdisciplinary scholarly and local lay knowledge together can be put to use in identifying and opening up shared issues. There were presentations about street signs, buildings, markets, beaches, but also about the city administration, national transport infrastructure and Kuva0219global trends in urban and regional planning.

The fusion of design practice – making an intervention – and an anthropological curiosity about people appeared in these both as problem solving and problem making, with an ethical attentiveness to what it is right to do in situations where so many people have been abandoned to find their own solutions.

The city’s striking beauty and the context of great urban transformation in Rio itself was obviously a fertile, not to say provocative, space for seeking to intervene in collective futures. The changes taking place, their gentrifying and entertainment-oriented rationale so squarely embedded in the spectacular and globalized capture of resources for capital rather than people, immediately gave a set of co-ordinates and comparisons.

Copenhagen, where the Research Network for Design Anthropology’s meeting took place, also exhibits the influence of spectacular late capitalism clearly visible particularly in waterfront locations, the favoured hotspots of the neoliberal remaking of city life.

Eeva's Lumia_20150814_002 At the same time – especially in the warm August 2015 sunshine – Copenhagen presenteditself as site of conviviality and the many intersecting infrastructures of the modern city. Indeed, the very idea of the city, at least the big city, carries within it design both at a grandly utopian scale and the micro-designs of the thousands (or millions). In big cities self-organizing can be understood as a complex of organic and cognitive processes, and certainly not as a blueprint or plan. In the un-measurable complexity of the city, design as practice, object and environment suddenly appear to be everywhere, a kind of meshwork for design anthropology to investigate and engage.

At yet another level, design anthropology’s timeliness connects to the condition captured in the neologism ‘Anthropocene’.[2] It conveys the notion that the planet itself is being designed, that humanity is now going beyond altering landscapes for its own needs and actively intervening in forming the global environment.

The idea that we are now shaping the world in some qualitatively new way, goes back at least to the counter-cultural publication, the Whole Earth Catalog, published in California in 1968, which began with the rather design-inflected words “We are as gods and might as well get good at it” before offering its reader a variety of resources by which he [sic] can cultivate his own power to educate himself and shape his environment.

Interestingly, the author of those lines, Stewart Brand, claims to have found the words in the anthropologist Edmund Leach’s Reith Lectures broadcast on the BBC in 1967![3] Whether or not it is admissible or constructive to designate an actual new geological epoch such as the Anthropocene to convey the impact of industrial capitalism-cum-“humanity” on the planet, (see Malm & Hornborg 2014), to argue that we have designed the world we now inhabit is also to argue that we can and indeed must redesign it, a sentiment also in some way at the core of design anthropology.

Another phenomenon promoting the growth of design anthropology is that so many in government, business and civil society, have latched onto “design thinking” as a panacea for the multiple crises facing political leadership today. Panacea it is not (Kimbell 2011). It has affinities with neoliberalism, but design might also be offering a kind of epistemology whose ends are not yet clear. In contrast to an all-flattening neoliberal ideology of frictionless flow, design anthropology appreciates boundaries and distinctions but at the same time it follows problems and concerns across institutional and intellectual barriers. The epistemological challenges posed by collaborative and dispersed intellectual work fusing ethnographic as well as interventionist impulses are also fostering research practices that need not necessarily progress under the banner of design anthropology yet are clearly related to what I am calling design anthropology here (Corsín Jiménez, 2014, also the wonderful Limn magazine).

This kind of thinking has promoted the idea that design could be a model for a postcolonial anthropology, an experimental, engaged and collaborative discipline that constitutes a distinct style of knowing (Otto and Smith 2013). While many anthropologists no doubt see their discipline as inherently critical and imaginative, Keith M. Murphy and George Marcus (2013), drawing on ideas of design pedagogy, compare anthropology unfavourably with design education. It is the latter that they see as the real location of critical thinking and discourse today.

If one is looking for something revolutionary in design anthropology there is, however, also the uncomfortable thought that the emergence of design anthropology may have had more to do with revolutionizing commerce to strengthen its position, than with overturning it.

design anthropology hellobook

Design’s social visibility actually has much to do with the anthropological contribution to consumer culture: for one, it helped lead to the corporate discovery of local specificity. It is now commonplace to suggest that a novel product can achieve better commercial success with the help of anthropological tools, not least ethnographic studies of users (Clarke 2011: 10 from the book pictured above). This makes anthropology not just a handmaiden to professional and therefore corporate-led design, but to environmentally damaging as well as historically narrow definitions of novelty, creativity and imagination and even humanity. Design anthropology may thus be fostering intellectual activity that fulfils contemporary capitalism’s criteria of usefulness whilst making environmentally and socially sane lives actually more difficult!

For some then, design is a model for anthropology’s future. For others design is a problematic object of study for anthropology. For instance Lucy Suchman, a pioneer of anthropological engagements with professional design, advocates a relationship between the two disciplines that is not hyphenated but rather a more conventional but also more critical “anthropology of” (2011). A generative tussle between engagement as endorsement on the one hand and a preference for critique on the other (ethically more defensible) akin to what Suchman’s paper spells out, was also discernible at these two meetings on design anthropology. It may be a sign that we are living through a good crisis, that there is a chance that the turbulence we are experiencing will lead, as the science of the Anthropocene at its most optimistic suggests, to better designs: of things, of subjects and of environments.

Reorganizing design

It became clear at the Rio and Copenhagen meetings that designerly knowledge is produced at multiple sites in many collaborations, but also that what this knowledge is for and what it is good for is often a source of anxiety. This was heightened no doubt because design knowledge also generates things that non-designers may not want – like algorithms or gadgets that emphatically do not respond to real people’s real needs (real needs being a concept that may be ripe for rediscovery by critical scholars). In fact, even the supposed beneficiaries of some design projects can be appalled by the way research funding is allocated to the work of innovation and product design. Seeking to put distance between useless and possibly damaging innovation and useful and hopefully constructive critical analysis, the conversation at both conferences periodically turned to the distinction between scholarly knowledge versus designerly making. Unsurprisingly, the distinction was just as enthusiastically collapsed by participants.

At a minimum, design anthropology’s contribution to design and design research is to offer ingredients for de-familiarizing and re-familiarizing aspects of being human through comparative ethnographic investigation. Beyond that, what a designer does and wants – whether they want to know or to make – will depend on overlapping but never identical biographical and professional commitments. In addition to being a question of personal morals, this is an epistemological question. It hinges on the collaborators involved and the things, issues and publics that they collectively generate and remain committed to. It almost – but not quite – goes without saying, that epistemology here is highly political: “elaborating and multiplying possible futures is an exercise of power, even if position or preference is not articulated or neutrality is claimed” (Maze 2015: 6). Longstanding feminist arguments to incorporate situatedness in our knowledge practices have a strong, perhaps inadequately acknowledged, place in this conversation (Haraway 1988).

Mainstream political institutions as well as self-consciously ethical or green activists (the two groups overlap) seeking to redesign futures often fail to recognize this. In the face of crisis, they may offer moralizing and policing, together with an insistence that the same socio-economic structures that created our problems in the first place are irreplaceable. The result is that many people experience life as an uncomfortable paradox: well-meaning green credentials (lifestyle choices) are cancelled out by resource-hungry urban lives, and notions like “environmental struggle” and even “political radicalism” begin to appear old-fashioned, confused or meaningless. The idea of design for good comes to sound awkward, and so unsurprisingly there was debate at both events about the way alternative design projects get co-opted or cynically exploited for the usual fun-oriented but profit-seeking activities of urban elites, infatuated as many now are, with the edgy but productive vibe of the activist grassroots. The formal tends to subsume the informal, the official can take credit for and neutralize opposition by co-opting it.

This mix of profit-driven and social sustainability, of top-down and bottom-up or activist, was also the topic of my presentation at Rio’s Entremeios meeting (some of which I wrote up on this blog earlier). Since the symposium was titled ‘Ways of life and creative practices in the city’, I felt that the efforts of volunteer-activists in Helsinki, many of whom have design and architecture backgrounds, was an interesting window onto creative practice in the city. The activists I talked about – who have built greenhouses on derelict city-centre land in Helsinki and, in the process, ignited imaginations and promoted more slow-paced ways of life – could be presented as radical opponents of business-as-usual, that is, as design activists, change makers or agents of alternatives (Fuad-Luke et al. 2015). This was the line we took with Cindy Kohtala in our recent edited volume on urban transformation in Helsinki.

However, they could also be seen as products and even promoters of neoliberalism themselves, even as politically naïve and socio-economically advantaged tinkerers, who hardly add up to a social movement. After all, they can easily leave the truly downtrodden and marginalised just as vulnerable as before, while they pursue their own middle-class green-tinged utopias.

Back to scholarship

I will conclude by returning to the anxieties around what the outcomes of design anthropology might be. Although George Marcus, in his keynote speech (video available via this link), seemed to re-establish a division between anthropology as scholarship and design as practice, the conversations in Rio, Copenhagen and beyond do not support his view. The meaning of scholarship is obviously contested, but as people involved with design anthropology, participants seemed very aware of the need to respond simultaneously to many constituencies working at many speeds. There was also a sense that responding is a form of responsibility (even response-ability), a quality of intellectual life that allows a design anthropologist to articulate or narrate a certain kind of reflexivity not to say recursive quality.

In a paper by Mike Anusas and Rachel Harkness (2014) written for the Research Network for Design Anthropology titled simply, ‘Things Could be Different’, the authors push design anthropological thought by drawing on an ecological idiom. But instead of a closed understanding of ecology or temporality, they capture the reflexivity of knowledge production today by invoking time more generally, not just as the future, as it typical in design and design anthropological conversations. The designer may be focussed on producing something new, but she has to work with the past, building on existing infrastructures, problem definitions and techniques and, as Anusas and Harkness so compellingly remind us, existing matter.

Their approach is, I think, very fruitful. Design anthropology can hover uneasily between fine detail on the one hand and vagueness and lack of groundedness on the other. But what it does well is to keep in view the social, cultural and political dimensions of design.

In drawing attention to the temporal qualities of the materials and ideas that are shaped and reshaped in practices of design, one is alerted to the constant and always consequential interplay of the material and the conceptual. And vice versa. The material and conceptual impinge in time, they wield consequences through time.

Anusas and Harkness also note that the popular concept of innovation and its supposed link to novelty is implausible. To design is to imagine, to mix unknown futures with selectively recalled as well as obdurately persistent (e.g. as waste) histories. In the current conjuncture, as they argue, it is what we term ‘the environmental’ that best opens up understandings of the limits as well as the possibilities of designing feasible futures: in the complex demands of environmental concern, dealing with stuff and dealing with each other are inextricably linked, and everything potentially comes up against obduracy and resistance to change.IMG_1994

Instead of timelessness, a kind of elevated but impossible condition of immortality, or an endless capacity to go backwards in time (or pretend we can, insuring ourselves against trouble or even terrorism or paying for eternal youth) a design anthropology grounded in the environmental attends not just to complexity but to consequentiality.

Clearly not everything calling itself design anthropology is or needs to be about undertaking such a task. Working with the anxiety or unease of endorsing or protesting business-as-usual is, however, creating an exciting and timely conversation. To understand what it means for design to be part of society like this, to narrate its roles and impacts as local, vernacular and interactive, as well as born of globalization and corporate profit making all at the same time, to appreciate what ongoing alterations in expert practices and authority mean for policy and government as well as commerce, are all issues taken up by scholars in design anthropology.

As such, it is certainly a scholarly pursuit as Zoy Anastassakis has made amply clear. Here, by scholarship I refer to a disciplined collective endeavour of sustaining and developing human intellectual capacities. This is so even as many non-scholars participate or set the horizons and co-ordinates of this activity. Where, exactly, this exercise gets carried out (in universities or elsewhere), is perhaps less important than the fact that it is being developed, taught and applied. Of course, as I’ve suggested, design anthropology can also leave everything as it is. In that respect too, it is rather like most other kinds of scholarship.

Certainly design anthropology may find it hard to flourish despite its obvious alignments to popular political and commercial imperatives. Anyway, I am grateful to have been able to participate in these two events. They are testament to an emerging conceptual framework that is neither anthropology nor design, but design anthropology.

Works cited

Anusas, Mike and Rachel Harkness (2014) Paper for the seminar “Ethnographies of the Possible”, April 10th, 2014, Aarhus, DK, The Research Network for Design Anthropology. (Forthcoming also as Anusas and Harkness (2016) ‘Presents in the Making’ in Design Anthropological Futures, Edited by Rachel Charlotte Smith, Ton Otto, Kasper Tang Vangkilde, Joachim Halse, Thomas Binder, Mette Gislev Kjaersgaard. Bloomsbury.)

Clarke, Alison J. 2011. Design anthropology: object culture in the 21st century. Wien: Springer.

Corsín Jiménez, Alberto (2014) ‘The right to infrastructure: a prototype for open source urbanism’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Vol.32: 342-362.

Haraway, D. (1988) ‘Situated Knowledges: the science question in feminism as a site of discourse on the privilege of partial perspective’, Feminist Studies, Vol.14(3): 575-99.

Ingold, T. 2013. Making: Anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture. Routledge.

Tim Ingold (2014) ‘Designing Environments for Life’, in Anthropology and Nature, ed. Kirsten Hastrup.

Kimbell, L. (2011) ‘Rethinking Design Thinking: Part I’, Design and Culture, Vol.3(3): 283-306.

Latour, B. (2011) ‘Un Prométhée circonscpect? A Cautious Prometheus?’, Architecture d’Aujourd’hui. No. 381. 2011: 109-119

Lindström, K. & Ståhl, Åsa (2015) ‘Inviting to co-articulations of issues in designerly public engagement’,

Malm, A. and Hornborg, A. (2014) ‘The geology of mankind? A critique of the Anthropocene narrative’, The Anthropocene Review, Vol.1(1): 62-69

Mazé, Ramia (2014) Paper for the seminar “Ethnographies of the Possible”, April 10th, 2014, Aarhus, DK, The Research Network for Design Anthropology.

Murphy, K. M. and G. E. Marcus (2013) ‘Epilogue: Ethnography and Design, Ethnography in Design… Ethnography by design’, in Gunn, W.; T. Otto; R. C. Smith (eds) Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, London: Bloomsbury Academic. Pp. 251-268.

O’Rafferty, S. 2015. Design as a phronetic approach to policy making,

Otto & Smith in Gunn, W.; T. Otto; R. C. Smith (2013) Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Suchman, Lucy, (2011) ‘Anthropological Relocations and the Limits of Design’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 40: 1-18.

[1] The idea was present at the Rio meeting. It turns out the idea is also developed in a book of that name by Moira Gatens and Genevieve Lloyd (1999), which draws on Spinoza’s philosophy to deal more optimistically and satisfactorily with human knowledge than most conventional understandings of epistemology do.

[2] The use of the term Anthropocene has been growing since 2002. Writing in the journal Nature, the Nobel-prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen suggested it as a way to capture the idea that scale and intensity of the changes caused by technology were producing irreversible and lasting damage to the global environment. The result is a new, human-dominated, geological epoch, the Anthropocene where the global environment is thus the product of human endeavour.