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.


“Vartiosaaresta suunnitellaan omaleimainen, monipuolinen ja tiiviisti rakennettu saaristokaupunginosa, jossa on sekä asumista että kaikkia helsinkiläisiä palvelevia virkistys- ja vapaa-ajan toimintoja.”IMG_4290

Näin esittää Helsingin kaupunki.

Kaupunkilaisia eli osallisia on luvattu kuulla 29.1.2016 asti. Olen laatimassa muistutusta. Mahdollisesti se luetaan. Voi olla että sillä ja muilla kannanotoilla on vaikutus saaren kohtaloon.

Näen Vartiosaaren valtakunnallisena, kenties jopa globaalina, aarteena.

Sinne pääsee talvella jään yli nauttimaan luonnon kulttuurista. Herttoniemen metroasemalta bussit 88 ja 89 vievät Reposalmentien tienhaaraan, mistä pääsee upeisiin maisemiin kävellen. Toivottavasti pakkaset tulevat takaisin, niin ei jäät sula!


Tällaisen ajattelin lähettää kaupunkisuunnitteluvirastolle:

Helsingissä, 27.1.2016

Muistutus Vartiosaaren osayleiskaavaehdotuksesta: 12373 HEL 2011-007765

Vartiosaaren osayleiskaavaehdotuksesta on kokonaan luovuttava. Valtakunnallisestikin merkittävää perintöämme Vartiosaaressa ja sen lähialueilla ei saa hävittää. Kulttuuri- ja luontoarvoja pursuavan Vartiosaaren merkitys tulevaisuuden turvana ja yhteisenä virkistyspaikkana vain korostuu pääkaupunkiseudun kasvaessa. Alla muutama syy kaavaehdotuksesta luopumiseen. Paras tapa vakuuttua asiasta on kuitenkin rauhallinen käynti itse saarella. Suosittelen lämpimästi.

  • Vartiosaaren rakentaminen ei juurikaan vaikuta pääkaupunkiseudun asuntopulaan. Uusien alueiden ja kokonaisuuksien rakentaminen helpottaa harvoin pahimmassa tarpeessa olevia. Upeille mäkisille tonteille meren lähellä ei olisi asiaa muuta kuin harvoilla ja etuoikeutetuilla.IMG_4318


  • Liikenne- ja muun infrastruktuurin rakentaminen Vartiosaaren haasteelliseen maastoon olisi puistattavan kallista. Julkisin investoinnein tuettaisiin näin yksityistä pääomaa ja harvojen etuoikeuksia.
  • Vartiosaaressa on poikkeuksellisen kaunis, jopa häkellyttävän upea maisema, joka heijastaa yhtä aikaa yhteisen kulttuurin ja yhteisen luonnon historiaa. Niin suuria puita ja niin eheää ja monimuotoista metsää on vain vähän koko maassa. Kokonaisuus rakennuksineen on kulttuuriperintöä, jonka Museovirasto on tunnistanut ainutlaatuiseksi ja suojelun arvoiseksi. Virasto toteaa, ettei se “kestäisi kerrostalorakentamista”. Koko saari pitäisi suojella rakennusperintölain nojalla ja asettaa vaarantamiskieltoon.


  • Vartiosaaren luonnon monimuotoisuus on valtakunnallinen ja lain nojalla suojeltava voimavara. Tiede ei kerro ihmisille mitä tehdä, mutta on selvää, että teknologisesti monimutkaisessa ja systeemitasolla uhatussa tilanteessa johon Helsinkikin on ajautumassa, ongelmiin valmistautumisen ehdoton edellytys on tieteellisen asiantuntemuksen kunnioitus. Vartiosaarella esiintyy poikkeuksellista luonnon monimuotoisuutta, mm. rantaruttojuuri, mikä jo itsessään on vasta-argumentti kaavoitussuunnitelmille. Luontotietoa ei ole kaavoitusaineistossa kuitenkaan asiallisesti luetteloitu. (ks. Helsingin Luonnnonsuojeluyhdistyksen kannanotto).
  • Itä-Helsingin saariin suunnitellut uudet merelliset kaupunginosat eivät voisi olla aidosti ekologisia, kuten on väitetty. Kevyeksikin väitetty liikenne- ja muu yhdyskuntainfrastruktuuri tuhoaisi peruuttamattomasti rantaluontoa ja virkistysmahdollisuuksia ja heikentäisi ekosysteemipalveluja, joihin kaupungin toimivuus ja viihtyvyys nojaavat. Tämäkin on puutteellisesti esitetty aineistossa.
  • Helsinki voisi hyvin rakentaa olemassa olevan infrastruktuurin varaan sen sijaan, että se tukkii melkein luonnonvaraisia maastoalueita modernilla yhdyskuntateknologialla. Helsingissä on runsaasti entistä teollisuus- ja toimitilaa tyhjillään, joka täytyisi sopeuttaa asuntokäyttöön ennen kuin uhrataan yhtäkään hehtaaria korvaamatonta, asfaltoimatonta maata rakentamiselle.


  • Kaavoittamalla Vartiosaareen kerrostaloasuntoja Helsingin kaupunki menettäisi uniikin matkailukohteen ja mahdollisuuden profiloitua paikkana, jossa ihmisiä virkistävä ja epätavanomainen ympäristö on helposti kaikkien kaupunkilaisten saavutettavissa, vielä julkisin kulkuvälinein. Tiivistyvässä ja mahdollisesti kurjistuvassa Helsingissä me kaupunkilaiset itsekin tarvitsemme paitsi helposti saavutettavia virkistyspaikkoja myös ylpeyden aiheita. Luonnonmaisemana kunnioitettu Vartiosaari ja kaupunkisaaristo voisi olla sellainen. Varakkaiden lähiöksi spekulatiivisesti rakennettu kaupunginosa ei voi taata tuottoa kaupungille, eikä se olisi yhteinen ylpeyden aihe.
  • Uudisrakentamista ja suojelua on mahdollista ja toivottavaakin kehittää saarella. Seurasaaren tyyppistä ulkoilualuetta on ehdotettu. Radikaalia mutta paikallisiin ilmasto-olosuhteisiin sopivaa ekokylätoimintaa on myös ajateltu. Sellainen voisi tarjota paitsi arvokasta tietoa ekologisesti kestävästä asumisesta, myös kiinnostavan ja inspiroivan kohteen kotimaisille ja ulkomaisillekin vierailijoille. Useampi taho (ml. kaupungin omat asiantuntijat) on esittänyt että saari soveltuisi ympäristöineen uuden kaupunkipuiston keskeiseksi osaksi. Jos Vartiosaareen rakennettaisiin lähiö, tällaiset ajatukset voisi saman tien unohtaa.
  • Vartiosaaren merkitys ei rajoitu vain Helsinkiin. Yllämainitut piirteet selittävät sen, että maakuntakaavassa alue on merkitty arvokkaaksi kulttuuriympäristöksi. Mielestäni saarella on myös kansallista ja jopa kansainvälistä arvoa harvinaisena eheänä ja kaupungin sisällä olevana elävänä kokonaisuutena.

Aalto yliopistolla, Kaupunkisuunnitteluviraston toimesta tehdyn diplomityön mukaan mikään suunnittelu ei tuota yhtä hienoa lopputulosta kuin, mitä saarella nyt on. Eli,

“In the end I feel like no matter how well I design the given area it can never compete with the beauty and quality the island has in its present state”. (Timo Arjanko 2015, s. 8).




Friday 4th December 2015 saw a good crowd at the City of Helsinki Planning Department’s exhibition space, Laituri. There’ll be a full write-up of the event later on the new blog (For now there’s a short overview there to scroll down to, at ‘recent posts’.)

The new blog has been set up as a space to continue the conversation started by the book Cindy Kohtala and I edited: Changing Helsinki? which, if you follow this blog, you must know about by now.


Eeva, Aleksi Niemeläinen, Eva Nekylaeva, Matti Kaijansinkko, Elina Alatalo

Hopefully the mainstream and architectural media will pick up on the book as well. To round off the discussion at Laituri, architect Aleksi Niemeläinen gave the book a fabulously unexpected plug. Not only had he enjoyed reading it, he felt there is a need for the debate to expand or deepen. I was particularly pleased that he agreed that an important debate that still needs to be had is the one on ways to make the city more dense. That is the main subject of the chapter co-written by architect Tistan Hughes and myself about Meri-Rastila.

The party was held afterwards at what I still call Hietsu Pavilion, but is now known as Töölön kylätalo. It’s like a village hall for my own neighbourhood of Töölö, located under some beautiful pine trees between the beach and the cemetery. The workmen were barely gone by the time the catering team arrived to set up the party.


Another architect – and perhaps also a bit of an activist – Ville Ylönen, wrote the story of the pavilion for the book. The wooden building, which Ylönen calls the ‘Chameleon on the Beach’, was abandoned by the city for years, left to rot. But it did not rot.

Built in the 1930s to designs by Gunnar Taucher, city architect at the time, the calmly elegant pavilion had served for years as changing rooms and cafe for the beach outside. Local activists of many generations banded together to prevent its demolition, as I reported a couple of years back on this blog in Finnish. They did manage to purchase the building from the city for the nominal sum of 1 €. The graffiti was removed, funds collected and the whole building restored to new uses: a handful of workspaces for rent and the wonderful event space where we partied.


We did so to the accompaniment of old Finnish hits played by dj Mikko Mattlar (of Radio Helsinki’s Sunday evenings for instance) and to the delightful Helsinki-themed old songs performed by the duo of Marko Puro and Mauri Saarikoski.


Thanks to Cindy Kohtala for the photos.

With its buildings rooted in granite foundations Helsinki appears to grow out of the very earth itself. Now, in 2015, it is a technological world amidst forests, and a recognizably European but still unique capital city. Here low-rise building facades have long reflected the low-slanting northern sunshine. Helsinki has in fact become a home environment where the conditions are exceptionally propitious for people to enjoy a good life.

Linnunlaulu autumn

Unfortunately, this cultural heritage – buildings and other historic landmarks – is also disappearing and being overshadowed by global fashions. Also at risk are stretches of natural coastline and water, and much-loved landscapes of rock and woodland.

Towards an urbanized world

With the majority of humanity now living in urban areas, anthropologists are also increasingly researching city life. Both the pace and scale of urbanization are striking in those places where cities are not actually dying. Some researchers even feel that one cannot treat all urban construction projects today as producing city-like conditions. Business-parks, mammoth residential blocks for migrant workers and gated but half-empty luxury complexes do not usually generate lively city environments.

Through history cities have been self-organizing places of diversity. Not so much any more, as urban scholar Saskia Sassen recently wrote.

The accelerating pace of urbanization processes is intimately linked to global financial circuits, and now appears to have reached Finland as well. A few years ago the biggest construction boom in over a century began to unfold in Helsinki. The Finnish capital, so the rhetoric goes, would become a metropolitan centre of international significance. Branding is needed, investments are sought, and a particular kind of attractiveness must be promoted.

Conversation is also an imperative, however. We residents are invited to meetings and unveilings of plans for new neighbourhoods and to participate in making places online. Actual listening is another thing, distinct from consultation as defined by the bureaucracy.

The changes in Helsinki are sometimes accompanied by rather colourful debate. The role of overseas investment has created novel types of political discord. Töölö Bay’s new construction, at the heart of the city and impossible to ignore, at least unites people in being loathed across party-political boundaries. In residential areas and elsewhere, Helsinki now appears to be reproducing the worst of global planning and building: layouts to suit the construction sector rather than home owners, over-designed and still bland semi-public space.

Töölönlahti by Lukumaa

Photo by Jaakko Lukumaa

Changing Helsinki? Eleven views on a city unfolding, published 2015

It was into this unhappy mix that design researcher Cindy Kohtala and I decided to venture with a book project. So many times had we raged about what is going on. As Helsinki residents – but also as semi-outsiders, Cindy being Canadian and I having lived abroad over half my life – we decided that from our perspectives we could try to inject a stronger sense of what Helsinki means and the significance of its specific identity.

Together we edited a book whose core message is that we can talk about the Finnish capital in more nuanced ways than has been typical so far. We could show that there is no one truth about the city, nor even two opposing truths. In our experiences there are in fact many Helsinkies.

The richly illustrated book, in three languages, is published by Helsinki-based Nemo publishing. The texts are written by 14 authors with experience of working with Helsinki’s buildings, and all of whom live in Helsinki, with the exception of Jonathan Glancey from Britain. Yet Glancey’s text is shot through with a palpable love for the city.


Our book highlights that the city is not just space on a map, neither is its significance reducible to investment opportunities or housing and other crises. Instead, Helsinki is a place. It is culture, collaboration and bio-physical processes that its citizens, in one way or another, are committed to.

And as the flourishing of new urban culture tells us, citizens are ever more actively making their city themselves. Urban gardens, restaurant days and active neighbourhood groups are no surface phenomenon: clearly they are more and more important in reproducing the city, something that municipal government is also starting to recognize.

Indeed, Helsinki has many examples of how protest movements and grassroots activism have been channelled into developing good governance. On the other hand, Finland’s political culture risks muffling debate about change, by seeing disagreement as party political.

Historically the vitality of cities has not, though, been based on bureaucratic institutions nor even on big business. Rather, in the liveliest cities, even society’s weakest have been able to make history and feed cultural dynamism. In our introduction to the book we cite architecture critic Michael Sorkin, who also knows and admires Helsinki. He has written memorably that “architecture is produced at the intersection of art and property, and this is one of the many reasons it so legibly records the history of communal life”.

This is also why construction projects deserve to be thought, talked and written about in careful, slow and deliberate ways, with and for more people than only architects, builders, developers and planners. Besides, it has been extremely rewarding to explore the process from the intersection of anthropology and design.

I hope you join the conversation, e.g. at the City Planning Department’s ‘Laituri’ exhibition space on Friday 4th December where, for a change, we will debate the city in the majority language, Finnish. Facebook link here.

The text above is largely based on the introduction to the book that we wrote together with Cindy Kohtala.