“you don’t need to be a professional to speak up and make a difference in your city”
Future Cape Town editor Rashiq Fataar speaks to Timo Hämäläinen, a planning activist and Urban Finland blogger based in Helsinki.
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Rashiq Fataar: At which point did your team decide to take the approach of an alternative vision and plan as a means to lobby for change in Helsinki?
Timo Hämäläinen: When I began my professional working life I hoped that by working on innovative projects within the field of urban development I would be in a position to question the ways we plan our cities. However, I didn’t feel I was able to make a sufficient contribution to this process. In 2012, I decided to start blogging about urban development to provide an outlet for my ideas. Piece by piece I have attempted to paint a picture of how contemporary Finnish planning and urban development looks through the eyes of an urbanist.
This background then led me to be a part of Urban Helsinki and taking part in producing Pro Helsinki 2.0.
Our team was assembled in late 2013, at the Christmas party for the members of a YIMBY (yes in my backyard)-oriented Facebook group. Some active people in the Facebook group had recently crowd-sourced a rough alternative vision for a small-scale detailed planning project in Helsinki. At the party we believed that the idea of making alternative plans to diversify planning debates was productive because giving planning discussions a visual form ultimately speaks more than a thousand words.
So we named our team of 7 Urban Helsinki contributors and decided to draft our own alternative plan for a small detailed planning project in Pikku Huopalahti on the northern edge of Helsinki’s inner city.
RF: Why did you choose this approach to lobby for change rather than alternatives e.g. protests or advocacy?
TH: Our alternative plan for Pikku Huopalahti received positive feedback from local residents. We also noticed that we were able to challenge business-as-usual planning concepts. This was the case as the consulting offices that were officially invited to draft visions for the area were careful not to introduce ideas that would make their plans seem “unrealistic” in the eyes of the City Planning Department.
So essentially, we drew our conclusions that this kind of planning activism can really have an impact on the way we discuss cities and established planning concepts. In February 2014 we decided to scale up and draw an alternative general plan for the entire city of Helsinki as the City Planning Department was in the process of drafting an official plan. We were also inspired by an alternative general plan that like-minded planning activists had published in Stockholm in 2012 (Lindhagenplanen 2.0). They created an alternative plan using an urban plan from the 19th century as the visual and ideological example behind their new proposal. We did the same and named our alternative vision Pro Helsinki 2.0 after Eliel Saarinen’s grand vision Pro Helsingfors from 1918 to transform Helsinki into a world city.
RF: What were some of the reasons change was needed?
TH: We decided to lobby for change because we felt that the needs of those who favor urban lifestyles have been neglected for too long. For example housing prices in the inner city of Helsinki have skyrocketed due to a) continuously increasing demand, and b) because Helsinki hasn’t expanded the inner city for decades (but expanded the suburbs). So we want to give some concrete examples of how to develop the city in a manner that would speak to us urbanists.
We started our work by organizing a large workshop for like-minded people and crowd-sourcing via Facebook to gather the basic parameters for our work. What is desired, acceptable and so forth. Then we started drafting.
RF: In this light, through this new vision, has engagement with government improved, or was this alternative vision necessary to prompt them to engage more widely?
TH: Our Pro Helsinki 2.0 vision turned out to be a useful tool to engage in discussions with planners, other officials, decision-makers and other stakeholders. Once word spread e.g. through social media that we were pursuing this task, the doors opened to the City Planning Department to share our ideas and we were invited to speak at events dealing with contemporary urban planning. After opening our own website in the summer of 2014 and publishing a pamphlet about our ideas the media picked up on our project and we were given a platform on the national news.
We got invited to speak to the directors of the department and the entire master planning division while only drafting our plan. I don’t believe that would have been possible had we been mere citizens interested in urban planning. During these discussions we received comments and advice from the City Planning Department.
RF: What were the most surprising elements of this vision in terms of what you expected would be in it and what you and your collaborators came up with?
TH: I was surprised to learn how loosely Helsinki has been built in the past six or so decades. We took the density and urban form of the current inner city as the general goal for all new neighborhoods we’d suggest and quickly learned that we could easily fit twice the amount of people the City Planning Department’s draft plan would while leaving the city’s current green spaces practically untouched. The city’s draft plan proposes new development for ca. 250 000 new residents with a pattern that would ultimately also tear down 300 hectares of forest areas/green spaces. We could find space for 500 000 new residents within brownfield sites. At the same time I need to mention that the city’s plan is very ambitious (more density and innovative infill development) in comparison to earlier decades, but still, much of the environmental destruction is completely unnecessary.
RF: How would you encourage young urbanists in other countries, and cities, like Cape Town to do something similar to what you have done?
TH: I hope that our Urban Helsinki example and my blogging example shows that you don’t need to be part of an organization considered to be an official stakeholder in any given planning project, a planner, a politician or even a professional in the trade to speak up and make a difference in your city. Cities and public space belong to all of us and everyone has the right and responsibility to help shape them to be the best they can be.
Once you have discovered the skills you can best use to put your message forward, just go and do it, and/or find people with complementing skills and do it together. Our project hasn’t had any funding behind it; we did it out of pure passion to make Helsinki a better place to live.
RF: What have been the most supportive comments or views that the public have given you about your plan, and what has been some of the more harsh or critical feedback you have received?
TH: One particularly supportive comment was when the Helsinki branch of the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation made a public statement that our Pro Helsinki 2.0 is a far better example of good urban planning than Helsinki’s official city plan draft. I am always very encouraged when I hear public officials give our ideas and plans positive feedback, albeit in an unofficial capacity. That means we’re doing important work.
After publishing our plan at the end of October 2014, we did a map-based survey in December-January to receive crowd-sourced feedback about our plan and especially how we could make improvements. From the results we identified a few locations where our proposal upset people because e.g. an important green space was under threat. Also some areas we hadn’t considered were drawn to our attention as great potential spaces for new construction. So we’re now making small adjustments to the plan based on this feedback.
We have received some negative feedback fromeedback from car users. They’re concerned that our plans of densification and transforming motorways into boulevards will cause disastrous congestion problems. Our answer is that by making the city more compact, commutes and daily trips become shorter and we’ll create enough users for an efficient public transportation system..
RF: I am sure your plan contains many key proposals and components? Which of them are achievable within 5 years or which of them would you prioritise first in a way which would illustrate to citizens around the world, the kind of change you are hoping for?
TH: They can generally be grouped into five main messages
- Understanding urban communities and lifestyles is a must to be able to create the cities that suit them
- Districts need to be sufficiently large (100 000 people) to have a sufficient customer-base for a reasonable selection of services
- Mixing uses is obligatory for prosperous cities
- Walking and cycling must always be prioritized. And a transportation system with a maximum distance of 500m from most apartments and jobs to a rail transit stop is lucrative enough that people will use it.
- The current norms and regulations guiding city building and construction need to be re-evaluated for the development of urban neighborhoods. Currently it would be illegal to build anything comparable to the inner city.
What’s easily achievable within five years is changing decision-making attitudes (1), adjusting regulations to allow urban living (5) and of course creating a general strategic framework for everything to happen in the plan (if we were in charge, that is).
Beyond this, I’d personally prioritize the creation of at least one or two urban blocks that would give a face to the building blocks new neighbourhoods set out to be built for urbanites. One of the greatest problems I’m sensing in the urban planning sphere is that we’re building such horrific buildings all the time that people automatically raise their defenses when new development is proposed anywhere near their homes.
So for instance when we are for example talking about density, people often think immediately about the neighborhood of Merihaka (below) in Helsinki. This is a terrible place stuffed with grey concrete, ugly modernist architecture and few green spaces. We try to explain that our density would be produced using time-tested designs and urban forms that everyone appreciates. But it’s a difficult task because people don’t believe that’s achievable anymore.
Having a 21st-century example of celebrated urban apartment blocks would be incredibly useful in tackling the trauma caused by poor modernist planning. This would also give hope that a newly proposed development in your area would only enhance your urban environment, creating a more beautiful and liveable city in the process.