Denser, livelier, more ecological: how Helsinki put the inner city back in focus
Thirty years from now, Helsinki will be preparing to celebrate its 500 years of existence. During the past centuries, the focus of the growth and development of the city first expanded outwards from a historical core and is now, after a period of suburbanisation, shifting back towards strengthening the city centre and surrounding inner city. Helsinki Quarterly interviewed researcher Miika Norppa, whose doctoral thesis covers the development of Helsinki’s central areas from 1550 up to the present day.
I walk around a block in Jätkäsaari, one of Helsinki’s new maritime neighbourhoods that has been under construction for a little over a decade now and is due to be completed in the 2030s. What would Miika Norppa want me to notice as I look at the buildings and urban structure, in terms of architectural and planning solutions?
There is the irregular shape of the city blocks, or the high-rise towers that break the traditionally low skyline of Helsinki. It could be the Hyväntoivonpuisto park, whose curved shape was inspired by Venice’s Canal Grande. Or perhaps the bicycle lanes, the artificial hillocks, the decorative details on building walls, the street names inspired by long-distance shipping, or the innovative underground waste management system.
The current interest in developing inner Helsinki has its roots in the turn of the 1960–70s when the city planners saw the need to react to the diminishing population trend in the inner city due to strong suburbanisation. The master plans of 1970 and 1976 sought to redress the situation.
For the first time in the post-war period, the main focus of planners was returning to the inner-city areas. The devices they used included the construction of new, modernist, urban districts at Merihaka and Itä-Pasila at the fringes of the inner city, as well as addressing the ’officization’ of residential blocks and improving the public transport system.
Characterised by the slogan compact city = contact city, those new districts of the 1970s were still based on a separation of car traffic and multi-level pedestrian decks. Subsequent development projects in inner Helsinki have been characterised by a gradual return to an older, city-centre style of planning. This is manifested in enclosed city blocks, increase in brick-and-mortar retail, emphasis on pedestrian and bicycle traffic, as well as attractive, often maritime, public spaces.
European influences and traces of uniqueness
The geography of the narrow peninsula on which Helsinki is built has long restricted any significant expansion of the inner city. However, the relocation of cargo port facilities from the centrally located West Harbour and Sörnäinen to the suburban Vuosaari Harbour in the 2000s has freed up a considerable amount of land for redevelopment.
"It has been estimated that the major development projects now under construction – Jätkäsaari, Kalasatama and Pasila – will enable almost 60,000 more people to live in inner Helsinki”, Norppa says. The population of the inner city has already grown by 47,000 in 1993–2017 after a long period of decline." 
Despite the high density and enclosed blocks, the new neighbourhoods are actually not 100% similar to traditional inner-city areas.
“Urban planning is similar in terms of block design, but there are various differences on the level of details. Bay windows, ornamentation or gambrel roofs have not returned in exactly the same way. Ceiling heights are still lower and courtyard buildings are no longer constructed.”
Commercial activities are now often concentrated in local malls rather than markets or market halls. While traditional brick-and-mortar businesses exist, the commercial dynamics of the new districts are perhaps less dependent on them than in older inner-city areas.
Despite the increase in population, it has in fact proved challenging to create the kind of lively, vibrant public space promised in the city strategies and district visions. “The scale of squares is often too large, especially when combined with a lack of market trading or other enlivening functions”, Norppa argues. “Places that are very centrally located, such as the Narinkka square in Kamppi, tend to be full of people, but in other locations they are often less likely to be so.”
Nevertheless, the human environment is now in focus. Squares in the city centre, such as Kasarmitori, have been liberated from traffic and returned to pedestrians. Influences for the plans of new districts have been sought from lively, small-scale places, of mediaeval origins even. The gridiron plan has been partly broken in the Jätkäsaari and Hernesaari plans in favour of winding lanes, on which one can sense the presence of the ghost of urban theorist Camillo Sitte.
The flows of influences governing the physical and spatial development of Helsinki is one of the major themes that Miika Norppa discusses in his thesis. The construction of the Finnish capital has been influenced in different periods in history by Scandinavian, Russian and German urbanisms as well as several others. With the exception of the American ‘car city’ ideal of the 1950–70s, the main sources of influence have tended to be European. Recently the ‘catchment area’ of influences has again widened, with places like Vancouver or Spanish cities playing a role.
The new seafront developments have been influenced, in particular, by similar projects in Stockholm, Gothenburg and elsewhere in northern Europe. But with all these flows of influences, what elements are unique for Helsinki? Are we only replicating foreign ideas in urban planning and architecture, or is there a local brand of urbanism?
“Often, it’s not an either–or question. Many ideas have their origins abroad but are then interpreted differently in Finland and other countries. International Art Nouveau, for example, developed into Finnish National Romanticism and Karelianism in the early 20th century and these ideas are still easy to spot in the Helsinki streetscape, for instance in Katajanokka.”
Helsinki also has a strong local modernist tradition with prominent architects. “Of course the Modernism of Helsinki was influenced by Sweden, among others, but the internationally renowned contribution of Alvar Aalto, in particular, helped develop it into something distinctly Finnish”, says Norppa. “Many significant examples of Finnish Modernism can be found in the Töölö district and the Olympic area.”
Local character is also added to new neighbourhoods through street names or building materials. For instance, the district of Kalasatama will have addresses inspired by the historical slang of Helsinki, and the red brick characteristic of its buildings can be seen as a nod to old warehouses and other harbour heritage.
What about contemporary and recent architectural styles – how to know which buildings are likely to have lasting value? Norppa points out that contemporary buildings are listed for protection in some countries. “We can speculate which might be first ones to be listed if this policy was adopted in Finland. Would it be Oodi, the new central library, or the annex building of Parliament, or the university library Kaisa?”
Eco-city and alternative plans
In his thesis, Miika Norppa also analysed the economic aspect of the development of Helsinki inner city by using the concept of city roles. These are the dominant industries or sources of livelihood that characterise different historical periods from the founding of Helsinki in 1550 up to the present day.
In the 1990–2000s, Helsinki held a global pioneer status as a city of information and communication technologies. For this reason, the past couple of decades could be called a ‘golden period’ in the history of Helsinki.
While the decline of mobile phone maker Nokia was a reminder that fortunes may change, Norppa says Helsinki still holds the keys for future success. The city has a healthy economy and attracts a growing population. However, there are also possible obstacles for continued good fortunes, including the expensive housing market, or the dependence on the national government for large-scale transit investments.
In the current situation, Helsinki is growing out of its former role as an ‘ICT city’ and developing towards an ‘eco-city’. While some city roles recede over time (‘military city’, ‘industrial city’), others have more staying-power. For example, Helsinki as a capital retains its position as the most important ‘government city’ and ‘finance city’ of Finland. It is also a ‘university city’ since 1828, as well as a ‘service city’. Moreover, the ICT contingent is still present, for instance through a thriving gaming industry.
“But the ambition to be an ecological city features strongly in the plans and strategies of Helsinki, and it is closely related to the aims of densification and the development of cycling routes or rail traffic”, says Norppa. “Cleantech companies have a big role to play in these endeavours. Eco-friendliness is also an image factor.”
Apart from his academic undertakings, Miika Norppa is active in the alternative city planning community. These citizen voices in Helsinki have long been calling for densification of the urban structure. Now that the same ideal is also firmly on the official planners’ agenda, are the alternative planners satisfied or are there still some grievances they would like to see rectified?
According to Norppa, the current orientation of the planning profession is in the right direction. ”Are we satisfied? Yes and no. We would like to see even larger units planned and constructed, even more of the inner-city liveliness spread across the city.”
”The ideal of a dense old European city centre structure is nonetheless shared, at least to a large extent, now both by the planning officials and the alternative planning activists.”
Norppa says that the trend of densification and urbanisation has recently begun to affect the suburbs of Helsinki, which were originally planned with considerably lower intensity. While small suburban malls and stations were once surrounded with parking lots and individual high-rise buildings, they are now being replaced with inner-city type of blocks combining shopping and residential functions. A case in point would be the suburban district of Myllypuro.
“It would perhaps be inaccurate to say that inner Helsinki as such is expanding, but we can safely say that seeds of the inner city are spreading ever further. Another example is Helsinki’s plan to transform some of its entry routes – motorway-like roads built in the 1960s – into city boulevards lined with residential buildings and parks.”
Are there any challenges as to how to construct good, liveable urban space with a dense, intensified structure, apart from the obvious pressures on the amount and quality of green areas?
“There is a lifestyle-related contradiction in that a city like Helsinki, with its superior consumption opportunities, attracts well-heeled people. Of course these people then consume a lot, which is not exactly ecological.”
“Another big challenge is the quality of construction. Although we now build an enormous amount of houses in a short timeframe, they should last in good shape for more than just a few decades. There are warning examples in the past.”
 See Norppa, 578.
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Fig. 1. The maritime fortress of Sveaborg, present-day Suomenlinna, defined Helsinki’s role as a military city from the mid-18th century onwards.
Fig. 2. Senate Square was mostly constructed after Helsinki became a capital city in 1812, in the ‘St Petersburg Empire Style’. It is also an important location for present-day Helsinki as a tourism city.
Fig. 3. Helsinki Central Station, inaugurated in 1919, is the second incarnation of the city’s main railway terminal. In the latter part of the 19th century, the railway strengthened Helsinki’s position as a logistics city. The current station building was inspired by the National Romantic Style.
Fig. 4. Helsinki Olympic Stadium was constructed in the Functionalist Style in 1934–1938. Helsinki hosted the Summer Olympics in 1952. The stadium is the most famous manifestation of Helsinki as a sports city.
Fig. 5. Helsinki High Tech Center, built in 2001, is a physical manifestation of Helsinki’s ICT city orientation. In the district of Ruoholahti, opposite the now dismantled cargo port, it was inspired by the cranes and containers typical of the history of the neighbourhood.
Fig. 6. Jätkäsaari, one of Helsinki’s new seafront districts, has the density of an old city centre area, and as such, exemplifies the eco-city role. Malmö and Venice, among others, have inspired the irregularly shaped blocks in the area.
(Photo sources: MyHelsinki / Jussi Hellsten, Julia Kivelä, Julius Konttinen; City of Helsinki Media Bank / Risto Musta, Johannes Romppanen, Lauri Rotko.)
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