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Editorial 2/2016: Helsinki in transnational historical perspectives

Comparative research, in its endeavour to explain difference and similarity, to identify patterns across national borders and to create a dialogue between contexts and places, is the very raison d’être of the European Association for Urban History (EAUH) as well as for its bi-annual conferences.

The thirteenth International Conference on Urban History “Reinterpreting Cities: Urban Europe in Comparative Perspective”is taking place in Helsinki from 24–27 August 2016.Another and related concern for urban historians is a transnational approach: cities are increasingly viewed as locations of networks, transfers and interactions, and relations that, by definition, supersede national sovereignty and boundaries. The present issue of Helsinki Quarterly sets out to explore the history of Helsinki – urban actors, events, spaces and processes – from a transnational, comparative perspective. By doing so, it also takes the reader to several urban spaces in Helsinki, which even today display a multilayered, transnational past.

Ports are global by definition. In her contribution Anja Kervanto Nevanlinna examines the transformation of Helsinki’s port areas during the twentieth century. The previous sites of industrialisation today offer the potential for new forms of urbanism. Kervanto Nevanlinna’s article also points to how ports more recently have become part of a shared European, and even global, heritage.  Mikko Huhtamies sheds light on Helsinki’s more distant but equally transnational maritime history by looking at eighteenth-century maritime salvage as an enterprise. Huhtamies argues that the growth of Helsinki’s long-distance shipping benefitted significantly from the reuse of stranded vessels.

Helsinki today hosts a growing number of immigrants. The fact that Finland and Helsinki were highly mono-cultural in the post-war period, created the popular myth that the situation had always been the same. (Leitzinger 2010, 15–16). Looking into earlier periods, however, shows a much more diversified picture. As Martti Helminen illustrates in his article, there is very little doubt about the multi-cultural character of Helsinki before Second World War. Another key form of urban transnationalism is the transfer of professional knowledge. As shown by Marjatta Hietala, Helsinki city officials – in their pursuit of new knowledge – made a great number of study tours to other European cities between the late nineteenth century to the 1960s, exploring a variety of recent innovations in public administration and infrastructure. The legitimising role of new scientific knowledge and expertise is discussed by Marjaana Niemi, who explores the town planning of Helsinki in the comparative framework of small European nations during the period around First World War.Reflecting on more recent debates in Helsinki and London, Matti Hannikainen raises a question concerning the present and future reference group of Helsinki’s planners and politicians with regard to the creation of public green space.

By focusing on urban transnationalism one should not, however, lose sight of the role of the local, the regional, and the national in shaping urban history. (Diefendorf and Ward 2014, 2). The notion that material and imagined urban spaces emerge at the intersection of the global, national and local is made explicit in Laura Kolbe’s and Silja Laine’s articles. In her contribution Kolbe discusses the planning and realisation of city halls in the five Nordic capital cities, and shows how the building of Nordic city halls was a combination of local, national and supranational aims and meanings. Whilst European capital cities have their own literary traditions, which contribute to their respective urban cultures, these traditions of modern urban literature in Europe are also closely interlinked. To exemplify this point and to shed light on the literary culture connected to Helsinki, Silja Laine presents a case study of the Helsinki-born author Toivo Tarvas (1883–1937).

Finally, Peter Clark’s investigation into the early stages of the European Association for Urban History places the 2016 conference in a comparative historical perspective. From Clark’s contribution we receive an image of lively academic discussions and an invigorating social programme taking place at the earlier conferences.

We are confident that the Helsinki conference will carry on this tradition! On behalf of both the Local Organising Committee and the City of Helsinki we wish to extend a hearty welcome to all conference participants. We hope this issue of Helsinki Quarterly will provide plenty of interesting reading to both international and local readership.

Diefendorf, Jeffry M. & Ward, Janet (eds.) (2014), Transnationalism and the German City. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Leitzinger, Antero (2010), Mansikkamaan vartijat. Muistelmia ulkomaalaishallinnosta eri vuosikymmeniltä. Maahanmuuttovirasto & East-West Books, Espoo / Helsinki.

Tanja Vahtikari is Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Historical Research at the School of Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Tampere, Finland. Timo Cantell is Director of City of Helsinki Urban Facts and Editor-in-Chief of Helsinki Quarterly.

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