• Figure 1. Green Spaces in Helsinki in 2012. (Source: Helsinki 2013c, 22–23)

Helsinki - a compact green city

Helsinki is one of the greenest capital cities in Europe with greenery covering well over 40 % of the city’s land surface (216.5 km²).

Together with blue space such as the sea, rivers, lakes and streams it forms a continuum of recreational space in the city (Helsinki 2015c, 13; Vierikko et al. 2014, 5). (Figure 1).  In comparison, public greenery covers some 33 % out of Greater London’s area (1,572 km²) (Greenspace 2015). Despite these impressive percentages of greenery, there are crucial differences between these cities over town planning policies that reflect different perceptions about the role of green space. Like most large cities in the UK, London is considered to lack greenery. London’s municipal authorities aim therefore to preserve their existing green space and, as a planning objective, to create more wherever possible and attempt to develop a more sustainable urban structure. In contrast, the city of Helsinki arguably has very large reserves of green space. In addition, the population of the city is expected to grow by 240,000 people, which is why the city opts to develop more compact and denser structure with less greenery (Helsinki 2015b, 10; Helsinki 2013a, 54).This article analyses and explains how the creation and role of public green space in Helsinki has evolved since the 1990s and contrasts this development with that of London.

In Finland, the municipal authorities have almost complete control over town planning. In Helsinki, the City Planning Department is responsible for the master plan and local plans. Moreover, the fact that the City of Helsinki owns almost all green space within its boundaries allows it to dictate its development. In its planning policy, the city has balanced between redevelopment and preservation of green space with densification of built-up areas as the main planning objective since the 1960s (Kolbe 2002, 181–182). Accordingly, the successive master plans published in 1992 and 2002 have promoted the infill building of semi-detached housing areas and the relocation of old harbour and industrial areas like Jätkäsaari and Sompasaari (Helsinki 2002a; Helsinki 1992). The main reason has been the population growth of the city which accelerated in the 1990s after a period of decrease and stagnation due to suburbanisation from the mid-1970s until the late 1980s. Between 1991 and 2015, the population of Helsinki grew from 492,000 to over 620,000 (Helsinki 2015c, 27). The growth continues and the population is estimated to reach 860,000 by 2050 (Helsinki 2013a, 9–10). In other European cities population is growing, too. In London, for instance, after decades of decline due to suburbanisation, the population began to grow from some 6.7 million in the late 1980s reaching nearly 8.2 million in 2011. London’s population growth is estimated to surpass 10 million by 2036. (GLA 2015, 22–27). Unsurprisingly, in both Helsinki and London, the growing population increases the pressure to densify and infill urban structure (Beatley 2012, 7). Yet there is a marked difference between the town planning policies concerning the role of greenery in these cities.

Figure 2. Green fingers in Helsinki. (Source: Helsinki 2002a, 154).

In Helsinki, town planning has traditionally aimed to preserve existing green space, which forms the areas locally termed ‘green fingers’ (Schulman 2000, 57; Helsinki 1992, 26–30). (Figure 2) These green wedges that comprise mostly recreational forests extend to the centre of Helsinki forming a ‘network of recreation areas’ (Vilkuna 1992, 33). Moreover, since the 1950s, the policy of the city has been to create new green space for each new housing area (Lento 2006, Herranen 1997). The design of these areas has changed, however, from the forest suburbs such as Maunula and Myllypuro developed in the 1950s and 1960s to the new residential areas like Pikku-Huopalahti, Herttoniemi and Vuosaari constructed after the 1980s. In the more recent neighbourhoods, the greenery tends to consist of small-scale parks instead of forests (Niemi 2006, 210–214; Helsinki 1989, 130). Admittedly, some greenery has been lost to development in Helsinki, not to mention the loss of private green spaces, mostly private gardens, across the city, without an accurate record so far. Likewise, in London, public green space has not remained sacrosanct from development in the 20th century. Parts of major parks including Hyde Park have been allocated for road widening schemes in particular (Hannikainen 2016, 125). Yet the loss of green space has concentrated mostly on private land (Hannikainen 2016, 193–195). However, most of London’s municipal authorities especially in Inner London attempt to protect their existing public green space from development by denying planning applications that threaten designated public greenery (GLA 2015, 46, 94–98; Southwark 2015, 81–82).

Figure 3. Development areas including green spaces in the Master Plan 2002. (Source: Helsinki 2002b, 29).

In Helsinki, the need for new housing posed a crucial problem in the late 1990s, because the city was reaching its limits. In fact, the Master Plan of 2002 suggested that 3 % out of existing public green space (nearly 164 hectares) could be developed (Helsinki 2002a, 98; Helsinki 2001, 13). (Figure 3) The city council also lobbied the state for the annexation of Östersundom district in Sipoo to Helsinki. Despite Sipoo’s opposition, the Government transferred Östersundom to Helsinki in 2007, and the area was officially annexed in 2009 (Helsinki 2011a, 6). (Figure 1) However, the housing programme had to be limited because large areas in Östersundom were nature reserves, in addition to which a new Sipoonkorpi national park was established in 2011 (Helsinki 2011a, 64). However, the city has been able to accommodate most of the new housing on vacated harbour and industrial areas and brownfield sites. (Jaakkola 2012, 111) As a result, the city could postpone its policy to allocate its public green space for new housing. Moreover, the annexation of Östersundom increased the actual acreage of public greenery in Helsinki by over 25 per cent (Table 1).

The prevailing town planning policy over Helsinki stresses the need to accommodate the projected population growth partially by allocating public greenery for new housing (Helsinki 2013a, 9–10). In the draft of the new master plan, the extent of the remaining green space is presented obscurely: the future boundaries as well as the lost areas of public green spaces are not clearly depicted (Helsinki 2016a; Helsinki 2016b; Helsinki 2015b, 12, 48–49). As a positive exception, the development of Keskuspuisto (Central Park) is presented unambiguously in a detailed plan (Helsinki 2015a, 15). In the previous master plan, as mentioned above, the proposed loss of greenery was clearly shown presenting the public the aim and the extent of the plan. (Figure 3) Apparently, the idea of the new plan is to preserve the core areas of the existing public green space thus providing a loose framework for future development. A similar policy characterised town planning over London from the late 1980s until the early 2010s. The Unitary Development Plans (UDPs) were created to allocate room for commercial development instead of municipal projects like the provision of new parks (Hannikainen 2016, 174–175).

A crucial difference is that the City of Helsinki owns nearly 65 % of its land area, a reserve it has acquired to secure continued supply of land mainly for new housing (Yrjänä 2013). In London, the municipal authorities own much less land and private developers are the main providers of new housing. Compared to Helsinki, London’s municipal authorities can concentrate on preserving their greenery by simply refusing to designate public green spaces for private development. The City of Helsinki faces a more difficult situation: it is the principal land owner aiming to provide more sites for housing, but at the same time attempting to preserve its green structure. As the establishment of Burgess Park (Southwark, London) and Finlandia Park (Helsinki) suggest, the creation of a new green space in a modern metropolis can be a long, expensive and complex process (Hannikainen 2016; HS 2014; Helsingin Uutiset 2014). Helsinki is likely to appear less green in the future because its planners and politicians seem to prefer housing over greenery (Helsinki 2013a, 11, 18).

In Finland and the UK, green space has not become a key concept in town planning, although it has been employed in official planning documents since the early 1990s. In Helsinki, it has been employed as a general definition in master plans in contrast to more precise zoning like recreation areas, allotments and parks used in the local plans. Likewise, in London, the use of “green space” covering all parks, commons and other “open spaces” begun in the early 1990s (Hannikainen 2016, 173–174). “Green” is becoming a more diverse concept with the introduction of green roofs and vertical greens which, however, imply the increasing influence of ecology in town planning.  This comes on top of a growing interest in open spaces like plazas and squares in almost every city including Helsinki and London (GLA 2015, 96; Helsinki 2015b, 8; Helsinki 2013b, 12–15; Helsinki 2013c, 49). More importantly, the reason why there is green space in cities has more and more to do with ecology and sustainability. Instead of recreation and leisure that have so far been the main roles of greenery in Helsinki and London, biodiversity and ecological value are now emphasised in defining the importance of green space in Helsinki (Vierikko et al. 2014; Helsinki 2013b, 8–11; Helsinki 2013c, 49; Helsinki 2002a, 52).

Unsurprisingly, the acreage of ecologically rich and important green spaces (fields and meadows and nature reserves) has grown drastically in Helsinki compared to the decreasing acreage of parks. (Table 1) The new classification of green spaces according to their biodiversity as a scientifically measured factor – instead of understanding their different roles – can risk many smaller recreational areas, notably parks (Jaakkola 2012, 119–120). There are now over 50 nature reserves in the city, and as their number is likely to grow, the pressure to develop other green spaces increases (Helsinki 2015b, 51–52, 160). In comparison, Greater London has some 187 statutory protected areas such as nature reserves, in addition to some 1,400 sites of importance for nature conservation (Greenspace 2015; Greater London National Park 2015). In fact, ’Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINCs)’ cover over 30.8 km² (or over 19 %) out of Greater London’s area. This is more than the acreage of public open space (28.52 km²) although these overlap partially (Greenspace 2015). Notwithstanding the proliferation of nature reserves, ecological parks and allotment gardens during the recent decades, London’s municipal authorities recognise diversity of public greenery. They promote a policy in which different green spaces have different functions including supporting physical and mental well-being, improving air quality, reducing noise and enhancing biodiversity in the city (GLA 2015; 94; Southwark 2015; 18–19).

Compared to London and other European cities, there has been surprisingly little public discussion about the loss of greenery in Helsinki. While many local associations have been active, and relatively successful, in preserving their local green spaces, the fact that the planning remains the realm of the City Planning Department may partially explain the weak interest (Niemi 2006, 226–227). Moreover, Finnish urban culture in which most residents of large cities, including Helsinki, spend much of their leisure time in the countryside closer to “proper nature” contributes to the meagre interest in greenery in cities (Tyrväinen et al. 2007, Clark and Hietala 2006, 187). More importantly, the leading political parties in Helsinki support development and mainly disagree about which green space can be developed and which should be preserved – a point exemplified in the preservation of the recreational area of Kivinokka in 2014 (Helsingin Uutiset 2014). (Figure 2) It appears as if the politicians, the planners and even many residents feel that there is too much green space within Helsinki for the city to be(come) urban and that the surplus greenery can be developed as long as the core areas of the present “green fingers” remain unbuilt.

To conclude, the evolution of green space in Helsinki continues to balance between the aims of creating a compact city and that of preserving green space. So far, the city has managed to preserve major green spaces that form the green network in Helsinki, largely resulting from the use of old industrial areas for housing and from the fortunate annexation of Östersundom. As major cities like Helsinki and London continue to grow, they encounter a difficult choice given the limited amount of land available for new development. Considering the prevailing town planning policy, Helsinki is likely to appear less green with less green space reserved for recreation for its 850,000 residents to enjoy in 2050. Public participation in town planning and the campaigning for the preservation of greenery are therefore likely to increase. The need to reintroduce greenery in metropoles like London provides an important reminder for planners and politicians in Helsinki about the importance of preserving public green space. Despite becoming more compact, Helsinki will remain a green city possessing an ample amount of green space. But the question remains: how to develop a compact and sustainable city without losing too much of its green structure?

Matti O. Hannikainen has worked extensively on the history of public green space in London. He received his PhD at the University of Helsinki in 2014. This article has been written as part of the research project "Nature in Arts, Culture, and History" (278008) funded by Academy of Finland.


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