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How Helsinki became a trailblazer in urban culture

Chronicling two decades of change

Helsinki had a vibrant cultural life as early as the 19th century, but the history of our urban culture is still relatively brief, especially in comparison to old European cities. Since Finland also has older cities than Helsinki, it can be argued that the first steps of Finnish urban life were taken somewhere other than the present-day capital.

The recent times, however, have been extremely fruitful from the perspective of chronicling the history of urban culture in Helsinki. This article focuses on two decades of rapid development. During this period, Helsinki has evolved immensely and there is a feeling that the pace continues to accelerate. At present, the lull period of the mid-20th century seems like a distant memory.

What is urban culture? This question is meant to inspire a reflection of how we each interpret the term. Defining concepts is, of course, important – even interesting – and necessary for comparability between studies. For the present purpose, suffice it to say that I understand the concept of urban culture, in general terms, to simply refer to the various ways of living in a city.

Viewed in this fashion, urban culture encompasses lifestyles, consumption and even housing. The associations of ‘culture’ with class distinctions – and comparisons of the various spheres of culture and cultural products – will be deliberately kept in the background. I prefer to exclude large cultural institutions, such as opera, theatre and art museums, from the consideration of urban culture. It goes without saying that national-level institutions, in particular, require the urban sphere to function, but in principle, they could also be located outside cities. Therefore, I am inclined to think that urban culture represents the kind of things that derive their content from the urban environment.

As is the case with many other concepts that are difficult to define (e.g. sustainable development, culture and the ‘creative class’), the best way to grasp the entire phenomenon, or field of phenomena, is to view it through individual occurrences that are easier to define and delineate. This is the approach to urban culture and its recent development in this article.

Re-emergence of urban culture

‘Helsinki is a city that you can enjoy’, urban researcher Pasi Mäenpää stated fifteen years ago in the article collection URBS (2000, 17–31). The articles in the book explore this notion rather thoroughly, analysing a number of concrete examples from the urban life of Helsinki. The period depicted in the book – the 1990s – was characterised by the democratisation of consumer culture. If the first giant leaps towards consumer-centric urban citizenship were taken in Helsinki in the 1980s, the subsequent decade saw another massive stride: a larger portion of the urban population began to truly ‘use the city’ and take advantage of its cultural offering. It was still a supply-driven process where influences were eagerly absorbed from other cities, and urban culture was built top-down.

In the same book, Ruoppila and Cantell (2000, 51) state that the invigoration of urban culture in Helsinki is characterised by the fact that the changes occurred relatively late, but when they did, they came at a very rapid pace. It was not until late in the last millennium that urban culture in its current form began to gain a foothold. The roots of many people in Helsinki are in the countryside or in small towns, where the prevalent way of life was naturally quite different from the largest agglomeration in the country.

In the 1990s, the ethos of consumption was omnipresent. Consumer culture became a ‘universal immanence’, a formless presence that permeated everything. Life in the city was doomed to revolve around consumption, whether we wanted it or not. Yet, in a way, this facilitated the process of urbanisation – we were served tried-and-tested models on a silver platter.

But under the surface of the consumer-centric urban life, there were rumblings of something new. Subcultures gained a larger presence in the cityscape, and at the same time, new subcultures emerged that had not been seen previously in Helsinki. Still, subcultures and mainstream culture each followed their own paths.

Traditionally, the most visible urban subcultures are the ones that have their origins in cities and utilise the street space: street food, café culture, diverse use of parks, punk, skateboarding, breakdance, graffiti and rap music. These phenomena arrived in Helsinki very shortly after they sprang to life in the big American cities, primarily the decaying borough of The Bronx, New York.

Hip hop first came to Helsinki in the form of breakdance and graffiti, but rap groups began to form early on. The first beats of the rap movement reverberated in the streets of the Bronx in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and within a few years the first native Helsinki versions had already taken shape (see Mikkonen 2004, 29–42). The general populace was not aware of these developments until the 1990s. Eventually some of the phenomena became so popular that they began to be seen as a problem. The City of Helsinki adopted a zero-tolerance policy to graffiti with its Stop töhryille (‘Stop the scrawls’) campaign, perhaps to most visible counter-reaction (see Helin 2014).

Café culture saw significant development and democratisation over the course of the 1990s (Mäkelä & Rajanti 55–71; Ruoppila & Cantell 2000, 35–53), alongside a new rise of restaurant and bar culture (Koskelo 2014). In the same way as advances in entertainment technology can be easily viewed as an auxiliary to the development of urban culture, the shift in restaurant culture is an excellent indicator when we consider the visible manifestations of the evolution of (urban) culture. Restaurant culture also provides a window for assessing other changes in the field of culture and changes in the preferences and tastes of urban people.

The 1990s also saw the emergence of the first ‘trendy bars’ in Punavuori and other inner-city areas. The gentrification of Punavuori began – and the first signs of the now often derided ‘hipster culture’ began to emerge. The same development is currently underway in the northern and eastern parts of Helsinki’s inner city, although the process has taken different shapes compared to Punavuori in the past couple of decades (Lindblom & Mustonen 2014).

Cultural hangover and 'Helsinki spirit'

The period that began in the 1990s has been called the second wave of urbanisation (e.g. Mäenpää 2005). This new kind of urbanisation no longer only refers to general migration into cities. Instead the meaning is more closely related to living in the city and the changes occurring in city development.

It is illustrative of the shift that took place in the 1990s that, little by little, urban life began to rise from the shadow of institutions, cultural events and festivals. The ‘culture as welfare’ perspective took a prominent place in the discourse, alongside the business perspective. At the onset of the 2000s, if not earlier, it was evident that culture and economy had a two-way interrelationship, leading to the ‘economisation of culture’ and ‘culturisation of economy’.

The vitalisation of the city was adopted as a shared goal in the city administration, and this eventually led to Helsinki successfully applying for the status of the European Capital of Culture. At the same time, more attention began to be paid to the impact of cultural activities on the urban space. It was understood that activities arranged around culture could have significant effects on (regional) economy, and these could be attained by making the city more vibrant and activating urban life. This new-found interest and excitement is also at the root of the project to make Helsinki European Capital of Culture. Without a doubt, the aim was to boost the economy and promote budding creative activity. New festivals and urban events were springing up constantly, and some of them, such as World Village Festival, Helsinki Festival and The Night of the Arts have established themselves as permanent and highly important institutions over the years (see Silvanto 2007).

Despite the favourable starting point, the city eventually found itself somewhat at a loss in its attempts to capitalise on the hype and upward motion brought about by the European Capital of Culture year. The cultural services of the city and the City of Culture Foundation were separate organisations although they shared some of the same goals. The expectations were high but the methods were out of date. The structural changes implemented later were one way to rid the city of the hangover following the ECOC year. In the case of Helsinki, this manifested itself in wide-ranging policies and strategies formulated at top level. This change in thinking is aptly illustrated by the positioning of the Event Unit under Economic Development in the city organisation.

Discussion spread through the City Departments, and culture became a tool for urban development. Travel marketing began to take advantage of the unique cultural characteristics of Finnishness. Finnish people’s ‘creative insanity’, strangeness and quiet nature were seen as fascinating traits that defined the northern capital. The marketing began to increasingly encompass a variety of target groups. The rational ethos began to veer towards a crazier and more fun approach. Even the city strategy stated that Helsinki should be ‘fun and functional’. Tolerance increased in all forms – but perhaps only seemingly, which is something that those critical of the bureaucracy inherent in city administration have been eager to bring up time and again.

Nevertheless, attitudes had changed on many levels. In planning its activities, the city increasingly relied on opportunities and available resources instead of prohibitions. This was a way of extending a hand to the city populace. The residents were provided with the opportunity to affect the development of urban life. ‘Here is the city – use it’, seemed to be the message to the residents – at least in principle.  In actual life, partly due to the rapid change, the idealistic bottom-up development perhaps remained a utopian aspiration.

The city administration began to comprehend the inevitability of change and the benefits it would bring. The 2000s were characterised by strong internationalisation and, on the other hand, the IT boom and the increasingly fierce competition for skilled labour. The city needed to remain interesting and appealing so that the seeds of new growth sown by the creative industries, for example, would flourish in the future.

At the beginning of the 2000s, Helsinki began to develop into a miniature metropolis with a distinctive character and less need for outside influences. Active efforts to lay the foundation for unique urban citizenship were initiated, or, at any rate, the foundation began to take shape. The consumer-centric attitude of the 1980s and 1990s became commonplace to such a degree that it was no longer necessary to emphasise it.

It was important for Helsinki to struggle out of the shadow of other cities, such as Berlin and Stockholm. There is naturally nothing wrong with applying good practices, but now the influences also began to flow in the opposite direction. Helsinki was sparking interest abroad. Later in the decade, Helsinki took a number of top spots in international city rankings. This naturally spurred the city on towards active and continuous development.

Time for a new type of activity

A decade ago Pasi Mäenpää (2005) wrote about the shift in the focus of social engagement in urban society. This shift moved the focus from communities to shared urban events (see also Mäenpää 2007, 187). Now in the mid-2010s, there is reason to contemplate whether there has actually been a change in the opposite direction. More than ever, urban citizenship is built from the ground up, meaning that individuals and communities – as collectives formed by individuals – are becoming the driving forces of development.

Through communities, even the actions of one individual can help to bring about permanent change. This phenomenon can be seen in the emergence of street food, for example. The city as an organisation cannot take credit for accomplishing the feat of developing street food culture in a northern capital. Such a notion seems absurd. Instead, the city can be proud of its open-minded disposition and the fact that it spotted the rapidly growing phenomenon and took determined action (Helsinki Streets of Food 2014).

The resurgence of food culture has been strongly influenced by another, larger phenomenon – the increasing interest in temporary spaces. Providing spaces and premises for temporary activities is exactly where a tolerant and active approach is needed from the public sector. Positive energy can be easily extinguished, but the opposite is also true. At its best, the city organisation can take an active stance, marketing available spaces to cultural actors and addressing bureaucratic discrepancies.

This is exactly what the local actors most often expect the city organization to do: take measures that enable new urban cultural activity. An example of success is the Teurastamo (Abattoir) area, which originally took flight as a World Design Capital project. It was supported by the Helsinki Food Culture Strategy, which was also involved with the recent reinvigoration of the city blocks to the south of Senate Square.

There are numerous similar cases. The public sector is an easy target for criticism, as it is funded by tax revenue. There is certainly cause for criticism, but examples that have resulted in positive developments are rarely brought up, and many citizens may even be unaware of their existence. On the other hand, some of the more conflicting cases such as the dismantling of the seaside sauna built by urban activitsts in Sompasaari, or the bureaucracy faced by the Camionette van – an early pioneer of the street food phenomenon – are still fresh in people's minds.

What this means is that the city must profile itself as a tolerant partner. Its new proactive approach must be seen as a positive driver and an image boost. At present, the most substantial efforts for the development of urban culture originate among the city residents themselves (see Hernberg (ed.) 2012), and it is this activity that seems to be an integral element in the ‘new’ Helsinki.

Helsinki has rapidly grown into a city that other cities look to as an example. The ‘learning from Berlin’ paradigm is shifting, although some structures are still holding back development. In my mind, the spirit of urban culture in Helsinki has transcended the perceivable reality. A good example of this is the unexpected popularity of the Streat Helsinki street food event. Whereas before demand followed supply, the situation has now been somewhat reversed. This is something that is essential for us to comprehend. In many cases, structures that inevitably restrict the offering emerge in response to these developments. It is important to try and prevent the general atmosphere from becoming reserved and prohibitive.

New events are born constantly, largely thanks to the motivation of people at grassroots level. There are probably more different kinds of festivals in Helsinki than ever before. The city centre has cemented itself as a venue for major festivals, and new locales have been utilised in an exemplary manner. Some of the ‘alternative’ festivals have grown to such a degree as to have inspired their own ‘fringe’ or alternative versions. The Flow Festival is now one of the largest festivals in Finland, and in a way, the Kuudes Aisti (‘Sixth Sense’) summer music festival, organised in the middle of the Kallio district, has practically taken its place as the ‘official’ alternative festival.

The entire festival field has become heavily polarised. For instance, Tuska, Hustle, HKI and Weekend Festival are important representatives of their genres, even on an international scale, but their presence in the actual cityscape is relatively minor. On the other hand, massive music festivals have been held at the Hietaniemi beach for a few years now, which may have come as a surprise to the general public.

From a neighbourhood perspective, festivals and events are important. District festivals show that life does extend outside the city centre. However, permanent structures on the scale of the inner city are yet to be put in place. The most important festivals and events that represent urban cultures still take place in or near the city centre, and as was indicated above, this trend has only increased in the 2000s.

According to some views, the focus on the city centre is about to shift (Vaattovaara 2011, 216), and perhaps this is also the case from the perspective of the development of urban cultures. There are even some empirical signs. Small brick-and-mortar shops, along with cafés and restaurants, are springing up constantly in the expanding inner city, but now some indications can be seen that such small-scale activity is gradually spreading outside the central area. In other words, the vibrant part of the city, which is interesting from the viewpoint of urban life in general, is expanding. Restaurant Lähiö was recently opened in Rastila Manor in the eastern suburbs, and Café Stoa in Itäkeskus serves weekend brunch ‘Kallio style’.

Things are also happening at the fringes of the inner city, such as the Vallila district. Likewise, the area around the Sörnäinen metro station, which has had something of a bad reputation, has become one of the pioneering districts of the street food boom.

New, more mature Helsinki?

There is no question that urban events are still needed. They liven up the city and its districts, spawning new interest in the city and its offering. They also create job and development opportunities for professionals in a variety of fields. Despite all this, economic development policy and related goals should be separated from the development of the deep structures of urban culture.

At present, urban culture is evolving at a staggering rate. Has Helsinki in fact reached a certain maturity in terms of urban culture and is no longer in need of titles and high-profile city designations? There can be active efforts to reach the grassroots level, but, in their absence, a city should focus more clearly and genuinely on economic policy and the development of tourism. An urban identity cannot be created from the top down, nor can the city be forged into something interesting by developing and supporting existing institutions alone.

In the past three decades, Helsinki has changed from a city that reaches towards continental Europe to a unique and self-aware metropolis. It would seem that the residents have no need for their city to achieve any particular status, and, quite honestly, I doubt the city administration does either. The residents want a pleasant and comfortable city and opportunities to affect the processes through which these qualities can be increased. This kind of city appears to be interesting to outsiders as well.

The attitude of the city residents are exemplified by the awareness study pertaining to the 2012 Helsinki World Design Capital year (Mustonen 2014). The marketing of the city may have been reinvigorated by the WDC project, but the views of the residents were largely neutral. They were dispassionate about the project, which received an overall school grade of C from the respondents. The apparent detachment was most likely a result of the population's desire for easily accessible urban culture at the grassroots level.

It is difficult to make long-term prognoses, but logical examination of past events indicates that the development towards increased tolerance is likely to continue, despite economic and political trends. Even seemingly rigid structures can be changed rapidly if necessary. For example, no one knows when the restrictions on the opening hours of restaurant and bar terraces will be lifted, but it is hard to imagine terraces closing at 10 pm in the Helsinki of 2024. It is equally likely, at some point in future, that we will be able to purchase a wine bottle in a restaurant to take away. All of these phenomena already exist in one form or another, even though they are not yet visible in the cityscape. They are already more than weak signals. Structures are being torn down and rebuilt in entirely new ways. This is what makes a city a city.

Pekka Mustonen is Senior Researcher at City of Helsinki Urban Facts.


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