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  • Figure 1. Cranes, goods and trains at the Katajanokka pier in Helsinki South Harbor in 1957, with the iconic neoclassical facade of the city to the sea in the background. K. Laitila, Helsinki City Museum.

Ports, industries and economics in the urban history of Helsinki

Ports and industries are at the core of the urban history of Helsinki. Industrialization and the construction of the major port at the end of the nineteenth century ensured Helsinki a solid economy for developing a modern and innovative city. The restructuration of industries and the containerization of seaports from the 1970s vacated centrally located areas, opening economic opportunities for generating new forms of urbanism.

Industrial city

From its founding, Helsinki had a fine natural harbor, and a solid military fortress was constructed for its protection. In the 1860s, industrialization gained force with the construction of the railway that connected the city with the inner parts of the country and with Saint Petersburg, the rapidly growing capital of the Russian Empire.

In 1875, the Helsinki City Council had decided to invest in developing the South Harbor, located next to the neoclassical heart of the city, into a major port for ocean-going vessels to secure the economy of the city long into the future. For municipal revenues, port activities were essential. They also increased the possibilities of Helsinki to pursue local interests, independent of those of the state. In planning the port of Helsinki, the engineer Th. Tallqvist studied the ports of Gothenburg, Copenhagen and Hamburg. The modernization of ports was common in many European cities in the late nineteenth century. (Kervanto Nevanlinna 2002, 71–75; Bonillo et al. 1991, passim.). Industrial production relied on the performance of ports in all phases from the transportation of the raw materials to the export or import of the finalized products. The international character of industrialization permeated the processes and the activities of the professionals, and influenced urban history.

For industrial cities, the planning of housing, industrial areas, and traffic was perceived as particularly urgent. The Greater Berlin competition and city planning exhibition in 1910 was a source of inspiration for many urban planners. One of them was Eliel Saarinen who prepared the Plan for Greater Helsinki (1915, revised in 1918) in cooperation with Bertel Jung, City Planning Architect of Helsinki. (Mikkola 1990, 194–217.) In it, the influence of Saarinen’s earlier involvement with the planning of Canberra, Budapest and Tallinn was also clearly identifiable. The planned Helsinki region extended beyond the then existing city boundary. In addition to the South Harbor, the Greater Helsinki Plan included three new major port and industrial areas to be located at the seafront to the west, northeast and east of the center, to cater for the rapid population growth and expanding industrial production. The plan was not realized because the land outside the city border was outside the jurisdiction of Helsinki. Despite this, it influenced the long-term plans of Helsinki. The annexation of the surrounding municipalities to Helsinki was executed only in 1946.

Figure 2. Eliel Saarinen’s plan for Greater Helsinki, 1918.

After the Independence of Finland in 1917, the significance of Helsinki as a major industrial city in Finland increased. Seafront sites were in great demand for industrial production from the 1920s until the 1940s. More land for building was reclaimed at the shoreline. Older workshops, some from the nineteenth century, were enlarged and new industries established. The most prominent factories included the Sinebrychoff brewery, the Hietalahti shipyard and the Alkoholiliike spirits factory to the west of the city center, the Defence Forces shipyard at Katajanokka at the South Harbor, the Töölö sugar factory at Töölönlahti Bay to the north, the Kone ja Silta engineering workshop and the Elanto cooperative food industries at Sörnäinen northeast of the city center, and the Arabia porcelain factory further north of it. (Hakkarainen & Putkonen 1995, passim.) The factory buildings and smokestacks emphasized the industrial image of Helsinki.

In the twentieth century, Helsinki was by all indicators the leading industrial city of Finland. Its industrialization had been particularly rapid in the interwar years with nearly a third of the work force in industrial work, a level reached by the whole country in the 1950s. After World War II, the process continued, with the number of industrial workers in Helsinki reaching its highest point in the mid-1960s. The major industrial sectors in Helsinki were metal, food and graphic industries, but the variety was large, representing all sectors except the wood processing industry. On imports, the port of Helsinki was the largest in the country still in the 1960s, accounting for nearly half of the price of all imports to Finland. (Hoffman 1997, 273–277, 442.) For postwar Europeans, the need for reconstruction and renewal was connected with both material conditions and cultural values.

In Finland, industrial development was perceived as the key to a new national identity. Industry would secure economic growth and, eventually, produce prosperity for all citizens. Urban planning and architectural design were seen as important elements in producing the new way of life. As part of the renewal of the image of the capital in the face of the Olympic Games organized in Helsinki in 1952, new office buildings and a ship terminal were erected at the seafront of the South Harbor. This presented to the world the optimistic face of Helsinki, in true spirit of modernism.

South Harbor and the Katajanokka area

Helsinki South Harbor was the country’s main port for imported goods from the beginning of the twentieth century until the late 1970s. At the Katajanokka pier, the goods were moved from the cargo vessels to the warrant warehouse, the other storage buildings, or to train carriages that took the goods to the Töölö goods station in the city center at the railyard in front of the Parliament Building, to be distributed to trains bound for other parts of Finland. At the South Harbor and the Market Square, the port with its ships, cranes, and trains, offered an exotic urban juxtaposition with the monumentality of the historical heart of Helsinki.

The turning point from the high industrial period to the decline of traditional industries in the center of the city came relatively rapidly. In the mid-1960s, industrial production had reached new record figures, increasing the transportation of goods through South Harbor. The shipyard in the Katajanokka peninsula was already enlarged to its limits, forcing it to start preparations to move out to allow for expansion. Similar processes occurred in many industrial companies in Helsinki. The industrial site of the shipyard comprised almost half of the Katajanokka area, and was owned by the state and the City Council. It had some seventy buildings of which the Naval Barracks designed in the 1820s by C. L. Engel, the architect of the monumental buildings framing the Senate Square, was among the oldest and most valuable in terms of both cultural and architectural history. (Kervanto Nevanlinna 2002, 217–219.) The redevelopment of Katajanokka became one of the most important projects of the City Planning Department during the late 1970s and 1980s.

According to the initial redevelopment plan of Katajanokka in 1971, the cargo port was to continue on its original location. By 1975, however, the transportation of general cargo in Europe and worldwide was changing over to standardized containers which completely transformed ports. The new containers required more ground area for storage, fewer warehouses, and new types of mobile cranes. (Jackson 1983, 153–155.) The traditional handling of cargo, typical of ports such as Helsinki South Harbor, disappeared. As a result, also the port warehouses, some of them dating from c. 1900 and the most recent ones from the 1960s, lost their original function. Generating new, economically sound uses for them while preserving their historical value and characteristics opened new aspects for discussion.

In the 1980s, the former shipyard area at Katajanokka was developed into a modern and functionally integrated extension of the older parts of Helsinki. The newly constructed housing blocks resembled the older blocks where the high-rise buildings encircled a central semi-public courtyard. The economic structure of the area was planned so that different income levels of the inhabitants and various forms of tenure were mixed. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs took over the Naval Barracks building which tied it symbolically with the monumental neoclassical Senate Square and its history. The old residential area, built in the first decade of the twentieth century, gained prestige from the redevelopment project and its stimulative effect to Katajanokka, and was renovated and protected in the urban plan. (Kervanto Nevanlinna 2002, 222–233.) It soon became to be valued as one of the finest Art Nouveau areas in northern Europe.

Figure 3. Katajanokka in 2000, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the icebreakers in the front, the new housing area to the left, the Art Nouveau area to the right, and the South Harbor with its passenger ships in the background. City of Helsinki.

The former major port for imported goods at South Harbor was transformed into a port for passenger ships. By the early 1990s, the former warehouses were renovated. The old port area, described in the early 1960s as a noisy, dirty and dangerous part of the city, best demolished and replaced by white residential towers with excellent views to the sea, blossomed into a different entity. The old red brick warehouses with hotels, restaurants, shops, conference centers, exhibition spaces, offices, and passenger terminals had historical character that attracted visitors and citizens alike. (Kervanto Nevanlinna 2002, 242–257.) The approaches applied in the renewal of the former shipyard at Katajanokka and the port at South Harbor were adopted widely in Helsinki in the urban planning of former industrial and port areas.

Industrial sites as urban growth machines

Throughout the history of Helsinki, ports had been seen as a major source of revenues in the city’s economy. The restructuration of the industrial society and the globalization of seafreight did not alter the situation, the economic weight of ports remained strong. In the 1980s, however, the necessity of retaining the ports in or near the center of Helsinki began to be questioned. The prime sites historically occupied by the ports inspired visions for new seafront areas for integrated residential and work areas with equally high income-generating value. Experiences from redeveloping waterfront industrial areas were promising.(Kervanto Nevanlinna 2012, 267, 272–275.) The large Kone ja Silta machine workshop site in Sörnäinen was developed into the Merihaka and Näkinpuisto areas with positive effects to the surroundings. The Opera House was planned on the vacated site of the Töölö sugar factory.

In European cities at the end of the twentieth century, industrial and port areas became important instruments in the generation of new urbanism. These areas, often large, favorably located sites that were owned by the City Council or the state, had been vacated due to the fundamental processes of economic and industrial restructuration. They could be used for urban renewal in ways that not only improved the physical qualities of the city, but also revitalized the urban culture by attracting new kinds of inhabitants and activities.

Figure 4. The urban structure of the older center of Helsinki is continued in the urban plan of Ruoholahti from c. 1990. The adjacent former port and industrial areas south of Ruoholahti are now under construction as neighborhoods. Helsinki City Planning Department.

In Helsinki, the enormous Nokia Cable Factory, built in several phases in the 1940s and 1950s, was threatened by demolition in the 1980s’ urban plan for Ruoholahti, an old industrial and storage area. It was saved, partly because of the deep economic recession in the early 1990s in Finland, and is now an active cultural center, financially completely self-supporting, with 800 people working in the building. (Kervanto Nevanlinna 2009, 238–242.) The industrial building served to establish the special character of the Ruoholahti area, giving it a history and an identity all its own. The Ruoholahti area has been developed, on the model of Katajanokka, as an extension of the old urban structure, with residential and office blocks. (Kervanto Nevanlinna 2012, 269–275, 305–327.) The Alko factory has a new life as the Helsinki Court House. The redevelopment processes begun in Ruoholahti continue in the adjacent areas, Jätkäsaari and Hernesaari, within a short walk from the city center.

Other new areas have been constructed on former industrial sites in different parts of Helsinki. On the northeast, the Kalasatama area (”Fishing port”) is under construction, with skyscraper-like structures soon to rise in the skyline. In addition to residential and office facilities, an extensive shopping center is planned to open in a few years. The gentrification (increase of higher income inhabitants) of the nearby parts of the city has already begun.

Further north, the Arabia area around the old porcelain factory has been completed in the 1990s and 2000s. The original vision involved, in addition to the factory, the University of Industrial Arts, other educational institutions, offices and small-scale industries as well as residents from different income levels. The identity of the Arabianranta area was developed around the idea of the factory and the design university. (Kervanto Nevanlinna 2012, 350–354.) The strength of the original vision will soon be put to test: the university plans to move out. In March 2016, industrial production in the Arabia factory was discontinued after 142 years.

After the restructuration of industrial society at the end of the twentieth century, the former role of industries and ports in the townscape of European cities has been transformed. Factories and cranes that still in the 1950s were perceived as symbols of prosperous, modern and innovative industrial cities, are no longer used in the promotion of the European city. The industrial and port areas, however, have had a major influence for the future of our cities. The vacated sites, sometimes centrally located and with preserved old industrial buildings, have provided inspiring milieus with both historical continuity and room for innovations for the development of new forms of urbanism.

Dr. Anja Kervanto Nevanlinna is Adjunct Professor at the University of Helsinki. She has published widely on urban history and architectural preservation.


Jean-Lucien Bonillo et al., Marseille, Ville & Port. Marseille 1991.

Helena Hakkarainen & Lauri Putkonen, Helsingin kantakaupungin teollisuusympäristöt. (The industrial areas of Helsinki.) Helsinki 1995.

Kai Hoffman, Elinkeinot.(Trade and industries.) Oiva Turpeinen et al., Väestö, Kaupunkisuunnittelu ja asuminen, Elinkeinot. Helsingin historia vuodesta 1945 (Population, Urban planning and housing, Trade and industries. History of Helsinki from 1945), vol. 1. Helsinki 1997.

Gordon Jackson, The History and Archeology of Ports. London 1983.Anja Kervanto Nevanlinna, Kadonneen kaupungin jäljillä. Teollisuusyhteiskunnan muutoksia Helsingin historiallisessa ytimessä. (Tracing the Lost City. Industrial transformations in the historical heart of Helsinki.) Helsinki 2002.

Anja Kervanto Nevanlinna, Constructing Identities – The Reconstruction of Urban Spaces in European Cities. Ralf Roth (Hg.), Städte in europäischen Raum. Verkehr, Kommunikation und Urbanität im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Stuttgart 2009.

Anja Kervanto Nevanlinna, Voimat jotka rakensivat Helsinkiä 1945–2010. Helsingin historia vuodesta 1945 (Forces that built Helsinki 1945 – 2010. History of Helsinki from 1945), vol. 4. Helsinki 2012. (Also in Swedish translation: Krafterna som byggde Helsingfors 1945-2010, Helsinki 2014.)

Kirmo Mikkola, Eliel Saarinen and Town Planning. Marika Hausen et al., Eliel Saarinen, Projects 1896–1923. Helsinki 1990

Figure 5. Waterfront areas in Hernesaari are planned for redevelopment. Photo: Pekka Kaikkonen.

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