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  • Photo: Helsinki City Museum, Eugen Hoffers.

In search of the latest know-how in the development of public infrastructure in Helsinki

The system by which innovations are observed and adopted can be seen as a learning process. City officials and experts employed by Helsinki used all possible channels in order to keep up with the latest development in public infrastructure. From the end of the nineteenth century to the 1960s it became customary in the planning and constructing of Finnish social institutions that the city representatives familiarised themselves with several international alternatives before any final decision-making took place.

The city officials and other experts of Helsinki made hundreds of study tours and visits to a great number of cities on the Continent and in the Nordic countries. After Finland’s independence in 1917 these so called fact-finding tours became a norm in Helsinki. The City of Helsinki reserved annually a certain sum of money for travel grants. It is remarkable, considering the cultural norms of the day, that both male and female officials received grants: doctors of medicine as well as nurses, for instance (Bell & Hietala 2002, 183–189).

When European urbanisation was at its liveliest at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it became clear that cities should form their own level of co-operation which transcended national frontiers. Co-operation was at first on a regional and then on a national basis, while later it became international. Cities began to deal with common problems in town congresses and meetings. These were the product of a growing self-assurance among municipal officials and a wish to collaborate with their counterparts in other cities. There were many economic, social and cultural questions to be settled. Anthony Sutcliffe has called this increasing internationalism of the cities and towns “creative internationalism” (Sutcliffe, 1981). Cities competed in demonstrating how progressive they were and how far they had adopted modern technology (Hietala, 1992, 263).

Contributing to this process of mobility were the emergence of ever more specialised groups of experts and professionals, the pressure of keeping up with developments and the improvement of communications. The Baltic steamboats started their regular traffic in the 1880s, and after the introduction of icebreakers in the 1890s Helsinki became linked all year around with the European continent. From 1920s onwards air travel enabled the inhabitants of Helsinki to reach all major cities in Europe within a few hours (Hietala 2014, 333). Under the period of Autonomy (1809-1917), Finnish experts had been in the fortunate position within the Russian Empire that they did not need a special visa for travelling abroad, except during the First World War.

Study tours before the First World War

Before travelling abroad to visit urban water and sewage works, hospitals, schools and kindergartens, the Helsinki city officials and experts first examined carefully the practices and solutions of other cities at home. This was done mainly by studying the official documents and statistics of city councils. When abroad, the officials and experts relied on personal experience and their own observations. The same system continued after Independence. After the study tours, the participants compared what they had observed and learned and made decisions based on the best practices. The direct imitation of the solutions was rare. In general, there was not much time-lag when adopting the latest know-how to different infrastructure services. Between 1874 and 1917 the officials and employees of the City of Helsinki – progressive doctors, chemists, primary school teachers, librarians, architects, engineers and promoters of adult education and social work – carried out a total of 390 tours abroad in search of expertise and know-how with the support of the municipality (Hietala, 1992, 209, 229–239).

The professional travel and acquiring latest knowledge was funded from several sources: the Senate, and later the Finnish Government, administrative boards of cities and, in the case of Helsinki, also Helsinki University and Polytechnic. A great many of the journeys were initiated and financed by the City of Helsinki itself, and the city expected its employees to take study trips. For example, Miss Thyra Gahmberg was obliged to make a study tour before she could take a job as an inspector of kindergartens. For five months in 1912 she toured and familiarised herself with kindergartens in different countries. In her report she did not only pay attention to teaching methods but also to the teachers’ training, salaries and working conditions (A travel report by Miss Thyra Gahmberg, inspector of municipal kindergartens, Helsingin kaupunginvaltuuston painetut asiakirjat 1913, Nr.62).

The duration of these travels varied from a week-long journey to a specific congress or exhibition to a year-long study tour. It is evident from the travel reports that the Nordic capitals, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Kristiania (Oslo), as well as other big European cities like London, Paris and Vienna, formed the main reference group for the Helsinki municipal officials. The popularity of Sweden can be explained by the fact that Stockholm was one route to the Continent and that a considerably number of conferences were held in that city (Hietala 1987,188–226).

Study tours after Independence

When we compare the periods before and after Independence, it is clear that a solid basic infrastructure had already been constructed before the First World War. Education and health care services had reached international standards and specialisation had progressed. A satisfactory supply of energy and water, a good tramway system and an adequate road network were also available. When investment in the most important part of the infrastructure, the institutions, had been completed, the decision-makers began to pay attention to rationalising the way in which their activities were conducted and how to encourage the best administrative practices. During the period 1918–1960 the city officials of Helsinki made1,848 study tours with the travel grants of the City of Helsinki (Annual Reports on the Municipal Administration 1918-1960).

While it had been customary since the 1880s to visit several countries and to make a grand tour of different cities, the tours from the 1920s onwards usually involved not more than one or two countries and only a few localities. The Nordic capitals and big cities, like Gothenburg, were increasingly the reference group for Helsinki. Indeed, the Nordic countries were the only major direction for travel in the immediate post-war period. While Germany retained its position as an important destination until the Second World War, this did not continue after the war (Bell &Hietala 2002, 184).

(*The numbers cited in Figure 2 do not necessarily indicate the total volume of travel grants as the registration in some years seems to have been somewhat erratic. Source: Annual Reports of the Municipal Administration 1918–1960.)

When analysing the Helsinki City travel grants, the depression years in the early-1930s and the war years obviously mark a distinct break. The impact of an economic boom can be seen towards the end of the 1930s. Two or three officials from each sector of the administration, ranging from primary and vocational school teachers to nurses and librarians, attended vocational or professional meetings in the Nordic countries each year. In the war years 1941–1945 the number of journeys to Sweden was small, taken mostly to study civil and national defence.

Standardisation was one of the key issues in the interwar international municipal discussions, as it was considered a means of reducing construction costs. For example, the Association of Finnish Architects and the Finnish Association of Master Builders established in 1919 a committee for standardisation which published their recommendations for standardised types of windows and doors. The model drawings were then distributed by voluntary civic organizations throughout the country. The idea of standardisation was further developed during the post-war years, as the standardisation of all construction elements became a rule except in the case of a few important public buildings. (Nikula 1990, 87). In the field of city planning, attention was also paid to Stockholm’s suburbs and high rise blocks. Cooling technology, the construction of industrial kitchens and the modernisation of refuse disposal by burning were other topical concerns during the interwar period and entire delegations travelled to study the latest technology. (Annual Reports on the Municipal Administration 1923–1939).

Another question in which expertise was sought, as asphalt became common as street surfacing material and motoring increased, was the classification of streets. Initially the idea was backed by Helsinki’s City Architect Birger Brunel and, after him, by architect Otto-Iivari Meurman. Streets were classified mainly on the basis of their capacity to conduct traffic into major routes, thoroughfares and housing areas (Turpeinen 1995, 208–209). According to Meurman, a street was to have either traffic value or housing value. If it had neither, it was a “groundless waste or luxury” to maintain it. (Meurman 1952, 1042, quoted in Turpeinen 1995, 208). Meurman’s basic ideas continue to live onin the current discussion of regional main routes and regional main streets.


From the end of the nineteenth century onwards, Finnish officials and professional experts on various fields of infrastructure were driven by the need to remain up to date and to keep pace with other nations. For Helsinki, this meant developing the city in the same direction as other European capitals. The main factors behind the active search for the latest know-how were professional, national and civic pride. Education and good language skills helped communication and networking abroad.

Marjatta Hietala is professor of General History (emerita) at the University of Tampere. She is a board member of the International Committee of the History of Towns (1992–) and the former president of the International Committee of Historical Sciences (2010–2015).


Annual Reports on Helsinki Municipal Administration 1918–1960.

Bell, Marjatta & Hietala, Marjatta (2002). Helsinki – The Innovative City. Historical Perspectives. Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society & City of Helsinki Urban Facts.

Helsingin kaupunginvaltuuston painetut asiakirjat 1913, Nr. 62.

Hietala, Marjatta (1992). Innovaatioiden ja kansainvälistymisen vuosikymmenet. Helsinki: City of Helsinki Urban Facts.

Hietala, Marjatta (1987). Services and Urbanization at the Turn of the Century. The Diffusion of Innovations. Helsinki: Finnish Historical Society.

Hietala, Marjatta (2014). Helsinki, an Innovative Capital. In: The Far-sighted Gaze of Capital Cities: Essays in Honour of Francesca Bocchi, eds. by Rosa Smura, Hubert Houben, Manuela Ghizzoni. Roma: Viella.

Nikula, Riitta (1990). Rakennustaiteen 1920- ja 1930-luku, in: Ars – Suomen taide 5. [Espoo]: Weilin + Göös.

Sutcliffe, Anthony (1981). Towards the Planned City: Germany, Britain, the United States, France 1780–1914. Oxford: Blackwell.

Turpeinen, Oiva (1995). Kunnallistekniikka Suomessa keskiajalta 1990-luvulle. Jyväskylä: Suomen kuntatekniikan yhdistys.

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