Learning Moments


Category: European City of the Year Award 2011
Assessor: David Rudlin
Date of Visit: 2010

Back to 2011 Finalists


Learning Moments

1. Community involvement in plans and visions for the city as a whole is limited; however, this is because both a) it is not in the Finnish nature, and b) because as a society, there is a certain trust that those in power will do what is best for the people

2. Now recovering from suburban flight, Helsinki is regenerating its city centre by focusing development in he heart of the city and on its waterfronts, increasing attraction to the area to a wide range of people

3. Rescuing the city through innovation, Nokia has played a role in the city’s growth and development when it was asked to adapt its communication system used in the forestry division for use in the Army, thus developing the mobile phone

4. Private sector investment is subservient to public sector investment, whereby all land available for development is owned by the city allowing private companies limited control in the process, and the public sector keeps the profit which is then reinvested in the city – why would you do it any other way?!

5. There is an unparalleled integration between research and practice, with research departments like the Urban Knowledge Centre working within the city council for over half a century


Assessment Summary

Here is a city that can make plans and implement them. A city where two thirds of the land and virtually all of the development land is owned by the city council. Where planners can draw plans which are used as the basis for building roads and other infrastructure allowing sites to be leased (not sold) to developers with a host of controls and restrictions meaning that the plan is built to the specification and layout that the planners decided. Through ownership of schools, social services, the public transport system and even the energy company the city can ensure that the tram is extended into new neighbourhoods, there is provision of services and that the energy consumption is minimised.

And Helsinki is a city with big plans. The city region, which consists of four municipalities is reshaping itself into city of 1.3 Million people able to compete on a world stage. The vision started with an international architectural competition and looks at how Helsinki can exploit its role as a bridge between Europe and Russia particularly now that a fast rail link is being built to St. Petersburg. Helsinki has recently relocated its port to Vuosaari on the eastern edge of the conurbation where it is collocated with the airport and well placed for trade with St. Petersburg. Within the city there are plans to grow the population by 100,000 by building 4.5 million square meters of new housing over the next 20 years. Of this 2.2 Mm2 will be on Helsinki’s 200km of waterfront, including the extensive sites of its two inner harbours now that the port has been relocated. A further 1.6 Mm2 will be on infill sites and only 0.7Mm2 through urban extensions. However even the latter will be served by the city’s extensive public rail transport system including plans for a metro extension to the west and a new Ring railway line.

The same level of organisation can be found at the national scale where we were told that Finland was more like a club than a country. It is indeed a very new country having been a province of Sweden until a pact between Napoleon and Alexander the First saw it become a Russian Grand Dutchy. It was it this time that Helsinki was planted as the capital city and was planned by the German-born architect Carl Ludvig Engel. Because of this Helsinki doesn’t have an old town, it is laid out as a logical grid on a rocky peninsular and has a very organized feel. This short history is reflected in structure of the city which is made up of large plots without the subdivisions that you find in a really old place. As a result the grain of the city is very coarse.

This connection between the organised society and the organised city was encapsulated for us by the Senaatintori (Senate Square) which has the Cathedral on one side and the Government Palace, City Hall and University on the three other faces. Finland became independent in 1917 in the turmoil of the Russian Revolution and Finland suffered its own civil war in the years that followed. It was on the front line in the Second World War but it played a canny game and avoided being absorbed into the Soviet Union. Helsinki is a city on the edge of Europe geographically and historically. Its history has seen it tugged between the east and the west and this is reflected in its character. Indeed throughout the Cold War it was used by American film-makers when they wanted to film Russia and by Russian film-makers when they wanted to film America.

Finland did however become reliant on Russian trade and its economy came close to collapse after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The speed with which it managed to recover and the way it used the knowledge economies and innovation to do this is still seen as a model for economic development. It was helped, of course by Nokia which was already Finland’s biggest company with interests in logging and engineering. The Finnish army asked the company to modify system Nokia used to communicate with its distant logging operations for use by the army. Thus was born the mobile phone.

Today the city’s strategy is to promote economic growth through education, quality of life, innovation and internationalisation through the EU and links with Russia and the Far East. The policy is based on a triple helix of the public and private sectors and the universities. Indeed there are seven universities in the city with 90,000 students including the Helsinki University the oldest in a city where 43% of adults have a university degree. There is a strong focus on creativity with the new Aalto University which brings together three colleges and focuses on art and design. We visited the Cable factory, a huge building where Nokia once made transatlantic telephone cables which is now home to some 250 creative companies and, of course is also owned by the city. In 2012, 200 years after its foundation, the city will be World Design Capital following in the steps of Turin and Seoul.

To have the chance to plan on such a scale, you can see why we were jealous. But with the envy came a slight uneasiness. The new neighbourhoods we visited were beautifully planned and designed but perhaps lacked a little soul. The same was true, to be honest of the city centre, which was subdued compared to many other European Capitals. Finns are a reserved people and the climate for much of the year is such that much of life goes on indoors. The same was true when it comes to engagement. We met HELKA – the Helsinki Confederation of Community Associations, also of course funded by the city. They described an active network of community associations who, through the Finnish system are responsible for the management of their housing blocks in both the public and private sectors. However despite the presence of a public planning shop (Laituri) there seemed little public debate over the plans for the city. Finland is the country with the lowest level of corruption according to the OECD and there is a level of trust that the public authorities will act in the best interests of the people.