Helsinki promises openness of its Urban Planning but does it deliver it?
The City of Helsinki has been branding its 2035 sustainability goals and its core values of transparency and participation for urban planning. But with so many examples of exceptions and skyscrapers, is this really true or empty political rhetoric?
For the past 4 years, we have had the Guggenheim “museum” mysterious, almost realized project, that a handful of politicians sitting at the city of Helsinki pushed it forward. Then we have had Konepaja which almost became a Bauhaus hardware shop, destroying its architectural heritage. We have had Pasila’s train station become a shopping mall with residential towers, now threatening the last remaining old historical brick buildings in front of it, which the Dodo association is fighting hard to keep it alive. Then there is the Suvilahti area of Helsinki, which is being overbuilt with yet another shopping mall (redi mall), the 1st skyscrapers of Finland and plenty of parking lots, destroying its experimental and open grounds and likely also its historical buildings. We have another proposal of a shopping mall for Töölö by the construction company YIT, which has just been green lighted, despite disrespecting the local zoning laws. And now, we have Lapinlahti, where a new five-story hotel/office building is going to be built in a park in the city.
We see a pattern here: a lack of tools for more transparency and a better communication among the different stakeholders to enable real participation and transparency.
City officials do not have such tools, they tick the box and save their faces. Developers tick too their boxes of fast return of investment, as time is money and save their faces before heading home. And the locals fulfill their expected behaviour of ignorant beings, unaware of what is happening. Even if these are informed by a letter or email, usually the stage of the process is so advanced that their possibilities to change the ongoing process is close to impossible or too expensive (court fees for example). Citizens, including those in power and the CEO’s, lack a much needed urban planning literacy. The complexity of cities can only be dealt with, through the lenses of all senses on the ground and on the sky, from the small to the large. We shape our cities, then these shape who we are.
It is a situation as usual, polarised and with political and civil colours, between a local group of citizens of, in this case, Lapinhlahti, who have tried to establish a dialogue with the City in order to manage the common good, and a real estate investment company, NREP, which has had access to first hand information and to the political attaché.
Short term profit is the core value of corporations, in contrast, governments are, or should be there to guarantee a long term one. A balance is required between those who live today and those others who will replace us, but it seems the table is tilted to the present. Our city officials, our elected politicians, despite their left wing or green affiliation, seem to be unable to create real working tools for a real participatory urban planning. They seem powerless in resisting a corporate policy too of short term profit for their own city safes and they seem deemed to fail the much advocated change towards transparency and participation, used by the same political sides as the flag of their ethical commitment to Finnish citizens and their health. It seems about time they walk the walk, after so much talk the talk.
According to Kristian Wahlbeck from Lapinlahti, the NREP has not involved any of the current non-profit actors or tenants in the planning process. In the last weeks before the closure of the competition, there was a contact from a consultancy agency where they offered MIELI, the Mental Health Finland, to rent some spaces (350 m2). They politely refused stating that they are fully committed to Lapinlahti 360 (an alternative plan by Livady Architects, which proposes full participation in the planning process from the very beginning).
The competition was launched in January 2019 and it was anonymous in the first stage, so the local tenants of the mental house turned cultural house, did not know about NREP until September. The competition was open for everyone but this usually means favouring construction companies and real estate developers, as it is challenging for grassroot movements to fulfill the requested criteria. The results were made public in March 2020.
Competitions are good in giving high-quality designs but very bad in making (or replacing) the public planning and decision-making on building rights and in this case, destroying protected parks.
Picture 1: the Lapinlahti park before 2000 and now with the new planned hotel, retrieved from the facebook’s page of Lapinlahden Lähde
According to Kristian, despite several attempts, they were unable to establish a dialogue with the City as during the last years, civil servants have repeatedly referred to the ongoing competition as the reason for not discussing with them directly. Kristian reported too that NREP has hired the professional communications firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies. This might indicate that the usual lobbying of the decision makers and press is being done to form a consensus.
Looking into the NREP proposal, the development falls short of minimum criteria stipulated by the Urban Environment Committee, but it has still been nominated the winner of the competition. The voting in the Urban Environment Committee is set for this Tuesday, April 28th.
Such events make us think of companies such as NREP as the bad guys. Lack of transparency creates conspiracies and enemies, it alienates people. NREP is for sure a great institution, as many out there, responsible for so much inspiring and needed work in our society. It must be in their interest to be transparent if the cards are being played right, but many times such is not the case, and everyone loses with it, sooner or later, especially humanity. For example, this park holds many rare plants from the 19th century and a butterfly species protected by the Nature Protection Act. As an Architect and Civil Engineer who did many alike competitions in as many as 20 countries, I can testify that our read on these reports (if done at all) is purely strategic towards costs and benefits. Who do we know in the office or the press that can turn the story on our side? What loophole can we harvest to make the project happen and the city fill up their safes without much hassle? In capitalism, the butterflies are externalities which do not concern a corporation. It is the task of the Governments and of the press to hold us all, especially developers, accountable.
One could question the need for another hotel in Helsinki. A new building bringing some more jobs, more taxes and land being sold or leased. This means more money flowing into the city safes. But should a city not be thinking holistically and for long term? How many empty office buildings are out there in Helsinki that could be turned into a hotel? The Alppila area has entire blocks of empty office buildings. This is especially interesting to think about with the corona crisis, how many offices are out there now completely empty but being heated 24/7? Is this energy efficient? Is this fitting with the 2035 goals?
This story is a classic, it is the conflict between local civil activists (which with few monetary resources transformed the old hospital into a center for mental wellbeing) and the commercial exploitation of a historical park and eviction of the current users by a corporation. This can also be the usual story of how the city planning is done in the shadows, away from real public involvement by the lack of better tools or simply corruption. Or it can be a story of how cultural heritage and protected nature are sacrificed for short term financial returns bereaving future generations of their cultural heritage. Whatever the case, this classic should not have Helsinki in its credits, it does not fit its values of an open society.
MSc Architecture, MSc Civil Engineering
PhD Researcher of Architectural Democracy
CEO Gamified Cohousing Oy
Based in Finland