Vibrant suburbs make Helsinki a greater city
“I am interested in change: economic, cultural, or otherwise. That is why I find suburbs so interesting”, explains entrepreneur and producer Katja Lindroos.
The biggest changes are often the least noticeable. However, many of the major issues that will need to be tackled over the next 5–10 years in Finland are daily realities in Helsinki’s suburbs: dilapidation of old buildings, sustainable growth, immigration.
“A lot will change. Thankfully, there is not that much tearing down and rebuilding that needs to be done in our suburbs.”
Finland’s post-war suburbs are quite well designed as neighbourhoods, according to Katja Lindroos.
Finnish suburbs are often large enough to have all the necessary amenities, yet small enough to feel cosy and welcoming. They combine the ideologies of walkable urban areas and well-designed, yet affordable homes.
“I grew up in Olari, Espoo, which was an emerging suburb at the time. The apartments all had very practical floor plans, the communal areas in the buildings were spacious, and I remember liking the lifts”, Lindroos says, thinking back to her childhood.
The large-scale residential development projects of the days of rapid urbanisation had a clear, rational goal: to provide homes to workers moving to cities and build society for all.
Lindroos’s research into the Finnish Broadcasting Company’s news archives for the TV series Tehtävä lähiössä (Mission: Suburbia) made her realise the duality of people’s attitudes towards their home suburbs even back in those days: sardonic sentimentality on the one hand and realistic criticism on the other. Idealistic nostalgia is not the first sentiment that comes to Katja Lindroos’s mind concerning suburbs either.
“I am especially interested in society’s expectations of suburbs in the year 2020. Do we have the courage to get inspired together?”
Who is responsible?
Momokoti, the production company Lindroos leads, is the driving force behind Our House– Festival for Suburbia. Last year, together with a number of partners, she helped to bring an empty apartment building in Mikkola, Vantaa back to life by inviting people. The event functioned as a platform for new type of thinking involving a wide range of people from architects, researchers and communications professionals to volunteers. The building and its yard hosted for example events in the community garden and offered a canvas for impressive murals. In addition to Lindroos, the event was produced by Ramon Maronier and Miia Koski. Almost all the funding came from businesses.
“My next dream is to start a whole series of new kinds of suburban festivals in Helsinki. I am not just talking about one event, but something that could lead to longer-term cooperation. I would like the City, the residents and local businesses all to be involved”, Lindroos explains.
She does not claim to have a magic wand that can solve major urban development problems, but she does believe that an independent company can get people together, facilitate change by hosting discussion and creating concrete events. If there are more than two parties involved, there is also less of a chance of juxtapositions.
“The biggest challenge is to agree on the division of responsibilities between the private sector, the public sector, and proactive citizens: Whose task is this? The next biggest challenge is to learn to respect one another.”
It is all about building public-private-people partnerships. “To find balance, however, there is also a fourth critical player: the academic community. The role of the researchers is to produce impartial information to support local democracy”, Lindroos adds.
The responsibilities of different parties need to be agreed from the beginning.
“Disappointments are inevitable if the residents who are invited to take part are unsure as to what they can influence and make decisions on.”
This is an important point for Lindroos:
“The spirit we have in Helsinki gives us a massive opportunity to become leading regional developers in the world. We are used to doing things together.”
Katja Lindroos, what is your dream for suburbs in 2020?
“My ideal would be for suburbs to all be different, in a good way. I would love for each neighbourhood to reflect the hopes and choices of its residents, as well as the property prices typical of the area. Affordability can also be a positive”, she says.
With vibrant, commercially active centres scattered around the city, Helsinki would feel bigger than its size.
Suburbs need businesses to also make them vibrant in the daytime. Spending time in the suburbs should not have to mean isolation and reclusion. For Lindroos, quiet neighbourhoods can be an even scarier prospect than those with a rough reputation.
“We need some kind of a cultural shift that forces us out of our homes and to the places where there are other people, even if it means just taking a chair out onto the street and watching the world go by. Just making eye contact with neighbours is important for creating a sense of security.”
Suburbs can also help to keep city-dwellers in touch with nature. What matters is the feeling that our neighbourhood is special. The paths that lead us home are a part of us. The paths, and the people around us.
“Each neighbourhood needs to have its own economy: People need living environments that inspire them to be active, and not just monetarily. We need many types of interaction, not just consumerism.”
Even small, symbolic gestures can make a big difference: a painted mural may reflect the way local residents feel about their neighbourhood.
Text: Riikka Lahdensuo
Picture: Ramon Maronier
P.S. What makes Helsinki’s suburbs so interesting:
1) The changes taking place in Eastern Helsinki: Vuosaari is already the size of a small town!
2) Local pride is beginning to show in restaurants, cafés, and events.
3) 1950s and 1960s architecture and landscaping
4) Suburban areas are ideal for urban farming
5) All the small businesses that use their suburban address in their marketing
Pablo Riquelme chose Katja Lindroos as a maker of the Helsinki of the future.