When a city planner and a city dweller meet

Maija Mattila has worked as an interaction designer for the Helsinki City Planning Department since 2001. She admires how interested the people of Helsinki are in their own city, and how much the locals know about different thing related to the city and city planning. Information and good ideas.

The Helsinki City Planning Department has three interaction designers. It is their job to tell people what changes are planned for their residential area, and ask them what they think about it and what they would like.

“However, the interaction cannot be a separate, festive feature. It needs to be a mode of working.”

Maija says that she arranges encounters.  The designers of the planning department and the people who they plan for get to exchange ideas. This can take many forms: face-to-face surveys, internet surveys, map surveys, interviews, workshops, work grouping, what ever fits the project in question best.

In the Helsinki City Planning Department the handling of feedback is systematic. All contacts are processed, answers are considered, or the plan is changed. How big of an impact do the opinions have on average? Maija thinks the question is interesting, maybe even philosophic.

“It would be easy to think that if I send a letter, the department either does or doesn’t do what I suggested in the letter. However, I want things to come to light in the first place. So that we have conversations, that are as good and constructive as possible, and that lead everyone being a little bit wiser. The setting is not always officials versus residents. The city is a mix of different people with different values and different goals in different situations in life. I think about how all these perspectives can be represented.


Helsinki has awoken

Maija is happy about how Helsinki has woken up. All kinds of new and wonderful things keep popping here and there. She says that she believes that change will also begin to happen in the city organisation, perhaps even rapidly.

“The residents give us so many good suggestions and ideas. There is no more time for the old model of inspecting and allowing and giving permits. Officials need to become enablers. We don’t even have the time to prohibit things anymore!”

Lately, Mattila has been wondering why worrying is so popular in Helsinki. If it is snowing people are worried about where to put the snow and what is going to happen. When it comes to the Restaurant Day and the street party, people are worried about whether they can drive their car normally and will all the neighbours like the bands and will they play the music too loud?

“After the Paris tragedy, the City Mayor said that Paris is a happy city. That you can’t take that away from them. I hope that Helsinki will be able say something similar someday. That Helsinki is a laid-back city.  Or a safe city.”

The current interaction designer has a background with an MSc in Technology and worked as a land surveyor. Instead of drawing, she soon became interested in another aspect of planning – what do the planners do for the people. Mattila understands that fear is also present in urban planning in a way. Your own environment is sure to change, but how, and how does it affect your life? In her opinion, this could be controlled by for example starting work on projects early enough. And by considering how people with different initial information could take part in the conversation from an equal basis.

“I think about structural things a lot because I’m an engineer. There’s a little Curt Lindström living inside my head, always saying things should be done lite bättre – a little better. Always a little better.

This has changed since the beginning of my career. Back then I used to think that I needed to immediately effect big things in management groups. Now I think that it could be a long and boring road. That I rather work where I work and always do what I do lite bättre.”


Text and pictures: Anna Pakarinen


Maija Mattila nominated Janne Kareinen as a future maker of Helsinki.