Changing Helsinki? is a fresh publication that brings together various angles on urban development in a single volume. Tiina Valpola interviews the book’s editors Eeva Berglund and Cindy Kohtala.
How or why were you inspired to produce a book like this about your home town right now?
EB: Adding to the debate on Helsinki’s future had been on my mind for years. For instance in 2005 when the Kamppi centre opened, I took it to mean that an unsustainable culture of consumerism was guiding planning in a way that I found worrying. I moved to Helsinki from London in 2010 and my sense that someone needed to inject critical voices into talk about Helsinki’s future only grew stronger. Then I met Cindy Kohtala. We discovered that we had similar views about what was great about Helsinki but we also saw that much of this was at risk.
Was it living away from Finland for such a long time that opened up a new perspective, new possibilities for a more detached view? A good number of the book’s writers also have an outsider’s viewpoint. Was it by chance or by design?
CK: Born in Canada, for over 20 years I’ve always lived in a mixed group of Finns-plus-foreigners, feeling not foreign but not Finnish either. That is my Helsinki. An outsider’s perspective doesn’t mean one loves one’s chosen home, Helsinki, any less, but it does mean one doesn’t take everything for granted.
The book’s insider-outsider perspective was deliberately chosen and that is why Jonathan Glancey was invited to contribute.
EB: My view is that London’s building boom has actually been making life difficult for most Londoners for a long time. In terms of assuring quality of life Helsinki’s problems are minor by comparison to London’s, but we could learn from other cities’ mistakes. More generally, looking at it in a wider perspective shows that the trend everywhere is towards more standard solutions, more blandness and more of the kinds of priorities that make it hard if not impossible to sustain any sense of place.
What do you consider to be the book’s central message and for whom is it written?
EB: Well, it’s not a manifesto. We simply feel that change on this scale deserves more careful discussion than has been the case so far. We citizens of Helsinki owe it to future generations, and perhaps our ancestors who created this wonderful city, to make sure we develop Helsinki in a way that does not spoil things of value. There are many large-scale transformations of questionable value being proposed that would be irreversible – right now paving over Vartiosaari is the most shocking to me.
So the book is written for the growing numbers of people interested in pondering Helsinki’s development in a more nuanced way than we are used to.
How were the writers chosen?
EB: We wanted to nurture lively writing that combines expertise in urban development with an appreciation of the city’s identity and meanings. We didn’t want ‘the usual suspects’, and we wanted to be serious about bottom-up processes, so there are quite a few writers here who could be considered activist, and many who’d say they are both urban experts and activists. We asked people who clearly love this city. Basically, there was quite a bit of telephone calling and asking around.
The book is bound to get people talking. Do you believe it will be a spur for more than those cultural figures and urban activists who already know about the issues?
CK: That has been our aim. To that end there is quite a bit of practical and even pedagogical information in the book about architecture and planning that’s aimed at a wider audience with little or no prior knowledge, including visitors from overseas.
All the texts are about existing places and they all approach the city as being made up of people and activities. Debates that revolve around merely style and taste become circular and boring and the debaters themselves get bored. People become excited when they learn something new, and a book about neighbourhoods they know well is more likely to draw them into a dialogue.
Readers need not agree with every word our authors write, but the chapters can get people to think more deeply about why they don’t agree. We have also organized public discussions to attract an audience beyond activists and well known cultural figures.
Do you believe your message will reach those who have the best chance of making a difference to Helsinki’s urban development?
EB: We hope so. In any case, those groups of people are harder to define all the time. We also notice that some of the creative ways of enhancing human scale, social meaning and environmental wisdom in Helsinki’s built fabric presented in the book – repurposing offices as housing, innovations in commissioning and financing buildings, preparing alternative plans – are already on the increase.
CK: Yes, that’s why this book is timely. Citizens are making a difference already even while existing power structures entrench themselves. Each chapter presents a snapshot of these complicated dynamics, and at the end there is no clear conclusion about where the best chances for better change might be found. This is exactly the change in Changing Helsinki – we’ve come to an exciting time to pose the question of who can change Helsinki and how, and of how Helsinki changes us all in the process.
In his chapter, Jonathan Glancey writes, “While nationalism is only occasionally a force for the good, there is an increasing place and need for development and nurturing of distinct local, urban, regional and even national identities”. Do you think that in a global economy, growing streams of refugees and an increasingly nationalistic Europe there is any hope of fostering a positive sense of localism or nationalism that the various parties could appreciate even in a somewhat similar way?
CK: As a foreigner I can be just as fond of my local environment – where I have chosen to land – as those born here. Perhaps those with less of a choice – the asylum seekers and economic migrants – are even more interested in making Helsinki their home, a safe, welcoming and nurturing environment.
EB: A good question, and a difficult one. Cities and city living have been around for thousands of years. Globalization is a young phenomenon by comparison but its dynamics are complicated and consequential. It also makes urban futures highly uncertain. As ways of thinking, both utopian globalism and parochial localism are likely to strengthen in the years and decades to come. Nevertheless, I still see cities as natural places for people of all stripes to try to work out how to live together. Helsinki is not – and never was – stamped by a single, consensus-driven identity or ideal citizen. It’s a tapestry of different neighbourhoods for people to put down roots, and though it is relatively small, it has a cosmopolitan and multilingual history, which our tri-lingual volume celebrates. These are actually good starting points for developing a sense of place or, put differently, a commitment to a good Helsinki.
Of course, those with the most responsibility for managing and marketing the city need to recognize the city’s uniqueness. We think the book is helpful in this respect too.
Cindy Kohtala & Andrew Paterson
Harry Schulman & Pasi Mäenpää
Tristan Hughes & Eeva Berglund