Launched in April, the book Helsinki Beyond Dreams explores new perspectives on Helsinki, a city in transition. The Finnish capital, 2012’s World Design Capital, is bubbling with new ideas and creative endeavours, and surfs on a wave of new energy driven by all kinds of projects and small initiatives by inhabitants. These are collected in Helsinki Beyond Dreams, a book published by Urban Dream Management. We did a short interview with the author, architect and urban designer Hella Hernberg.
Lately, bottom-up projects and initiatives are gaining popularity in many cities in the world. What is so special about the things that take place in Helsinki?
“I’m aware that grassroots culture is going strong in many different places. However, I think it’s interesting how they always get different characteristics in different local contexts. I’ve collected these stories of block parties, time banks and urban gardens from Helsinki in a way that they are at the same time very personal and local but also relate to what’s going on in other parts of the world. The ideas is to document a totally new face of Helsinki but at the same time relate to a worldwide phenomenon.
As to what’s really special in Helsinki — some examples. Ravintolapäivä (Restaurant Day — an event where anyone can open up a restaurant for a day) is a powerful example as the concept has already spread to different cities around the world within a year. It also shows the power of social media and how it helps with organizing the crowds into common activity. I’ve been talking for example with American and British colleagues, who were quite doubtful that this event could be successful in those countries. Maybe there is something rooted in Finnish culture of trust and the tradition of community effort.
There’s another very Nordic tradition: ‘talkoot’ or community effort that’s rooted in the countryside. Traditionally, when you were building or repairing a barn or a new sauna, you’d invite neighbors to help and people would eat soup together afterwards. Thanks to social media this idea has been revived in cities today. It seems Finnish people are quite good at organizing themselves into this kind of collective activity.”
Your book features physical urban interventions, but also many ‘soft’ urban projects, such as the bicycle brunches. How important are these soft urban interventions for Helsinki’s city life?
“Small and ‘soft’ interventions together build up a larger phenomenon that has a great impact on the city. It’s important that people can feel more at home in their city, more connected to others and have a direct, concrete way to participate. But I believe that grassroots innovations can be a source to new institutional changes too. Temporary, experimental projects are a ground for testing new things and they’re always more flexible than ‘institutionalized’ projects. Still, it would be important to make them part of long-term processes, too.”
Can you highlight a project in the book you find particularly special?
“It’s very hard to choose — I’ll mention two. The Kalasatama temporary project is very influential as a whole. It’s a large old port area that has been temporarily turned into a hotspot of experimental grassroots cultures. It’s the first time in Helsinki that the city authorities have tried to integrate temporary uses into urban planning. As the construction of the area may take even decades, the time span of temporariness is also quite long and this is an interesting ground to try if the experimental activities will have also more long term impacts.
Joel Rosanberg’s story about urban foraging rides is a literal example of our ‘Everyman’s Rights’ translated to urban environment. He has organized guided bicycle tours that take people to public places where you can find edible berries and fruits. In fact, there are many of these but people just don’t know about them. He’s also collected all these spots on the ‘foraging map’.”
One of the projects that the book showcases is ‘Tango Around Town’. Could you tell us more about this project, and to which extent does Finnish youth culture relate to the 1940s?
“Vallilan Tango is a band that played their first gig in a neighbors’ garden party in 2005 (in a district called Vallila) and has become very popular since. They play old hits from 1930s-50s and organize gigs where young people come to dance these traditional dances together. For instance the ‘Finnish Tango’ — a more melancholic version of argentinian tango with dance steps that are less complicated (search for ‘Olavi Virta’ and the track ‘Sinitaivas’ on Spotify).
Bands like Vallilan Tango have revived this old dancing tradition and it’s really quite popular especially in the summer. Still in the 1950s-60s, these dance events in countryside barns were a popular place for people to meet their future spouse. Today, people listen to these old hits when going to their summerhouses with friends. It brings summer nostalgia and relates to old Finnish films and countryside traditions of the past.”
Which direction will the city of Helsinki develop into over the coming ten years?
“Phew — I’m not a fortune teller really, but the situation right now is very interesting as we have so many development projects going on in grand urban scale. There are a lot of possibilities to develop and of course also the threat that we’ll end up building a boring and dull city. That’s why it would be important to have more public discussion about where the city should be going. Today’s problem in my opinion is that many projects are run by a short-sighted economical strategy that overrides any other visions. But I hope that the new urban projects like Kalastama, Jätkäsaari or Pasila can succeed in building a more diverse and urban cityscape — better than the projects of past decades. It’s also a platform to test new, more ecological construction and infrastructure. An interesting development are the experiments with group-organized construction. Building blocks are not built by a private developer but by the future residents organized in co-operatives.
In the urban cultural scene, I feel that the new kind of positive citizen activism and ‘positive civil disobedience’ are just starting. Since I published Helsinki Beyond Dreams, there have already been a lot of new projects springing up — such as the Cleaning Day (Siivouspäivä) when anyone could open their own flea market. I hope also architects will get more into the area of self-initiated projects. A really interesting example of those is the Kulttuurisauna which should be finished after this summer.”
Helsinki is 2012’s World Design Capital. Visit Finland invited us to come over to explore the city’s design treasures. The ‘Design in Helsinki’ series highlights the best projects, concepts and designs we came across during our visit.