Blog: 6 December 2017Helsinki - Lessons for place-making on the South Coast?

Tom Looker

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Tom Looker

Urban Design Director

Southampton office

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Picture Finland and you might immediately think of Lapland, the big man himself – Father Christmas, the Northern Lights and wild reindeer. But as I discovered on a recent study trip, Finland is full of surprises - beyond being the spiritual home of the Moomins and Angry Birds.

Search for a brief history of Finland and you will find the country is likened to a ‘wrestling mat’, with a long and tumultuous past, in which the vast majority of the population were typically poor and engaged in agriculture as late as the 1940’s. Fast forward to 2017 and the change has been transformational (incidentally, a National Referendum on the relationship with the European Union in 1995, coincided with a sustained upturn in the countries fortunes). Finland now ranks highly in quality of life indexes among world nations, second only to Denmark and 14 places higher than the United Kingdom. It has a booming technology sector and a growing tourist industry.  In measures that built environment professionals would recognise as having a direct bearing on place-making, such as air quality and house prices to earnings ratio Finland outperforms the UK in every measure. Only in traffic commuting times does the UK come close. This ‘weakness,’ perhaps explains the concerted emphasis on delivering infrastructure and creating a metropolitan region connected by public transport. ‘Helsinki is growing sustainably’ is the strapline underpinning the City Vision. 

Growing a city sustainably, by investing in public and sustainable modes of transport and addressing air quality is something the South Coast could look at replicating. By investing in public transport and providing easy access into the centre of our cities, we can take the pressure off our city centres and create new interdependent neighbourhoods, which have an identity and become a place in their own right. Planning for an area as a whole, without authority boundary constraints and implementing place-making that is joined up, well considered and holistic, reflects the principles of Helsinki and the ethos they are advocating. There is a lot of faith in the professionals that run the city and a respect for what they do, which helps provide the freedom they need to create a successful and booming city.

 

The recent study trip included a focus on Kruunuvuorenranta, a new neighbourhood across the bay from Helsinki City Centre. Decommissioning of a former oil terminal is facilitating the transition to a new community of 6,000 dwellings and 500,000sqft of business and service uses by 2025. This is just one of seven major development sites on the City’s waterfront, facilitated by the strategic decision to relocate port activities away from the city centre.  It has paved the way for radical change in the appearance and perception of Finland’s capital, (whilst making a major contribution towards meeting housing demand). Interesting insights for our South Coast cities perhaps?

In an apparently audacious move, Kruunuvuorenranta will be connected to the city centre via a 3km bridge that will allow shipping to pass unrestricted beneath. The boldness of this approach and commitment to ‘growing sustainability’ is reinforced by restricting access to just trams, cyclists and pedestrians, connecting the neighbourhood to the city centre in minutes. Reassuringly, given the very different development model to the UK system, this key piece of infrastructure will not be delivered up front, but when a critical mass of new dwellings are occupied and public transport will initially be provided via a circuitous bus route around the bay. The striking difference with the UK is that pioneers in this new community have the certainty from the City Planning Department that they will be rewarded with a fast, frequent and direct service across the bay, supported by bus services and ferry connections in the summer. 

Nature and sea are everywhere in Kruunuvuorenranta. Decades of restricted access around the oil terminal has created a precious bio-diverse landscape, often dramatic in its rocky and wooded terrain.  Kruunuvuorenranta offers the opportunity to live both on the water and near the shore, but without compromising public access to the 6km shoreline that will remain largely in its natural state. The neighbourhood seemingly reconciles the tensions of major development with precious natural habitats to create a beguiling ‘city life in the wilderness’ sense of place. The ferocity with which the city values and is committed to improving and extending its green infrastructure assets is matched only by its determination to meet the housing demand in a sustainable way that create places of quality, each better than the last. I’ll drink to that. Kippis!

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