Launch Slideshow

Letter From Helsinki

Public opinion plays a very important role in the Finnish capital's architectural planning.

Letter From Helsinki

Public opinion plays a very important role in the Finnish capital's architectural planning.

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    City of Helsinki, City Planning Department

    Laituri, or “platform” in Finnish, is an exhibition center that opened in June in a former bus station in central Helsinki. The center is the latest outreach effort by Helsinki’s 270-person-strong city planning department. Designed by NRT Architects and off ering multimedia exhibits on local planning and development, Laituri received about 4,000 visitors in its first two months of operation.

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    ALA Architects

    Redefining the apartment building typology is an explicit goal of the city of Helsinki, since apartments account for 85 percent of all housing units there. And local architects are happy to oblige. ALA, a young firm of about 20 people, won a competition for a major new housing development with its proposal for elliptical blocks of uneven height enclosing large green spaces. Construction is expected to begin next year.

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    APRT / Port of Helsinki

    No detail too small: The lighting at Helsinki's new port area was decided by a design competition. APRT, a Finnish architecture firm, won with its scheme of neon-blue poles topped by bold Xs.

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    APRT / Port of Helsinki

    APRT also master-planned the billion-euro port, which opens in November.

Everyone knows that Finns like saunas and heavy metal. But brochures?

"Finns really like brochures," a local warned me, and sure enough, wherever I went in Finland's capital, Helsinki, this August, I was steered toward a display rack stuffed with them. Not taking at least a couple at each stop seemed rude. After four days, I had acquired enough printed matter—and not just brochures, but postcards, maps, and honest-to-God books—to stock my own newsstand. Thoughtfully, the folks at the city planning department gave me a custom-printed shopping bag to stash everything in. It was handy, until it broke under the weight.

One reason for all the paper: Finland has a lot of trees, and printing is a time-honored national industry. But there's another, less tangible explanation that has to do more with the Finnish social contract. As far as the government and its satellites are concerned, The Public is the all-important, perennial client, who must be informed of every new planning goal and design concept, sounded out, and (in some cases) mollified well before ground is broken.

Finland's Land Use and Building Act, which took effect in 2000, ensures public participation in planning efforts in broad terms. The city of Helsinki has gone beyond what this law mandates, however, by employing three full-time "interaction planners" in the city planning department—which makes all its development plans available online. The department sends out letters to residents, updating them on planning strategies; hosts events for public discussion; and allows a sufficient time period for the lodging and debating of complaints.

This is perhaps the least residents could expect, in a city that owns upwards of 70 percent of the land within its limits, and maintains a planning department of 270 people, among them 90 architects—for a population of only 570,000. To put that in perspective, New York City employs 280 planners for five boroughs and 8 million people, while Washington, D.C., a city whose population and area are comparable to the Finnish capital's, has a planning office of 80.

Even in government-happy northern Europe, Helsinki stands out for the degree of control it exerts over growth inside its confines. First, there's the city's grip on its land; this dates back to a land grant by King Gustav I of Sweden in the 16th century and was strengthened by further land purchases during the Depression. Then there is the political system. The city planning board is appointed by the city council, which is composed of members from nine—yes, nine—political parties. Finnish politics depend on coalition building. Safe from the kind of seesaws between Republican and Democrat that can turn government priorities upside down, Helsinki's city planning board plows ahead year after year, committed to creating transit-oriented, mixed-income neighborhoods and more or less unruffled by what happens in elections.

Finally, there's money, which Helsinki has a lot of. Owning so much land has bolstered the city's finances: Revenues from ground rent, handled by the city's real estate department, came to 166 million euros ($245 million) last year. Crucially, the city also owns a major utility, Helsinki Energy, which sells power back to the national grid. Helsinki Energy netted the city a surplus of $322 million in 2007 alone.

Now, the clout of Helsinki's city planning department has even assumed physical form. This past June, the department opened its own exhibition center in a former bus station downtown. Called Laituri, or "platform" in Finnish, the center is about as different from the typical dreary municipal museum as one could imagine. A bright, high-ceilinged space designed by local firm NRT Architects, it features 15-foot fabric-panel maps showing the city in 2007 and 1943, as well as a short, well-made film that interviews locals about their favorite places in Helsinki; computers loaded with multimedia presentations (in Finnish, Swedish, and English) on the city's new districts; and an information desk. (There is also, naturally, a brimming publications rack.)

When I visited, Laituri was hosting a smart exhibition on apartment building typologies, part of a city-sponsored project to improve multifamily housing. Heikki Mäntymäki, clearly delighted with the new space as he showed me around, emphasized that Laituriis not a museum. "It looks to the future," he said, and will be "part of the evaluation process" for new proposals via discussion evenings and feedback surveys. Mäntymäki heads a five-person communications unit within the planning department. (This dedicated communication steam is in addition to the "interaction planners.")

If it seems a tad much—the "Laituri" T-shirts, pencils, and posters dreamed up by a hip Finnish graphic design shop, for instance—in fairness, Helsinki's citizens do have a lot of development news to keep up with at the moment. The city right now is embarking on what it touts in press releases as "the biggest construction boom in the city's history," a multibillion-euro effort to grow mixed residential/commercial districts in areas wrested from industry. The city's population is expected to grow about 10 percent by 2030, and accordingly, Helsinki has set an ambitious target of building 5,000 new residences per year over the next decade.