Density and scale urban comparison

Turn around the destruction of Urban Helsinki


Helsinki downtown and its urban living life was destroyed in the 1960´s and 70´s. Inhabitants were replaced by offices, traffic arrangements and often undefined no-mans-land around these. Looking at the percentage of inhabitants removed from the city centre, this change in demographics was so radical, that it can be compared to a the dictatorial re-settlemet programs we saw in Eastern Europe under communism.

Lasnamäe re-settlement area, Estonia

European urban Helsinki before the 1960´s

Before this structural change, Helsinki centre was an urban area with the same density and vitality as today´s Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam or other middle size capitals compared by inhabitants/km2. Density of people living in an area is needed to upkeep its shops, urban happening, bars, cafés and all of these things that belong to, and we love in a city. If there are not enough people, the only way for these kind of service businesses to survive, is to either find a way to cut costs or raise the prices compared to other denser cities. There is an end limit to both of these options. When surpassed, city life downtown dies.

Looking at the statistics of Helsinki city center, starting from the 1960´s people living downtown decline drastically: in central neighbourhoods like Kamppi, Punavuori, or Kallio the number of people living there is almost halved from the 1960´s up to the 1990´s. A lot of living space was transformed to offices, dense living blocks are torn down and replaced by loosely placed higher blocks, sometimes ending up in lower total working+living density than before. Nearly half of the people in downtown Helsinki were a few decades back removed from the center, and put to live in the suburbs, now depending on the car to go to work, to shop or to get to the center services. This half of the population removed never returned. The density of urban Helsinki remains way below other European cities.

In statistics, its quite common to compare the entire city area density, giving us numbers like this: Helsinki: 2700 people/km2 – Berlin 3900 – Stockholm 4400 – Copenhagen 6300 – Barcelona 15.000 – Paris 20.000. But this is not the spread out total density we are after, if we want vibrant city centres. In that case we have to look closer at individual cental neighbourhoods and also look at what kind of human scale the area has. Is it inviting to people to spend time, live and thrive in? Does the neighbourhood have character?

The change of density in Kallio neighbourhood, Helsinki 1939-2021

The change of density in Kallio neighbourhood, Helsinki, during years 1939-2012. Kallio area had a historical density before the 70´s that could compete with European cities today. Future estimate up to 2021.

Poetical space

The most loved cities in the world are dense

There are cities and areas in the world that are loved by poets and artist, and celebrated in our litterature time after time. Siena in Italy, Montmartre in Paris, Eixample in Barcelona have densities of 40-50.000 people/km2. Then we have popular town house areas like Chelsea or Camden Town in London (10-14.000 people/km2), Old Town of Bern in Switzerland, or trendy Södermalm in Stockholm with 15-17.000 people/km2. Or quite exceptionally dense for Helsinki: Punavuori and Torkkelinmäki of 20-26.000 people/km2. Even small town areas find densities: Puu-Vallila (13.000 people/km2) or Old Town in Porvoo, that consists of picturesque 1-2 story wooden houses, green gardens and human scale streets, has a density of around 8000 inhabitants/km2. These neighbourhoods inhabit some kind of urban attraction we cannot look away from. People want to visit and live in these areas even if they cannot park their car at the door, even if the neighbour is looking in, even if you have to let other people close to your personal space – or maybe just because of these characteristics. We are looking at urban areas that have a density of 20-50.000 people/km2, but still a low cityscape of 5-7 stories. Helsinki has densities in downtown of only 10.000 people/km2. This could easily be doubbled. Many times today, urban planning does not allow for urban density to be created by other means than building very tall buildings far apart, destroying architectural space. Space becomes loose and undefined. We have invented from the 1960´s on, rules and planning patterns that restrict urban life. These rules need to be revised.

Inhabitants/km2 in Kallio neighbourhood in Helsinki are few, compared to popular areas in Europe.

Low built green neighbourhoods house more people than high rise in Helsinki

The interesting thing in this comparison, is that small scale, green, even very low built neighbourhoods like Puu-Vallila, Torkkelinmäki or Old Porvoo manage to house more people/km2 than urban areas with higher buildings, like Kallio area itself. When looking for ecological solutions, density of people is more effective in regard to energy usage and carbon footprint. We have made a comparison of human scale S – M – L – XL – XXL and density (people/km2) here:

Density and scale urban comparison

Density of inhabitants/km2 and urban human scale, and the 500x500 urban walk on plan compared. Order by declining density. To the right comparison of human scale in neighbourhoods: S-sized and M-sized urban scales like Porvoo, Puu-Vallila and Torkkelinmäki can house high densities of inhabitants, where as XL and XLL areas like Pasila tend to house less ingabitants and more offices. Without inhabitants neighbourhoods are dead after working hours.

Itä-Pasila (inhabitants + workers 13.000/km2) was built in the 1970. To give way to it, we tore down a small scale, dense, wonderfully wild, almost anarchistic green wooden villa area that the estimates say housed -yes-: 13.000 people/km2.

Looking at new urban planning, the Saukonlaituri area, for example the Arabic Housing unit in Jätkäsaari poses interesting qualities that we look forward to seeing more of. Density 18.000 people/km2.

The obstacles of bringing people back into Helsinki

Densifying the city structure is often regarded as “impossible” by the officials and politicians. They point at parking needed, at views lost, at keeping everything as it always (since the 1960´s-70´s) has been. They point at misplaced “equal” common treatment of every place, making no-place good. The notion comes from partly ignorance about density and what a dense living environment actually is, but also that it has not been done at a bigger level. People in charge are not used to it. Still, if there is will, there are always ways to find to beat the “impossible”.  There are many unused or underused places in the city structure that could be turned into living environments and also small working environments on ground level. Judging from housing prices, living downtown is extremely popular, one of the most expensive areas is now Punavuori, ironically one of the densest areas we have. People there do not see the dense city as a problem, they love it!

We could tackle the problem for example by allowing some blocks of houses to develop a small scale Porvoo-ish environment on their inner court yard – the court yard that is now used for illegal parking, asphalt decks and divided by fences into tiny lots in between the housing co-ops. In the middle of the yard, there could be a common green oasis, smaller than the yard as a whole, but way bigger and more usable than the tiny lot each individual house has inside their fence at the moment. Infill building Porvoo-style could partially house service providers for the housing company: the Caretaker “talonmies” with an extended role of handyman, the Nurse “lähihoitaja” providing care for the ageing population, the Geek “nörtti” solving computer problems in the block etc. The most potential big inner courtyards can be preserved for future reserve to be changed into for example public parks -in say 2050, or 2100. But not ALL of them! This is a challenge for misplaced political equality. Making everything by the same rules and ideas, disregarding individuality and sense of unique space, of history, of topography or urban neighbourhood structure is not equality, its making the city bland. At its worst, misplaced sameness leads to that no-one is content, because no person is the perfect median character, that would want the mediocre result.


We can build on flat roofs, we can build offices underneath streets instead of taking space from the living, we can put gardens on roofs and terraces and we can take a good look at for example how much parking is allowed. The existing city has only half the parking (if calculated by resident parking permits: 1/200 k-m2…1/300 k-m2), than demanded by officials if you build new housing inside the old housing block structure: (1/100…1/120 k-m2). Still without parking places, people want to live downtown. So why do we need so much parking if people want to live without it? At least small scale infill building should be exempt of this parking.

We commonly build car infrastructure mostly for men

Regarding parking, its worth noting, that according to studies of car ownership (Kalenoja 2002), that when you can distinguish which gender in the family wants the car, single men are 62% likely to own a car, single women only 24%. This difference is so huge, that it has to be pronounced. We are, to a big extent, estimating, planning and building parking for men. Parking is expensive to build downtown (30.000-50.000 eur/car) and this demand of parking places goes into the cost of housing. Not to mention the sometimes excessive infrastructure for cars, paid by taxes.


Helsinki now faced with a catastrophic need for housing together with the need to make our cities´ carbon footprint smaller, we need to find clever ways of densifying the urban cityscape, and to bring back the people lost. The new urban environments need to be human, and interesting in an urban action way, and soft to live in. We have to find people and poetics in architecture again.


PDF > NUMBERS. Comparison S – M – L – XL – XXL


8 thoughts on “Turn around the destruction of Urban Helsinki

  1. Oh, a Dense City – why?
    A couple of questions to the blog and to the readers of this blog:

    1. give me one reason why you want to LIVE in a dense urban center
    2. how to practically find SPACE for new dwellings in already dense centers?

    P.S…..kind of like your pictures and interesting drawings

  2. A dense city has enough people together in an area to enable exciting things: for people to meet. Businesses need people to survive, and for Helsinki to have a future economy, we need people to meet, to sit in in these cafés that survive by density. We need people to talk and to exchange ideas, and to come up with brilliant things to do in a city: festivals, demonstrations, services and innovation. All these things from left to right need a certain number of people to happen.

    • Frank: I don’t know why you would want to live in a dense city. I know I would like to live in a dense city because everything is at a hand’s reach. You specifically might not want to live in a dense urban environment, but this isn’t just about just you anyway. If the price of housing in city cores is any indication, many do. The key issue here is that a vocal minority of space-needy people has imposed its tyranny on the rest of us. We can’t live in the city because there isn’t enough of it.

      As for finding space: one solution is on top of existing buildings, as done in Myllypuro:
      This might play a major role in financing the looming renovation crisis in the suburbs.

      Another area of great potential is the enormous parking spaces and green areas between existing blocks of flats. Obviously both solutions require increased investment in public transport to combat the need for more parking spaces, but expanding the city into the countryside isn’t free either.

  3. Peter Wynne Rees from London City Planning just visited helsinki, and he touched on this matter discussed above of that “people make the city”. He is taking about how high buildings built for `city image´ pose a certain risk of not being able to take time. That is one aspect that has to do with that good architects have to grip and sense the city atmospere right, and have to have courage to be able to say no and step down if the builder wants something foolish.

    We would add another aspect to his thoughts, about these tall XL and XXL areas attractiveness as neighbourhoods. In Helsinki high built Itä-Pasila has not attracted people, in fact the area needs a a ring of no-mans-land, a “haju-rako” inbetween itself and the rest of the city. Few people want to spend time at the root of these very tall buildings that do not create space, when they are placed apart from eachother. How to solve this problem on ground level has totally been put aside when considering new sky-scraper areas in Helsinki, or urban renewal of the existing ones. In Helsinki, these high built areas, they are not dense with inhabitants so its even harder to justify building them as such. As a quick hypothesis to be tested: people seem to shun away from living in loose XL and XLL areas, they prefer human scale but dense on street level. (Just looking at housing prices: quite normal L-sized but dense Punavuori is the one of the highest priced neighbourhoods in Helsinki). Lack of people in an area is lack of city life: both spontaneous happenings and planned economic entrepreneurship, those things that sustain neighbourhood life.

  4. You know nothing about urban history of Helsinki. For example, there were no wooden villas in Itä-Pasila – wooden villas were in Länsi-Pasila. In Itä-Pasila there were only few warehouses. And people were not forced to live in the suburbs like you say, they moved there because they wanted more space.

    • Thank you for the constructive criticism. However, this post was not meant to talk about the specific history of Pasila, historians do that much better. Would be interesting to hear more about the differences of East and West Pasila from you, Blaa blaa. More importantly, we want to highlight these things in this post:
      1. Itä-Pasila would have housed more people if it was built with the same small scale density as the still existing old wooden Puu-Vallila, than it houses now, as a concrete high rise development.
      2. The density of people being housed in Helsinki downtown has decreased very dramatically since the 60´s. This is not because people do not want to live downtown – comparison of real estate prices and rents tell people really do want to live downtown, more than in the suburbs (demand and supply).
      3. Helsinki is lagging way behind other European cities when it comes to downtown density of inhabitants.
      4. Lack of density -lack of activity pockets downtown- makes it very difficult to upkeep sensible urban activities that attract people, and also to upkeep interesting small scale competitive entrepreneurship. We also claim, that density affects the built environment to the better on street level where people move about (this is a hypothesis to be proven). These components are needed downtown if you want to be an attractive city.

  5. just want to thank Patrick Jensen for a couple of very wise comments. And naturally Aito for starting this discussion with an interesting article – and some excellent images of comparison for densities in cities and urban areas.

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