BACK TO THE DENSE CITY
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.
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 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.
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:
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.