Solutions to the Helsinki housing shortage

Offices turned back into apartments

Helsinki, like many other cities, face problems on how to cope with the escalating need for housing in city centers. City planners raise their hands ” there are no building plots”, and in desperate cornered situations they cry out ” lets build sky scrapers”. The problem with this, is that sky scrapers cause urban pollution around them. Now we are not talking about smog or toxic microbes, we are talking about polluting urban space by bad planning decisions – the shadowy land around at the base of the high building that is out of human scale is not appealing to be, or to live in. The sky scraper pollutes the possibilities for good urban space around it. When building very tall, you are faced with need for a buffer zone around the building, a no-mans-land, taking away the argued benefit of inhabitant density of the area. Secondly, sky scrapers tend to in the end, despite nice arguments, be used for offices, not housing.

Keski-Pasila sky scrapers will face challenges in making ground level into city space for humans

When erecting a building construction, that will stand for at least 100 years and infuence many generations, it is a give and take equation inbetween building and society, not only a primitive transaction of squirrel skins. The building has to contribute to a better city space, not a worse one.

The natural two-way interplay between outside-inside, society-inhabitant is not present in very tall buildings above a certain height.

In order to find “plots” for our city planners, we took a look at what happened when we faced our last paradigm shift in urban planning during modernism/functionalism 1930-1970 and on. We say “on”, because these ideologies and ways of solving planning problems are still very present and utilized, when lacking better ideas.

Un-rational modernist planning

Modernist planning turned the city inside out: it segregated the city of mixed use into separate hermetic functions. It placed people in the suburbs outside the city centers, and brought offices into the city centers. Then people needed to get a car, in order to commute back into their old living areas downtown for work and activities. As a consequence, downtown faces problems to house people, because this roundabout traffic of people living outside center and commuting to activities inside, causes an exaggerated need for space for road infrastructure, parking and maintenance, while the outcry for housing in the centre is at the same time big, because the land is used for other functions than housing. In the same time the smaller businesses downtown have problems keeping up a viable economy when not having enough inhabitants around using their services. The whole modernist scenario of placing different functions: living, working, public service, culture etc apart from each other is in fact very unrational and uneconomical for society. Why waste so much resources, time and energy, on moving people from one place to the other when a balanced mix would be possible? Todays environmental needs to not wast resources makes the ideology even more outdated.

The new paradigm shift we will have to face soon, will bring overall resource use and life quality into the core.

Modernist mass movement of inhabitants

Helsinki city centre has lost half of its inhabitants during the years 1962-2012. In our chart we made 1962 = 100% (oldest to where we can find data), and in respect to that today we have only 57% inhabitants left in the city core. Part of this is because apartment houses has been turned into offices. So we calculated how much people could you house here, if you turned for example only the offices situated in nice old pre-1950´s buildings into apartments?

Possibility to double the amount of people living in Helsinki centre

We found, that Helsinki city core has almost 1,5 million square meters of pre 1950´s office space that could be turned into apartments. These are mainly offices that have taken over old residental buildings. With the average m2/person reported for Helsinki (2011), that makes housing for 42.000 people. As a comparison: Helsinki´s big building projects of the coming decades, Jätkäsaari and Kalasatama, will combined house about 37.000 inhabitants in total. In this possible scenario, we have left the offices in newer after 1950´s buildings as they are. If they are taken into account, the possibilities are even greater for finding suitable “plots for housing” in Helsinki city centre. It can be also noted, that due to the current economic situation in the world, there is said to be around 1 million square meters of un-used office space in Helsinki at the moment.

Amount of inhabitants in Helsinki city centre declined drastically during years 1962-2012. From the 60´s (100%) the amount if people housed in central Helsinki has halved (57%) to now a mere 59.000 people. By turning offices back into apartments (represented in Flesh Colour) we could house up to 42.000 more people in the city center, and bring city life up to par with other European cities.

This of inhabitants in reclaimed office space would pretty much double the amount of people that live downtown today. We would be back to the number of inhabitants we had downtown in the 60-70´s before the latest demographic shift, and Helsinki core would have around 100.000 inhabitants. That is still a small city, but it would have better potential for urban life. For a vibrant and interesting city life, economically viable smaller services and entrepreneurial innovations, inhabitants are essential.

Offices into exciting new apartments

These offices are easily turned into for example new loft apartments. Also within an often deep frame, social innovations of for example shared apartments for old people, communal living, and apartment adjacent au-pair rooms, live & work apartments etc, could be explored within this framework.

To conclude: “There is no shortage of possible housing plots in Helsinki, on the contrary there is a housing plot surplus. On the other hand, the problem might be a shortage of will or understanding to make things happen”.


Hufvudstadsbladet HBL: Sky scrapers like mushrooms

We used open data statistics from Tilastokeskus, Helsingin seudun aluesarjat and henkikirjat. The Helsinki central areas noted in our statistical study were:

091 10 Kruununhaka
091 20 Kluuvi
091 80 Katajanokka
091 30 Kaartinkaupunki
091 50 Punavuori
091 60 Eira
091 70 Ullanlinna
091 90 Kaivopuisto
091 204 Munkkisaari
091 40 Kamppi
091 130 Etu-Töölö

2 thoughts on “Solutions to the Helsinki housing shortage

  1. Helsinki is such a unique city. Please, do not follow the high-building-fashion of thousand faceless places around the world.

    it takes just plain, common sense, and your fine writing, NOT to follow

    Your point is very clear about the bad and destroyed urban space around free standing sky scrapers. Thanks for pointing it out so intelligently.

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