Is Helsinki a Just City? - Winners of the blog post competition

In the end of 2023, the Global Partnership Building project - a collaboration between University of Helsinki, Aalto University and Newcastle University - launched a joint blog post competition on the topic of just city. Read the winning blog posts here.

The blog post competition was launched with an intention to explore the multifaceted dimensions of justice in Helsinki capital region. The top three blog posts are engaging and well-argued, and address justice and equity in the city of Helsinki interestingly from different perspectives. From below you can see the winning blog posts that tackle the question of a Just City. 

Congratulations to the winners!


Elze Kurtinaityte, Kerttu Lundell & Joonas Mölsä: Is Helsinki a Just City?

We approached the question, “Is Helsinki a just city?” through the lens of neurodivergence. During our inclusivity course, we analysed the research paper Considerations of the built environment for autistic individuals: A review of the literature (Black et al., 2022). The article considered different ways the built environment impacts autistic individuals and how it could be improved to accommodate them better.

We wanted to continue this research by applying the conclusions of Black et al. (2022) to different types of urban spaces. We deliberately chose well-known places that are under high-activity use. These spaces include commercial, circulation, and public transport spaces.

The Stockmann department store was chosen as a commercial space for the analysis. Being one of the most recognisable buildings of Helsinki, it was selected due to its historical value and openness to the public.

Multiple entrances make it easier for the neurodivergent to exit and enter while visiting Stockmann. Once inside, maps on each wall of the staircases and escalators are easy to understand as they are colour-coded with their functions. A spacious atrium opens from the ground floor lounge with views towards the upper floors. The varied ceiling heights found on the floors are incoherent with areas of differing activities, causing a disorganized effect.

A combination of artificial and natural lighting tends to be pleasing for neurodivergent persons. However, many interior areas within the Stockman are visually closed from the direct diffused light. The light fixtures aren't hidden and are a visual distraction. The walls have sharp corners, which aren’t ideal for autistic people. The patterns found aren’t overly complex and are easily processable; Moreover, the textures are cohesive on most floors, as the tiles and bright walls don’t distract the view.

Considering the design changes, it’s important to remember the cultural heritage. It’s essential to adapt spaces for everyone. However, it’s crucial to preserve the historical aspects as well. Stockmann isn’t a perfect example of the space fitting for the neurodiverse. Nonetheless, it’s culturally significant to primary users, neurotypical people.

For a circulation space, we chose Narinkkatori, the square in front of the Kamppi centre. It’s a busy public transportation hub and connects the surrounding commercial areas. Narinkkatori’s location means that most people with businesses in the city centre will come into contact with it; this includes autistic people.

Narinkkatori is a broad, open space flanked by high buildings. There is almost no vegetation or other dividing elements. Clear compartmentalisation of uses is missing. This is problematic, as the square isn’t only used for passage but also shopping, eating and events. These different functions meld into each other, causing distraction and disorientation.

Even worse is the amount of visual clutter around Narinkkatori. It hosts lots of illuminated adverts and neon signage. The worst is a giant LED screen above the main entrance of Kamppi constantly playing commercials. Moreover, the glass facades around the square cause lots of glare. All of this may result in discomfort for the neurodivergent users of Narinkkatori.

There would be some simple measures to make the square more accommodating to autistic people and, frankly, everyone. The amount of light pollution should be reduced, especially in the case of the most dazzling adverts. Adding dividing elements like benches or planting boxes would also help with compartmentalisation.

As a public transportation space, we observed the Central Railway metro station. It’s comfortable to enter due to several street-level entrances, but finding the way out is challenging. At the platform entrance, relevant signs blend with advertisements, distracting from the essentials. The platform has two entrances: one accessible by an elevator and another via escalators. The elevator, hidden in a dark corner behind the escalators, creates an unsafe atmosphere.

The station has no natural light, which is understandable due to its underground location. However, the selected lighting solutions dazzle and reflect from other materials. The architectural colour palette is neutral, with beautiful details in the tiling of the walls. Still, various materials and shapes combined engender a hectic atmosphere. The orange colour of the metro can be overwhelming, yet it’s a helpful symbol for recognising the metro throughout Helsinki.

With some changes, the circulation experience in the observed metro station could be enhanced for neurodivergent individuals. Clear signs and hidden indirect lighting would be more pleasant. Subtle structural changes could be done without removing the history. Suspended ceilings changed to more obscure versions would calm the visual clutter and improve the feeling of active circulation areas. The noise pollution characteristic of a metro should be reduced with well thought out acoustic solutions.

In conclusion, Helsinki, like many other cities, is only partially inclusive for neurodivergent people. When making the inclusivity adjustments, it’s also important to consider historical and ecological values. How could the design be adapted while keeping its cultural heritage? The combination of improvements in the built environment should be based on the needs of the neurodivergent people, as well as the aesthetics of the neurotypical. As Helsinki develops to be more inclusive, the environment becomes more pleasant for everyone.



Black, M. H., McGarry, S., Churchill, L., D’Arcy, E., Dalgleish, J., Nash, I., Jones, A., Tse, T. Y., Gibson, J., Bölte, S., & Girdler, S. (2022). Considerations of the built environment for autistic individuals: A review of the literature. Autism26(8), 1904–1915.

Aaron Plaisted: Helsinki: The Welfare City

Though having many faults and room for growth in terms of socio-economic inequalities in the eyes of Finnish scholars, Helsinki also portrays many attributes of how a just city should look and feel. As a Filipino-American who moved to Finland two years ago, I have come to understand why this country has become a world leader in social equity, environmental sustainability, and democracy, finding many answers and developing more questions along the way. 

At its foundations, Helsinki’s ability to facilitate access to resources and services is impressive and fundamentally egalitarian. Allowing all people the opportunity to access basic resources like food, water, and shelter is a staple to this city and country’s principles. Mixed-use neighborhoods which guarantee necessary resources are accessible within each neighborhood is ensured through strategic planning. Being the only European country with decreasing homelessness, the City of Helsinki has proven to be just through its focus on fundamental human rights and its determined adherence to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. 

Mixed-use neighborhoods ensure proper access to food within Helsinki while carefully developed public transport systems largely provide Helsinki citizens with the means of accessing resources and services with ease. Helsinki is able to minimize socio-economic inequalities by developing new neighborhoods with high levels of public transport access in mind. Utilizing access points to connect communities to the common meeting point of the city’s center, these planning efforts develop a sense of community amongst its people through reliance on public resources. 

Fear of residential segregation and its subsequent resource disparities, like in many US cities, have led to residential mixing policies in the City of Helsinki. Access to social housing within each neighborhood seeks to prevent lower and upper socio-economic classes from segregating themselves from each other. Simultaneously, the City attempts to limit segregation amongst different ethnic groups through housing policies and goals. 

Residential areas mix social classes through offering different types of housing within each area, which more intensely focuses attention on an area’s public spaces as the location for social interaction. But problems within the city arise through a fairly expensive cost for leisure activities in an area’s public spaces. For example, local shopping centers are often seen as the primary spaces for social interactions, especially during the long winter, but the activities offered frequently come at a high cost.  This disproportionately prevents participation from the lower socio-economic classes who cannot afford these shopping centre activities.

I have this funny question I pose to people in Helsinki of what came first: Did the Finns’ awkwardness lead them to rely on social welfare or was it the welfare state that made them socially awkward? Finnish people tend to have an unconventional way of interacting with strangers. This meaning, they just don’t really do it. Though it may seem cold, I believe this to be a byproduct of people’s trust in the government to do its job in taking care of others so individuals can go about minding their own business, knowing that their fellow citizens will be properly looked after. 

The relatively mutual trust that Finns and their government tend to have between each other is remarkable. Democracy begins with transparency, providing a solid foundation through this city and country to maintain its people’s trust. Fairly reliable news sources and a strong culture which prioritizes education precedes the democratic process of creating change. This is most prominently seen through the individuals’ perception of their ability to create change. 

In my hometown of Milwaukee, I see many young people like myself who feel hopeless in creating change. But, here in Helsinki, I see people of all ages who feel empowered to create change through the principle of using your voice and gathering to fight for your rights. Though the City of Helsinki has its troubles, it is significantly guided by education and the basic principles of democracy. This city may already be more advanced than most, but this does not stop its people from progressing towards a better future of equality and sustainability. And that’s what I believe to be a just city.

Noora Varonen: Is Urban Planning in Helsinki Fair?

The idea of Helsinki as a just city has sparked extensive debate on different approaches to city building. There's been contemplation on whether the city should be a complete masterpiece or if it can be an urban, flexible, and diverse sum of its parts. Ultimately, all these thoughts lead to the question of the city's fundamental purpose and role.

Extremes and utopias serve as the basis of the discussion, but their purpose is not to provide a final solution. According to the definition by Yalzadeh and Blumberg, the "City Beautiful" movement represents the city as a fantastic total work of art, idealizing ancient values and the idea of an ideal world. If the city is designed for ideal people, it inevitably creates "ideal citizens" (Yalzadeh & Blumberg, 2019). The "City Beautiful" movement emphasizes order and hierarchy, but implementing a single vision across the entire city seems somewhat alien, even dictatorial, in today's Helsinki. Is the city then truly built for people or for ideals of people?

While the intentions of the City Beautiful movement are certainly well-meaning, the question arises whether it is ethical to make massive decisions delivered by one person. Does such an ideology foster authoritarian people? Can we even expect the city to change people? People naturally seek a better life, living conditions, and housing. By developing a city that creates ideal people, the individual's responsibility for self-improvement can be outsourced to the architect's pen. There is likely no shortcut to happiness, although a certain living environment can greatly influence individual behavior. 

The City Beautiful movement flourished at the beginning of the 20th century. Today, more than a hundred years later, ideals and grand visions have not been abandoned. The Bilbao effect is known as a phenomenon where a significant part of the urban elite worldwide aims to build architectural icons in their cities, inspired by the case of Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum in the 1990s and the understanding formed more or less through the media. According to Del Cerro Santamaría, the success story of Bilbao led many to firmly believe that an economically struggling city could be turned around solely with iconic architecture. He claims that the impact of the museum's construction extended from the discursive world to the material world. Del Cerro Santamaría describes how the case led city officials around the world to consider a turnaround in local development, simply by building a Guggenheim Museum (Del Cerro Santamaría, 2020).

Single point-elements like the Guggenheim Museum can change the character of a city and, if successful, increase the desirability of the area. However, the flip side of the change might be the erasure of local, authentic, and original activities. Are cities built for people, or are the changes aimed at increasing societal efficiency? Do people make the city, or does the city make the person? These questions also arose in Finland when Helsinki City Council once rejected the Guggenheim Museum project proposal.

Implementing the ideal city and a single vision also has positive aspects. Clarity and efficiency are desirable for a functional city, which can undoubtedly be most easily achieved by one visionary. Often, chaos and confusion begin to flourish if multiple visions are forced together. What is ultimately symbolic of values and what truly implements values? Where do cities fall on this spectrum?

A fair and equal city is born from compromises between utopias and extremes. However, the birth of cities need not be forced, as they arise and grow as phenomena almost naturally. Throughout history, many cities have emerged at crossroads and grown from small things. Cities are often built around some “natural element,” like a river or a train stop. On the other hand, one can also build a significant new monument and hope for the best. With the arrival of climate change and the depletion of our planet's resources, "hoping for the best" construction is not worth the risk. The impact of monuments and single “point-elements” on the character of a city should not be underestimated, although sometimes they can have a decisive impact—for better or for worse.

According to an article by Salomaa & Tuomisto (2022), the renewal of the traditional Puhos shopping center and its surroundings in Eastern Helsinki has raised concerns about the city's excessive influence on the area's natural development. The article states that the project claims to aim at preserving and respecting the historically valuable building complex, reflecting the city's desire to cherish cultural heritage. Furthermore, the article notes how the project emphasizes preserving the current operators’ position and multicultural identity while changes in urban space and new green areas reflect the city's aspiration for open spaces, highlighting equality in the urban environment (Salomaa & Tuomisto, 2022).

Concerns about gentrification simultaneously highlight the downsides of urban development, such as higher rents, which can lead to the loss of the original culture. This discussion reflects broader considerations on how urban growth and development should be guided to consider both the city's historical heritage and the current community's needs. The proposed large entertainment center in Helsinki's Suvilahti, which would replace the current DIY skate park, has also sparked significant debate. According to an article by Aromaa, the skate park represents a loosely organized space by city residents where users' activities are not predetermined. Two appeals against the zoning plan were filed by the deadline, demanding that the administrative court annul the Helsinki City Council's decision on the zoning change as illegal (Aromaa, J. 2023).

Urban planning has significant impacts on society. The goals are grand when discussing the type of urban structure that leads to humanity and people's well-being. Whatever the ideology, vision, or structure of urban planning, it should not hinder the value choices of future generations. The best outcome is often a compromise between extremes, where no one is entirely satisfied with the result, but when understood, everyone is more content.



Aromaa, J. (3.7.2023). Construction of the entertainment center designed by Mikko Leppilampi is postponed in Helsinki. Yle News. Available at

Del Cerro Santamaría, G. (2020). Iconic architecture and the end of the Bilbao Effect: Bilbao, Denver, Abu Dhabi. PhD. The Museum Review journal wordpress, Volume 5, number 1. Available at…

Salomaa, M. & Tuomisto S. (24.8.2022). New development plan for the traditional Puhos shopping center in Eastern Helsinki. Rakennuslehti. Available at…

Yalzadeh, I. & Blumberg, N. (2019). City Beautiful movement. Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at