June 20, 2023
The Havukoski suburb stretches out in front of us with tall concrete apartment buildings from the 1970s. A warm breeze blows on our faces through the wind tunnel formed by the graffiti-covered walls of the shopping center. Familiarly, we are in the Koivukylä area of Vantaa, and the residents seem to associate themselves with this place identity. Just a moment ago, doctoral researcher Oskar Rönnberg introduced me and another Urbaria intern, Sini Ruohomäki, to the intricacies of collecting a resident survey on a tablet.
Our aim is to go door-to-door in the Havukoski buildings with the survey of "The Future of Diverse and Disadvantaged" project, which seeks to raise the voices of neighborhoods where first and second-generation immigrants are strongly centralized. The study of segregation aims to find answers to the following questions in Nordic suburbs: How do residents perceive their own residential areas? What is the connection between the individual and society in the suburb? How is urban policy perceived to affect residents' lives? These questions relate to place and place identity, as well as their impact on people's quality of life.
We walk across a concrete bridge to the Havukoski side, characterized by dense construction and a high proportion of rental housing. About half of the residents in the residential area are foreign language speakers. In practice, this becomes quickly apparent during the interviews; there is a language barrier with many of the residents who open their front doors. In Finland, the selected areas for the study are Kontula and Havukoski in Koivukylä precisely because of the large number of foreign language speakers. The high percentages of unemployed and rental housing residents have also influenced the selection of research areas. Neighborhoods like Kontula and Koivukylä are typically in a disadvantaged position in terms of welfare and political influence.
We manage to slip into a rental housing company's building and enter the stairwell. The floors rise high in the concrete corridor, reflecting the echoes of sounds throughout the building. I feel nervous encountering the first few doors. We haven't come to sell anything - on the contrary, residents offer us everything we need for the survey. Yet, as I ring doorbells, I ponder the Finnish reserved attitude. However, the tension dissipates with each new encounter. I notice that participating in the survey evokes very different reactions. For some, despite the various language options available on the survey, the lack of a common language is a significant barrier. Others, however, are very interested in the survey, even if a common language is not found.
I find myself engrossed in conversations with several Finnish-speaking individuals about life in Koivukylä, and life in general. An elderly woman invites me into her home. The atmosphere is immediately warm and genuine. When residents invite me into their homes, I realize that some kind of social barrier has been crossed. For the most part, residents have a lot to say about their life sphere. It seems that they have been, perhaps unknowingly, waiting for an opportunity to talk about their lives. Inevitably, I think about all the people living alone in suburbs without a nearby social network. I can see how suburbs easily become concentrations of loneliness. In a single day of research, I grasp the value of each encounter and how different the significance of them may be for different people. As I browse through pictures in the home of an elderly woman from Koivukylä, I understand how suburbs have the potential to isolate individuals if they are not given the opportunity or framework to become part of the social network of the society.
We talk about problem suburbs, but can these neighborhoods be labeled as such without knowing whether the majority of residents consider them problematic? Many respondents talk about tranquility and nature in Koivukylä in their answers. Others mention the restless atmosphere in the surrounding neighborhood and the poor public services. Thus, there is not one Koivukylä, but numerous overlapping, partially coinciding, and partially separate interpretations of one's living environment. While individuals can influence their surroundings, they cannot be held responsible for the overall development of neighborhoods, which is directly influenced by cities and states through their actions.
I decided to ask other survey collectors why they consider collecting the opinions of neighborhood residents so important and how the significance of the survey affects the residents. The responses emphasize what I myself have observed: many people have a lot to say when given the opportunity to speak. A stranger at the doorstep is an opportunity for many to make human contact, which allows them to discuss even very difficult issues. Survey workers also emphasize that nothing should be assumed about the experiences of individuals, especially those with a foreign background, before they have been heard. For those who have moved from other countries to Finland where the language barrier and a new culture exist, it can be very challenging to influence their own position and environment.
After a day of collecting the survey responses, Sini and I discuss our feelings. We realize that it is difficult to remain neutral in the way required by the research while engaging in interactive conversations with the residents. Respondents readily seek validation for their answers and opinions. We must find a delicate balance between friendliness and the factual nature of the study. We cannot give too much or too little of ourselves to the interviewees because trust is built by breaking the social wall. Connection can be found in even the simplest aspects of life, such as owning pets, which I notice as I stroke a resident's cat's furry cheeks. Collecting survey responses for hours is socially exhausting. It requires constant adaptation and social intelligence to approach numerous new people with as little prejudice as possible.
As I ride the bus home, I conclude that the day has been exhausting but equally rewarding. Investigating sensitive topics in society requires precisely this: diving into the phenomenon, immersing oneself among people.
Pictures: Sarianna Waldén