I have spent my whole life living on the outskirts of Helsinki, in Vantaa and East Helsinki. I can hardly imagine living anywhere else.
The suburb is close enough to the centre, but not too close. In this best-of-both-worlds situation, you have the convenience of living in an apartment building, the peace found in nature, and affordability.
It’s also the perfect size for a community. In short: everything I look for in a home.
Because of this, I have always found it difficult to understand the way people talk about the suburbs. In the media, even positive suburban stories start with "contrary to what you might imagine." Rap lyrics milk grim romances out of ghetto fantasies. The general image of the suburbs is that it is - to put it mildly - grey, shabby, and impoverished.
However, as many as a quarter of Finns reside in the suburbs.
Teemu Kemppainen, University Lecturer in Urban Geography, says that most suburbs are very much middle-class, and those with a bad reputation are also not as different from other districts as people might think.
Kemppainen says that the particular way these suburbs were spoken about began in the 1970s, and that rhetoric is still going strong today. Usually, suburbs are the object of dread by those who have never even visited them. Research shows people who live in the suburbs genuinely enjoy their lives there.
When Finland’s first suburbs were built in the 1950s, there were high expectations. A verdant forest suburb was deemed to be the ideal of beauty. Then people’s thinking changed. Initially, the suburbs were feted as garden cities; over time they began to be mocked as concrete jungles.
Now all people want are cities – no one pushes for new suburbs.
“It is quite arbitrary how ideas become dominant only then to fade away. Currently we are riding the wave of urbanism. It is believed that high population density generates ideas and innovations.”
Kemppainen senses a change: "The Corona pandemic could begin a renaissance for the suburbs."
Spacious apartments close to nature with plenty of natural light and good access to public transport could become more appreciated.
"A city should favour a good environment, but there are many views on what is meant by 'good'," Kemppainen says. He himself lives in Tikkurila, the administrative centre of the municipality of Vantaa to the north of Helsinki.
The strength of urban areas lies in their variety. There has to be housing available to suit all tastes and budgets.
Indeed. Some want to live within the beating heart of a city, and others just want to potter around in their own garden. And surprise surprise, some of us just want to live in the suburbs.
Hit by recession
The suburbs are not free from problems though. These generally relate to poverty, unemployment, and the integration of immigrants. Back in the 1990s, Finnish towns and cities had quite similar demographics all around the country. Since then, society has become more unequal, which can also be seen in the way people live. Some areas have more unemployed, low income and poorly educated residents than other areas. Poverty can result in exclusion and in turn cause a range of social problems.
Finland’s suburbs have been at the forefront of the country’s major structural changes. The oldest suburbs, for instance Maunula and Herttoniemi in Helsinki, were built for those moving to cities from rural areas. The suburbs were particularly hard hit by the unemployment that followed the depression of the 1990s. In the 21st century, the suburbs have received a large number of immigrants coming from outside Europe.
Services were late to reach the first suburbs. There was little for children and teenagers to do, which could lead to petty crime. The suburbs were specifically built for the working class, and the class perspective made its way into the discourse about the suburbs.
“When we speak about a place, we speak about the people that live there, and the impressions we have of them. Previously the problems revolved around the working population, but nowadays they’re principally linked to ethnic minorities,” says Lotta Junnilainen, a postdoctoral researcher in sociology.
Problem-oriented discourse creates an image of suburbs as “the other”, whereas elsewhere is considered normal.
The outsider’s gaze
Junnilainen conducted ethnographic studies in two suburbs over many years. She integrated into the local community, helped run a café, and ran a cooking club at the youth centre. She visited people, interviewed them, and generally hung out.
One of the most important realizations Junnilainen had through her fieldwork was that researchers, officials, and the representatives of suburb projects often approach the suburbs from a biased point of view. They assume that a unified culture or lifestyle prevails in the area. The outsider’s gaze easily leads to condescension.
“I happened to be at a meeting when it was explained to the residents of a suburb that the ‘complementary’ building planned in the area would help create a healthier community, as if the community had been somehow sick before,” Junnilainen recounts.
Last on the list
City councillors seldom live in low-income suburbs. Voter turnout is low and many are angry and disappointed in politics. Activists and advocates for change are few and far between.
“The local residents may say that this is the last place where streetlights get fixed. You can tell from the upkeep and maintenance how differently separate districts of a city are treated and how their residents are valued,” Lotta Junnilainen says.
However, the suburbs in the Helsinki metropolitan area are quite well off compared to the suburbs of slowly dying cities such as Kajaani and Kouvola. People living in these places don’t necessarily even get funds to renovate buildings because their value has plummeted.
Green spaces in danger
Politicians often suggest urban infilling as a means to develop an area. But according to Junnilainen, nothing is stopping us from taking better care of the existing surroundings. The suburbs of the 1960s and 1970s need renovating.
Urban infilling doesn’t always go over well with locals since it puts green spaces and wooded areas in jeopardy. The metropolitan area keeps growing regardless. Building next to existing public transportation networks is efficient.
One alternative to building in green spaces is to demolish old buildings. Sometimes relatively new buildings are bulldozed to make way for a denser and higher city. This is the case in the Helsinki districts of Meri-Rastila and Mellunmäki, for example.
It is hoped that new owner-occupied flats will bring the middle class to areas where most of the accommodation is currently social housing. Myllypuro, where the new campus of the Metropolia School of Applied Sciences was built, is a successful example of this kind of urban infilling.
“Finding the balance isn’t easy. In urban infilling it is important to respect each area’s character and design buildings that fit its particular aesthetic,” Teemu Kemppainen says.
A sense of menace?
Kemppainen’s recent research shows that the more social housing in a district, the greater the level of disturbances and sense of insecurity experienced there. That sense of insecurity is one of the reasons people wish to move out. The neighbour might mess up shared facilities, make a din or openly inject drugs.
“Disturbances are caused by a tiny minority of tenants. Nonetheless it’s only right that social housing is spread evenly everywhere and not concentrated in particular areas.”
Social services are really important for those suffering from substance abuse or facing mental health issues. They make it possible to intervene in intergenerational marginalisation.
“It’s important to give everyone the opportunity to stay involved,” says Kemppainen. “Inequality gives rise to tensions, which no-one wants.”
People feel insecure for a variety of reasons. I haven’t personally felt it in my neighbourhood, although I have occasionally in the Helsinki city centre.
The sins of the middle class
Not all suburbs are in a downward spiral. Districts on the up are united by workplaces, services and access to nature. Architecture too can be a pull factor, as was for example the case in Herttoniemi in the 1950s or Pihlajamäki in the 1960s.
When the middle class move away from a given suburb we speak of segregation; moves to the suburbs invoke the term gentrification. Nor is this necessarily a good thing because it can push prices even higher.
Kemppainen breaks into a laugh: “It seems that the middle class can’t get anything right when it comes to the suburbs!”
In Kemppainen’s view, there’s no need to be concerned about gentrification. Constant change is part and parcel of urbanity.
Roihuvuori, where I currently live, is typical in having undergone gentrification. We have our own book fairs, science club and quality coffee. I appreciate all these although life would be just fine without them too.
“The discussion topics around societal matters are often imports,” Kemppainen points out, “and the Finnish discourse on suburbs does reflect in part examples from other countries.”
The suburbs in a number of countries face real problems, as the rioting in Sweden and France have demonstrated. But in many respects the Finnish suburbs differ from those places. From the very beginning, zoning regulations mandated social mixing. Moreover, the police have a better rapport with people living in the suburbs.
What then can be learnt from other countries’ experiences?
Kemppainen is reflective: “A big question is just how well immigrants from outside the west find their place in society and progress in education, training and working life. There’s plenty of ostracism here, too.”
According to Junnilainen, we are at a critical juncture: will we take everyone living here to be members of the society? There’s simply no need to replicate the mistakes made elsewhere.
“There’s no shortage of research and knowledge on the subject.”
When a family plans to move, the parents are usually considering what would be a suitable place to bring up their child and send them to school. Research indicates that between schools in Helsinki there are big differences in pupils’ knowledge. But the differences are for the most part down to the children’s family background, not the schools as such.
Hence the family has a much greater bearing on success at school than the school or neighbourhood. According to Kemppainen, there is little to support the idea of “neighbourhood impact”: “I don’t think the living environment determines life so much. It’s more important to find your place in life and have significant people around you.”
Having been brought up in the suburbs and in turn having raised a family there, I have never been able to imagine offering anything better for my child by living somewhere else. For me, the suburb has never been second best or a poor compromise.
It would practically take the threat of violence to get me to move, if I or those close to me were at risk of getting caught up in gang warfare, as has happened in some places in Sweden.
The more than four decades I have spent living in four different suburbs have so far been incredibly peaceful. I hope this will continue.
We must not turn a blind eye to inequality, and social exclusion should be tackled. But talk about ghettoes only makes matters worse. It is also rather insulting to us, the residents of the suburbs. And there are plenty of us.
The article was published in Yliopisto magazine 1/2022 in Finnish. It was translated by Sarah Edwards, Anni Helste, Rasmus Hjelt, Sara Konttinen, Ronja Lampinen, Sara Lehmusruusu, Emilia Lilja, Isabella Lu, Asko Löytökorpi,Taika Marttinen, Mimmi Mommo, James O’Connor, Miro Palokallio, Panu Pesonen, Ella Pohjoismäki, Aapo Puhakka, Milla Puuronen, Elina Raasakka, Leevi Raussi, Liina Salin, Katarina Skogster, Helmi-Roosa Tikka, Riitu Tolonen, Saga Tuomi, Laura Turunen, Lemmy Uotila, Evita Viitala, Jasmin Vulli, John Calton, and revised under the supervision of John Calton and Nely Keinänen, university lecturers in English.
The popular perception of suburbs is of a concentration of apartment buildings removed from workplaces and services.
And yet Itäkeskus, for instance, is not a suburb, but rather a regional centre incorporating workplaces and a wide range of services. Then again, the Merihaka district, which looks like a suburb, is too close to the city centre to really count as one.
Verna Bernelius, Assistant Professor of Geosciences and Geography, reckons that our concept of the suburb needs to be rethought. Following the building of the first suburbs, the city has changed along with the residents and their expectations.
Bernelius is the research lead of Re:Urbia, a joint project between the University of Helsinki and Aalto University, which is a part of the Ministry of the Environment’s programme for suburban development. The research findings will be used for this programme.
The study has highlighted just how important schools are to suburbs and their communities. School premises could be made more available outside of school hours for local residents to meet and practise their hobbies. Schools are also an important factor in the suburb’s overall appeal, Bernelius points out.
“The reputation of the local school is often decisive for families with children as they choose where they are going to live.”
In its budget allocations, the city of Helsinki has begun to take affirmative action in the form of special grants to schools in low-income neighbourhoods. “It is useful,” says the researcher. The reputation of schools can also be strengthened with good management.
The relative trajectories of popular and less popular areas are inseparable, which underlines the need for close co-operation between planning, education, and welfare authorities to head off worsening segregation.
“We also need to consider whether we want to reverse any existing segregation by either exercising a degree of control over migration or by supporting people where they are. The concentration of haves and have-nots into separate areas has intensified and it’s the suburbs where these major social issues are being played out.”