Urban planning considers layers

Students joined forces with Helsinki’s City Planning Department, resulting in new perspectives on the urban districts of the future.

Poverty. The sea, day trips and community. Industry, railroad, gas and electricity plants. Constant change, gentrification, urban.

The word cloud about the street called Sörnäisten rantatie and the Merihaka district illustrates the history of the area from the late 19th century to the present day. In the 1920s, labour organisations would arrange boat trips to nearby islands. In the 2020s, people may be exploring Helsinki’s shoreline with city canoes.

Cooperation is a win-win

When the City Planning Department heard the proposal suggesting cooperation with the University of Helsinki and Aalto University, they answered with an enthusiastic yes. And it was easy to find a suitable area, as the zoning changes to Hakaniemenranta and Merihaka were under negotiation. The area is set for major changes as the city centre expands eastward. New apartments, commercial spaces and leisure areas will begin to emerge on vacant lots during the coming years. The city planners want to consider the wishes of the local population and the historical layers of the area when planning the zoning.

This autumn, a course on city planning and urban experiences helped them do just that. First, visiting lecturers explained the dimensions of the area, its historical layers and language. Then, students from the Faculty of Arts (Finnish language, Nordic languages, ethnology, history) joined students of geography and planning in small groups to consider potential research questions and methods, survey the material, and combine their different study and discipline practices. The work done by the students may in time find its way to the official zoning plan.

 “It is valuable and motivating that our coursework involves actual city planning," states Terhi Ainiala, university lecturer in the Finnish language and one of the teachers in charge of the course. The other responsible teachers include Pia Olsson, professor of ethnology, as well as Hanna Mattila, university lecturer in spatial planning and transportation engineering at Aalto University. The course is part of the programme organised by the urban research network.

 “The cooperation with the City Planning Department has gone really well," states Terhi Ainiala.

 “The city planners have been involved in the course and have commented on the ideas submitted by the students. It’s a win-win: the city gets more diverse and in-depth material than their officials could accumulate as part of their regular jobs, students get multidisciplinary experience, and everyone who lives in Helsinki gets to see the plans when they are ready.”

Multidisciplinary, multi-layered, multi-named

The small study groups were formed to be multidisciplinary so that the expertise of students from different fields would be mutually supportive.

 “Students from Aalto University bring technical skills to the research and planning of the urban environment, and they need the humanities to support them,” Terhi Ainiala explains.

The group tasked with studying emotions, memories, meanings and identity approached their topic from a perspective that combined history with the contemporary.

“Our group applied a number of methods. In addition to historical written sources, we used material gathered via a survey-based methodology known as PehmoGIS to visualise places of happiness. We distributed a digital survey form to people in the area through email, Facebook and a QR code we posted on notice boards,” explains Marianne Rytkönen, student of ethnology.

Rytkönen particularly remembers the duality of the area of Merihaka and Sörnäisten rantatie.

“The area has both positive and negative associations, memories and meanings. The brutalist architecture in Merihaka in particular, but also the autobahn-like motorway of Sörnäisten rantatie, are starkly different from their surroundings. People tend to either love or loathe the area.”

Names are another concrete part of city planning. A new area will need many new names for streets, alleys, squares and parks. History is very present in the current nomenclature in the Hakaniemi district. For example, the street Säästöpankinranta ("Savings Bank shore") was named after the restaurant founded by Kajsa Wahllund, which was nicknamed the "Savings Bank” due to its popularity among students, who would effectively deposit their money in the establishment during the 1830s. John Stenbergin ranta (“John Stenberg’s shore”) was named after a machine workshop company formerly located where the Hotel Hilton currently stands, and which was later bought by Wärtsilä. Sirkuskatu (“Circus street”) is the former name of a street called Paasivuorenkatu and was named after the Siltasaari Circus, which functioned in a former wallpaper factory.

Terhi Ainiala specialises in nomenclature. One of the groups examined names as symbols and how the commercial names in an area describe its history and characteristics. A new hotel is also being planned for the Hakaniemi area. Terhi Ainiala has tasked her students with proposing a name for this hotel. Even if the name is not officially used, it may still be adopted in the vernacular.

City planners of the future

The course has been exceptionally labour-intensive for the teachers, particularly since the course concept is a new one. Terhi Ainiala has previously conducted project-based courses with the City Planning Department, but this time there were many more moving parts. She had to coordinate the cooperation with the city planners as well as between the different disciplines and institutions, build the exhibition, draft the course materials, etc. On the other hand, the cooperation is very educational for both the students and teachers.

The intention is to continue with this course format.

“We could select another topically interesting area in Helsinki,” muses Ainiala.

“Rastila has been proposed as one option. We could also organise the course in other languages. The main thing is to find people who are willing and able to cooperate. If there's a will, there's a way."

The University values and is interested in cooperation with other educational institutions and third parties. Courses such as this one can also carry beyond the study years, as they may yield a traineeship position or even a job.

Posters presenting the results of the course will be on display in the Laituri space of the City Planning Department until 7 January. The exhibition is free of charge. At the same time, visitors can see the submissions for the architecture competition for the hotel being planned for the area.