The Helsinki Experience

The Helsinki Experience

For the last couple of weeks we stayed in the Finnish capital. This city, as we mentioned in the last post, is undergoing great transformation. In the year 2008 the industrial port left the city center to move to the new Vuosaari Harbour. Since then several important waterfront developments have being taking place and the city skyline will change considerably over the next decades. The experience in Helsinki allowed us to know better the transformation process, the relation between the city and the port and the concerns for the future.

Bird's eye view Source: Helsinki ESPO award application
Bird’s eye view
Source: Helsinki ESPO award application

The work process followed was similar to the other cases analyzed so far. On the first place we made an intensive visit to the city and the affected areas, including the new port. During this time a photographic survey was carried out. The result can be seen in this gallery. At the same time we visited the relevant urban information institutions that could give us significant information regarding the urban evolution and the port-city relation. For this reason we visited the city museum, the urban development information center Laituri and another info-center focused in the Jätkäsaari area. Unlike other cases we did not visited the maritime museum since it is placed in another city, Kotka, and it is more focused in the maritime history than in the port.

In order to get the necessary impartial vision of this case we met with representatives from the port and the city. In this occasion we were able to interview Ms. Satu Aatra (SA), Planning Manager in the Port of Helsinki, and with Mr. Rikhard Manninen (RM), head of the Strategic Planning Division at the City Planning department of Helsinki and responsible for the team developing the new Masterplan.

The relation between the port and the city

Institutional level

During the research we came to know that the Port of Helsinki has changed it status very recently. This institution was until the end of last year a department of the municipality, as an independent entity but under the city hall management. In the beginning of this year, as told by SA, the port changed to be a limited company, however still under the “umbrella” of the municipality. This transformation gave them more independence and a stronger position when defending the port interests. Besides the direct and indirect economic impact and jobs generated by the port another argument for its presence in the city is its economic independence, the port is self-sustainable. It is an economic asset that does not cost money to the city in terms of investment or maintenance.

Another important aspect in the case of Helsinki is the ownership of the land. In many other port-cities one of the main challenges is the fact that the port is an important owner of valuable land. For this reason it has a certain power over what happens in its territories and what would happen in case they released it for urban uses. This situation very often leads to intense negotiation regarding the price of the land and the economical compensations. In some cases this issue might be the solution for financing the new port infrastructure, as we saw in Oslo. In Helsinki the situation is rather exceptional since the municipality is one of the main landowner in the city. Even the land the port uses for its activities is owned by municipality. In this case it works with long terms concessions allowing the port to build the necessary equipment or terminals remain as their property. Given the situation is clear that the city has a very powerful position and the port is in a weaker position when compared with other cases.

When we spoke with the planning professional they both explained that the relation between both institutions is complex and regarding some subjects rather tense. The most controversial issues affecting the relation are mainly the ferry traffic and its consequences and the fact that for some political sectors the port should be completely placed in the new harbour, releasing the territories in the city center. Also relevant was the process for the new Guggenheim museum that could explain how the relation between institutions works. These issues will be addressed later in this article.

It is important to mention that although there are some tension points, there is an effort being made for the collaboration between the planning departments of both organisms. During our meeting with RM he explained that there is a minimum of four meetings per year between the port and urban planning authorities in order to synchronize main planning goals and agendas. To these meeting also representatives from the ferry companies attend to exchange ideas that could improve the collaboration between the different stakeholders.

Emotional level

The history of the city is deeply connected with the port. Helsinki was founded as a commercial port and we see the maritime character of the city in its evolution and in the waterfront. During the time spent here we were able to notice that this connection still is important for the citizens. Both interviewees agreed that for the city the port is a relevant part of its identity. As it was mentioned by SA, for the inhabitants the port holds an important place in the collective memory, although it might be somehow bucolic and detached from the current operation of the port. It is generally known that the ISPS (International Ship and Port Facility Security) code does not allow a direct interaction with the port activity as it used to be. For this reason the more mature citizens pass their memories to the youngster and these ones still identify the port as an important place for them, although they did not experienced the same interaction as their grandparents.

South Harbour Source: http://www.istopoli.com/
South Harbour
Source: http://www.istopoli.com/

The City Museum explains vaguely the importance of the port, but this issue might be solved in the next years when the new city museum is opened. When we asked other people who have no direct relation with the port or planning department they all agreed that the port is part of the city.

In the current moment the port only takes 11 km of the 130 km waterfront, hence the port is no longer an obstacle for reaching the water. The regeneration project could play an important role if they are able to keep the port identity. If the people feel the port as their own probably they will support its location in the city center. This aspect along with the location needs from ferries and economic benefit they bring might be the best argument the port has to keep its presence in the city.

Vuosaari

The move of the port facilities from the city center to the Vuosaari Harbour was decided by the city planning department in the masterplan from 1992. At that time, as it was explained by RM, the discussion was mainly focused on improving the port capacity. During the discussion an alternative location was considered, in Kirkkonummi, west from Helsinki. At that time the municipality acknowledged the important economic role the port played for the city and the region. Only later the planning authorities saw the potential of the areas released by the port in the city for implementing a waterfront regeneration project focused on housing and mixed use.

The construction of the new terminal, as explained by SA, was a joint venture between the urban and national authorities. Although there was an existing large shipyard, more land was needed for the construction of the new port. At the same time there was a necessary coordination with the national authorities, not just for the financing but also for the connections with the road and railway networks. RM explained that it was a complex and long process. The location is near a Natura 2000 area which needed to be protected from pollution and noise. At the same time there was a difficult negotiation with a private landowner. Finally the project was developed between 2003 and 2006.

After the new harbour was built and the port started to work there in 2008, the institution has felt a certain pressure regarding its current location. We have seen during the second half of the XXth century that the waterfront have become one of the preferred location for new urban development projects. This international trend has been seen by the port with certain apprehension and somehow a possible threat towards its position in the city. This behavior is understandable if, as mentioned by SA, we see that the general process has been to “expel” the port from the city and also that there are political sectors who believe all port activities, including the ferries, should be located in Vuosaari. This critical voices might have forgotten what was acknowledged in the masterplan from 1992. The port is relevant for the city for economic and identity aspects.

Vuosaari harbour Source: http://www.aprt.fi/
Vuosaari harbour
Source: http://www.aprt.fi/

In the new masterplan we will see that a future expansion for the Vuosaari harbour is considered. As explained by RM the port accepted this decision with some mistrust since it could be seen as an argument to force moving all the ferry traffic outside the city. In the same interview it was also explained that the main reason for this expansion is possible future port growth and new logistic needs. These issues were consulted with experts from the city hall.

The ferries

The ferries activities are the main issue in the port-city relation. In the case of Helsinki this is a particularly complex situation. The elevated number of connections, almost 11 million passengers and a considerable cargo traffic difficult the integration of this infrastructure in the city. These figures are even more impressive if we consider that they have been reached after 10 years of unstoppable growth. One decade ago, before the Vuosaari harbour was developed, nobody could foresee the impact this sector would have in the city and port economy, and in the urban traffic.

We already saw in Oslo that this is a difficult problem. In order to be profitable these companies, just like the cruises, need a fast access to the city center, therefore its location outside the urban core is not possible. We must consider that this specific sort of maritime traffic is particularly complex since it combines passengers, many taking also their own car, with cargo, mainly trailers, that will be directly taken by trucks when arrived to destination.

The ferry companies need the combination of the different activities in order to be profitable. In the case of Helsinki the situation is more intense than others because we find not just tourist that come for a short visit, but also commuters that live in Tallinn and work in Finland. For this reason there is not a seasonality as strong as in the cruise industry, therefore the traffic generated is constant all year around.

At the present moment there are three ferry terminals near the city center (Katajanokka, South Harbour and West Harbour) and one in Vuosaari. As it was mentioned, through these terminals pass every year almost 11 million passenger and between 25% and 30% of the port cargo. This intense traffic, as explained by SA,  might bring up to 4000 vehicles every day to the city, which is a significant number. Although we have to put this figure in perspective with the general traffic in Helsinki main roads. There is no argue that the ferry traffic makes an impact in the city, but in general terms the city needs to improve the traffic management system. This is one of the main concerns for the new city plan, and it will be handled properly.

Ferries in the south harbour
Ferries in the south harbour

The traffic problem is a challenge for the next masterplan, particularly to one of the boldest ideas developed on it, the transformation of urban highways into more urban boulevards. The positive effect this change could bring to the city is unquestioned, but how it can deal with the traffic generated by goods transportation, not just generated by the ferries but also by the business operating in the city center, is yet to be seen. This issue will be studied in further detail in the implementation plan, the following step once the masterplan is effective.

In order to deal with the heavy traffic generated by the ferries there was also considered the option of building tunnels under the city center. This possible solution that could indeed solve the issue still is considered in the masterplan, but will be up to the decision makers in the municipality to see if it is a viable option. As we know, this option implies a significant investment and a complex construction process that could last many years. On the other hand, this solution has already been developed in other cases with positive outcomes, just like we saw in Oslo in previous posts.

The discussion regarding the location of the ferry terminals has been going on for several years. The necessary common ground could have been found. In the West Harbour redevelopment project a new ferry terminal is under construction. Once this strategic decision has been taken it seems unlikely that the ferries will be forced to move outside the city. Also during the interview with the Urban planning department RM clarified that the ferries and passenger ships traffic has been accepted as one important element of the cityscape, it would not be reasonable to insist in moving them outside the center.

New ferry terminal in West Harbour Source: http://satamauudistuu.fi/
New ferry terminal in West Harbour
Source: http://satamauudistuu.fi/

For this issue there is even another possibility being contemplated. If the ferry traffic continues to grow it might be necessary to consider a redistribution of the terminals. In this scenario the possible relocation of some ferry lines in Vousaari could be considered. In order to make this solution effective the existing subway line should be extended until the harbour area. This is a considerable investment, that is also difficult to justify if it is only going to be made for the ferry passengers. In the masterplan the subway extension is an open possibility that will have to be decided in the future.

New areas in the Waterfront

Helsinki urban development areas Source: http://www.portusonline.org/helsinki-converting-waterfronts-intoresidential-areas/
Helsinki urban development areas
Source: http://www.portusonline.org/helsinki-converting-waterfronts-intoresidential-areas/

West Harbour – Länsisatam – Jätkäsaari

The project to be developed in the West Harbour is probably the most relevant for the port-city relation. This project, along with the south harbour, is the only new area where port and urban activities will still have to coexist. The new district will host the new ferry terminal build to give answer to the increasing demand in the Tallinn-Helsinki connection. This new terminal will be placed further south extending the area to the end pier. At the same time the new construction will allow new berths for the ferries making this connection.

The construction of the new city district is currently taking place and several housing areas have already been developed. But the greater construction phases are yet to come. In the waterline we see a new landmark gaining shape in form of a 16 floors tower that will host a hotel. This project will give an interesting urban landscape since this new construction in Jätkäsaari will contrast with the existing shipyards. This industrial settlement will continue where it is. The company that owns the shipyards has the intention of staying in Helsinki and the masterplan also counts with its presence in the waterfront.We will be able to see an urban maritime atmosphere in this area like in very few places in the city.

West Harbour Project Source: www.hel.fi
West Harbour Project
Source: http://www.hel.fi

Kalasatama

In the North harbour, or fish harbour as it used to be known, the presence of the port activities will disappear. Nowadays the responsibility of the port is resume to keeping the access and the dock for the coal supply for the existing power plant. In the future with the probable deactivation of the plant this function will no longer be required.

In this new city district we will see one of the biggest development projects in Helsinki, including several skyscrapers. The focus of the plan is mainly housing, but it will also include several office spaces. The main question remains what will happen with the existing industrial areas. As mentioned, before the power plant is a major decision for this new district, its future is currently under discussion. If Helsinki wants to succeed in its quest of being carbon neutral the presence of a coal powered will hinder this goal. When the decision to deactivate the plant is reached, then the issue would be what to do with this important mass placed in the waterfront. The construction characteristic do not allow an easy reconversion, but it could be considered as industrial heritage element, perhaps for cultural purposes.

We have seen that many housing project will be developed. Very often in the waterfront regeneration projects these new apartments have high prices, hence the new inhabitants are probably from high income classes. The gentrification process is very strong and in some cases inevitable. In Helsinki this might not happen so clearly as in other port cities. The strong position of the municipality as landowner allows a bigger regulation of the market. Therefore, since the land owned by the city is very often not sold to a private but instead long term rented the city can apply certain rules. In the areas here presented, as it was told by RM, the distribution will be: 20% of all housing should be subsidized, 40 % would have controlled prices, following the Hitas system. Finally the remaining 40% should be traded in a free market.

The system used by the municipal authorities allows a better social diversity, hence the waterfront has a more public character that in other port cities.It is important to know that although the majority of the land belongs to the city, there are some plots that have been sold to private. Also the area where the oil harbour used to be belongs to private hands and is currently under development.

Kalasatama urban development Source: http://en.uuttahelsinkia.fi/
Kalasatama urban development
Source: http://en.uuttahelsinkia.fi/

The Guggenheim process 

The Guggenheim museum development process has been an important matter for the city and the port in recent times. Also a complex issue between different institutions. As we know the construction of a new museum of this scale very often generates a lot of discussion at different levels.

In this case the architectural competition for the new cultural venue took this issue to the international stage. The scale of the competition, 1715 entries, generated a significant debate in the media regarding the work produced, the different approaches and even an analysis to state of the arts in architecture. In a more local context the public argument is whether is reasonable to invest in this new infrastructure if Helsinki already has an important cultural venues network, and other museums are already under construction. Also there is the problem of paying to a foreign cultural institution to place in the city a franchise of their museum. The ongoing debate might have undermine the public support to the initiative even before the final design is known.

Winning design Source: http://www.moreaukusunoki.com/
Winning design
Source: http://www.moreaukusunoki.com/

The main issue regarding the port-city relation in this case is the fact that the new museum will be placed in an area the port is currently using. The activities happening there, parking lot and catamaran ferry to Tallinn, could certainly be rearranged and improved, but this issue was not considered as one of the priorities of the competition. Is important to remember that the city owns the land where the port is placed therefore has great decision making capacities in this area. On the other hand the conciliation between the different activities, cultural, urban and port, was not a priority. The nonexistent role played by the port in the whole process is clear not only in the competition report, but also when we see the composition of the jury. Out of 11 members not one was representing the port.

We must also point out that the process is only in the beginning, the chance for collaboration is still possible. The winning design by Moreau Kusunoki Architectes has a certain flexibility, besides the inherent architecture quality. This aspect leaves the door open to a future integration of the different activities existing in the area.

Winning design from moreau kusunoki architectes Source: http://www.moreaukusunoki.com/
Winning design from moreau kusunoki architectes
Source: http://www.moreaukusunoki.com/

Port strategy towards the city

During the interview with SA we were able to see the what are the main strategies followed by the port to have a “healthy” relation with the city. At this point is relevant to know that the Port of Helsinki received an award from ESPO in the year 2010 for the societal integration of the port. If we read the application document we see that indeed the port carried numerous initiatives at that time, perhaps motivated by the move of the port to Vuosaari.

The port continues to develop a social program to insist in its integration. For example, besides the official website with all the port information and the different publications, we can also find specific information webpages. There is one specific important case, the website dedicated to the port development projects. In this page we can see what the port is doing in the west harbour or the different initiatives taking place at the moment.

The activities aforementioned have a particular focus in the younger audience. The PA has developed a stronger program with the schools to allow the youngsters to visit the port and get to know how it works from the inside. This measure presented several security challenges that were solved without affecting the port operations.

In terms of the general public the port has hosted several open days in recent years, but without an specific date. This events often take place associated to other venues, or in some cases they are linked to different target groups.

Helsinki (44)
Information Billboards

Regarding the existing information billboards placed along the waterfront we came to know that they do not belong to the port. They belong to the city and were placed long time ago, when the port was still a city department.

At the moment there is no port-center where one could get to know the history of the port and the role it plays in the city. In the city museum the information is relatively scarce. This issue, as mentioned before, might be solved next year when the new city museum open its doors.

Port innovation: Buffer zones, lighting, sound barriers, traffic control

One of the most relevant aspects in the Helsinki study case is the use of buffer zones. We have seen before that they were necessary for the Vuosaari harbour in order to protect the existing Natura 2000 spaces. These green areas, besides protecting the natural reserve, also work as “cushion” between the housing developments in Vuosaari and the harbour. They were also used for creating a new golf course, a compatible activity with the industrial port activities.

In the new port we also find several other aspects that are innovative. For example the lighting scheme and sound barriers developed by the architectural office APRT. The illumination is a very important subject in Finland since they have very reduced amount of sunlight during great part of the year. For this reason is normal to develop proper illumination projects with architects and landscape architects. The sound wall is particularly relevant because it is the “façade” of the port to the natural reserve. Besides reducing the acoustic pollution produced by the harbour activities, integrates the vegetation in its structure and contains an sightseen point for the port and the natural park.

Vuosaari at night Source: http://www.aprt.fi/
Vuosaari at night
Source: http://www.aprt.fi/

The other relevant innovation are measures being developed to diminish the impact of the heavy traffic generated by the ferries. This strategy consist in the combination of an already efficient automatic check-in system for the trucks with several waiting areas, placed outside the urban core, some of them in the buffer zones. This system would allow the traffic generated by the cargo coming in the ferries to flow with less waiting areas required. At the same time the trucks could await in places where they do not cause any problems, releasing the waterfront for other uses. A similar system has been working in Valparaiso, Chile.

Heritage

Helsinki was an important industrial city. Part of this past can be seen in several building in the city, like the Kaapeli factory or the gasometers in Kalasatama area. The port only owns one building listed as heritage, the Olympia terminal, next to its headquarters. The port is responsible for its properties and looks after them. However there are several old warehouses that probably were port property but are now private and have been transformed to alternative uses. We can find them in Katajanokka, where another waterfront regeneration project took place in 1980’s.

The old cranes are another important part of port industrial heritage. In Helsinki we can find them in the Munkkisaari area. They are owned by the city and the main concern should be to keep them as a memory of what once used to be there. There is a anew project prepared for the area where they are placed, and hopefully these cranes will be respected and integrated in the design.

Old cranes by the docks
Old cranes by the docks

Personal Opinion

The case of Helsinki is very particular regarding the powerful position its municipality holds. This characteristic has on one hand limited the decision making capacity of the port, but on the other hand has allowed a plan led waterfront regeneration of significant proportions. In this context, and in an often difficult position, the port has tried to defend its interests and stay in the city. The efforts have resulted in a compromise between the responsible authorities to allow the presence of the port recognizing its economic and identity value.

The dialogue between the concerned stakeholders is crucial to find the common ground for a sustainable development. In this case the regular meetings and mutual recognition are the backbone of the relation. The problem might surge when the stronger actor abuses of its position to impose its will without the agreement of the other actors. So far this has not happened, although the port recognizes a certain pressure towards its position.

During the time spent in this city we acknowledged how difficult the ferries situation is. The success of this sector is definitely something from which city and port benefit. Is a crucial part of the twin-city program. However there is the risk of dying of its own success. If the traffic and other externalities caused by these activities become too big the port risks losing the favorable public opinion. We have seen that the people living in nearby areas already might not be so pleased with the current situation. In this case the constant dialogue with the neighbors is important, but it might be necessary to go further. For example, in Hamburg a commitment was found with the developers of the housing projects near the port to implement a certain type of construction quality regarding windows and soundproofing, or even designing the house distribution to diminish the negative effects of living near the port. In the case of Helsinki a positive reinforcement program could be developed, for example by giving one free ferry ticket per year or a discount to the most affected citizens.

The Guggenheim process could be a metaphor of the relation between the different parts, where the stronger stakeholder is somehow imposing an agenda. Besides the discussion if it is reasonable or not to develop yet another cultural venue, we could see the process as a missed opportunity for the collaboration between city and port. It would have been a very interesting approach for both the museum and the harbour.

The mixed programs building are a path into the future for several reasons. They allow occupancy at different schedules; they are economically more viable; in terms of environment are more sustainable; also the risk of a failed investment is reduced. At the same time it would have been very interesting to see under a new development the transition of uses, from the most intense port activity, including the cargo coming through the ferries, to the most urban ones, the cultural agenda of the city. If we see it from another point of view, it could be considered as a connection between local challenges and global fluxes, both in terms of transport and it terms of culture if the inclusion of a ferry terminal and port center in the project would have been considered. The process is not finished so there is the possibility to correct the path and use this development as a chance to strength the port-city identity of Helsinki.

The maritime identity of the city is very clear when we walk on the waterfront, we can see old wooden ships, ice breakers, marinas, ferries and fishing ships. Besides there are also the shipyards, old warehouses and old cranes. This Genius Loci must be preserved. The new development projects must integrate these elements without affecting their meaning. Not all waterfront areas are the same, the variety should be protected and enhanced. A special sensibility is required when acting in these areas, otherwise there will be 130 km of green waterfront without a particular attachment to the place and the history. The construction started recently and the process will last for several decades, for this reason the benefit of the doubt is here needed.

When we see that the city and the citizens have the port as an important part of the collective memory it would be important to reinforce this aspect. The communication strategy followed by the city and the port regarding the port history could be improved. The city museum contains insufficient information and the existing billboards on the waterfront are in poor condition. In order to give to the people the information about what used to be there it would be interesting to find a more effective communication strategy. The project developed in Oslo could be a good example of how to do it.

The transformation of Helsinki is only in the beginning, therefore some aspects of the case are difficult to evaluate. The first steps are promising and looks like the change will improve significantly this growing city.

We could learn from several innovative practices developed by the PA and the city. The Vuosaari move was very successful and is a good example of how to implement a new port in the XXIst century. The way it relates with the context, the transparency, the sensibility to certain elements (like the lighting) and the general organization are positive aspects to be studied. The traffic management strategy to be implemented could be an important innovation to be applied in other cases. Helsinki is a proud port-city, the relation of the port with the citizens is probable the most important element of this case. This is something to be admire and to replicate in other contexts, for example Lisbon