The daughter of the Baltic Sea: Helsinki

The daughter of the Baltic Sea: Helsinki

Helsinki, Port City, capital City

Helsinki is the capital of Finland. A city with over 600 000 inhabitants and approx. 1,4 mill in the metropolitan area. These are relevant numbers if we consider that the overall population of Finland is just of 5.5 million persons. Also the Helsinki metropolitan area is responsible of approx. one third of the country´s GDP.

The city is placed in the shore of the Finland Gulf, a region that also includes other important cities like St. Petersburg and Tallinn, with which Helsinki has historical bounds. Geographically is a very complex area, as we can see in the images, the city has around 300 islands of different sizes and almost 130 km of waterfront. This context has forced a complex urban settlement and it is an important challenge in terms of urban and port planning.

Finland’s capital is a relatively young city when compare to others. It was founded in 1550 slightly northern than its present location, in the shores of the parish of Helsinge, by King Gustavus I Vasa, from Sweden. The goal was to create a merchant port city to rival with Tallinn on the other side of the Gulf of Finland. Later on, in 1640, the city was moved to its current location, from where the sea was more accessible.

Helsinki and Finland have spent most of its history under control of foreign kingdoms or empires. Until 1808 was integrated in the Swedish Kingdom as an important city for commerce and strategic reasons, but no as a Capital. During this period the city suffered several important fires and invasions by foreign troops, mainly the Russians. In 1808, after another Russian invasion, it passed to the hands of the emperor Alexander I. From that moment it gained the status of capital city of the Grand Duchy of Finland. During this time the city grew and gained several institutions that would express its capital city role, like the University, the Theatre or the Senate. The urban plan was drawn by J.A. Ehrenström, and C.L.Engel was appointed architect for the construction of the city.

Map of Helsinki, 1837 Source:
Map of Helsinki, 1837

During the Russian domination Helsinki established itself as capital city and developed an important cultural life. At the same time it gained a multicultural profile and even tourism started to flourish with the neighbor city of St. Petersburg.

During the first World War Helsinki was an important naval base, particularly the fortress of Suomenlinna, an important Landmark in Helsinki´s shore that has played a relevant role in its history. During the last phase of the World War I, in 1917, and in a tense social atmosphere, Finland´s Parliament approved the declaration of independence and Helsinki is the capital of the new republic.

Right after Finland became an independent country the civil war took place, with two sides named the whites (conservatives) and the reds (pro-bolchevikes). The first ones won the war with the help of the Germans. Over the last century Finland has kept a complicated relation with the Russian neighbor and has been involved in different conflicts because of this reason. During the World War II Helsinki suffered several bombings but nothing compared to what happened in German cities during the same conflict. This allowed the city to recover relatively fast and to keep most of its relevant buildings intact.

The last half of the XXst century was a growing period for Helsinki, during which its population would pass the half-million mark and the city would grow significantly. This expansion took place mainly in the outskirts encouraged by the massive presence of automobiles. Later on this car dependence would become a problem the city tries overcome.

In recent times one of the major changes that we have seen in Helsinki was the relocation of the main industrial port facilities to the new harbor of Vuosaari. This change would allow several significant urban projects destined to plan the future of the city. It is expected a significant increase of the number of inhabitants, some indicate around 200 000 to 250 000 until 2050.

The port of Helsinki

In the case of the Finnish capital the port is the raison d’être of the city. Since always it has been one of the main gateways for the import and export of cargo of the country. Nowadays is a crucial infrastructure for trade and passenger traffic. In a recent study about the economic impact of the port in the country and region´s economy it was explained that in terms of GDP it has an impact of 1% in the country, 2,7% in the region and 4,8% in the city.

The importance of the port is also clear in terms of employment. In the mentioned study is said that the port employs 24 000 people, we guess that is including direct and indirect jobs but is not explained. This number means 7,6% of Helsinki´s workforce and 1% of the entire country.

Regarding the distribution of the impact in the GDP of the different activities we see that clearly the cargo traffic is responsible for the 77% of this effect in the economy, and passenger traffic for 23%. However, in the same study we can see that this distribution is not the same in jobs. In this case the passenger traffic is responsible for 44% of the generated jobs and cargo traffic for 56%.

Port of Helsinki, Key figures. Source: Port of Helsinki
Port of Helsinki, Key figures.
Source: Port of Helsinki

Besides the obvious economic importance of the port, it is also one of the main identity elements in the urban landscape, particularly in the waterfront. Although the industrial port is no longer present in the city, since it moved to Vuosaari in 2008, the passenger and cargo ferry traffic has an important presence, that somehow creates a dynamic skyline. This sector is responsible for the majority of the almost 11 million passengers that pass through the port every year. Also between 25 and 30% of the Port comes in the ferries. This intense traffic is focus mainly in three destinations: Tallinn, Stockholm and St. Petersburg. In the first case, due to the short distance between both cities (80km), is even a commuters service, serving people that live in Tallinn and come to Helsinki for professional reasons.

The port before 2008 it used to be in several locations along the urban waterfront. Besides the land where ferry terminal are, the port used to take also the areas of Jätkäasaari in the west harbor and Sompasaari in Kalasatama in the east part of the city. Several decades ago the port had even more territories, specifically the Katajanokka island. At the present time, and after the main industrial port areas moved to Vuosaari, the port has reduced its presence in the city to the passenger terminals, the cargo handling associated with them and the remaining shipyard in the west harbour.

The waterfront

We have seen that the presence of the port in the city has been considerably reduced in last decade. But the changes in the waterfront started long before that. In the article written by Kyösti Oasmaa we can read that already in the 1970´s and 1980´s the first waterfront regeneration project already took place in Merihaka and Katajanokka. Later on from the 1980´s until early 2000´s also in Ruoholahti we could see another port territory be reconverted. It is clear though that the major change is taking place now, a process that started in 2008 and will continue during the next decades.

Since the industrial port moved out of the city several simultaneous operation have been taking place. In West Harbour we can identify different projects happening right now. Jätkäsaari is the main one in terms of size, but there are others, like Hernesaari, Salmisaari and Telakkaranta. All this new areas will be transformed into a mixed use neighborhood and it will join the Einraranta project, already finished, to form a new urban area by the waterfront. The figures of the West Harbour development are remarkable, all together the transformation will affect an area of 200 Ha, creating housing for 30 000 new residents and 20 000 workplaces.

West Harbour Project Source:
West Harbour Project

On the east part of the city we also see a major waterfront regeneration project, Kalasatama. In this redevelopment project the area to be transformed is not just port territories, but also several major industrial brownfields or the transformation of functioning power plants. Just like in the West Harbour project the numbers are impressive, in this case the area comprises 175 Ha of land, the construction should last until 2035, it should create housing for 20 000 new residents and 8000 new workplaces.

Helsinki future development projects Source: Municipality of Helsinki
Helsinki future development projects
Source: Municipality of Helsinki

As we have seen Helsinki is undergoing great transformation. We will see how all these new projects affect the relation with the port, and what role should it play in the city. Also we will see how is the relation between the city and the port, both in an institutional level and on an “emotional” one. In order to get the most precise information we will interview Ms. Satu Aatra, planning manager from the Port Authority of Helsinki, and Mr. Rikhard Manninen, director of the strategic Urban Planning Division.