Tuesday, June 01, 2010

City planning with a passion for the human scale

HELSINKI/DESIGNING THE FUTURE. If you have a hard time imagining a city planner as a passionate crusader, you haven’t met Mikael Sundman.
He is a recently retired senior planner from the Finnish capital Helsinki, where he helped shape the city’s development for more than 30 years. Sundman fought for the human scale in the urban landscape and his work made him a legendary planner.
“Urbanity means that opposites will meet; young and old, rich and poor and so on. When we build it has to be for everybody. That has been my main idea”, he says when we meet in Stockholm, a city he likes to spend time in.
I’m preparing a trip to Helsinki and Sundman (right) has promised to give me a background to recent and planned development in the Finnish capital.
As we unfold a big map of Helsinki, Sundman brings out a pen. He circles city districts on the map and scribbles down the years they were built. When I later come to Helsinki I just have follow Sundman’s directions on the map to get a picture of how Helsinki has developed over the past 30-40 years.
As I walk around in central Helsinki, I enter a second-hand bookshop where I’m glad to find an old copy of a small black-and-white book from 1970 that perhaps can be seen as the starting point of Mikael Sundman’s career as the passionate city planner.
As a young assistant at the Technical College’s architecture department, Sundman and another young colleague wrote a book called “Whose is Helsinki?”. In the book the young architects/planners describe how the residents of Helsinki are being run over by car-oriented city planning, and how the city centre is taken over by offices.
Already 40 years ago Sundman saw the dangers of a development that many cities still are just beginning to deal with.
He would soon get a chance to continue his struggle within the city planning system.
Sundman points at the map of Helsinki:
“Here you can see Magnitogorsk when you come to Helsinki”, he says, referring to a classic example of Soviet-Russian communist style city building in the Ural Mountains.
What he’s pointing at is a Helsinki district called Merihaka (Havshagen in Swedish), a 1970’s residential area dominated by grey, concrete housing blocks of a kind you would presumably find a lot of in Magnitogorsk.
“And this was our reaction to Magnitogorsk”, he says, pointing at Katajanokka (Skatudden) on the map, where he helped design the plans for his first residential district in the latter part of the 1970’s.
Beyond the famous Uspenski Cathedral, the harbour and some classic examples of Helsinki’s art nouveau (jugend) architecture, Sundman and his colleagues designed the winning plans for a residential district dominated by low rise houses in red brick. It was a clear contrast to the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s ideal of the modernist high rise suburbs.
“It was a return to the classic neighbourhood block. We wanted to have a mix of different social groups in the district. It’s a theme we continued on since then”, says Sundman.
He has worked on many district plans over the years. One of his favourite projects is clearly Arabianranta (Arabiastranden), a district famous for integrating art into the building process (I wrote about it last week, here).
Mikael Sundman comes from the Swedish-speaking minority in the bilingual Finland, and is therefore also proud of how the planning of Arabianranta helped create a small cluster of Swedish-language educational facilities and activities in the district.
As he continues to point out districts on the map, he encourages me to visit the suburb of Vuosaari (Nordsjö) on the eastern outskirts of Helsinki. Vousaari is the site for Helsinki’s new harbour, where cargo port activities are moving. This has opened possibilities for vast new waterfront developments in central Helsinki (more about that in a later report).
But that is not why I’m going there. Vousaari, at the end of the metro line, is a1960’s suburb that has had its share of social problems. Mikael Sundman now sees it as a good example of how you can turn things around through thoughtful urban planning.
“We wanted to lift the standard of the district through higher quality developments on the waterfront. It has had quite an impact”, he says.
On a warm and sunny early summer day, the impression is spectacular as I walk along the beach right in front of the new residential districts (right). The feeling is more Mediterranean than Nordic.
From a population of 14,000 in the late 1980’s the population of Vuosaari is expected to reach 40,000 in the coming decade.
“Helsinki has been allowed to develop at a pace that has been manageable. I think that has been essential. We have never felt pressure from politicians to speed things up”, says Sundman.
“And we as city planners have been given a lot of freedom in our work on the projects”, he adds.

This is the third in a series of reports from Helsinki.

Magnitogorsk in Helsinki; a 1970's development that inspired planners...

...to design a new residential district on Katajanokka/Skatudden.

Living on the beach in the Helsinki suburb Vuosaari/Nordsjö.