Helsinki Makes Sustainability a Guiding Principle for Development


HELSINKI, Finland — When his tour as the American ambassador to Finland ended in 2015, Bruce Oreck decided to linger. Part of the draw was a business opportunity. In a neighborhood just north of the city center, Mr. Oreck paid about 11 million euros for a vast, abandoned, century-old train factory.

He has been transforming the site into a market and community center that he intends to be a model of green building and consumerism. But Mr. Oreck, who was a New Orleans tax lawyer and professional bodybuilder before he became an Obama political appointee, said he had stayed because he was enchanted by something besides the potential for real estate success.

“You don’t hear about it unless you spend time here, but something is happening in Helsinki that isn’t happening almost anywhere else,” Mr. Oreck said. “Helsinki is a city full of people waiting for the revolution. They really want to make the world a better place, and they’re trying to lead by example. Which is a paradox, because Finns are decidedly not showy people.”

The qualities Mr. Oreck is referring to are sometimes summed up by the term sustainability. In the world’s second-most northern capital, sustainability has moved from concept to guiding principle. It’s rare for a day to pass without hearing a form of the word deployed multiple times as an environmentally friendly noun, adjective or adverb.

But Helsinki has a parallel goal: The city has endorsed measures it hopes will earn it recognition as the world’s most functional city.

In Helsinki this aspiration will be judged against a measurable and widely shared benefit: New master-planned communities must integrate features allowing inhabitants to enjoy an extra hour of free time each day.

Nowhere are these ambitions more apparent than in Kalasatama, a 430-acre neighborhood east of the city center. Rising on an area previously used as docklands, the buildings are all commercially developed. The city retains ownership of about a third of the units, which it leases as government-subsidized housing. Yet even within projects entirely financed with private funds, the emphasis on community building is central.

“What we are seeing is developers working with buyers before construction to create more and new kinds of shared spaces than they would usually offer, because that’s what buyers are asking for,” said Maija Bergstrom, a project manager for Forum Virium Helsinki, the city agency overseeing planning in Kalasatama.

One such building is Sumppi, a co-housing project where costs were jointly financed by a group of about 70 people who until the process began had been strangers. Residents chose the building’s name for its double meaning. In Finnish, sumppi is slang for “let’s have coffee,” but the word also means “small fish,” appropriate for a building across the street from a Baltic seafront.

Last November residents moved into 39 units in a structure that is eight floors at its highest, with a six-floor wing. During the year-and-a-half planning phase and the 19-month development phase, the future occupants met regularly with the construction manager to review costs and inspect progress.

A wine cellar was canceled in favor of solar panels. There is also a geothermal heating system, and windows have three panes for energy efficiency. The building has underground parking, but there are fewer spaces than units. At one of their first meetings, in the communal living room, residents spiritedly debated whether to purchase four electric cars to share.

“Before construction even started, the owners agreed on some core values,” said Salla Korpela, a driving force behind the resurgence of co-housing in Finland and a partner in the firm Sagarak, which advised Sumpii’s builders. “For instance, the best places would be reserved for community use, and when choices had to be made, we should be guided by what would make life fun, easier and cheaper.”

The final cost was about €5,000 per square meter, or roughly $550 per square foot, around 20 percent over the initial estimate. But that was still considerably less than the average cost of a developer-built project nearby, which is closer to €8,000 per square meter.

ImageA shared area in one of the buildings in Kalasatama, a neighborhood of Helsinki. Built on former docklands, Kalasatama is laid out with the aim of saving energy and giving residents more leisure time.

Apartments range in size from studios to four bedrooms, and the layout of every unit is customized, owners having co-designed their spaces with the architects. One unit features a large art studio. In another, once the owners’ children reach adulthood, the rooms can be separated into two units. All of the apartments have large windows, and some have outdoor terraces. The best have southwest-facing views across the bay to the city center, where the tallest structures remain the tops of churches.

Residents can also see the forest-clad islands of the Helsinki archipelago. The nearest of those are less than half a mile away and are connected to the neighborhood by bridges. The island of Korkeasaari houses the city zoo, while Mustikkamaa offers a recreation area with beaches, tennis courts, hiking trails and a popular outdoor summer theater.

Apartments facing north look over a large shared courtyard, as well as numerous adjacent buildings. Not all of them are completed, and a wide pedestrian plaza also is still under construction.

The most inviting shared spaces are the top floors of the two wings, with their large saunas. A rooftop terrace has a garden as well as space for yoga classes and summer barbecues. The ground floor features the large common living room with sofas and armchairs; it has the feel of a private club. The room’s birch tables are from Artek, the Finnish modernist furniture maker started by Alvar Aalto. The building’s public spaces are framed by polished concrete that lends them a minimalist yet still comfortable feel.

Residents moved into Sumppi about a month before Finland sealed its borders against the pandemic. One of their first group activities was to form an in-house coronavirus committee led by two doctors. For the past several months, common spaces have not been used, and the saunas are available for only one family for one hour at a time. On Tuesdays, the communal laundry facilities are reserved for residents with pre-existing conditions. Residents have also done shopping and cooking for neighbors who were quarantined.

So far, about 4,000 people have moved to the Kalasatama community. By 2030, that number is expected to grow to about 25,000, and there will be office space for 10,000 workers. Most of the neighborhood will be composed of midrises under 10 floors, but the area is home to the city’s first skyscraper, 32 floors high. Within a few years, Kalasatama is expected to have eight skyscrapers from 32 to 37 floors in height.

In a bit of Finnish brio, the skyscrapers will be crowned by saunas shared by building occupants. These steam baths can be turned on and their temperatures set through a mobile phone application. One wall of each sauna will be glass, framing sweeping views out over the city and the 330-island archipelago.

At first glance, the dense but still-unfinished developments of Kalasatama resemble the new neighborhoods of most Western cities. But the emphasis on doing without fossil fuel is apparent.

“Our buildings have solar panels and wastewater heat recovery,” said Johanna Palosaari, a project development director for Hartela, a developer with four buildings in Kalasatama. “This isn’t normal in our projects elsewhere. Here, the city gave us requirements related to electric systems and building automation and control. We had to follow those regulations, of course. We promised also to develop certain smart solutions for the buildings.

“There isn’t much new development in the city center,” she added, “and so our projects have sold faster than usual.”

At the same time, beyond the green features, the cranes and the commercial infrastructure of coffee shops and farm-to-table restaurants, a radical rethinking of urban living and community is underway.

Among the projects completed or nearing completion are rental buildings for aging musicians and artists, owner-developed co-housing towers and multigenerational housing, where residents range in age from their 20s to their 90s. Units are slightly smaller than is typical in new-to-market developments. Nearly a fifth of the total space, however, is reserved for common areas like gyms, cinemas, libraries, music rooms, gardens and terraces.

Progress in Kalasatama is sufficiently advanced that residents can enjoy at least a portion of that sought-after extra leisure time.

In the skyscrapers, the timesaving starts as residents put on their shoes and use a smartphone app to signal an elevator to wait for them. They can use an app to order from a grocery store, where a robot will pluck the items from the shelves and deliver them to the apartment.

Credit…Eetu Ahanen

Kalasatama residents are not required to carry recycling to the street, nor are they stuck in traffic behind garbage trucks.

Every building in the neighborhood is connected to a network of pneumatic tubes that propel seven categories of trash at 70 kilometers an hour to a central collection point, where the materials arrive pre-sorted.

And no parent need walk farther than 300 meters to reach a free day care center.

Until recently, another neighborhood feature was a driverless “last mile” electric bus that would whisk passengers in less than five minutes to a metro station, but Helsinki’s growing fleet of autonomous buses has been shifted to other neighborhoods for testing, in settings with more bustling traffic.

“The area was designed to reduce the need for cars” said Kimmo Tupala, a communications manager for UNICEF Finland who lives in the area. “Maybe they did too good of a job, because I hardly see any cars on the road. Before moving here, I spent at least 40 minutes a day in my car. Since last September, I’ve hardly used my car ever, and I’m thinking of selling it.”

Ryan Weber, a 30-something software programmer from Minnesota, moved to Helsinki six years ago. Along with his Finnish partner, he bought a two-bedroom unit in Kalasatama.

“Back home, we spend a lot of time looking at data on what’s going wrong, or we create neighborhood apps that help us save a minute here, a minute there,” Mr. Weber said. “What I love here is all these features designed to make my life better. There’s a lot of trust in government here to make smart decisions, and compared to home, it just feels like everything runs smoothly.”

To improve services, the Kalasatama district now collects and freely circulates public digital data for 21 buildings, including information from water meters, heating systems and elevators.

“Data like that are the glue of a smart city, and like a lot of cities, Helsinki has really embraced experimentation,” said Carlo Ratti, director of the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “What’s interesting is that unlike, say, Google’s Sidewalk project in Toronto, which provoked a populist backlash, Helsinki has embraced a bottom-up approach to using data to improving the lives of residents.”

When it comes to green objectives, clear goals have been set for Helsinki, whose population is nearly 650,000. The metropolitan area has 1.4 million people.

The policies reflect the concerns of residents. A 2018 survey indicated that climate change and the future of their children were their top concerns, beating out by wide margins other issues like terrorism and unemployment.

Committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2035, Helsinki is improving public transport. The city already emits 28 percent less carbon than it did in 1990, according to the Carbon Neutral Initiative, a municipal task force. Over the last several decades, 100,000 fewer cars are on city streets each day, and walking has emerged as the prime means of getting to work.

Last year, as part of a new initiative called participatory budgeting, the City Council enabled residents to propose and vote on community improvements. By another wide margin, residents chose to plant an additional 100,000 trees in 2020.

Municipal data indicate that despite progress, the city remains a major carbon emitter, with most emissions coming from fossil fuels used to heat homes. Recognizing that many cities face similar problems, officials recently created the Helsinki Energy Challenge, a yearlong competition with a €1 million prize going to anyone in the world with the best idea for decarbonizing the city’s energy system.

The city’s transformation has been noticed by one of its most cleareyed observers.

“Thirty years ago when I left to live in Brazil, Helsinki had a kind of Soviet gloom,” said Mika Kaurismaki, the award-winning director of art-house films like “Zombie and the Ghost Train.” Mr. Kaurismaki, along with his movie director brother, is a co-owner of a bar in the Train Factory complex developed by Mr. Oreck, and he has an apartment in the city center where he spends part of each year.

“Now there’s so much less stress in the city,” Mr. Kaurismaki said. “I ditched my car, and now I get around by electric scooter. Today the city is much more international and open to new ideas.”