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Could Your City Benefit from DIY Urban Planning? Yes, the Experience from Pro Helsinki 2.0 Suggests

It's been a bit more than a year since I and my urbanist comrades accomplished one of the most exciting things ever – well, at least as far as urban planning goes. Following about 10 months of work during evenings, weekends, and holidays, in October 2014 we finally published Pro Helsinki 2.0, the alternative master plan for Helsinki.

For those not familiar with the project, head here to learn more about its contents. But in short, it's a DIY urbanism initiative that emerged out of a need to diversify discussions around Helsinki's official new master plan project. And, essentially, to propose something better than the city administration is. Pro Helsinki 2.0 illustrates how Helsinki could develop in a more sustainable way than its counterpart and offer more choice to the housing market by reviving the urban block.

Pro Helsinki 2.0The Pro Helsinki 2.0 map. If you read Finnish, check out the complete work here. Image by Urban Helsinki.

My previous update on our work is from the day we made it public. Since then, a lot has happened with the city's official master plan process. The draft version came out in late 2014 (about a month after ours) and the proposal followed in late 2015. The proposal is now under public review and is set to be adopted in late 2016.

Photo credit: Pekka Haavisto.Finally, our publication event on 29 Oct 2014! Photo credit: Pekka Haavisto.

In a sense, "a lot has happened" is maybe an overstatement because content-wise the city's plan has remained almost entirely the same throughout the phases. As such, it'll enter the mountain of plans designed within the walls of city hall and via a public participation culture best characterized as "design-present-defend".

Helsinki's Master Plan ProposalHelsinki's Master Plan Proposal. Map by KSV.

Although I must admit that this plan involved a pretty neat public consultation project before the official drafting began. But apart from that and legal requirements, in many ways they could have adopted the plan already in 2014 instead of waiting until the end of 2016. At least from our plan's perspective.

So you could say our effort to incorporate more urbanistic ideas and emphasis to the plan failed.

In reality, things are of course not this simple.

Pro Helsinki 2.0 workshop.We started our Pro Helsinki 2.0 work with a workshop to collect ideas from fellow urbanists. Photo credit: Antti Auvinen.

First, the official plan is incredibly ambitious. It proposes redoing motorways into boulevards and expanding the urban core –ideas that both are still surprisingly often condemned as heresy by professionals and residents alike.

Thus, many synergies already existed from the get-go between our proposals. We're more than satisfied these bits of the plan haven't experienced much alteration.

A vision for a new boulevard. Image by: 3D Render / Helsingin kaupunkisuunnitteluvirasto.Adios motorways! A vision for a new boulevard in Helsinki. Image by: 3D Render / KSV.

Second, our ideas were big. We knew they wouldn't fly as such. But going big was the only way to highlight large-scale planning problems. The official plan is ambitious, but far from perfect. There are major shortcomings as well. Such as the isolation of East Helsinki and the inability to curb suburban sprawl, to name a couple.

East Helsinki.Areas in the Helsinki region with most potential for innovative growth according to today's statistics. East Helsinki could use a boost, don't you think? Map by Juho Kiuru.

These regrettable issues remain, but that takes me to my third point. Our intention hasn't only been to change the contents of the official plan. It has always also been much about soul; tilting the status quo towards a planning culture with a feel for the needs and realities of 21st -century urbanism. There's growing recognition that the 1960s stuff we're stuck with is no longer making us happier.

Despite not quite evolving in the eyes of the wider public, the planning process naturally hides intense negotiations between various stakeholders beneath its surface. Our project exists to make sure the signal of change we represent doesn't get lost in the shuffle.

This, I believe, has been a big success – as far as an effort from seven guys, half of us students, working out of sheer passion goes.

The Recap

Since word got out we were taking on this project, and especially after launching an online pamphlet on our planning principles in the summer of 2014, we've had a busy year and a half behind us. We've actually needed to turn down requests for taking part in discussion forums and collaborating with various DIY projects. (Our apologies for that).

Here's a meandering rundown of some of our experiences. Anecdotes included.

It all started with the Director of the City Planning Department and heads of the Master Planning Division inviting us to elaborate what it exactly is that we're up to. Over coffee, they informed us about some core guidelines of the official city plan and concepts they were going abolish or introduce.

We soon returned to present our ideas to the entire Master Planning Division. "And please take that guy who's doing his PhD on green spaces with you, the topic's on our table right now", one of the heads put in the second invitation. He was working on his bachelor.

Metropolis begins. Image by Niilo Tenkanen.The new tongue-in-cheek "metropolis begins" sign we could start using if Pro Helsinki 2.0's ideas get adopted. Image by Niilo Tenkanen.

Helsinki's Building Control Department's summer seminar gave a spontaneous burst of applause to our "metropolis begins here" sign and contended that a city can't exist without people. Whether our building regulations are up to speed with creating people-centric places or not became the question of the day.

Both the former and current Deputy Mayor of Real Estate and City Planning invited us to hang out at their grand city hall office. The former wondered if we've thought about the development of railway communities outside of Helsinki. The current offered us tasty porridge for breakfast.

Pro Helsinki 2.0 was showcased at the 2015 City Planning Fair. Visitors voted ours as the best exhibition stand. "Your urban block concept is a solution I'd move into", one voter argued. At the fair, an old man walked up to me during a workshop I was in the middle of conducting to praise our future light rail transportation network vision -the best he'd ever seen.

Pro Helsinki 2.0 transit network. Image by Christoffer Weckström.Pro Helsinki 2.0's light rail transit network. Image by Christoffer Weckström.

And "Shorter trips, naturally", we told the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority's stakeholder bulletin when they inquired about the nature of Helsinki's traffic system in the years to come.

I also flew to Oulu to discuss what qualifies as quality development today. And how that relates to the city's idea about redeveloping the area around its railway station. "That's what we want, not cones [referring to buildings]", a woman from the audience announced and pointed to our Pro Helsinki 2.0 streetscape designs. The same happened in Vantaa when I held a presentation in the context of developing a railway suburb.

Myyrmäki.Always leave your best visualizations available for the discussion part because urban character is difficult to describe just with words. This one's taken after my presentation in Myyrmäki, Vantaa. The discussion event was held in the middle of a train station waiting hall.

Some wanted it all. "We need one of those plans!", a boss from the city of Tampere exclaimed before saying anything else to me upon meeting.

Mingling with politicians was a necessity. Especially the local Greens have been active with inviting us to their events and asking us to submit articles to their publications. "It would be an easy choice if I needed to decide which, Helsinki's official plan or Pro Helsinki 2.0, I'd hang on my wall", the vice chair of the planning board explained during a workshop.

The East Helsinki Greens got worried about their area's future in an elsewhere-much-developing city. We nodded. In another event, the future of the surroundings of a now-already-set-to-be-closed coal power plant was the focus of a brainstorming session.

It wasn't all about Greens. The chair of the planning board (National Coalition Party) told us he's concerned about combining the idea of uninterrupted traffic flows with highways-to-boulevards retrofits, and hoped for help in making infill development less of a strain. Just before the city council debated the wonders of the city plan, the Left Alliance and The Finns invited us to brief them about our ideas.

A member of the former wanted to use our plan as his Facebook cover for the meeting. A member of the latter wanted assurance that our development pattern could help in mitigating the need to close down and build on the site of Malmi airport.

Showcasing our plan to a MP.Showcasing our plan to a MP at the Parliament Annex Building.

It wasn't all local politics either. We visited members of the Parliament twice. The first time a former cabinet member and presidential candidate gave us a tour on the Parliament Annex building's roof terrace. Outside the parliament, the State Secretary of the Ministry of Finance got excited about delving into the policies around state-owned land around railway stations.

Special interest groups were intrigued about our project, too. The environmentalists immediately took us as their allies. Many nature advocates contrasted parts of our plan with the official one to discover and show the prospect of conserving nature and still meeting development needs. The Helsinki branch of the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation took this the furthest by their official statement that Pro Helsinki 2.0 is their top choice for the basis of Helsinki's master planning process. In a Friends of the Earth meeting we received pizza and a wish that we should consider expanding our territory to the neighboring cities of Espoo and Vantaa as well.

Sponda photo.Sponda took us out to take fancy photos and get content for their annual report.

The interests of business were different. The Helsinki Region Chamber of Commerce and representatives of one of its subdivisions were curious about the potentials of mixed-use development for bringing people together and speed up innovation. And could density be beneficial for the development and adoption of digital services? The head of the National Chamber of Commerce urged us to meet with big retailers to help flag that the era of shopping malls is coming to an end. The real estate business wanted us to help make them shine in their corporate social responsibility reports.

Other interest groups included the Finnish Youth Housing Association which sought after perspectives on the future or urban living. The Association for Planning-Oriented Geographers on the other has been eager to discuss the future or public participation.

Our efforts made headlines, too. The morning paper portrayed us as radical advocates for positive change – the tabloid media as a radical threat to driving. The Swedish-speaking media wrote that "a new generation of 'urban activists' has emerged". The word also got out beyond Finland. Future Cape Town's story on us was their most read article of 2015.

Media attention.Our work has received plenty of media attention. Thanks heaps!

We were on TV, online TV, and several times on the radio. During my last visit to a radio studio the show got postponed by about 20 minutes due to severe technical problems. The host suspected Russian spies had sabotaged their system following inconvenient reporting. In addition, many blogs of different sorts covered our ideas and so did countless discussions on other social media platforms. We've also had opportunities to get our writing published.

The hype made academics curious. Especially those interested in public participation. We've were invited to workshops and to give presentations to visiting scholars. PhD researchers and graduate students have interviewed us. My favorite research project in this context is Urban Activism as Resource for the Metropolis. They seek to make sense out of all this DIY urbanism cacophony cities are increasingly facing today. Our work and ideas have infiltrated into teaching programs as well. Either through us giving lectures to students or by our work being an object of examination in class.

TAB exhibition.In fall 2015, our work began to raise interest in Estonia. This is from the exhibition with TAB.

Last but definitely not least, we've managed to motivate others to act. Our grassroots colleagues from Tampere organized into an association for better planning, naming us as one of their idols. Neighborhood groups and activists from East Helsinki have been in touch about going forward with drafting plans of their own since the city isn't doing much to improve the area.

Just last week, some people had a meeting about doing something substantial for making Helsinki more walkable. And following an invitation to showcase our work at the Tallinn Architecture Biennale, intentions to do something similar in the city have emerged.

What's perhaps most surprising through all this is that the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

So how is this useful for your city?

The main lesson we have learnt is that we as citizens can stand up to shake the system from within not by complaining about the status quo but by actively proposing something better. Pro Helsinki 2.0 has become an important piece of reference in official and unofficial discussions on city planning.

It has helped create momentum for pushing things in the right direction at the decision-making level.

A politician involved in the negotiations of the city plan told me that the warm welcome of Pro Helsinki 2.0 has definitely made it easier to push for the highways-to-boulevards retrofits to become a reality. The plan has also served as a handy example to conceptualize how denser development patterns can indeed mitigate the need to build on green areas.

Another achievement I want to highlight is that we've managed to make the complex world of urban planning more approachable for fellow citizens. Unlike in Helsinki's official plan, the basics of Pro Helsinki 2.0 are presented in fairly simple terms. We've made it our priority to produce approachable and legible images. When communicating to the wider public, not just the experts in the field of urban development, it is important to avoid professional jargon and abstract imagery.

Beyond the master planning process, Pro Helsinki 2.0's merits include forcing Helsinki's planners and politicians (and elsewhere in Finland too) to reflect their thinking against ours and check the validity of their arguments for what makes a great city. Our commitment is to voice that there's a large group of people who are sick and tired of the incapability of local administrations to create lovable places. With Pro Helsinki 2.0 we've found a new way to get this out, past the conventional participation barriers.

Urban Helsinki block. Image by Risto Sihvonen.In 2015 we started to conceptualize and draft what an urban block could be like in the Pro Helsinki 2.0 development proposal. Image by Risto Sihvonen.

Concrete examples are also crucial for making better planning happen in practice. Our regulatory framework is so heavy that no one can really navigate through it all. But the possibilities and limitations of the system can be explored and made salient through examples.

And hey, good ideas tend to stick around.

Finally, during the past year I've happily observed that for instance Helsinki's City Planning Department is not just sitting and waiting to see how things will evolve with the emergence of DIY urbanism. Some officials have actively been taking part in workshops and meetings to co-brainstorm how cities could open up to new ways of citizen engagement. Our plan is constantly used as an example to guide those discussions.

I'm excited to learn what will follow. Can we eventually find a way to treat citizen's expertise and willingness to participate as an asset for planning projects? And will we one day see new lively urban streets again?

Let's wait and see.

In the meanwhile, I urge you to do something to make your surroundings better – in the short or long term. Because cities and public space belong to all of us and everyone has the right and responsibility to help shape them to be the best they can be.