Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Helsinki and creative industries

The piece on Helsinki, "Helsinki as an example of creative industries driving urban revitalization programs," is up at the Europe in Baltimore project website.  I am writing articles for the website about culture district initiatives in nine different European cities.  (And I am learning so much!) 

The idea is that Baltimore has the opportunity to learn from European culture district initiatives and apply them to the city's three arts districts (Station North, Highlandtown, Bromo Arts District on the westside), although I think the lessons are applicable to other revitalization initiatives elsewhere in the city also.

There are many fascinating elements to urban revitalization policy in Helsinki. There, many of their opportunities are waterfront-related as maritime industry has relocated out of the city.


But because of the country's strong design industries including consumer products by companies like Marimekko and industrial products by KONE and Nokia, serendipitously the city has been able to marry creative industry development with their revitalization initiatives, so that their culture-based initiatives aren't strictly leisure- and tourist-focused.  This is a big contrast to most of the culture-district revitalization initiatives present elsewhere.

At the same time, observationally, they didn't develop this approach from the outset, in part it  emanated from innovative opportunities that developed out of circumstances, and the city, to its credit, was willing to consider and embrace the opportunities as presented, flesh them out with master plans, and created city-owned corporations to carry out the programs.

Wikipedia photo of the Suvilahti complex.
Interestingly, based on the success of the Cable Factory, Helsinki is using the same model in the Sörnäinen district north of Downtown–developing a large creative arts incubator out of an otherwise hard to repurpose industrial complex–through the repurposing of a energy utility complex comprised of nine buildings and two large gasometers (tanks that stored natural gas) into the Suvilahti arts center.

An element of the piece is about how Helsinki was the World Design Capital in 2012, and that this kind of program introduces a revitalization initiative that operates on a global scale, while the other programs considered in article series are either at the scale of the European Union, the nation, or regional.

But the city hasn't limited its willingness to embrace innovation to culture.  They have a lot of other interesting things going on that weren't fully germane to the piece.

1.  An international competition to design a new central library, and their programs to ensure that the library is relevant in a digital future.

2.  Forum Virium Helsinki, a public-private partnership but a unit of the Helsinki government, which develops new digital services in cooperation with companies, the City, and other public sector organizations.  Products are developed and tested with Helsinki residents.  The aim is to create better services and new business, plus to open up contacts for international markets.

+ Living Labs/Helsinki Virtual Village, one of the first 100% broadband wired neighborhoods in the world.

3.  Helsinki’s Restaurant Day, a municipally-sanctioned challenge to government regulation, is a day (now four weekends annually) where anyone can set up a “restaurant” and sell food to the public.  Restaurants can be set up on a park bench, run out of a car, in a house or apartment, or other more traditional offerings.  Restaurant Day started in Helsinki, but now takes place in more than 30 countries.

4.  Helsinki's municipal research office, Helsinki Urban Facts.  They do a great deal of research and publish a four times/year journal on Helsinki issues.  One issue each year is published in English.  This type of self-critical review and innovation unit is for the most part, unprecedented at the level of a municipality, although in the US, some states have equivalent operations such as the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington.

5.  Kulttuurisauna is a public sauna, located on the waterfront in the Kallio neighborhood, created by the NOW Architecture group (“Conversation with Nene Tsuboi & Tuomas Toivonen (Kulttuurisauna),” Brickstarter), as a way to renew Helsinki’s public sauna culture.

Planning is key

I am struck by the importance of visionary master planning and the creation of entities to carry it out.

Whenever I talk about the value of planning, I get a lot of pushback.  Most people think of planning as a top down enterprise, and I have pointed out that traditional planning tends to be pretty static, and that there needs to be implementation built into the planning system (my oppositional method I call "action planning").

But then when I see articles like this, "Franklin School is ideal space for art museum," where Washington Post art critic Philip Kennecott makes an interesting proposal, that the Franklin School building on Franklin Square downtown should become a contemporary art gallery, it makes me think about the point I make all the time, that an RFP isn't a plan.

With RFPs you're stuck with what other people suggest.  That wouldn't be so bad if you could expect great ideas and programs to be generated always by the profit motive.  But you can't.  And that's what's wrong with a lot of the city's efforts in "economic development" using city-controlled land and property.

Lacking a master planning process for arts and culture, let alone visionary planning, the likelihood of Kennicott's idea coming to fruition is remote.

I will write about this more later in the week.  And a piece on Bilbao, which is about this point too, on a much bigger scale, is the next article in the Europe in Baltimore series.

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