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Urban compaction as a Sociological Issue: two case studies
Jani Paivanen, Helsinki University of Technology
Centre for Urban and Regional Studies
One of the objectives of the Helsinki Master Plan of 1992 was to consolidate the urban structure. The new building areas were primarily associated with the already built urban areas and located in the proximity of public transport routes and commercial areas. New possibilities for residential building were created by converting the harbours in the city centre to dense residential areas and moving businesses to the outer ring. The population growth of Helsinki has been surprisingly fast since 1992 and recently the city administration has been busy searching for new building land.
Of special interest is Espoo, the western neighbouring city of Helsinki. Of all the Helsinki Region's municipalities, Espoo is probably under the greatest pressure to intensify its urban structure, which is very scattered. It too has adopted a consolidating strategy in its 1996 Master Plan. The city's fast growth since the 1960s has caused many debates and conflicts, as a substantial part of the established population lives in spacious low-rise suburbs.
Lately, residents' organisations have blamed the compaction ideology for packing in people and traffic too densely and for not taking the local identities and use of places into account. According to opionion surveys, living in a spacious and natural environment is one of the Finns' highest values. The planners, for their part, have often regarded active residential associations as a nuisance: as a conservative and reactive force opposing any progressive and active development in their neighbourhood.
It is the aim of this paper to outline density and compaction from a social and (Finnish) cultural perspective. Two examples of compaction in the Helsinki Region are highlighted, the first of which exemplifies the 'old' way of planning, the second a new experiment in citizen participation.
Space denotes social status. Even more so, space means money. It also signifies freedom and independence, even transcendence (Tuan 1987). But the relevant space must be available for a person's use and not prohibited, disturbed or polluted by others, otherwise the external domination of this private or otherwise important space could cause a negative reaction.
However, the amount of space needed to obtain a personal sense of freedom or rising social status varies from culture to culture. Environmental psychologists following E.T.Hall (1966) have produced some interesting findings about the relationship between physical density and overcrowding in different circumstances. Also the kinds of space that people particularly value or abhor differ between cultures. The Chinese-American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan cites the contrasting meanings that open spaces, such as steppes or prairies, have in different cultures and historical circumstances. According to him, the vastness of the steppe has represented misery and hopelessness to Russian peasants, while the Americans have seen their own freedom and opportunities reflected in a similar landscape. In contrast, the industrial areas with their smoking chimneys, "the lungs of our country", represented happiness and a sense of national power in the early Soviet Union.
The Finns often think of themselves and are represented as "forest folk", who although only superficially urbanised, long to return to nature. Therefore, they would choose to live by a forest or a lake if possible.
Natural elements usually have a positive meaning in the modern Western world. The high value put on nature is due to various historical reasons, for instance, the pervasive influence of the picturesque ideal derived from the Romantic era (Cosgrove 1993) and carried on by the garden city movement of a hundred years ago (Ward 1992). The garden city in turn had a massive impact on the forms of suburban and new town development in this century. Most recently the influence of the picturesque aesthetics can be seen in business park developments: office agglomerations by the sea or "in a park" .
Both "garden cities", Ebenezer Howard's ideal form and the current techno-picturesque business environment of Espoo, have the same virtues: greenery, spaciousness and a cleaner technology. But as Howard's ideal of small scale self-sufficiency has become obsolete, the quality of the space is threatened, primarily by increasing traffic.
According to the social economist Fred Hirsch (1978), space is a positional good. His example is the suburban predicament. Any increase in residents in the suburb worsens the situation for all the others. As the suburban population grows, one by one the rings of development get too full: "crowded" with dwellings, yards, roads and traffic. Some of the residents, feeling that their environment is spoiled or no longer in their control, move outwards to look for a more private and peaceful place. This has two unintentional consequences: it increases long distance commuting and creates further rings of suburbia, perhaps to be spoiled later on. The more popular the suburban way of life becomes, the less desirable become its settings. This was already Lewis Mumford's (1961) conclusion of the democratisation of the suburban ideal, whereby he saw it as turning into a "caricature of itself'.
According to a recent study at the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies, to some extent the process of (perceived) deterioration described by Hirsch is going on in the Helsinki Region (Pekkanen 1996). In most cases, however, the wealthy suburbs at least have been able to resist deterioration. However, even these areas are not without their problems.
Although spatial segregation in Helsinki is not particularly striking, the development of values in relation to space is following in an internationally well-known direction. The most highly valued addresses are in two areas: in the city centre and in the spacious low-rise suburbs*. In the centre, there may be very little space, but it is of high quality and centrally located. In the affluent suburbs, there is space, privacy and nature (Paivanen 1997a), it is somewhat 'outside', but not marginalised. The middle ring consists mainly of apartment building areas from the 1960s to 1970s. Many of these have reduced in value through physical deterioration and sometimes social marginalisation. Although these districts are often referred to as "efficient suburbs", they still have the capacity to provide room for complementary buildings, which consequently can be located in their vicinity. These are mostly rented or other subsidised buildings, and their concentration tends to increase segregation, and the general stigmatisation of dense development solutions**.
*According to Smyth (1996) the British city policies concentrating on the inner city run the risk of increasing gentrification.
** As(although not as markedly) in the French banlieues (cf. Fouchier 1994).
Finland is an exceptionally sparsely populated country. However, even in Finnish cities and suburban areas, space and nature are scarce and, therefore, valuable commodities.
Since World War ll, the population has concentrated by the migration to Southern Finland, particularly to the Helsinki Metropolitan Area. The concentrating process has now accelerated again, after an interval of 15 years. This large-scale concentration process is happening simultaneously with a spreading-out of the existing urban structure. This relative suburban sprawl is going on especially around the Helsinki Region. Both processes add to the pressures for increasing densities within the cities, which work in parallel with the ideal and practice of urban compaction.
The 1980s and 1990s have seen the social construction of urban sprawl as an environmental problem. Texts promoting compaction as a remedy such as the Green Paper for the Urban Environment or the Newman & Kenworthy studies, have had an impact in Finland. Influential institutions, such as the Finnish Technical Research Center and the Ministry of the Environment have investigated and published on the subject. Starting from comparisons showing that Finnish cities are very sparsely built, even compared with other Nordic countries, which results in high energy consumption, this team has promoted solutions to increase density of development. However, in applying the ideas put forward by Thomas et al. (1996) in their article The Compact City: Succesful, Desirable and Achievable?, the Finnish research has so far been mainly of an economic and technical nature, trying to clarify the achievability of the compact city: how to densify the structure.
As geographer Perttu Vartiainen (1998) writes, compaction has become a sort of dogma, which is portrayed as a technical solution to environmental problems instead of analysing the complex societal structures and socio-cultural meanings that condition urban development. He gives some reasons to doubt the success of densification: it may be a poor means of reducing traffic because it presupposes a monocentric urban structure (with perhaps a system of sub-centres) and in any case regards the 'city' as an entity that is controllable by planning. However, this hierarchical structure is getting weaker and new spaces of flows are taking its place (Castells 1 996).
As to the desirability of intensification, bearing in mind the general low density within Finnish cities, it is plausible that their structure could be intensified with fewer risks and 'side effects' than the more compact cities in, for instance, Britain. We would need to make international comparisons. There are, however, the risks alluded to above, of increasing segregation and building in less desirable areas. There has also been an almost systematical opposition to new urban developments. The planners, for their part, have traditionally regarded opposition to their designs as a conflict between private interest and the common good. It can be said that the compaction ideal has only sharpened this black and white definition of the situation.
Next I would like to describe the way that a rather typical case of complementary building, the Lintukorpi area (Espoo, Finland) has been planned and constructed. The empirical study consists primarily of thematic interviews with planners and residents and secondly of walking around the area with outside experts.
In the course of analysing the debate on compaction and the actual practice of densification in the Helsinki region, I have studied a development in Espoo: an area named Lintukorpi (Birdwood), formerly known as Murhamaki (Murder Hill)* . It is located in a hilly site about 1.5 kilometres from the centre of one of the sub-centres of Espoo. It consists of two main roads, Kyyhkysmaki (Pigeon Hill), lined with apartment buildings up to five storeys, and Lintukorpi, half of which contains terrace houses and the other half low apartment buildings.
* The nickname refers to a bloodbath on the hill during the 1918 civil war.
The background of the planning project was prosaic: a local land-owner sold the area to a big construction company in the early 1980s. The company and the city of Espoo made a deal about the planning of the area, an Area Construction Contract. In quantitative terms, the contract bound the project rather strictly, with a given floor area, an agreement on the construction of public spaces, etc* * The planning department was left the task of allocating the given floor area within given boundaries. After the initial planning, the city council was in principle free to approve or reject the contract, but after a few years of bureaucratic to-ing and fro-ing, the plan went through virtually as planned. The area has been built gradually from 1991 and is just being finished.
* * These contracts have been very commonly used in the planning and building of suburbs in the Helsinki Region.
The interesting point about density is that the area was planned and also mainly built before compaction became the catchword that it is today. Nevertheless, the main argument that the Board of City Planning used to counter the opposition was that "it is better to build densely in one site and leave the rest intact", as it responded to the complaints of residents' organisations. Other statements suggested that the plan was always "a compromise between different viewpoints" and that this was an "economic land-use of a site which favoured densification" and that the local services could be "located close together".
The residents' point was that this was the wrong place to build densely. They found it too valuable as skiing country, as a beautiful hill landscape and as part of the adjacent sports park. They also used it for picking mushrooms and berries. As an alternative, they wanted to speed up the planning of a site for flats two kilometres away, with "no natural values" but compactly located beside the local railway station.
Much of the opposition to and dislike of the Lintukorpi phenomenon related to its "too efficient" character. The activists disapproved of the treatment of the natural environment and they criticised the manner of construction, the levelling of the ground, etc., resulting in a "boring and homogenous" landscape. Not all of the activists were critical of density as such, but they had very diverse ideals of the city*. A second objection was the location itself: "it is pretty far from everywhere, from the train and anywhere ... so I think it is not really suitable for high-rise building"**.
* Some of them live(d) in spacious surroundings and would be directly affected by the building development; others lived in apartments a little further away and would 'only' lose a recreation area.
**The quotes are from interviews with the activists.
The local residential organisations tried all the formal ways to influence the planning, but to no avail. Then they tried media propaganda: besides frequent press reports, by, for example, videotaping the natural scenes from the air and the ground and by recruiting a famous skier to appeal to the decision makers to retain the ski area. What they achieved was the addition of a 'block plan' to the master plan that set some ground rules about the architectural forms and the treatment of the adjacent environment, such as trees, bushes and paths. Even this compromise wasn't quite realised, for the economic depression in the early 1990s changed the plans, so that the ratio of small apartments increased and the space reserved for parking grew. This made the activists bitter towards the city authorities. In interviews, they recall their experiences like this: "of course they didn't listen to us girls"***, or, "well, they walked right over us". Afterwards, they were "very depressed about it, perhaps for a year ". They had indeed faced an "organisation of urban society which does not call for involvement, but sometimes even counteracts it" as Tjallingii (1994) writes.
*** The situation was typical in that the local activists were mainly women, while the planners and city authorities were men.
Interestingly though, the interviewed planners were also critical of the building project. It was a product of the "system", or a "faceless caterpillar" steered by the Area Construction Contract. "Building compactly in one place" was both the starting point and the result. It was not a principle to be applied sensitively and creatively, nor an issue open to discussion. The site was really not as favourably located as stated in all the official documents on the project: "in fact this seemed rather a separate unit"*.
* Interview with the architect consultant.
Symptomatically, the role of 'density' and 'efficiency'remained complex and ambivalent even to the architect consultant who designed the plan, as his hesitation shows:
"Was it an unpleasant task ..?"
"For a consultant, well, I'd like to say that no task is unpleasant.. it was a challenging starting point, an interesting starting point.. Of course it was sad to start building on a terrain as fine as this one..."
"Do you mean: so effciently?"
"Well, building at all.. Efficiency is... if you start building apartment buildings, efficiency is not such a big factor, because [the landscape] will be transformed anyway. Our aim was that this rocky terrain would be conserved as far as possible within the structure and... in this context to achieve the [given] efficiency of the parking space was, in fact, almost an impossible problem to solve."
As the case of Lintukorpi shows, the public reaction to compaction depends greatly on how democratically the planning process is conducted and to what extent the residents are and feel able to influence the outcome.
During the 1970s and 1980s - at the time of criticism of rationalist and modernist planning - methods of participatory planning were developed. They were linked to the activation of residents' associations and, among planners and intellectuals, to the criticism of related expert systems. The experiments in participation were an effort to give the people more power in planning, and to question the border between representative democracy and direct participation, and also the borders within the administration. Participatory planning in this ambitious sense had only modest success: the projects became too unwieldy and rigid in themselves. Participatory processes demanded a lot more time than drawing sketches at an office desk and were in the long term hard on planning and other public sector personnel.
After the initial enthusiasm, efforts to develop citizens' participation have had their ups and downs, depending on the economic-political Zeitgeist. The 1980s "success thinking" brought with it a new rise of "heroic architecture". In the 1990s, the increasing environmental consciousness and residential activity demanded that lay people's views be taken more seriously. However, the long economic depression in the same period promoted the idea that even communication with the residents was 'too expensive'*.
* lnterview with Ulla-Maija Laiho, Ministry of the Interior, who has been active in participatory projects since the earliest ones.
Lately, the challenge of democratisation has been raised again, along with discussion on the threatened welfare state and the 'civil society'. Planners have tried to activate the residents into supporting the restoration of high-rise suburbs. The main obstacle to broad and effective participation there has been the lack of time, ie. the strict schedules typical of Finnish building projects. A new "market-realistic" form of participation will be included in the quality control systems, which oblige construction business to survey the residents' perspectives and take them into account.
All in all, in Finland the concern with participation in planning has been neither very widespread or deep compared with countries like Sweden or Denmark. Planners still seem to take the view that residential activity is a NIMBY (not in my back yard) nuisance: a conservative and reactive force counteracting any progressive and active development in their living environment. The "universal" recommendation of densifying urban structures has not made this basic contradiction any easier. However, some activists - who are typically also involved with urban questions in their own professions - have presented alternative compaction models.
In 1997 the city of Helsinki arranged an "ideas competition for new building projects". This open competition represented a new approach to the challenge posed by urban growth in the region. It was an effort to enable residents to participate in city planning. However, the starting point was rather strictly defined: the city authorities were particularly looking for ideas on how to build more houses, while simultaneously "consolidating" the structure. Also the competition's physical area was limited to Helsinki city. This requirement, imposed by the administrative division of the region, was made into a virtue by the Deputy Mayor, Pekka Korpinen, who said that "all development that stays within Helsinki city is sustainable development and the rest is not."*
* Interview in Helsingin Sanomat in connection with the announcement of the competition.
In the same interview Korpinen also emphasised the residents' common interest in the further development of their districts, such as the boost that new consumers give to local services. Accordingly, the competition entries tended to reflect the shared good aspects and not the interest and value conflicts that are often involved in complementary building. So the designs and literature on a better, future Helsinki give only a biased view of what "people really think"*.
* Among the 197 suggestions in the 185 competition entries there are only two suggestions, made by the sarne author, that explicitly criticise the density ideal. The author ironically 'supports' "the city's efforts to fill the available free areas with basic coliseums -- the old buildings would be hidden from sight, and the image of the city wouldbe expressed in novel urban terms".
In spite of these limitations, the competition entries show that support for compaction nevertheless exists, which is a way of thinking probably only possible when people are encouraged to consider the pros and cons of a denser structure (Paivanen 1998a).
The competition entries can be only briefly outlined here. A total of 185 works contained 197 different suggestions for new building, which can be divided into the following categories:
CATEGORIES Suggestions Infilling & complementary
building in residential areas Using traffic routes or their
fringe areas for residential building Using parks for residential
building Using the seashore, sea infills,
floating constructions etc. for residential
building Using caves or underground
constructions for residential building Environmental
improvements Other suggestions TOTAL
Infilling & complementary building in residential areas
Using traffic routes or their fringe areas for residential building
Using parks for residential building
Using the seashore, sea infills, floating constructions etc. for residential building
Using caves or underground constructions for residential building
The winning suggestion, The Roofs of Kallio by architect Juha llonen, consists of sketches and proposals for building an additional storey on the flat roofs of 1960s apartment buildings. As an example the author gives a part of Kallio, a working class district located right next to the centre of Helsinki. Extended to the whole city area, the suggestion would produce approximately 100,000 square metres of new building possibilities.
The second prize winner suggested building in small and "unfunctional" left-over "scraps of parks that are insignificant as green areas and that the city cannot afford to take care of". According to the author, architect Olli Lehtovuori, these are abundant in the sparse one-family house areas of Helsinki. Included were sketches for new wooden one-family houses, moderately sized and priced and especially suited for small plots. The author supports his idea with the high demand of "semi-urban" housing and the continuing wish of Finns to have their own little piece of land.
An interesting point in the contest material was what it showed about the transformation of the notion of an 'effficient city'.
Hankonen (1994) has examined efficiency as a total ideal and ideology in the construction of Finnish suburbs since the 1960s. It produced the national version of the compact city. At first the compact city was a reaction to the first generation of forest suburbs from the 1950s, thought to be too sparse and elitist. In contrast, the new construction techniques could produce a new suburb faster than ever before, providing all modern conveniences and an 'urban' environment. As an emblem of urbanism, the compact suburb combined the grid with an open form, creating lots of those corners for chance encounters that Jane Jacobs had praised in lower Manhattan. The walkable environment in the immediate neighbourhood was intended to intensify social interaction in the area.
At the same time, the 1960s suburb was designed for a residential profile that was thought to be always busy and, therefore, intent on saving time. Hankonen (1994) shows that the trafffic planners, who exerted a great influence in the development of the Finnish suburb, had been trained in the American transport system and shared a vision of a "car dominated society". Thus, although the new urban-suburban mechanism also included an "effficient" public transport system (with a huge plan for a metro system, of which only one route has been realised), the true promise for an efficient lifestyle lay in individual vehicles. Nor would progress stop with the norm of one car per person: in addition to the car, there would be automated walkways, rail taxis and automatically programmed highways. Public transport would consist in future of helicopters and "mobile seats".
In the competition entries of 1997, there were clear indications that the above notion of efficiency is now outdated. Some actually argue for their suggestions by contrasting them with the most notorious concrete jungles of the 1960s version of the compact city.
There are still many positive meanings for the term effficiency in the entries. An effficient urban structure is technically and economically realisable and 'sustainable'. The costs and benefits of building are in good balance. The trafffic is organised so that its damage to the residents is minimised; average distances travelled get shorter and public transport functions more efficiently. In aesthetic terms, the new building development is intended to change trashy, threatening no-man's-land into neat and cosy, even domesticated, places. The 'service argument', that complementary building can save and enhance local services, is frequently evoked. In some cases, however, authors complain about the slow development of even the basic services in developing areas.
Many competitors proposed new means for converting former spaces of production - harbours, docks and industrial areas - into residential use. Here, a new emphasis reigned: a lifestyle-sensitive social efficiency. Land use should respond effectively to present and ever changing values, and now it should provide diverse dwellings in valued environments, especially by the sea. Where and how you live has not always been considered as significant an urban function as it is today. Living somewhere, at a particular address, has become a strong signifier in the consumer's identity, while being a consumer is, to say the least, more tangible than being a Finnish citizen.
The current emphasis on consumption is also reflected in the rhetoric of many suggestions concerning the potential Helsinki experiences of tourists. What the tourist sees is used as a spur in tidying up wastelands, for demolishing old industrial buildings and building high class apartments near heritage sites or in seaside locations. Even underground apartments in caves are seen as a sight-seeing attraction.
On the other hand, there are also plenty of suggestions that deal with the authors' own neighbourhoods, reflecting on ways to make them more liveable, lively and prosperous. These include both building for residential and service uses and general improvements of particular places in different neighbourhoods. However the latter, which as an example proposes new uses for public places, cannot be quantified and, therefore, may be easily forgotten by the administrative system.
The most problematic notion is what might be called ecological effciency ie. having enough 'green structure', but not so much that it lengthens travel distances. In my understanding it would be problematic even if we possessed all the relevant ecological data to judge what land can be built and if we could foresee the consequences. The special quality of urban nature is its very accessibility by the residents (including children, old people and those who do not drive cars). However, it is worthwhile to try and solve this problem because pieces of land that have no special ecological value and serve no special productive purpose can certainly be found.
A certain socio-technical efficiency is found in many entries: building an area is effficient if there is no or very little opposition, and therefore no conflicts and delays. When the modern suburbs were built (largely 1965-1975), building well away from existing residences was one of the guarantees that the large-scale building projects went smoothly. As complementary building and compaction were the themes of the competition, almost none of the entries suggest new suburbs. Instead, some large projects were proposed, involving infills of the sea.
However, two meanings for the term efficiency are missing: efficiency as a value in human life and efficiency in a progressively growing transport network as a sign of an efficient way of life. Instead there are indications of a rather relaxed lifestyle, spending time in enjoyable urban settings rather than preserving it.
Despite the limitations of the Helsinki city competition for new building projects as an "open" competition referred to above, it has succeeded in confusing the conventional roles of active planners and reactive citizens. It showed that the residents are able to produce a wealth of ideas at the grassroot level (although a significant number of the entries were made by architects and other professionals). Some of the suggestions are probably too radical to be realised, but all the same they are important as initiatives in stimulating discussion. Two young men suggested the demolition of one of the ugliest 1960s monuments, a massive grey administrative office building on the seashore, right by the city centre. This will not happen, unless some unforeseeable revolution takes place. Also the suggestions for developing the unbuilt shores have put some of the planning professionals on the defensive.
The success of the competition as a form of participation can only be assessed in time, when we see how many of the collected ideas will be realised, in what form, and after what kind of process.
Whether or not compaction can bring all the positive aspects now associated with it may not even be essential. From the pooint of view of participation, it is the opening up of the planning process and simply bringing planning into public discussion, which is important. At best this kind of participatory experiment can work as a mutual challenge or interplay between the residents and the planning system. Furthermore, as planning hopefully becomes more 'transparent', the cities will be obliged to fulfill their promises of keeping the developing or renovated areas tidy and well serviced.
As to the resulting living environments and landscapes, the involvement of new people in devising new, desirable solutions for urban housing is certainly a healthy policy. In this case, it may help, both theoretically and actually, in distinguishing different 'dense' developments from the stigma of excessive 'efficiency'.
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