City Planning Director Of Helsinki, Mikko Aho: Everyone Can’t Have Everything But Everyone Needs To Be Heard

This is part of an interview series with the city planning directors of Helsinki and Stockholm. Read Helsinki's Mikko Aho share his views on how participatory urban planning has evolved in Finland.

Joakim Breitenstein (JB): In the past 10 years or so you have worked as city planning director and related positions in small and large cities and municipalities in Finland. How did you end up working in urban planning and why do you think you were chosen to your current position as city planning director of Helsinki?

Mikko Aho (MA): I have worked in almost every position when it comes to creating built environments – from city planning to building design and from leading a municipality to handling building permits. My early career was in building design and I have also built two single family houses which, believe it or not, have proven itself to be a very useful experience for urban planning as well. I was offered work from the public sector during the recession in the 1990’s after which I have continued my career in public positions thanks to interesting job opportunities. I might not be the best person to evaluate why I was chosen to my current position so I refer to the evaluation during the application process which describes me among other things as goal and change oriented, efficient, initiative, holistic, interactive, collaborative, communicative, skilled as leader, determined and intelligent. In addition I think that my successful collaboration with different stakeholders in the Östersundom city plan project had something to do with me being chosen to my current position.

JB: How would you introduce a non-professional reader to the past, present and future of urban planning in Helsinki?

MA: I recommend the easy-to-read, pamphlet style book “Kaupungin sielua etsimässä” (free translation: “Searching For The Soul Of The City”) written by Pertti Mustonen. The book is compiled by the city planning department and it’s an easy way to understand past and present urban planning in Helsinki. Then there is another book called “Helsingin historia vuodesta 1945” (free translation: “The History Of Helsinki From Year 1945”) which is good if you want to learn about urban planning in Helsinki from more recent times. If you want to dig even deeper, there is a book called “Pääkaupunki” (free translation: “Capital”) by Matti Klinge as well as several other history and urban planning themed books about Helsinki.

JB: Residents, landowners, local organizations, authorities, construction developers as well as owners of digital and physical infrastructure are all stakeholders in urban planning. How have the roles of different stakeholders changed from past to present and how do you think they will change in the future?

MA: Apart from interaction between professionals, the level of interaction between stakeholders was seemingly low until the 1960’s. The situation started to change in the beginning of the 1970’s when finnish architects Vilhelm Helander and Markus Sundman published “Kenen Helsinki?” (free translation: "Whose Helsinki?"). The book criticized tearing down old buildings and the monotonic urban development that was based on new office buildings. Attitudes were changing and a good example from the time is when activists protested against construction of the Josafatinkallio area just north of Helsinki city center. The plans for construction were never realized because of this.

Wider interaction started to occur in the city plan from 1970. Together with daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, the city planning department organized a questionnaire to map out citizens' opinions. In addition the department published a magazine as well as organized exhibitions and debates. The city planning department got its own exhibition space on Kasarminkatu in the 1970’s and later, in the 1980’s, the exhibition space moved to Sofiankatu. This so called “Sonckin sali” (free translation: “Sonck’s Hall”) was closed in the early 1990’s after which the city planning department did not have an exhibition space for a long time. Then Laituri was opened in 2008 and it has become an important venue for gatherings and interaction for citizens.

The Helsinki City Planning Department was the first in Finland to hire interaction planners to coordinate the collaboration with citizens about 15 years ago. Methods for interaction were developed at the department already before that. This means that the department has practiced participatory planning already before the obligations caused by the Land Use and Building Act from 1999. Generally speaking, just to follow a law is not a metric that equals success for us because our goals are higher. It’s evident that proactive interaction and participation is very important for a growing city like Helsinki and just following a law is simply not enough.

To sum up, until the 1960’s the interaction in urban planning was mainly between professionals. From the 1970’s onwards interaction between all stakeholders started to increase and coming into the 1990’s it started to become systematic. The last 15 years has been a time of a more professional way of organizing the interaction. Methods have been developed constantly and still are. The role of social media and related applications will increase in the future. The interaction in social media should be natural as such a big part of citizens are there.

JB: How do you feel that communication between stakeholders in urban planning has changed and how will it maybe change in the future?

MA: I refer to the question before. A positive phenomenon is how citizens genuinely are interested in urban planning and the use of urban space. There are many ways to communicate and social media has risen to be a significant forum for having an impact. The city’s own feedback websites collect different views to support planning but a lot of discussion is happening outside official channels as well. This unofficial discussion is actively followed by our planners. We are in the process of renewing our planning reviews so that projects are presented through video clips. This aims to make the projects easier to share – also in social media.

JB: What are the most important factors in a successful communication between stakeholders and what needs be avoided so that the communication does not fail?

MA: The communication is based on a genuine will to understand different stakeholders desires and perceptions of a good city. You need to recognize the values and appreciations of a specific area and support them. Everyone can’t have everything but everyone needs to be heard. Once the planning starts, it needs to start with a clean sheet. Things easily freeze if you bring plans that are already worked on to the first stakeholder meeting. In addition we need to communicate how the interaction process has had an impact already. This helps to build trust towards the work that we do.

JB: Helsinki has already done a lot to encourage participatory planning (e.g. city plan workshops and the “Kerro kantasi” service (free translation: “Let us know what you think”)). What have been the most important factors that have affected participatory urban planning in Helsinki in the past and what are they now? What will they be in the future?

MA: The citizens’ genuine interest towards having an impact in developing and planning their own city has, to some extent, pushed aside personal lobbying during the planning process. The increased popularity of an urban lifestyle and open data have also played important roles.

JB: What have you learned from the work that has already been done and what will be done in a same or different way in the future?

MA: Best practices are continued and we are constantly trying out new ways to better hear citizens and stakeholders during the process.

JB: What is good in participatory planning?

MA: The city is planned for the citizens. It would be strange if a planner would not know what kind of city is hoped for and expected.

JB: What is bad in participatory planning?

MA: Nothing…

JB: What other similar scale issues do you have on your table at the moment and how do they fit together with participation?

MA: Participation, or rather collaboration with residents and stakeholders, is an essential part of our operations. My table is occupied with directing the department in which interaction is always present. Here are outtakes from our current operating plan:

Mission (free translation): “The Helsinki City Planning Department plans and directs land use and traffic as well as creates preconditions for urban development. The department is, in a professional and creative way as well as through interaction with other specialists and residents, responsible for preparing decision making for urban development.”

Urban vision (free translation): “Helsinki is a cozy and vital city. We develop Helsinki as an urban, comfortable city that is increasingly getting denser. Through planning we want to enable housing that is large enough in quantity and good enough in quality as well as good services and diverse opportunities for business. We bring the city back to the city. Our aim is to reduce the dependence of private cars through good public transport and an enjoyable environment for cyclists and pedestrians. We make sure that natural resources are not wasted and that valuable nature as well as good opportunities for recreation are saved to future generations. We respect Helsinki’s history and traditions but we are not afraid of innovative and brave solutions that contribute to developing an interesting urban environment.”

JB: Are you familiar with the Lisää kaupunkia Helsinkiin (free translation: “YIMBY Helsinki”) Facebook group?

MA: Yes I am familiar with the group.

JB: How do you feel about them and what would you wish to ask or tell them?

MA: There is at times good and well-informed discussion which I appreciate. I follow the discussion with interest. This is contemporary interaction and a positive kind of activism.

JB: Sometimes several design alternatives are presented to the public during the planning process while sometimes only one alternative is presented. Do you think that it is possible to more often discuss several alternatives with the public during future planning processes? Is there a specific reason why sometimes only one and sometimes several design alternatives are presented?

MA: There are projects of different nature and scale and this is probably the reason for the differences during the planning process. The alternatives might sometimes be left on the planners table and not brought to public discussion. Alternative plans are not intrinsic but we have to be able to discuss alternative approaches and views when needed. Thanks to active citizens we nowadays get alternative plans even without asking and this is a good thing.

JB: Is it possible that Helsinki would take some untouched area and hand it over for citizens to develop freely before any concrete plans has been made by anyone? If yes, do you have ideas for where and when this kind of approach could be tested?

MA: This is what we strive for. The workshops that are organized in the early stages of the process should be a venue where it is free for anyone to ideate without constraints. Then again another issue is what is meant by “freely”. Planning is a demanding professional effort and I believe that professionals are the best ones to do it. I refer to the question about successful stakeholder communication and want to point out the importance of starting every project with a clean sheet. However, it is equally important to take the challenges of development as starting points for the process. There is never one truth in urban planning nor one common interest. Urban planning is also about harmonizing varying interests.

JB: We, a group of citizens, have a concrete urban idea that we want to realize with our community. What do we need to understand in order to make it happen and also how do we make sure that our efforts are fruitful from the point of view of the city planning department?

MA: Urban planning creates, among other things, preconditions for concrete ideas. We can evaluate how realistic and doable the idea in question is during the planning process as well as make sure that we don’t create obstacles for realizing it. Depending on the idea, we have to be able to inform about required processes as well as what roles different stakeholders have in the process.

JB: Digital collaboration and urban development expert Antti Jogi Poikola proposes a change in how we discuss urban planning. In addition to competing plans, we should discuss alternative initial assumptions. Let’s take the debate about city boulevards (A) vs. motorways (B) in Helsinki as an example. In this case the initial assumptions could be that private car traffic will either decrease (1) or alternatively increase (2) in the future. We should not only discuss which idea is better but, according to Poikola, what kind of initial assumptions we base our decisions on. This way we could better understand what impact city boulevards and motorways will have on our built environment if private car traffic will either decrease (A1 vs. B1) or increase (A2 vs. B2) in the future. Different ideas would be combined with different initial assumptions and finally different future scenarios would be generated. By testing different ideas against different initial assumptions, the community would choose between future scenarios rather than concrete plans which are necessarily not even relevant from the point of view of a common future vision. What do you think about this kind of approach to debate? That in addition to concrete plans, the community would discuss initial assumptions. Concrete plans would be used more to test initial assumptions and less as source material for decisions. Would it make the discussion more fruitful?

MA: That sounds like normal planning work to me. I don’t see any reason to restrict what communities discuss. We want to support diverse dialogue and give room for different approaches. If we look at all the background material produced from our city plan process, it can be seen that we have discussed different initial assumptions and it has been necessary. It’s evident that urban planning should include discussion about both what is desired and how to get there. It’s also our responsibility to create an interpretation of the city’s strategy that is focused on land use. A question worth thinking about is how broadly citizens’ desires are reflected in the city’s strategy. I see that a future vision is rather a desired state of being than a consequence of initial assumptions. This vision should not significantly contradict with what citizens and other stakeholders expect from the city. Planning has the task to find what needs to be done in order to realize desired development. The city plan leaves room for different kinds of development and therefore it can be contradictory with today’s world – also on a factual basis. However, if we plan for today’s world only, we will have a future that is the same as what we have now. Therefore we especially need support for a future vision, then we can find out how to get there.

Mikko Aho is the city planning director of Helsinki. You can find out more about his work here. Stay tuned for the next part of this series here or by subscribing to this blog (scroll down).

A special thank you to the members of Lisää kaupunkia Helsinkiin (free translation: “YIMBY Helsinki”) who contributed with creating questions for this interview.