Made by the people for the people – New participatory urban culture is blooming in Helsinki

(Originally published in New Europe magazine #1, 2015)

Helsinki – the capital of cold Finland, where people don’t talk to anyone. This is the stereotype often associated with Helsinki, but it is not the whole picture of this city. During the last five or six years Helsinki has changed a lot. Citizens are creating countless of events themselves and making the city in many ways a place they want it to be. Also the city officials have realised the high potential of civic activism and are more and more receptive towards all these actions.

Citizen participation is increasing in many countries, but it seems to be much stronger in Helsinki than for example in Sweden or Norway, which have a lot in common with Finland. The Finns have had a tradition of doing things together to achieve something that would be hard to do alone. Even though in the cities this tradition has partly been forgotten, it has risen again during the last years – in a new form.

A big reason or actually the prerequisite for the rise of new participatory urban culture is the rise and extensive use of social media. New civic activism is based on the power of reaching big masses in a fast and cheap way. People don’t need big and structured organisations to do something themselves anymore. In principle, anyone can start a movement in just one day.

The influence of social media and especially Facebook on the participatory urban culture in Finland is hard to underestimate, but it’s not the only reason. Many Finns have become tired of the many rules and restrictions which can make the city dull. The Finnish society is in many ways not that encouraging for a social life, but at the same time people are longing for that. The voice of the people wanting more urban, free and social life and was long left unheard, but now the situation has changed.

Another reason is probably the fact that Helsinki hasn’t been supporting urban culture as much as many of its western neighbors. When there is not enough done by the city, the citizens have to create the culture themselves. Especially different kind of pop-up events made by the people have become a characteristic for Helsinki. For these events, you don’t necessarily have to have any permanent place and you can often use your existing resources, like homes.

Like many others I also got enthusiastic about the new way of doing things. As a result in 2012 we founded an association called Yhteismaa (’Common Ground’), which is specialized in new participatory urban culture, social innovations, co-creation, social movements and placemaking. Even before that, we had organised our first big event called Siivouspäivä (’Cleaning Day’). After the event we realised that it became something huge and that we want to do more actions like these, which didn’t really have a clear name back then.


Helsinki Sauna Day 12.03.2016 / Sompasauna, Sompasaari

Since then I have been doing projects that are associated with urban space, culture, people and community. In addition to Cleaning Day these include for example setting up a table for a thousand people to eat in the middle of a street, art exhibitions and theatre in homes, turning a street into a weekly flea market, pop-up restaurants in wasted spaces, projects with refugees and much more.

The 2010s has also been the time of the rising neighbourhood activism in Helsinki. In 2011 Kallio-liike (Kallio movement), an informal citizen initiative in the neighbourhood of Kallio, was founded. The movement started organizing Kallio Block Party, a voluntarily organized street festival, that since then has every year attracted thousands of people to reclaim the streets and to have fun together.

Kallio-liike got soon similar followers in different parts of the city creating a wave of local citizen activism. These new movements aim more to improve the neighbourhoods with collective actions instead of nimbyism. Also Artova, a neighbourhood association, that revived the help of new active people, has led the way to a new kind of neighbourhood activism.

The importance of Facebook for the new urban culture is also seen in the Facebook group called Lisää kaupunkia Helsinkiin (’More city into Helsinki’). It unites the people who want to see more urban life in the city, and it has more than 8000 members at the moment. There’s a continuous discussion about city planning in the group, and alternative ideas and plans for the city are often presented. It’s also the origin of Urban Helsinki, a group of urbanists and urban planning activists who want better cities. Urban Helsinki has published their own version of the master plan of Helsinki in 2014, which attracted a lot of interest and sparked a lot of debate.

The city has also reacted to the cultural change and rise of new participatory urban culture. But it didn’t happen without growing pains. Just five years ago the city officials were often not that supportive towards the civic activism, which they often saw just as a cause of extra work for themselves. The dialogue was many times not so constructive or it didn’t exist at all. The attitude towards new kind of ownerless events was also skeptical and the positive effects were many times overshadowed by the possible negative ones. On the other hand also the citizens often saw the city as something that was trying to prevent them from doing something good.

But soon the potential of the civic activism for the city, social well-being and even economy and tourism was seen. ”Fun and functional” became the new slogan of Helsinki and the new brand strategy of the city is based on the constant change and doing things together. Representational is that in March 2016 we organized Helsinki Sauna Day – a day when people open up their saunas for free – with the support of the tourism office of Helsinki.


So what is there to learn from the new participatory culture of Helsinki? First of all, it shows that cities and people can change. Citizens should be encouraged to participate by giving them more freedom and even by bending and changing the rules, if needed. The question shouldn’t be, if something is possible or not, but how it is possible. When people feel that the city is supporting them, they dare to imagine. Seeing how the public and private space can easily be transformed to totally different uses have really opened the eyes of the citizens of Helsinki and encouraged them to act themselves too.

But how to get the people to participate? There isn’t one secret recipe for success, but at least the following attributes are common to all success stories: 1) There is need for the action 2) The concept is easy and understandable 3) Participating is easy and doesn’t necessarily require commitment for a long time 4) Participating is rewarding 5) There’s room for people’s own creativity.

It is interesting to see what will happen in Helsinki during the next years. Doing together is the new black in Helsinki, and new projects and actions are popping up around the city. The potential of civic activism is now clear for everyone and the city officially supports it. The Finns are will for sure remain keen to make something new and a bit crazy together. Like going naked to other peoples’ saunas. So I bet we will hear much more about Helsinki as a city made by the people for the people.

Participatory urban culture in practice:  Restaurant Day, Cleaning Day and Sompasauna

One of the events that has shaped the city of Helsinki is Restaurant Day, a worldwide food carnival when anyone can set up a restaurant for one day. It was started without a permission in 2011 and quickly got popular. So popular, that the cities had to allow it happen officially too. Next year we started Cleaning Day, a day when everyone can set up a flea market stand anywhere in the city. It was also first organised without a permission. Now both events highly popular and are also used for marketing purposes by the city.

Another representational example of the way the people and the city cooperate is Sompasauna, a free public sauna, which was built for the first time in summer 2011 on an empty area by the sea. Because it was made without a permission, it was demolished by the Public Works Department, but every time it was built again. The case was the provoked a lot of discussion in social media, which in 2013 lead to the founding of an association to run the place, with an official permission from the city. And recently Sompasauna received Helsinki Cultural Prize 2015 from the Cultural Office of the city.