The Rise of the Cities

Helsinki Mayor Jan Vapaavuori discusses metropolitan momentum – and a whole new brand of “weird”

artikkelikuva: The Rise of the Cities

Take it from Aristotle: cities exist to promote the cause of the good life. Jan Vapaavuori, Mayor of Helsinki, would like to see cities take on an even greater role – that of a powerful problem-solver.

“In addition to big businesses and startups, I believe that it is the cities that are changing the world.”

In Vapaavuori’s view, cities are more dexterous than nation states in creating and readjusting their policies and can act swiftly when need be. For instance, cities have been in the forefront in the fight against Climate Change for a long time now.

“The challenges related to Climate Change – if they’re going to be resolved at all – will be resolved by the cities,” says Vapaavuori.

The outspoken Mayor of the pocketsized metropolis is known for his straightshooting style, frequently going in for the practical solutions instead of engaging in endless debate. Also the Urban20 Mayors’ Summit, held on 29 October in Buenos Aires, got a little taste of his no-nonsense approach, as Vapaavuori was among the leaders of the “globally interesting cities” that were invited to join the Mayors of G20 countries.

Looking back at the event, Vapaavuori acknowledges that the inclusion to the U20 summit was a great honor for Helsinki – and also proof that Helsinki has advanced to the league of the internationally most respected cities.

Urban Platform Emerging
Vapaavuori recognizes the rise of the cities as actors in international politics as one significant takeaway from the Summit. More and more, cities are now actively seeking partnerships – in the same way that nation states did in earlier days.

“Working together, cities are forming the platforms for future development. It is important for the whole country that Helsinki is ambitiously involved in this development from the start.”

Making the rounds at the three-day summit, Mayor Vapaavuori gave presentations, for instance, about transparent administration and the city inhabitants’ participation, about the future of work and about the prevention of Climate Change. Wherever he went, he noticed that the summit participants were keen to learn what it is that Helsinki is doing – and what they want to accomplish next.

“In the present global crisis facing democracy, people look to the Nordic countries – as sort of technology-driven democracies – to show the way,” Vapaavuori says.

Make It Work
The international attention – and even hype – is not unwarranted, given the fact that Helsinki is a genuine trailblazer in various fields. Declaring in its City Strategy its desire to be the “most functional city in the world,” Helsinki is already the world’s 2nd safest city (Mercer 2017); most attractive for investment in the EU (FDI Attractiveness Scoreboard 2016); and boasting the best public transportation system in Europe (BEST 2015). But how about Vapaavuori’s own list? What are the Unique Selling Points of Helsinki in the mind of the Mayor?

Vapaavuori starts off by saying that Helsinki is clean, safe and functional, and very much in tune with the present hi-tech revolution; Helsinki is a pioneer, for example, in the arena of Open Data as well allowing – even inviting! – companies to make use of the City’s information vaults to create new services for the citizens.

“As we are witnessing the greatest technological change ever, it is important that the City really lives up to its role as an enabler,” Vapaavuori says, adding that Helsinki has always been in the ranks of the early adopters and this mindset is not likely to change in the future, either.

Helsinki has also invested in “districts of the future” where technology is used to empower the citizens – the best example of this approach being Kalasatama, located on the eastern shores of the Helsinki core area. The former industrial port is well on its way to showing the entire world the blueprint for good, quality living in 2020’s – and beyond.

“Kalasatama is really one of a kind in the way that technology is deployed to help people live their everyday lives. We’ve also succeeded in nurturing a real sense of community participation,” he says, adding that 1/3 of the locals have been involved in one community program or the other.

Going 360
According to Vapaavuori, another thing that is of crucial importance for Helsinki is the “total design” that goes into the making and running of a community. It is important to see the entire picture, instead of being distracted by random snapshots. Starting from land use and zoning, various elements ranging from infrastructure to transportation come to play here, and you have to be mindful of the “end product,” say, a new city district, at all times – even if that end product will certainly continue to evolve.

“In Helsinki, we concentrate on the big picture.”

And, of course, Helsinki has plenty of character and all sorts of lovable quirks that distinguish the city from its bigger brethren. “I think that Helsinki is unique and original. Weird – but in a good way,” Vapaavuori says.

“Weird” may well be the winning formula, as Helsinki stays very much on the growth path in the future, too. The city is expected to reach 700,000 residents by 2025, with such seaside neighborhoods as Kalasatama, Jätkäsaari and Kruunuvuorenranta, along with the reinvented superhub Pasila, serving as the spearheads for growth.

“When you’re adding 8,000 people every year, it’s no easy job securing sustainable growth,” Vapaavuori points out, adding that there are many social, ecological and economic aspects to consider here. Maintaining a careful balance via solid planning is vital in fighting inequality:

“Polarization is a problem that often hits cities the hardest. Helsinki, however, has been a text book example in avoiding the traps of polarization,” he says, noting that there’s isn’t a “bad neighborhood” anywhere in the capital.

Winning Culture
Helsinki is young, too. The average age for a Helsinki resident is only 28 years old. How does it feel to be the Mayor of all those Millennials?

“It feels great! I only wish I was that young,” Vapaavuori, age 53, grins.

Vapaavuori, a former minister and a long-time politician, has been the Mayor now for a year – and seems to enjoy every hectic minute. His forte is wrestling with practical questions where the results materialize quickly – and admits to being impatient when processes drag on indefinitely.

If there is one thing, during his term as a Mayor, that Vapaavuori would like to put his signature on, it’s the renewal of the City working culture.

“I want to contribute to pushing the culture towards being more agile, modern and international – in a dependable and credible way.”

Photos: Jetro Stavén

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