The darkening of the center | HS took the experts to the middle of the Esplanades – Now they tell you how to save the center

According to urban researchers, the attractiveness of the center of Helsinki could be improved with bold experiments, a more diverse range of events than the current one, and more experientiality.

From heaven it will snow, but Juha Kostiainen is wearing little shoes covered with suede.

He justifies his choice of shoes with the heated sidewalks, which he considers to be a genius invention and a good example of what makes the city center a pleasant place: even in winter, you can manage with fairly dry feet.

Kostiainen is the manager responsible for urban development and responsibility at the construction company YIT. He is also a docent of regional studies at the University of Tampere, and his research focuses on the strategic development of urban regions.

An urban geographer has also gone for a walk with us Miika Norppa. Among other things, the doctor, who studied urban planning in the inner city of Helsinki, currently works at the Ark-byroo Arkkitehtoimisto.

Our purpose is to look for solutions to a much-discussed topic, i.e. how to revive the vitality of the center of Helsinki.

HS has reported on the struggle of the city center in recent weeks from a wide variety of perspectives.

Heated sidewalks make shopping in the center pleasant, says Juha Kostiainen.

Studies are barren. About 15.5 percent of business premises in the core center were empty in October–November, and the number of people moving in the area has collapsed.

The turnover of companies in the core center is still tens of percent lower than before the corona pandemic in 2019. Shops have been especially affected.

Read more: Recent figures reveal the plight of central Helsinki: More than 15 percent of premises are empty

Read more: The latest figures reveal the serious situation in the core of Helsinki

The background is affected by many global phenomena, such as the growth of online shopping, multi-centeredness with new shopping centers, as well as remote work and reduced tourism caused by the pandemic.

“Following and participating in city life is part of the attraction of the city center. The lack of noise can in itself reduce the interest of the city center,” says Norppa.

The center is now looking for its role in the new situation, and the discussion about it often escalates to traffic. Motorists complain about the difficulty of accessing the city center and the lack of parking spaces.

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The traffic is also related to the recent decision of the city of Helsinki on an experiment that will reduce car lanes on the Esplanade.

According to city researchers, however, increasing the space for walking is not enough to liven up the city center alone.

According to experts, a variety of methods are needed for resuscitation. But what?

As a granny tunnel at the well-known Wrede Passage, Kostiainen pulls our group into the portico to shelter from the cheek-stinging rain. Here comes one idea: covering small courtyards.

The arcade resembles a Central European shopping street, of which there are plenty in the Austrian capital, Vienna, for example.

“This is quite an intimate space. If this were covered, music events could be organized here throughout the year,” Kostiainen says.

On the other hand, he does not consider the previously publicized idea of ​​covering Keskuskatu reasonable, because the street space is so huge.

Read more: They want to cover the entire street in the core of Helsinki

Norppa is on the same lines when it comes to experientiality: after online shopping has become common, downtown stores should think about what added experiential value the customer could get when shopping there.

There are many ways: some shops offer shoppers a glass of champagne, in others you can sit down for a cup of coffee in the middle of fashion or visit an art exhibition.

Known as Grandma’s Tunnel, Wrede’s passage is like straight out of Vienna. If the passageway were covered, events could be organized in the space all year round, says Juha Kostiainen.

Travel continues along Pohjoise Esplanade. On the left, you can see restaurants, cafes and shops, on the right, cars in two lanes, one of which will soon be out of use.

According to experts, the additional space to be reserved for pedestrians is inconvenient, because it is at a lower level than the current sidewalk and there is street paving in between. The void should be filled with terraces and plantings, so that the cobbled surface would attract people to walk on.

In Norpa’s opinion, the experiment is still a step in the right direction. He criticizes the city that, for example, the developing Makasiinrantan has been allowed to languish empty for years. He would have had time to try different options on the asphalt field and find out what works and what doesn’t.

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He fears that the potential of the Esplanadi experiment will also remain untapped. Much depends on the implementation.

“Expanding the Esplanade’s pedestrian areas is not a magic trick that solves everything from the point of view of the city center’s vitality.”

The sea spa in Eteläsatama, Pikku-Finlandia on the shore of Töölönlahti and Hakaniemi’s substitute hall receive thanks from the experts. More temporary solutions could be developed from them to the core center in a similar way.

Espa’s stage is in summer use. A larger heated event space would bring life to the center, experts say.

“The lack of activity can in itself reduce the interest of the city center.”

Esplanade the park is flooded with snow but no people. Google’s map service describes the green area as a “summer picnic spot”. Why can’t there be life here in winter too, Kostiainen ponders.

He suggests that the small Espa’s stage should be expanded so that different events could be organized inside it in the warm weather.

“There should also be winter cafes and glög carts in the city.”

Speaking of mulled wine, we arrive at Senatintor, where Tuomaa’s market is still being finalized at the time of the interview. Handicrafts in little houses, the glow of Christmas lights and a steaming drink are part of the Christmas traditions of many city dwellers and tourists.

Experts feel that events are an essential part of the attraction to the city center, as they get the masses of people moving.

“We should think about why different groups of people would come to the center. With the increase in online shopping, I would see that the focus is on encounters between people, the services and facilities created to serve them, and events,” says Norppa.

According to Kostiainen, there should be significantly more free events than at present. Now the markets are largely deserted in the months between the summer terrace and the Christmas vendors.

“There can be a light art event, a food week, a presentation of sports clubs and a clown bouncing somewhere. People come attracted by events, and then they use these services. Community planning does not solve the content problem,” Kostiainen says.

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He also encourages downtown operators to cooperate and develop their own ideas.

Juha Kostiainen and Miika Norppa hope for more events and small pavilion-like cafe buildings in the center of Helsinki.

Aleksanterinkattu the Christmas lights sway calmly in the wind. On Friday afternoon, just before the weekend, Helsinki’s central Kauppakatu is almost asleep.

It’s mainly the trams whizzing back and forth that keep you awake. In Kostiainen’s opinion, trees should be planted in place of the tracks and restaurants along the street should expand their operations outside. The idea will hardly come true, which Kostiainen himself admits.

Another idea would be easier to implement. The man from the construction company would like properties in the city center for hybrid use. He opens his vision again with the example of Vienna: there are shops on the street level, offices on the next floors and apartments on the top.

“This could also be considered in Helsinki.”

Similar thoughts have been expressed by the director responsible for real estate investments of the largest single real estate owner in the city center, the pension insurance company Ilmarinen Tomi Aimonen.

Read more: The largest owner of Helsinki’s core wants apartments in the center

The return of people from remote work to offices would also be beneficial for the city center’s vitality, as those who go to work make versatile use of the city center’s services, says Norppa.

On the other hand, Kostiainen wonders why the core center should be a commercial center at all. There are already small specialty boutiques further afield, for example in Punavuori.

“Perhaps the core center is more for events, culture, restaurants and cafes – the hustle and bustle. We don’t need to get hung up on the fact that the shop has to be here.”

Empty business premises would probably fill up faster if property owners lowered their rents. Experts believe that permanent rent reductions have not been started because it is considered to reduce the value of real estate.

Therefore, it may be more financially viable to wait a bit than to take a bad lease.

In the end, the market will take care, says Norppa.

“In the long term, I don’t think it’s likely that the center will stand empty. We are not in Kainuu. In the inner city surrounding the core center are the most densely populated neighborhoods in Finland.”

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