Helsinki Stream City: A Re-imagining Outside the System


Modern man lives under the illusion of being the most intelligent being out there. This is the paradox of human nature; we all want to make the best decisions with the knowledge we have at any given time, but on the other hand, our thinking is largely based on how our ancestors organized the world in their time.

Possibly the most tangible example of this in our everyday lives is infrastructure. While there seems to be plenty of candidates offering new solutions to the already existing urban environment, there are not that many looking to challenge the current urban order. Cities are full of talk—but who walks the walk?

Re-imagining Urban Environments

Olli Hakanen, a long-term specialist in re-imagining workspaces and urban environments, has an extensive background in both architecture and consultancy. His latest venture, Respace, aims to address how urban environments are being developed to better suit the needs of their residents as well as the environment. According to the ideology behind Respace, instead of always building something new, often all that is needed is a re-thinking.

“Most architecture focuses on building some new addition to add to an already existing system; say, an apartment building added into a given city. But perhaps the focus should be on non-building planning; often, you can find more feasible solutions by re-thinking the space and its use. Instead of planning a building because someone says they need more space, maybe we should look into how the existing space has been used so far and re-think how it could be used in the future. This has been my professional guideline for a long time, and this is also at the very heart of Helsinki Stream City,” Hakanen confirms.

Love for Potential, Passion for Results

The central idea of Helsinki Stream City is that the system needs a fix, but there are no quick ways to make one. People need to commute better and faster; the environment needs to be consumed less, and money should be used wiser than it was before. As is typical for innovations, Helsinki Stream City was born outside the current system.

Helsinki Stream City has two fundamental entities: “People Flow Master Plan” and “Freight Flow Master Plan.” The first focuses on the commuting of people and the second on the moving of goods. These two plans form the core of Helsinki Stream City, which essentially models a completely new urban environment and architecture. The plan is definitely big and bold—while the status quo might be even more so.

As Olli Hakanen points out: “You cannot fix a heart problem with a plaster. I aim to question the given facts; my work history shows this attitude has led to innovative thinking and solutions. That is also why I took on the challenge of re-thinking urban environments in the first place. The values of Respace are ‘love for potential, passion for results’—and this acts as a guideline for everything that we do. There are a lot of politics surrounding urban environments, but I am convinced that should not stop us from re-thinking and doing our best.”

Documentary Film as a Communication Tool

The challenge was to help all the stakeholders—including the political forces and the private sector—understand the reasoning behind this radical plan. This is where KIRA-digi, the Finnish national digitalization program, came in. While most KIRA-digi projects are focused on developing a single solution, Helsinki Stream City Pilot was all about using the AI of today and tomorrow to develop the system itself.

“With the support of KIRA-digi, we were able to prepare a short documentary on Helsinki Stream City, which premiered on May 18, 2019, in Helsinki Central Library Oodi. While we had to make some compromises due to changes in financing, the documentary is a fantastic communication tool, and I am happy we had the chance to complete it,” Hakanen says.

A documentary film was chosen as a medium mostly because it allows effective communication in a relatively short time. Another—obviously more costly—option would have been to create a game environment—a format into which urban design is already heading due to the fantastic possibilities it offers to simulate different options in a given environment.

Taking Urban Planning to the Next Level

For now, Hakanen is continuing to develop the concepts of the “People Flow Master Plan” and “Freight Flow Master Plan” in cooperation with Aalto University and the City University of New York. Besides Helsinki, the City of New York has given a lot of inspiration to Olli Hakanen, which he got to see up-close during his time as architect-in-residence of the Finnish Cultural Institution in New York back in 2015 and for a second time during January–March 2019.

“We, as humankind, are at a crossroads when it comes to commuting. Private cars are too expensive for us and the environment, while public transportation is facing growing pressure in terms of handling the increasing numbers of passengers as well as meeting the needed service time and frequency. Now Helsinki has the possibility to be at the forefront of taking the first big, bold step forward into a new future,” Hakanen concludes.

Olli Hakanen will be presenting at WDBE 2019 in Helsinki in September. Before that, connect with him on LinkedIn.

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