Local Action in Helsinki, Finland

The Local Action site for Helsinki is situated along Teollisuuskatu street in downtown Helsinki. In general, Helsinki is facing a fast population growth of an estimated 10% by 2030. To accommodate the growth in a sustainable way, Helsinki is emphasising environmental issues and public transport in planning new areas. Developing the Teollisuuskatu axis derives from the City of Helsinki’s 2016 masterplan, which strategically aims to develop downtown work areas as an alternative to suburbs and the consequent urban sprawl.   

Teollisuuskatu is situated just a few kilometers from the Helsinki city centre and is developed as a work and cultural centre. At the western end of the site, a new public transport hub with a high-rise area is planned and developed (Pasila). At the eastern end of the site, a harbour area is being developed into homes, worksplaces, services and culture, with an open waterside area (Kalasatama). Connecting these two big urban hubs, where commercial activity and traffic is growing rapidly, is the site for Helsinki’s Local Action, the 2.5 km Teollisuuskatu axis. A freight railway track used to pass through the area. Although the track was dismantled decades ago, the area is still characterised by industrial heritage, warehouses and heavy traffic.

The aim of the Teollisuuskatu outline plan is to develop a high-profile business district and a culture and event cluster. To do so, a strong emphasis is placed on identity, accessibility, collaboration, resilience and sustainability. While the city can improve accessibility by reorganising traffic and prioritising walking, cycling and public transport, the majority of the plots in the area are in private ownership. Hence, through collaborating and clearly defining environmental governing principles, future development will be done by the planning of retrofitting and infill buildings. The focus on the governing principles is to create a resilient, lively and human-scale streetscape. In addition to the planning processes, a traffic design competition was held for the area to examine how re-thought traffic arrangements could enable infill building, new connections and top-quality urban space. By clearly defining and exhibiting how various planning and design approaches create an attractive diverse urban space, stakeholders can better understand how investing in the environment can benefit everyone. 

A more detailed insight of the outline plan developed in this process can be found in the Integrated Urban Plan section.

Extended reality (XR) solutions

Through the Augmented Urbans project, various XR solutions were tested in Helsinki to better communicate and ask input from local stakeholders. Implementing XR was treated as a learning experience. After the first iteration of developing XR tools, a period of time was taken to reflect on both the users’ and the planners’ experiences of using the technology and its outcomes. After that, a second iteration was implemented, based on the learnings from the first.

The first iteration used two different platforms to ask users to mark their walking routes and indicate good and bad places. One platform was Maptionnary, where users could mark the information as trajectories or areas on a 2D map. The other platform was Teollisuuskatu VR (developed by a company called Teatime Research), where users could be immersed in the 3D environment. While the planners got useful information, the iteration revealed that the existing digital skin was of such low quality that the VR was not practical. Asking the same question on two different platforms also made planners think what type of questions they really should be asking. For example, a general “what do you want here” question would be unfair to ask, as the city cannot grant wishes, but has to weigh different needs. The capabilities of the city, especially in an area with a high private ownership percentage, have to be clearly communicated during the participation process.

For the second iteration, the resources were used to model the current and proposed situations to be used in an application made specifically for one urban square, Bruno XR. Ideally the model of the current situation could be exported from the existing 3D city model, but the aerial photos for that are taken every two years and, hence, it is not sufficient for rapid prototyping in urban development. Even then, the issue that an existing digital skin of the city is detailed to suit a birds-eye view rather than a human eye level VR experience, is still present. Nevertheless, after modelling the area, planners collaborated with developers of a landscape architect VR (Plehat) to figure out how people can leave comments in VR. The solution was to give people entering the XR environment a joystick that they can use to take photos or “screenshots” of the view they had. So while wearing the VR headset, users could freely move and record a view they found particularly useful. After taking the headset of, the user would then be able to add text to the images they just took. The images also recorded the location where they were taken and in which direction. 

In parallel to these iterations, an old-school physical model of the area and a touchscreen, presenting various map layers, were also used. The key issue was the quality of the digital environment. While the gaming industry has reached a high level of realism in modelling environments, urban planning departments do not have the same level of resources to match for that level of detail. Still, the planners found it refreshing to use different mediums to represent and explore the area. It created an opportunity to overlay diverse viewpoints and avoid an echo chamber effect.

Key experience – Pop-up

A key experience for the City of Helsinki urban planners during the Augmented Urbans project was to have a pop-up planning office on-site. Both of the XR iterations described above were made available to the general public at the pop-up. Part of the pop-up was renting a street-leveloffice space at Teollisuuskatu, so that locals could easily access the participation process. The pop-up had a physical model of the area, both a physical and digital (touchscreen) drawing of the place, the equipment for the XR and an urban planner talking to people. The key was to be present on site for longer periods and also at various times, so that people could come after working hours. The first pop-up was for two weeks in January 2019, the second for three days in November 2019, and the third for a week in September 2020.

The purpose of the pop-up was to embed the planning process in the location and context and be easily approachable by local residents, landowners and businesses. By being on site, the urban planners had an opportunity to discuss the proposal more in depth, but also ask feedback about using the various XR tools used to communicate the plans. In doing so, the planners could assess what worked well for users and what could be improved. The on-site pop-up also allowed the planners to engage with the site directly. Bringing all the information right to the area supported the landowners and other stakeholders to have much more information and an opportunity to give feedback about the planning tools.