Helsinki, Finland

Members of the Sustainable Places Research Institute, working with colleagues from the Swedish School of Social Sciences, Helsinki University, are studying city-region adaptation and transition in the Greater Helsinki City-Region.

Following on from its early signing of the Aalborg Charter (Charter of European Cities and Towns towards Sustainability) in 1995, the approval of the Helsinki Sustainability Action Plan by the City Council in June 2002 led to Helsinki, became the first European capital with a comprehensive SD action plan.

Currently, under the City Council Strategy of 2009-12, mitigation of climate change is a key policy driver. At the same time, however, the emergence of European and national climate policies by way of response to the threats of climate change, present Helsinki with considerable challenges in both the short and longer term. In particular this includes the need to meet some testing sustainability targets for various municipal functions, including energy production and use, regional land use, transport, building construction and maintenance, waste management, recreational and education.

An initial pilot study trip was undertaken in May 2011, during which research interviews were conducted with a Helsinki city deputy-mayor, members of the Helsinki City Planning Department, and members of the neighbouring Vantaa City Planning Department.

The cities of Vantaa and Helsinki, along with Espoo and Kauniainen form the Helsinki Metropolitan Area, with a total population of 1 million. They also form the urban core of the Greater Helsinki Region, which includes a further 8 municipalities and has a population of approximately 1.2 million. The research interviews provided a wealth of information on current challenges facing city planners within Helsinki and Vantaa, but also with regards to the Greater Helsinki Region more generally. Issues raised by respondents included:

  • difficulties surrounding joined-up decision making between the numerous municipalities located with the Greater Helsinki City Region
  • the absence of a strong regional tier of government to assist in the development of an integrated sustainable growth strategy for the city-region
  • the need to meet the target of being carbon neutral by 2050
  • an emphasis on energy efficiency rather than renewable energy use, due primarily to the presence of a district combined heat and power system – which currently supplies some 90% of the city
  • the relative uniqueness of the Helsinki City case, whereby some 80% of all the land is owned by the municipality government
  • the high cultural importance placed on maintaining and protecting areas of green space within the city – reflected in the fact that some 40% of the area is categorised as green space
  • large scale investment in rail transport as part of a integrated transport strategy for the Helsinki region – Helsinki city is already rated as one of the best cities in Europe for public transport provision
  • the established recycling culture within Finnish society