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There’s a lot of talk nowadays (this blog included) about how bottom up movements have become more important in shaping and solving problems of the 21st century city. The drivers behind the trend include the rise of the internet and social media: It has become very easy to mobilize people around any issue. In addition, access to information has been democratized, making top-down governance models seem outdated and inefficient in their responses to today’s urban challenges. People are taking the initiative to improve their surroundings themselves.

While we’re experiencing all kinds of fascinating Do-It-Yourself (DIY) urbanisms or Tactical Urbanisms emerge in our cities, we, typically, just manage to see a snapshot of their activities. Many initiatives also fade away as soon as we hear about them. It’s rarely easy to get a nuanced understanding of the projects or evaluate their full potential in bringing change.

Sometimes it’s not easy even if you’re on the inside. I often get asked to elaborate the impact of my DIY urban planning activities and it is, indeed, a difficult task. I’ve tried to single out some tangible outcomes, but, as with most “activisms”, it seems that the greatest impact happens in places that are not visible nor measurable.

Tikkutehdas DIY, the skatepark built by skateboarders for skateboarders, in the making. The group behind this project and many others is Kaarikoirat Skateboard Organization and their work can be best followed via their Instagram account @kaarikoira. Photo credit: Niklas Pedersen/Kaarikoirat Skateboard Organization

Luckily, there are also exceptions. Such as the work of Kaarikoirat Skateboard Organization (Pirkanmaan Kaarikoirat Ry), a group of skateboarders who have proactively built their own skatepark instead of waiting for the city’s administration to deliver new skateboarding infrastructure. I’m grateful for having met them because their story is a unique window for examining the changing landscape between top-down and bottom-up processes. While DIY skateparks are not a new phenomenon as such, the one of Kaarikoirat managed to start an unexpected process of change that improved the quality of life for their peers and beyond.

So, if you’re right now pondering whether you should proceed with your own idea to bring positive change in your city, continue reading. Kaarikoirat have proved that it is possible to make the city better for everyone even when you don’t have any power, resources, or allies to begin doing so.

Worlds Apart: Tampere and Skateboarding

The setting of the Kaarikoirat story takes us to the early 2000s and the city of Tampere, Finland, where the local skateboarding scene was rolling away in an atmosphere of frustration. The dissatisfaction was due to a lack of proper facilities for practicing skateboarding. The sport had gradually become a popular pastime among the Finnish youth, but the network of skateboarding infrastructure was scarce, too generic, and poorly laid out.

The city’s officials had little interest in building skateparks. Nor did they have any real pressure, expertise, or guidance in doing so.

Hallilla Skatepark is an example of how city-led skateboarding infrastructure development can look like. In many cases, the expanding gap between the local government’s business-as-usual activities and societal progression provides a fruitful breeding ground for DIY urbanisms. Photo credit: City of Tampere.

At the time, the local skateboarding scene was made up of fragmented and organically grown groups. And the Finnish Skateboarding Association was largely non-existent (they were founded in 2003). Consequently, there really wasn’t any organized lobby to pressure the city to do a better job. Only quiet pleas for improving the situation that got largely ignored or deprioritized.

The Kaarikoirat group was one of the fragments who occasionally tried to stress that the city could step up their game. During travels and studies around Europe, the guys had learned about the more advanced state of skateboarding culture and facilities in other countries. They knew how things could be. And new ideas kept pouring in all the time via social media. That was the new normal with different lifestyle scenes. For instance, Swedish DIY enthusiast Pontus Alv’s movies promoting self-made skateparks spread across the world like wildfire to inspire a whole generation of skateboarders.

From Dissappointment to Tikkutehdas DIY

Fast-forward to 2008, and things, suddenly, took a sharp turn for the better. Tampere’s officials revealed an extensive plan for skatepark development. The frustrating years of sending complaints had paid off, it seemed.

The excitement was, however, quickly replaced by disappointment and anger. Nothing was done to implement plan. As swiftly as the plans had emerged, they got buried by other projects deemed more vital.

Waiting for the city to act began to look like a waste of time.

The area around Tampere’s Santalahti and Tikkutehdas (former match factory) was a kind of gray zone, left somewhere in between the public and private spheres. It’s undecided future gave room for many types of unsanctioned activities to blossom. For Kaarikoirat, this meant a possibility to build their skatepark without any interference from the city’s administration. The group told me that the police wasn’t bothered either, they just stopped by occasionally to check all is well. Photo: Mikko J. Putkonen

Sometime later, a self-help opportunity for Kaarikoirat to improve the situation emerged. The skaters stumbled upon a sleepy former industrial site on the edge of the inner city. It was one of those places where the original industrial activities died out or moved away by the 70s and other endeavors, such as artist studios, had taken over. Some of the gracious red brick buildings also stood completely vacated, waiting for distant redevelopment plans to materialize. This was the case especially with the plot of Tikkutehdas, a former match factory, that served as an unsanctioned graffiti gallery.

The area around Tikkutehdas was rich with junk. Photo credit: Mikko J. Putkonen / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Experiences of thriving do-it-yourself skateparks elsewhere in the world combined with the mixture of available assets such as the obvious lack of any formal activities around Tikkutehdas, a flat piece of land where a burned-down building once stood, and a wealth of discarded materials lying around, led the group to begin imagining about the possibility of constructing their own skatepark. By the next summer, the idea of Tikkutehdas DIY was ripe enough to put it into action.

This is when the magic starts to happen.

A snapshot of the grassroots skatepark development. Photo credit: Kaarikoirat Skateboard Organization / Tikkutehdas DIY Facebook Page

The guys had some experience of building small-scale ramps in school and their backyards, but no expertise in creating something of the scale of an entire skatepark. They also didn’t have any money. Despite these shortcomings, they launched a working process of “trial and error”, as they described it, to incrementally transform the area into a skating paradise. The examples from other countries provided important benchmarks to see what worked and what didn’t. Not to mention assurance that the project was feasible.

Work, work, work. Photo credit: Kaarikoirat Skateboard Organization

Pulling together the necessary materials and additional funding (much came from their own pockets) was a creative project of its own. The group collected bottles and cans to raise funds, recycled suitable materials they found in the area, and contacted local companies for support. Fortunately, they came across plenty of like-minded people in different businesses who were open to lending a helping hand. For example, construction companies gave away leftover materials, a skateboarding brand allowed them to use a van, and one company donated 3 cubic meters of concrete.

In later stages, the project got more ambitious. The group told me that at some point of the process they estimated they had used 20,000€ worth of material resources to build the park. Photo credit: Kaarikoirat Skateboard Organization / Tikkutehdas DIY Facebook Page

They also didn’t need to do the job by themselves. Other skateboarder groups and kids that hung out in the area joined to help. Kaarikoirat also managed to win the landowner on their side by assuring that nothing obscure was going on in the area.

Developing the skatepark became a meaningful and communal pastime for many: “One of the best things about our process was the feeling of communality and solidarity. We actually think that the skatepark project was a big factor in removing cliques in the local skateboarding scene and it brought older and younger skateboarders together.”, the group told me.

Tikkutehdas DIY at its largest. Photo credit: Kaarikoirat Skateboard Organization / Tikkutehdas DIY Facebook Page

The Nudge from a Paper Tissue Brand

After a couple of summers of underground skateboarding and communal construction activities, an unexpected and game-changing sequence of events started to unfold.

It all began by a Kaarikoirat member discovering that a tissue paper brand had announced a call for inspirational community initiatives. They wanted to award the best one with 5,000 € and the winner would be chosen by the public. The group decided to seize the opportunity as the money would allow further expansion of their skatepark. Using social media, they mobilized the entire skateboarding community to vote for their DIY skatepark initiative. The prize was easily theirs.

But to be able to receive the money, they were required to establish an official association for the group. This practical byproduct later proved to be a useful tool for opening doors beyond money processing: It facilitated the group in advancing a dialogue with the city’s management. They, for example, were able to build a working relationship with the Deputy Mayor who was responsible for developing skateboarding infrastructure.

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Making mistakes is an important part of life. It’s an opportunity for growth and a lesson to others. Unless, of course, you’re a city. Too often, cities think they’re unique and repeat the blunders that others have made before them. Here are three of the worst ideas that keep getting recycled.

This article was originally published in The Guardian. The images in this post are different than in the original article.

Build a big mall to ‘revitalise’ the city

The gigantic out-of-town complex Centro was the centrepiece of Oberhausen’s efforts to halt economic decline and turn the German city toward post-industrial success.

Oberhausen’s Centro Shopping Centre is the largest in Europe – but devastated the city’s centre rather than helping to revitalise it. Photo: Tuxyso / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

With glitzy shopping, entertainment venues and cultural offerings in repurposed factory buildings, Centro did indeed have a transformative impact – but not in the way the city imagined. As much of the retail and service activity in the city gravitated to the new mall, many mom-and-pop businesses downtown couldn’t stay afloat. The once-vibrant streets of the city centre were gradually taken over by discount stores, empty shop fronts and visible decay.

Devastated by the loss, Oberhausen is now focused on revitalising the downtown area – in short, recovering from its main recovery project.

Nor is Oberhausen alone. Many cities have welcomed remote shopping centres in the hope of making economic gains, only to face unintended consequences. So you’d guess new cities would have learned from these mistakes.

Since the Veturi mall opened in Kouvola, Finland, the city has been best-known for its dying city centre and the desperate efforts to resuscitate it. Photo: Htm / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Guess again. In Finland, the city of Kouvola believed a big shopping mall on the edge of town was just the strategic intervention needed to reinvent a declining economy. Since the mall opened in 2012, Kouvola has been best-known for its dying city centre and the desperate efforts to resuscitate it. And the city of Seinäjoki has enthusiastically approved a new peripheral shopping paradise, arguing that the mall will boost Seinäjoki’s attractiveness as a regional shopping destination, and in some magical way also support the city’s strategy to strengthen its downtown.

No guesses as to what will happen next.

‘Bury’ cars to improve the downtown core

The “Five Star” development strategy of the city of Tampere involves adding new housing and jobs, a new tram system, and prioritising pedestrians and cyclists. In order to achieve this deluxe downtown experience, the city is building underground parking facilities and a tunnel to clear the roads of cars. A clear and effective concept, one might think.

But congestion in the city wasn’t even an issue before the city completed two costly Five Star projects: a 1,000-space parking garage, and a tunneled highway section. The effect has been to increase the number of cars the city centre can accommodate – and the number of cars has duly increased.

Boston diverted a downtown expressway into a tunnel. The project ran a decade late and cost $15bn. Photo: MKdeJong / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

So how is Tampere responding? It is proposing to to build an additional entry from the tunnel to the city centre – increasing capacity yet further – and planning yet another colossal parking garage. Meanwhile, improvements for pedestrians and cyclists have been minimal. The most remarkable result of the project, many locals now believe, will be its astonishing price tag.

The city would have done well to look across the Atlantic for lessons. In the late 1980s, Boston took a leap of faith to see whether burying cars underground could be the magic bullet that could both alleviate congestion and increase downtown walkability. The so-called Big Dig project ambitiously set to divert a downtown expressway into a tunnel, to offer new transit options, and to refurbish the expressway corridor with parks and plazas.

What happened? The project was finished a decade later than planned, the construction costs bloated to $15bn, the transit plans were forgotten – and Bostonians today spend more time in traffic than ever.

Build a highway on the waterfront

As Jacques Cousteau once wrote: “The Sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” As “placemaking” has become a key element of the urban economy, some intelligently planned cities have embraced their blue gold. In Oslo, for example, the “Fjord City” strategy has seen the redevelopment of a once-industrial shoreline into vibrant neighbourhoods packed with apartments, jobs, shops and restaurants. Famed for its opera house, Oslo’s waterfront has helped the city to evolve into one of the most competitive in Europe.

Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, which cuts the city’s waterfront off from the rest of its downtown area. Photo: Nayuki / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Other cities prefer to completely ignore these successes and instead repeat the mistakes of the past. In 2015, despite lengthy community campaigns for tearing it down and plans for high-quality waterfront urbanist interventions, Toronto decided to keep the Gardiner Expressway in place, cutting the city’s waterfront off from the rest of its downtown.

Other cities swim even harder against the current. The Estonian capital of Tallinn has decided to invest in a brand-new downtown highway, in order to grant easier harbor access to trucks. In the process, it will pave over one of the city’s only seaside parks. As a kind of absurd flourish, the city has promised to build a shiny promenade and public space in the only narrow stretch of land that now remains between the sea and multiple lanes of traffic.

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Go to any urban or regional development conference and you will be dazzled with whimsical “Smart City” visions. Usually, this covers a mix of presentations about making cities better places to live in together with tech companies by the application of rapidly developing digital technologies ranging from block chain technology to 3D printing and artificial intelligence. But the presentations could include anything, really. The Smart City is a broad concept and circulates the conferencesphere and urban strategies without any solid definition.

I recently got a dose of Smart City talk at the World Government Summit in Dubai and the Urban Future Global Conference in Vienna. I had no intention for writing about Smart Cities when I attended, but experiences both in and outside of the conference halls got me thinking otherwise. The main takeaway from this conference combo turned out to be a peek into the fundamentally different ways cities can understand and approach evolving and potentially disruptive new technologies.

This was particularly clear around the narratives of a specific smart city niche: the emergence of autonomous vehicles (AVs). The kind of urban future autonomous vehicles promise is very well known. We shall experience less congestion, fewer accidents, less pollution, minimal needs for parking, and so forth.

Opinions about when our cities might be like this vary tremendously. Some think it’s only a dream.

The recent fatal accident in Arizona is, however, an unfortunate reminder about the fact that we must keep Smart Cities firmly in the center of urban discussions even if we can’t clearly see where we are going. The real-life dimension even to the flashiest Smart City visions is already here. And everywhere. There are only a handful of cities that aren’t on a quest to become Smart. Dubai and Vienna certainly are.

The City of Superlatives

The World Government Summit didn’t have a specific focus on urbanism, but the conference was ultimately very much about Dubai and its ambitions. And these are not modest. The city aims to become one of the most sustainable cities, the world’s happiest city, and, of course, the smartest city on earth. Dubai will soon also host Expo 2020, the first world fair in the Middle East, to flex its muscles.

During the Summit, we got to have a sneak preview of Dubai’s Museum of the Future, which will open in 2019. The museum will focus on the potentials of artificial intelligence. This image is an AI-powered artsy recreation of a photo of me.

To push for progress, they’ve founded Smart Dubai, a special government body with a mission to leverage technology to meet the city’s grandiose visions. Strong support is given from the national government, which now includes the world’s first minister for artificial intelligence.

One of Smart Dubai’s key initiatives is the provision of “Smart Mobility”. In other words, the introduction of autonomous vehicles. Dubai’s aim is to have 25% of all trips running autonomously by 2030.

And they’re serious. During the Summit, they were testing self-driving pods and announced a 5-million-dollar global challenge for providing solutions that will help Dubai meet their AV goals. Moreover, Dubai has already been testing with small “flying taxis”, they’ve just hired HERE to map the city with high-definition technology, and Tesla is already supplying Dubai with a fleet of vehicles with self-driving capabilities. At Expo 2020, they plan to test flying cars. That’s right, flying cars.

A glimpse of the streetscape in the newer part of Dubai.

When in Dubai, smarter mobility was indeed at times a thing that felt needed. When you needed to travel somewhere, especially from the conference venue, you had to wait forever to have a ride arranged for you. Walking was impossible and there was no bus to hop into. The chaotic waiting lines had an upside, though: they were a very good opportunity for networking.

While I sat in morning traffic and watched people jog next to a highway-like road with no real sidewalks, I could not help keep thinking about whether Dubai’s Smart City project will ever deliver. Their approach reminds me of a pattern that cities have experimented with around the world at the expense of sustainability. Dubai very much included.

A street in the older and walkable part of Dubai.

In just a few decades, Dubai has grown from a sleepy fishing village to a global metropolis of 3 million. The wonder happened in tandem with opening up to Western industries and ways of getting things done, including economic activity, real-estate development, and lifestyle. From an urbanistic point of view, this meant a transformation from a walkable Middle-Eastern town to one of the most dispersed cities I’ve ever seen.

Yes, Dubai has, without blinking an eye, embraced and enforced foreign-born policies and planning principles that have enabled extremely rapid growth, but also turned the city into the poster child of sprawl. The city’s goal for becoming one of the most sustainable cities on the planet could not sound more utopian.

A Chat with Angelika Winkler

Soon after the sun and warmth of Dubai, I was in freezing Vienna, and again listening to Smart City talk. On the AV front, discussions at the Urban Future conference unsurprisingly dealt with the potentials of self-driving cars in improving urban life. Or so it was until this came up: a session dedicated to singling out and mitigating the risks of autonomous mobility.

I’m glad I chose to attend. I learned that Vienna’s AV policy differs from that of Dubai’s. In fact, it seems to be exactly the opposite.

Vienna’s Head of the Mobility Strategies division, Angelika Winkler, enlightened us session attendees that for the past few years her team has been working a kind of response strategy to mitigate any unwanted outcomes AVs may bring. They want to be ahead of the game.

I got the chance to talk to Winkler about what this could mean in practice.

For starters, Vienna is thinking about enforcing a policy on routing, she told me: “AVs are designed to operate from an individualistic perspective, to take the quickest route from A to B. But this can be at odds with the interests of the community: sometimes the fastest route will go through quiet streets. We are planning to enforce some restrictions for concentrating most of AV traffic to streets where they don’t bother people.”

And they’re not too far away from this: “We are working on digitizing our traffic controls (traffic signs, etc.). Adding ‘community zones’ into the system will be quite easy.”

Vienna’s Mariahilfer Straße has become more lively and enjoyable following recent transformation work, which added pedestrian and shared space segments.

What AV evangelists always tell us is that the number of cars will decrease tremendously as a single robot-operated car can replace many human drivers and their cars. The urbanists fear this will backfire. The risk is that adopting AVs too eagerly will only amplify what cars did to cities: fuel the Dubaiesque dispersal pattern.

Winkler assures that this will not be the case in Vienna: “Autonomous or not, Vienna wants fewer cars altogether.” And more significantly, she mentioned there are tools to halt AV-related sprawl: “Cities can potentially prevent the sprawl scenario by not distributing support infrastructure for AVs in out-of-town sites”.

And speaking of support infrastructure, Winkler thinks Vienna should keep their engagement with AV tech and operating software to a minimum: “We think AV tech should be contained to the cars themselves, because the city management will never have enough resources to keep up with the tech/software development.”

The low tech way to fight unwanted graffiti: create zones where you’re allowed to make cool graffiti.

Finally, Winkler encourages cities to intensify their prep work: “AV thinking within city halls has been slow. In Vienna, just in the last two years the attitudes have made it possible to form a group working on this.” A good way to make risk mitigation more effective is to network. “Vienna has just taken part in a new Eurocities working group on AVs”, she concluded.

Later, I joined a conference walking tour that was aptly called the “invisible smart city”. We, for example, dove into to why more than half of Viennese use public transit every day, how a refugee-run hotel works, and explored a project to turn empty shops into tourist rooms.

During one walking tour, we took a moment to celebrate Vienna’s vibrant and walkable streets with a little wintry waltz.

The tour stops were all, essentially, examples of the details that add up to Vienna getting repeatedly judged as one of the most livable cities in the world. Things that are “socially smart”, as our tour guide Eugene Quinn put it. This is what I would also extend to Vienna’s approach for dealing with the AV question. People are placed in the center of the equation.

How Will Cities Get Smart?

The Smart City may for the most part act as a nice umbrella term for activities that happen in dialogue between cities and the global market of tech innovations. A dialogue that is rather hidden and uninteresting besides the flashy headlines and imagery, and therefore not discussed in such detail as for example the question of adding more bike lanes.

But interesting or not, one thing is crystal clear: we are in the early stage of the digital age and sooner or later faced with disruptive innovations that will shape urban life as we know it.

We will only much later know what policies are wise in addressing their emergence. The experiences from Dubai and Vienna, however, offer food for thought to the role and philosophy of cities can take in this process.

Do they understand Smart City advancement as a top down project, positioning themselves as key stakeholders in clearing the way for the adoption of new technologies? Or do they perceive Smart City visions as impulses that rise from the bottom up, driven by external players, forcing cities to respond and readjust, if needed?

At the World Government Summit, UNDP leader Achim Steiner summarized what a city’s main goal should be, whichever approach they may champion: “Governments need to make sure technology contributes in a way that helps solve sustainability problems and not amplify them.”

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Does anyone else pay attention to this: many times the renderings of new urban development projects include a plaza or similar open space, sitting somewhere in front or between the proposed new buildings. Scaling purposes aside, the glitzy visualizations paint pictures of future plazas teeming with life. People are lounging around, meeting each other and having a good time, actively engaging in public life.

The city of Jyväskylä organized an architectural competition in 2016 to compile ideas for shaping the central blocks of their landmark development project Kangas. This one’s the winning entry. Image: Schauman & Nordgren Architects Oy / ApS

But wander off to anywhere in Helsinki (or any Finnish city, really) and you will find dead plazas galore. Reality is far from the imagery. Most of today’s plazas were planned before digital tools came into play and made adding people easy, but the story has been quite the same for a long time: once materialized, our plazas typically end up being void of the public life they’re envisioned to support.

Helsinki’s Ruoholahti Square (Ruoholahdentori) represents the kind of experience you might expect with the average plaza. See the photo credit link for a 360° view. Photo: Vladimir Kourakevitch

Indeed, the contrast to, for example, the well-known festive atmospheres of Italian life-rich piazzas is striking. They underline how and why public plazas are vital to cities. Like streets, they act as venues for social interactions and activities. It would be superb to spread some of that piazza energy to plazas and squares across Finland, too.

A snapshot of the weekend crowd in Palermo. The city’s piazzas are the most extreme people magnets I’ve seen. It’s like there was a block party going on throughout the city center every weekend.

Wishful thinking, many say: “forget about it, we don’t have the climate or culture for that kind of vibrancy to happen”.

No, in many ways we don’t. But then again, we do have some examples in our plazascape that are rather alive, too. In Helsinki, Senate Square is where tourists gather to absorb the city’s history. And in wintertime, there are periods with more people at the square than in summer. This is thanks to major events like the Christmas market and LUX Helsinki light festival. Some other plazas or plaza-like spaces are used as popular meeting places. Kallio’s Karhupuisto area and the “steps” next to Kansalaistori square, for example, attract people for casual lingering or to take part in one of many cool grassroots events.

The area around Kallio’s Karhupuisto attracts people throughout the non-winter period to chill out on rocks and in the plaza proper. It is also a center of attention to those wishing to take part in many of Helsinki’s new urban events. These folks are enjoying Restaurant Day.

Lifeless plazas are clearly not only about climate and cultural factors. People’s needs to be social are universal.

Obviously, not all urban open spaces are supposed to resemble Italian piazzas at night. But large amounts of paved surface throughout the city without anyone there is hardly a desirable outcome either. In most cases public plazas aren’t urban amenities that add value to neighborhoods if they don’t succeed in bringing people together.

Supporting public life is a topic we must discuss more about. The public and policy atmosphere is shifting towards a future of living in denser and more urban neighborhoods. This makes having high-quality public realms a top priority for livability.

The dead plazas are a symptom of our failures to have any strategies for creating quality places. Thus, thinking about why we have so many of them also helps advance the broader discussion for smarter urban planning.

At the Scale of Blocks

The starting point for our cityscape of dead plazas is that, in recent times, we have never genuinely figured out what to do with them in the first place.

The legacy of building monumental neoclassical squares, a deep love with modernist planning ideals, and the gradual decline of yesterday’s activities in urban open space (different types of markets, etc.), has left downtown Helsinki struggling with a stock of older plazas that are too big and/or not designed to support public life. There has been no real interest in repurposing or reactivating them.

Hakaniemi Square in 1913. Photo: Signe Brander/Helsinki City Museum

One example is Hakaniemi Square, which was the main market place on the (then) eastern edge of the city. It was once filled with small shacks selling everyday items and food. Today, that legacy lives on, but the shacks are long gone and replaced by a handful of vegetable stands and cafes in tents. The market activity has diminished, and, unless there’s an occasional larger event, the gigantic space always feels rather empty.

Hakaniemi Square nowadays. Or how it has been for a long time, to be exact. Right now there’s a new temporary market hall in the middle of the plaza because the old one (the smaller red-brick building in the background) is undergoing renovation (see the difference). Following this, one of the tent cafe keepers told me many people now like the plaza and its tent services better because the temporary market has squeezed everything outside it closer together. The atmosphere is more cozy. Maybe it’s not a bad idea to make the concept permanent. Photo: Marco Hannukka

Today, plazas are obviously places that you choose to go rather than must for survival. William H. Whyte, one of the most famous public space researchers, concluded that in modern times a successful plaza is founded on careful user-centered design and programming work. He summarized that people are drawn to places that 1) are generous with inviting options for sitting and relaxing; 2) are easily accessible; 3) offer attractions such as trees, sculptures, food vendors, fountains, etc.; 4) and finally, offer a crucial element he famously put in the following words: “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.”

While Whyte underlined the key to sustaining life in plazas is a combination of these elements, ours typically lack most of them, regardless if they’re old or new.

For example, Vaasanpuistikko, the plaza right across the street from my building, is highly accessible and always quite full of people. But not in the same way as at the Italian piazza. Most people are there to rush through the space, not to linger. They’re going in or out of the metro station, visiting the supermarket, or pass by to be someplace else. Or well, some do linger. Vaasanpuistikko is better known as “Piritori” (Speed Market) because drug dealers and junkies, among other marginalized groups, are not easily driven away from these types spaces.

Vaasanpuistikko, Vaasanaukio or Piritori, whatever you want to call it, is a plaza I observe every day. It holds great potential to get transformed it into a hangout for a wider group of users. It has very good accessibility, it’s fairly small and the neighborhood is densely populated. It could be popular throughout the year with the right kind of attractions.

Many generally won’t stick around because there are zero places to sit down and activities are scarce. And the local grassroots events scene stays away because it’s too burdensome to get permits etc. for organizing activities.

This obvious lack of attractions, seating and active management isn’t any different from most modern-day plazas. Many of them are built with an emphasis on aesthetics over thinking about their use.

A random example of an envisioned plaza. This is from the city of Porvoo’s plans to extend its downtown to the west. Note the minimalist design in the rendering. If built as such, experience from elsewhere suggests you’ll find far fewer people here in the future than in the visualization. Image: City of Porvoo

They often end up being large and barren, only covered with stone pavement. A few are more artsy or detail-rich, like the expensive-to-build but no-one-ever-uses-it Tapio Wirkkala park (which I’ve written about before). I mean literally, I’ve yet to see a single person use it for anything other than to take a shortcut through it. Even kids seem to keep away. But hey, it looks nice from high above!

Tapio Wirkkala Park is a kind of a mixture between a park and a plaza. It’s not really usable either way. The space is an extreme example of what can come out when the design professions are in control.

The problem is that the process of designing or managing public spaces is dominantly a top-down exercise. The user perspective isn’t truly included. Often this approach fails, no matter how much money you pour into the..

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