Vantaa’s innovative solutions addressing migration, segregation, and youth engagement 

30 May 2024

Located to the north-east of Helsinki, Vantaa is a city marked by significant internal and international migration. Back in the 1960s and 70s, people moved from the countryside to southern Finland, leading to the development of numerous suburbs.

Nowadays, Vantaa welcomes 4,000 to 5,000 new residents annually, primarily from abroad. About 26.9% of the local population consists of immigrants, with some suburbs having even higher percentages. 

The city addresses migration and other social challenges such as polarisation, or youth not in employment, education or training (NEET) through innovative and inclusive approaches, focusing on integration and fostering community interactions. 

From 11 to 13 June, the city is hosting the Eurocities Social Affairs Forum 2024 on “Co-creating tomorrow’s cities: Joining forces for social innovation”. Ahead of the event, Eurocities talked with two Deputy Mayors of Vantaa: Katri Kalske, Deputy Mayor of Education and Learning, and Riikka Åstrand, Deputy Mayor of Urban Culture and Wellbeing who provided an overview of the city’s demographics, challenges, and innovative solutions to social issues. 


Integrating immigrants, particularly those from distant countries, is a significant challenge in the city. Learning Finnish is a crucial part of the process, but the language is not easy. 71% of the local population are Finnish speakers – and 2% Swedish speakers – whereas 27% are speakers of other languages, well above the national average. 

The SMILE project, which stands for ‘Strengthening Migrant Family Integration through Dialogue Methods,’ aims to strengthen migrant family integration through dialogue in communities, schools, and services.

We want to have a clear vision of where we are going and find more effective ways for each department to work towards that vision.
— Riikka Astrand

Initiatives like the SMILE project focus on enhancing the integration of migrant families into the community through collaboration. Funded under a wider agreement between the Council of Europe Development Bank and the European Commission, SMILE is piloting various initiatives in communities, schools, and different services. 

SMILE project partners include multicultural NGOs from Vantaa, offering working life coaching. Photo by Nina Leskela

The project focuses on three main areas – empowering different community members, including migrant families, to work together through collaboration and dialogue towards common goals; supporting children’s learning, possibly by involving parents and community members in educational activities and support systems; and emphasising local solutions for local integration challenges, tailoring its approach to meet the specific needs of the community. 

According to Deputy Mayor Riikka Åstrand, Vantaa faces three other crucial challenges – segregation, polarisation and NEET youth.  

“We are tackling them with citywide programmes, but we still think that we are not doing enough,” says Riikka. “We want to have a clear vision of where we are going and find more effective ways for each department to work towards that vision.” The department’s vision is that ‘nobody is left alone’, emphasising the importance of community support and interaction. 

Vantaa is proactive in addressing its unique social issues, often being the first in Finland to encounter and tackle these problems. How does the city tackle those challenges effectively? 

Sharing the table

The city faces the risk of socioeconomic segregation, with certain suburbs potentially becoming areas for less affluent residents while others are more prosperous. Åstrand insists that efforts are needed to prevent this division from becoming severe. There is also a growing disparity in well-being and social participation among residents. 

[The Shared Table project] is both socially and ecologically sustainable.
— Riikka Astrand

To tackle the long-term impact of segregation, Katri Kalske, Deputy Mayor of Education and Learning, emphasises the importance of education in Vantaa. A significant focus is on promoting equity by distributing more resources to those schools and daycare centres facing greater challenges. Currently, they are engaged in discussions about improving coordination and collaboration across the city organisation to address these issues more effectively and efficiently. 

The municipality addresses economic disparities by collaborating in the ‘Shared Table’ project. This consists of a chain of actions that starts with distributing waste food from factories and supermarkets, which would otherwise be discarded, and ends with a communal lunch or dinner.

A sample of food provided by Shared Table. Photo by Anna Groth

The food is sorted and distributed to around 70 different partners throughout the city. These include various NGOs, community centres, youth houses, and groups supporting unemployed people.  

“This food would be wasted otherwise,” explains Åstrand. “Now it’s brought to the people who need it and instead of just giving it to them in a bag to bring home and eat alone, people sit around the same table.” 

By doing so, the project fosters a sense of community encouraging people to cook and eat together. This communal dining experience helps build connections among participants, offering social support and a dignified way to assist those in need. 

“It is both socially and ecologically sustainable,” adds Åstrand. 

Youth and participation

Among Finnish larger cities, Vantaa has the highest number of young people not in employment, education, or training (NEET), who may suffer from issues like depression and require targeted support. 

We will show and tell of the ways we cities can be innovative socially, among the challenges that we face, for instance with topics related to youth, integration, segregation, and skills development.
— Riikka Astrand

The city has implemented programs to engage NEET youth, providing workshops and traditional employment services to help them gain skills and find paths to a carreer or education. The city employs approximately 150 workers dedicated to youth work and related services, which is a significant investment in supporting young people. 

Myyrancolo. Photo by Sakari Manninen

One of them is the youth centre, which offers specific ways to help NEET youth aged 18 to 30. It provides a range of services and activities designed to engage young people, support their personal and professional development, and reintegrate them into education or the workforce. It serves as a community hub for youth services, emphasising both recreational and educational aspects tailored to the needs of different age groups. 

Activities include a game room equipped with adequate computers, allowing young people to play video games without needing expensive equipment at home, and other recreational spaces such as a dance room. 

Five different workshops lasting six months are aimed at young people who are unemployed and not currently in school. The workshops focus on developing work skills, enhancing social skills, and providing practical experience to help participants reintegrate into active life, either through finding employment or pursuing further education. 

Traditional employment services are also available within the youth centre. These services aim to assist young people in finding jobs or entering educational programs. 

The city that finds solutions

At the Social Affairs Forum, Vantaa and other municipalities will “discuss the landscape for European cities in responding to social challenges, right after the European elections in June,” says Riikka Åstrand. “We will also show and tell of the ways we cities can be innovative socially, among the challenges that we face, for instance with topics related to youth, integration, segregation, and skills development.” 

The topic of education, not always seen as part of a social agenda, won’t be left behind. “In Vantaa Social Affairs Forum, you will hear also how education is part of social affairs,” adds Kalske. 

We are fast and creative to find new solutions.
— Riikka Astrand

At the event, participants will attend site visits and workshops on education partnerships, integration (including co-designing strategies), participation and youth; a training session on social innovation; and will watch debates on the role of cities in the next European social agenda.  

“If some guests think of going sightseeing, then it’s really not the place,” admits Riikka. And she adds, “But if you want to find a city that is quite creative and innovative in learning new solutions for the problems that we all share in Europe, then, I think it’s a nice place to come.” 

“We are fast and creative to find new solutions.” 

Main photo by Sercan Alcan


Marta Buces Eurocities Writer