© Jussi Hellsten/ City of Helsinki

Building a green and just future in Helsinki

The celebrated Finnish architect Alvar Aalto once said that the real problem of architecture is “working our way to forms behind which real human values lie.” Now the city of Helsinki is pushing this concept further, placing human values at the heart not just of the form of buildings, but also the function they serve, the materials they are made from, the processes which create them, and the cultural fabric which produces them.

“Construction is just one example,” says Anni Sinnemäki, Helsinki’s Deputy Mayor for Urban Environment, of how good governance, entrepreneurship, skills and innovation can pave the way for the transition to a socially just and environmentally sustainable future locally, and globally too.

Helsinki, a city of just 660,000 people, is convinced that by developing and sharing best practices in these fields, it can have an impact on global challenges. “What is essential is what we do ourselves, that we set goals that have global importance and significance; and when we work towards achieving them, it’s something that we want to share,” Sinnemäki explains.

What is essential is what we do ourselves, that we set goals that have global importance and significance
— Anni Sinnemäki

Helsinki will have ample opportunity to inspire others as cities from across Europe, alongside representatives from the European Commission and European investment Bank, gather there this 22-24 March for the Eurocities Economic Development Forum, ‘Igniting Innovation.’ The forum will provide examples of development, testing and upscaling of innovation ecosystems, highlighting local relationships with companies and universities to tackle social challenges while creating environmentally sustainable economies.

Growth pressure

Construction serves as one of many good examples in Helsinki because it is a rapidly growing city. “We’re growing a lot,” Sinnemäki says, “and at the same time, we are painfully aware that the construction sector is responsible for massive amounts of Co2.” Legislation on the lifecycle emissions of buildings, that is, their total carbon footprint from the manufacture of their materials right through to their daily operation, is soon to come out of the Finnish Parliament.

Solar panels in Pasila © Jussi Hellsten / City of Helsinki

However, Helsinki is already hoping to exceed the planned national targets. To achieve this, the city will use regulation, but also collaboration. Through its business platform, the city is incubating change by engaging with companies, both global and local, for example in developing solutions for building waste. “When we are demolishing a building, we work with these companies to help inspire practices to reuse the waste material in construction,” Sinnemäki explains.

Five years ago, you could hardly find companies with an interest in this
— Anni Sinnemäki

The city is also encouraging companies to do research and development into the best materials, from wood to low-carbon concrete, and new building designs that could lower CO2 emissions. “Five years ago, you could hardly find companies with an interest in this; now everyone is starting to come on board,” boasts Sinnemäki.

One weapon in Helsinki’s arsenal is using the local government’s power as a purchaser of goods and services to create positive change in the European marketplace, a practice it’s been developing and sharing through the European Commission’s Big Buyers, an initiative which Eurocities helps to deliver.

Inculcating sustainability

Helsinki is not just focusing on existing companies. The city is also giving a leg up to entrepreneurs and innovators who want to develop sustainable approaches for the market. It is also investing in education, and in some cases re-education, to ensure that breakthroughs in this field are readily at hand in the toolboxes of all those involved in the industry.

“We’re even working with national education officials, sharing examples that we need to be added to the education system,” Sinnemäki says. “We’re also encouraging this kind of education with and between companies,” she says, “So you can see why skills and innovation are so essential to the green transition.”

You can see why skills and innovation are so essential
— Anni Sinnemäki

As well as aiming to exceed national targets, and to incubate change locally, the city is working on European level, through Eurocities and other channels, to have an positive influence on policy. “The EU is looking again at its Construction Products Regulation,” Sinnemäki says, “This is really important legislation, and I’ve been discussing it with the European Parliament and Commission.”

The city would want the legislation to encourage the principles of circular economy by making it possible to reuse certain materials from older demolished buildings in new construction.

The city doesn’t forget the final purpose of its buildings either. Helsinki also supports a system that ensures that rent-capped social housing is built right next to homes on the free market, and that new school buildings offer equal opportunities to children regardless of their families’ income levels or backgrounds.

Demographic shift

Construction is just one of many streams in which Helsinki is using entrepreneurship, skills and innovation to create a socially just and environmentally sustainable society. The local government has perceived a shift in demographic structures due to the ageing population affecting Finland and much of Europe. “We need everyone on board, so investment in everyone’s skills is super important; we need productivity, and innovation is tied to that,” Sinnemäki insists.

We need everyone on board, so investment in everyone’s skills is super important
— Anni Sinnemäki
Jätkäsaari district - New Helsinki
Jätkäsaari district – New Helsinki © Helsinki Partners

The city is committed to seeing these practices come into the mainstream on a global level. As part of the European Commission’s 100 Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities Mission, a group of frontrunning cities aiming at climate neutrality by 2030, Helsinki is determined not just to excel but to share the path with others.

The Finnish capital sees hosting the Eurocities Economic Development Forum, from 22-24 March 2023, as key to enabling this. “I’m confident we have a strong programme where the question of skills and innovation and ambitious climate work are thoroughly mixed. I can guarantee that participants will get something to take home with them,” Sinnemäki says.

Only Eurocities member cities can avail of the full three days of networking, discussions and workshops. However, Thursday and Friday’s plenary sessions, with interventions from representatives of the European Business Network, the European Investment Bank, the European Commission and the OECD, will be livestreamed here.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer