A 688th birthday party at the Vantaa City Museum. Photo: Antti Yrjönen / Vantaa City Museum.

More than a suburb

Would it surprise you to come across someone chasing a sabretooth tiger through a city park? No, it’s not a case of someone taking the palaeolithic diet trend to a new height; in Vantaa, the hunter would likely be a child and the weapon a mobile phone. The mobile game Kuninkaantie II is just one way that the people of Vantaa are coming to engage more with local history. In it, kids follow a sabretooth tiger through the history of the city, from the stone age to the present as their guide finally evolves into a domestic cat (okay, it’s supposed to teach history, not biology).

Making people aware of the stone aged history of Vantaa is part of the city’s strategy to build an identity that local people can be proud of, explains Maiju Hautamäki, Coordinatorof the city of Vantaa’s Cultural Environment Programme. According to Maiju, Vantaa has had trouble asserting its own identity, as people often think of it as no more than a suburb of the capital, Helsinki. “Actually, we are older than Helsinki. We should be proud of it,” Hautamäki insists

When working in the council to think about the branding of the city, the team suddenly had what Hautamäki describes as a “eureka moment” that all the material they needed was there for the taking: “Every city usually thinks about how to promote itself by making up some kind of themes or campaigns. But we think that you don’t have to make up the stories, you can take what really is there and promote the city for what it is, for its history.”

Actually, we are older than Helsinki. We should be proud of it.
— Maiju Hautamäki

Discovering and promoting what was already there became a big part of what the city terms its ‘cultural environment’ programme. Hautamäki confesses that the term is apt to cause some confusion: “It’s kind of difficult. When I talk to people, people always say that ‘I didn’t quite get it.’ But when you go further to more detailed questions, everybody has something to say about their cultural environments.”

Urban berries

In short, a cultural environment is any place that has been shaped by the activity of people. “It consists of archaeology, built heritage and landscapes,” Hautamäki elucidates. She gives the example of an elderly man who shared his story with the programme recently. “He was a 99-year-old gentleman who came to one of our workshops and he told us about his father who built their house in Vantaa, how they used to grow their own potatoes in what is now a really urban place. They picked up berries in the bushes there, which you can’t imagine now.”

They picked up berries in the bushes there, which you can’t imagine now.
— Maiju Hautamäki

The workshops are a way for the city to get in touch with the community, collecting their stories and coming to better understand what they expect from the city and the local cultural offer. The workshops engage with tonnes of different groups, whether it’s certain demographics like the young or the elderly, or people involved in local clubs and associations.

“We asked them questions that were close to everyone’s everyday life. Like what is your favourite place in Vantaa? What do you like in Vantaa? What do you not like? What would you want to be improved?  Then we discussed the memories and stories that they had of different places.”

One of the associations that the city engaged with during this process was Vantaa Seura, a local cultural organisation that organises events like ‘Helsinga Medieval Day’ and publishes historical information about the city.

“We had a chance to make our voices heard,” says Riina Koivisto, Executive Manager of Vantaa Seura. “It has been important to be part of Vantaa´s cultural environment programme.” Koivisto cites the programme as an open door to work together with the city, in what she describes as a collaboration that has been “fruitful for both partners,” as it made “our work more visible and helped us to reach a bigger audience.”

We had a chance to make our voices heard.
— Riina Koivisto

Digital history

For Koivisto, promoting heritage is especially important in a city like Vantaa: “It is especially important in a young city, where most of the inhabitants have moved here from elsewhere in the past 50 years.” That was one of the factors that motivated Vantaa Seura to create the mobile game Kuninkaantie II, starring Vantaa’s very own sabretooth tiger, for which they worked with the city to get a European Heritage Stories grant.

To play the game, inspired by Pokémon Go, kids have to go with their phones to certain places in Vantaa where they are presented with puzzles that they must solve to progress on their journey. Each stage contains some information about Vantaa’s history, presented in an engaging way. On the game’s website, Vantaa Seura also provides free material for teachers that want to incorporate the game into their classes and not just history. The idea has been so successful that four such games now exist, highlighting different areas and periods of history in Vantaa, with the newer ones having a team setting so that kids can play together in groups.

“I’m an archaeologist,” Koivisto explains, “For me, it is especially important to share my knowledge and to help people feel better in their own living area by knowing all the exciting historical stories the places have to tell.”

Culture for inclusion

The city doesn’t just want to share its history with people – culture is also what people create moment to moment, and what they bring to the city. A big part of the programme is helping people to share their own stories. “There are about 3,000 people who took part,” Hautamäki says. The people they want to include are not just long-term residents, but also newcomers to the city, both from other parts of Finland and from farther afield.

It was this inclusionary aspect that got the programme included in a Europe-wide catalogue of good examples for cities, created by the EU-funded Cultural Heritage in Action project, led by Eurocities.

This spirit is also applied within the city’s administration, with the programme used to bring together lots of different departments into dialogue with each other about the cultural environment. “I think that it kind of connected people in a whole new way because of just the fact that they are together in one room discussing things, that might not have happened before,” Hautamäki divulges.

The stories of people living in the city are at the core of the programme. “The citizens are the main point here, everything from city planning to services and everything involves the citizens,” Hautamäki emphasises. This includes everyone from elderly residents who remember what it was like before Vantaa had a proper road network – “Dad skied to work” one respondent recalled of his youth in 1946 – to more recent arrivals – “I remember my first commute as I was so scared… now I feel that I live in a small village and it is so wonderful,” another said.

I have learned to appreciate the lines, colours and hideousness of the high-rise buildings in Koivukylä.
— Vantaa resident

The stories collected range from warm reviews, “I have learned to appreciate the lines, colours and hideousness of the high-rise buildings in Koivukylä,” to stern rebukes, “I think that the city should really demolish the old mall…. At least don’t renovate it on my tax money! Get your money from somewhere else!” All contributions are welcome.

A local identity

One voice in the programme is an immigrant association that is a cooking club for young men. Visiting their HQ Hautamäki was surprised at three things. The first was that “they didn’t cook that much!” Hautamäki laughs, but the second was how strongly they felt about the club: “Many of them said this is a really important place for us. I can always find someone to talk to. I can always be here safely.”

The third point was that they identified strongly not just as Finns, but as residents of Vantaa. “That was really fun to hear,” Hautamäki beams, “especially because they were so young, that they think of it. In Finland, you might have a strong identity for Helsinki. But if you live nearby, it is not that obvious maybe.” According to her, even people who come from quite distant northern towns will often just say they are from Helsinki, so to see young people claiming Vantaa as part of their identity is a very good sign for the city.

With all the tenacity of its stone-aged forbearers, Vantaa is digging in its heels and carving out its place in the European narrative – this city will never accept being just a suburb of the capital.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer