Tuesday, 12 May 2015

My letter to the city committee discussing Vartiosaari today

Dear committee members

I am a long-time resident of Helsinki; this issue is so important to me that I must express myself in English, my first language, rather than poor-grammar Finnish. I’m sure you understand. 

I urge you to consider any decisions you make regarding Vartiosaari and putting housing there. I have had trouble understanding how this option has any benefits at all, financially, logistically and infrastructurally, culturally, practically. It has been presented to Helsinki citizens as if there are no other options, and I find this hard to believe and it means that any future message that comes from decision-makers I must take with extreme scepticism. I truly wonder what it is that Helsinki planning wants to achieve for Helsinki citizens, including future citizens. 

There have been debates and hand-wringing about the housing problem in Helsinki for almost as long as I can remember. I understand this. But housing on Vartiosaari? I find this completely bizarre. It is a site of significant biodiversity, geographically and environmental-culturally unique - to the point that those of us who want to save it from bridges and parking lots tend to over-romanticize its very special beauty. The blasting and plundering it would take to actually build housing there, and streets, and streetlights, and bridges, and the infra for water and sewage… does this make any financial sense at all? If you tell me there are no other options, well, I simply cannot believe you. 

I feel I’m being hoodwinked. It’s not a word I use in English much, I guess in Finnish it would be houkuteltu (huiputtaa, hämäta). Bulldozed into accepting decisions that do not enhance city life but just make things easier for a few. At worst, decisions that provide opportunities for an elite to get want they want (housing by the shore, benefitting the residents who can afford it, as well as the property developers). 

We already saw this in Töölönlahti, an aesthetic and functional disaster-scape of architectural drabness benefitting only large corporations. This is what happens when someone views a site as only lines on a 2D map - a ‘blank slate’. I will take visitors to Töölönlahti when I want to show them a city-like-any-other, a non-descript anytime-anywhere metropolis with no pride in its tangible assets who is ready to sell out to the highest corporate bidder. I will take visitors to the future Vartiosaari when I want to show them what happens when decision-makers are not courageous enough to think things out and work things out with neighbourhoods (regarding, e.g. the design of sensitive, clever in-fill). 

Helsinki is a forerunner in many ways. It can be also in solving the housing problem. Paving over Vartiosaari is the easy way out. We’re better than that.

signed, me

UPDATE. The item on the committee's agenda to develop Vartiosaari according to the city's plan was passed by a vote of 7 to 2. One of those 2 committee members actually emailed me back, saying she tried her best. I greatly appreciate that email, considering that the committee members must have received loads of mails. The Save Vartiosaari Facebook group was imploring people to write: it wasn't too late. There was a flash mob organized aimed to galvanize. 
Maybe it still isn't too late. Maybe something can be salvaged from this farcical process.

I have a few too many things always going on, so committing to a cause is hit and miss. One could follow me for a couple of years and do a study on how people take up causes - or don't. There's a Symbolic Interactionist PhD in there somewhere. Vartiosaari has been on my radar, but it didn't hit the centre of the screen until I went there last year for Camp Pixelache and it completely stole my heart. (As it does.) Hanging out with a couple of people busting their butts with all kinds of campaigns to save the island has coaxed me out of my researcher's cave. Unfortunately it also brings to mind the fiasco of the Makasiinit, another cause that I co-fought to save, joining the thousands in a human chain around the building (Wikipedia article in English here). (Oh, pangs just looking at that photo of the Makasiinit burning.) Ah, let's not go down that pessimistic path just now. 

So Vartiosaari is a very special island in Helsinki's very special archipelago. Helsinki is built on a peninsula and it feels like the city wants to creep like a mercury blob further and further out to sea. This relationship to the sea defines Helsinki. Its wonderful coastline is for the most part the city's playground and communal summer house. There are almost-secret sailing club restaurants and grilling places dotted along here and there; islands sprinkled with tiny little wooden cabins; right in the south of the city, people promenade in the Helsinki version of the paseo, buying ice cream, walking their dogs, checking out all the sailboats, stopping for a glass of wine. In the winter people take to the ice (while there was still ice thick enough to walk on, in those nostalgic pre-2° days) - walking or skiiing or skating along the coast or from island to island. 
Many of these islands are built up and are reached by motorway and bridge, in such a way that you forget what is island and what is mainland. It all becomes just 'city'. But Vartiosaari is only reached by boat or ferry and there are a only a few wooden houses on it. It is notably richly biodiverse and geographically - well, impressive. Its special character is quite well explained in English here

Helsinki is now suffering from a housing crisis. It seems to be a long-term illness, considering how long I've been hearing about it and how helpless decision-makers appear to be in the face of it. Wailing and waving their hands. After we heard the committee's decision, one of the active Save members wrote that - for those Green Party members who voted to continue to develop Vartiosaari - It's green to build tram lines, two huge bridges, infrastructure, roads, water and sewage pipes, electricity and flats for 7000 people in the middle of Helsinki's most valued island, which boasts nature like Nuuksio National Park and views like Koli National Park.

I mean, seriously. You'd think that Finland had run out of land like it's an inventory sale. You'd think we were living in Hong Kong or something. 

Photo credit Christian Westerback, Helsingin Sanomat, as seen here.

1 comment:

  1. So, is it too late? Inquiring tree huggers want to know....