To achieve a sustainable urban structure, the key goals are SDG 11 Sustainable cities and communities and SDG 9 Industry, innovation and infrastructure. Other objectives, such as SDG 13 Climate action and SDG 15 Life on land, are also linked to the theme. In order to achieve these goals, Helsinki should focus even more on the challenges posed by the built environment to climate change mitigation and ecological diversity objectives. Another challenge for the built environment is adaptation to the changing climate.
However, it can be said that the urban structure of Helsinki is functional and the design and construction organisation is able to adapt to the challenges. The city is constantly being developed in a direction that takes sustainability objectives better into account in planning, design, construction and maintenance. However, the escalation of the climate crisis and loss of biodiversity is creating unprecedented pressure to learn new things, internalise knowledge and change practices. This is a critical factor in the achievement of the goals, as the required systemic change is extensive.
The key document guiding city planning in Helsinki is the City Plan 2016, which guides the long-term development of the city structure with sights set on 2050. According to the City Plan, the urban structure is planned to rely more on public transport, while preserving the city’s key green and recreational values.
During 2022, four local master plan projects were launched in Helsinki to define future land use in areas not covered by the 2016 City Plan. These areas are the surroundings of Länsiväylä, the Lahdenväylä–Viikinranta area, Vartiosaari and Östersundom. The first phase of the work on the local master plans is a scenario analysis of the future development of the areas, on the basis of which a selection will be made as a basis for the actual plan. The strategic orientation of the projects is supported by a comprehensive and wide-ranging sustainability assessment, in which climate impact assessment is one of the key elements.
Measures have been taken to improve the lifecycle sustainability of the built environment. A methodology for calculating lifecycle climate emissions has been actively developed as part of the impact assessment of detailed planning in particular. The assessment is carried out in connection with the most significant detailed plans, and the results are attached to the plan material. Going forward, the question to be addressed is the target level of lifecycle emissions and how this level will be determined in line with the wider emission reduction targets.
Functionality of infrastructure
As is usually the case in Finland, the functionality and reliability of Helsinki’s infrastructure are very good by global standards. Helsinki has good expertise in ensuring the functionality of infrastructure. As the changes in the operating environment intensify, structural sustainability faces more challenges. For example, climate change increases cost pressures on the maintenance of existing urban structure. Temperatures fluctuating below and above zero and increased winter precipitation are already causing erosion and unforeseen repairs, which are more expensive. On the other hand, the tightening budget allocates less and less money to the sustainable lifecycle management of infrastructure. This, combined with the growing volume of the urban environment, poses real challenges in ensuring quality and functionality.
For infrastructure, determining the repair backlog and sustainable lifecycle management of structures is challenging. It requires the compilation and management of extensive initial data, definition of the scope of the analysis and the performance of condition inspections. For bridges, a study has been carried out on lifecycle management that includes an assessment of the financing needs to maintain the current state of the bridges and eliminate the repair backlog. Green space and street asset management plans are being prepared to improve the situation; it is not yet possible to form a sufficiently accurate picture of the growing infrastructure repair backlog.
Helsinki’s repair backlog of building assets is very high compared to other Finnish cities, which is due to its relatively old building stock. The repair backlog of the real estate stock owned by Helsinki has fallen in real terms in recent years. Sales, demolitions, substitutive new construction and modernisation can further reduce the repair backlog.
Participation and interaction in urban planning
The dialogue between planners and residents on urban planning is guided by legislation, the City’s Participation Model and, in 2019–2021, the division’s participation plan and the available resources. There is no functional indicator for the effectiveness of interaction. The City considers it important that participants feel heard and perceive the planning process as fair. As part of the planning process, feedback from residents is addressed and decisions based on it are explained.
The low participation of less active groups in urban planning is one of the biggest challenges in the interaction process. These groups include young people, less educated people, people with an immigrant background and residents of areas with a weaker social status, among others. In 2020, the communications unit of the Urban Environment Division had a project aimed at lowering the threshold for the participation of immigrants. Plain-language communications were developed with organisations, and a video was produced on the social media channels, explaining in plain language what participation is and how to participate in the discussion on the city. In some urban planning projects, specific measures, such as interviews or workshops, are taken to involve less active groups. Greater and more frequent efforts should be made in this area.
There are many ways to take part in urban planning. There are around 50 online surveys on urban planning topics every year. The pandemic moved some events online, such as the resident events on urban development that bring together all current projects in a wider area. The online events have attracted large audiences, and the recordings in particular have attracted many views. At best, the events have had more than 500 simultaneous participants, and the views of the recordings have been many times higher. The average age of participants has been younger for online events than for in-person events.
As regards traffic planning, Helsinki has allocated resources to sustainable traffic planning by e.g. investing in public transport, especially in the development of rail traffic, and cycling. Promoting cycling as a mode of transport improves and extensively develops the comfort and vitality of the city and the functionality of the transport system. It must be noted that Helsinki has also made transport infrastructure decisions that increase climate emissions from traffic and reduce local air quality, such as the decision to build the Sörnäinen tunnel. In the future, these types of projects must be viewed more critically from the point of view of overall sustainability.
The City of Helsinki has long carried out systematic work to improve accessibility. The City’s updated Accessibility Policies 2022–2025 were adopted by the City Board in 2022. Helsinki came second in the European Union’s Access City Award competition in 2015 and 2022. The award was based on the City’s comprehensive approach that allows all City functions to be involved in accessibility work.
The City also continuously strives to improve the accessibility of its services. Examples cited in the competition application included Central Library Oodi, which has been designed with special attention to the needs of people with mobility and functional impairments, the accessible boardwalk of Lammassaari, and an application developed for the Helsinki Service Map, which shows information about the accessibility of the City’s service locations. Public transport in Helsinki has also been well developed. Helsinki has also made the results of its accessibility development work freely available to all. For example, the accessibility guidelines for outdoor areas have been introduced nationwide.
Improved energy efficiency in construction
As part of the Carbon Neutral Helsinki work, several measures are being implemented to improve the energy efficiency of construction. City facilities and service buildings are designed and implemented with an E value of -30% of the national threshold value for the use class, while building modernisations are implemented in such a way that the E value is reduced to 34% of the building’s original E value. In plot allocation conditions and detailed planning, blocks of flats (use class 2) are required to have energy class A, in addition to which detailed planning requires non-residential buildings to have an energy class that is -20% of the national norm set for that type of building.
The main heating system selected for the City’s facilities and service buildings will be a heat pump system if its repayment period is under 15 years and its implementation is technically feasible. In 2023, all infrastructure projects commissioned by the City will switch to low-carbon concrete that meets the class GWP.85 requirements as defined by the Concrete Association of Finland. The class required of low-emission concrete will be reviewed and updated annually, at the minimum. Emissions from the preconstruction of the former Malmi Airport area are planned to be reduced by 50% by replacing the binder used for stabilisation with an available recycled binder.
The tendering process for the energy solutions of City-owned properties will be developed: the aim is to open up the implementation of heating solutions in the City’s own large building complexes and areal development sites to competition. The current process does not support the business development objectives or ensure the realisation of best heating solutions in the City’s own properties.
In addition to regional energy systems, the City’s main instruments for planning a carbon-neutral city include zoning, plot allocation conditions and land use agreements. The City’s plot reservation conditions were tightened in 2019, making them the strictest in Finland.
Environmental health supports people’s comfort and wellbeing
Helsinki’s environmental health is at a good level on a global scale. Water quality at Helsinki’s beaches is generally good, but it can occasionally deteriorate due to factors such as leaching caused by heavy rainfall and the impact of wildlife. The health risks associated with chemicals are also minor, and the quality of Helsinki’s water supply is excellent.
The main health risks are caused by air quality and noise. Littering is also a problem in Helsinki, harming not only people’s health but also the environment. It reduces the comfort and attractiveness of urban areas and negatively affects the cityscape. In addition to this, littering causes the City of Helsinki more than 11 million euros in clean-up costs each year. In order to reduce litter, the City has prepared the Litter Management Action Plan 2022–2025.
In Helsinki, there are also many challenges related to indoor air, including in the City’s service buildings. The problems with indoor air are caused by, among other things, the repair backlog and the risky structures of old buildings. Helsinki has drawn up an indoor air programme for the years 2018–2028 to help tackle indoor air problems.
The air quality in Helsinki has improved over the last few decades, and it is fairly good at an international level. However, exhaust emissions from traffic, street dust and emissions from burning wood in domestic fireplaces continue to be harmful to people’s health and comfort. In autumn 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) published new threshold values for air pollution based on the latest health research. These threshold values are significantly lower than before, and they are largely exceeded even in Helsinki, especially in terms of nitrogen dioxide, inhalable particles and fine particulate matter.
In recent years, the annual EU limits for nitrogen dioxide have not been exceeded in Helsinki. The exhaust gas emissions from traffic have decreased thanks to advanced vehicle technology and electrification. Replacing buses with lower-emission ones has played a key role. However, the nitrogen dioxide concentrations may rise at times on busy and chasm-like streets. In addition to direct exhaust emissions, traffic also produces street dust. The limit values for street dust, i.e. inhalable particles, have not been exceeded in Helsinki in recent years, but the risk of exceeding them still remains. The dust volumes in the spring are also significantly affected by the weather conditions and snow volumes in the spring and winter. In autumn 2022, a three-year ban on studded tyres began on Lönnrotinkatu, the aim of which is to improve air quality and reduce traffic noise in the area.
Environmental noise is a significant factor reducing the quality and comfort of the living environment in Helsinki. Strong continuous noise is harmful to health and wellbeing. Road traffic is the primary source of harmful noise. According to the noise study conducted in 2022, approximately 39% of Helsinki’s residents live in areas where road and street traffic noise levels exceed the daytime reference value level of 55 dB. The number of people exposed has risen by two percentage points since the last survey in 2017. This is mainly explained by the increase in housing in noisy areas near traffic routes and the inclusion of new street sections in the study. The noise abatement efforts by the City of Helsinki are directed by the Noise Abatement Action Plan, which is currently being updated. Noise problems are prevented by land use and traffic planning, and this becomes more important as urban density increases. It is also important to have easily accessible and revitalising green spaces with a peaceful soundscape in different parts of the city.
- The HAVA 2.0 tool was introduced to calculate and control the carbon footprint of the urban structure.
- Progress has been made in tackling indoor air problems, and reports on indoor air issues have decreased.
- Air quality at measuring points in Helsinki has improved.
Areas for development:
- Reconciling the growing city with the city-level climate goals will require very determined work in the future.
- We need to manage growth in such a way that we stay on target with our goals to strengthen biodiversity and ensure that the local environment is preserved in line with our objectives.
- The sustainable modal split of transport should be brought onto a more positive growth path, as the modal shares of public transport and cycling have declined.
- Noise, air pollution and dust reduce comfort and threaten health.
- The low participation of less active groups in urban planning is one of the biggest challenges in the interaction process.