Community-led change: it’s more than just about fun!

by Myriam Van Neste

These are exciting times for urban renewal. Not because municipal and national governments are investing in large-scale urban projects but because citizens are getting involved in the public space of cities like never before. In the recent years, especially in the United States, community involvement in the making of cities has taken over the urban landscape and is challenging the traditional topdown decision-making process for improving the city. Helsinki is no exception to this greater movement happening around the world: the group WE LOVE HELSINKI is encouraging citizens to take on their role as active public participants and give them temporary tools to take over their city.

What is the public space and why is it important to city life? Who should decide what happens in it and how it should be changed? WE LOVE HELSINKI invites the city inhabitants to answer this question by taking matter into their own hands. For the past four years, the group has been organizing community interventions in the urban space to promote the creative alteration of the public spaces for the common good. In their events, which all share a surprising and playful quality, the passerby is the key actor for creating the happening. In fact, WE LOVE HELSINKI is not an actual organisation but a somewhat loose and small community instigating projects that can only come to life through public participation. The activities go from a large-scale game of tag in a department store, traditional Finnish folk dances, removable street art happenings, bike critical masses, spontaneous street choirs, and so on. Underlying WE LOVE HELSINKI’s joyful interventions is a love of their city and the wish to plant a seed in the people’s mind that it is through citizen appropriation and action that the urban spaces come alive. They want to create awareness on the responsibility and power we have as city residents.

WE LOVE HELSINKI’s process enters in a bigger grassroots movement that seeks to encourage people to participate in the development of the public space for the greater good. This movement has initiated from many active city inhabitants who realized that the municipal government cannot and perhaps should not bare alone the responsibility for making the city. What groups like WE LOVE HELSINKI are creating in the public realm are projects that empower communities to take decision and action in their everyday environment. They are inviting people to temporarily shape their public spaces in what they would like them to be. Traditionally, it is through a top-down process that the city officials (political leaders and urban planners) define how or what should happen in the public space of cities: choices are voted, projects implemented, then the city residents adapt to them…for the better or for worse. Community-led change groups are now challenging this traditional process. WE LOVE HELSINKI is using a bottomup approach where it is the people that are central actors: they make proposal through temporary action in the public space with the aim of influencing on how it could be perceived and developed by city officials later on.

Activities like the ones organized by WE LOVE HELSINKI have great potential in the long run: although they may be small, local, temporary and seemingly just about ‘having fun’, a cluster of these little actions can have a greater impact, in time, on the city development as a whole. By involving the residents in the physical testing of ideas it empowers them to actively engage in the development of their living environment. To make way for this approach in the decision-making process of cities can have many benefits: these playful experiments in the public space represent low risk and possible high reward as they allow the decision-makers to see what are the possibilities for city life a certain space offers, one which might not have been found through the traditional channels.

The city and its shared spaces come from a collaborative effort. Some citizens have a good idea of what they want the city to be. Others may need to be invited to reflect on it, and participatory action is one way to do that. All in all, to be more attentive to the citizens’ dreams about the public spaces of the urban environment might allow for a development of the city that is more in tune with the users’ needs. Urban change groups like WE LOVE
HELSINKI are working to create a sense of community in the people of the city and, ultimately, have the potential to get them to think: yes, we will do this together!