Temporary yet permanent: ‘Kalasatama Temporary’, a project that will live on

By: Aajwanthi Baradwaj

Kalasatama, an abandoned yard that used to be an important cargo port, is located in a very central and accessible area in Helsinki. This large empty plot is close to the metro station and near the shore. It is a sad, undeniable fact that this very picturesque location is going to be filled with concrete buildings in the next 20 years, adding to Helsinki’s urban cityscape but until then, the nature of this space has enabled the facilitation of an amazing array of community gatherings and projects of all kinds. A part of the harbor has been opened up to public, and the project named ‘Kalasatama Temporary’, giving an opportunity to the people of Helsinki to create memories and leave their mark on the city.

Before any of these activities were envisioned, this was only an open space filled with metal containers and large walls, waiting to be used. There were lots of talks about how this ‘temporary’ space could be utilized, until one fine day, the city of Helsinki made it possible. They let it out to people to organize activities i.e. by opening Rantareitti – a coastal route through Kalasatama, renting out areas for urban gardening for reasonable costs and assigning containers for everybody interested in organizing free, open events. The organizers could apply for funding for their activities either via the community center or the Youth Department. This soon became a success, as there were many curious young adults, with time to spare, ideas to realize and enthusiasm to do something new. In addition to the above point, there weren’t many other suitable spaces like this with good transportation links, in Helsinki.

To name a few activities, ‘Kalasatama Temporary’ has walls for legal graffiti, spaces for art exhibitions in containers and areas where people have hosted bicycle brunches and movie nights and art exhibitions. Over the past few years, this abandoned area has become a starting point for many grassroots activities.  It has brought people with similar interests together, has given the city a new identity, helped the city planning department build a brand for Helsinki and allowed the dwellers of Helsinki to plan and execute activities they find meaningful, inspiring and fun.

Currently, the Kalasatama area is closed for the public. One has to walk around the construction site to get to the other side. It has started turning into what it was initially meant for, but now, because of what it has been for the past few years, there are many questions being raised. What happens with the graphitized wall; the stories that the citizens want their city to tell? What about the little café by the sea that has entertained many visitors, served as a great place for friends to catch up or to meet new people? Are all these really temporary, if people are still taking about the projects that have happened months or years ago?

When I walk across the back entrance, I remember the colourful metal containers in which the ‘Everyday Discoveries’ exhibition featured some lovely products and projects from across the world, just a few months ago.  I remember my initial few days in Helsinki when I went along with my college mates to paint the walls in Kalasatama with spray cans. All these happenings are stored in my memory. Similarly, all the events that have ever happened here are well documented, have been written about and have gotten a lot of media limelight as well, besides being etched in the memories of the people who were involved.  A simple Google search of Kalasatama makes hundreds of images pop up. If this is all true, how can this project be called ‘temporary’? Friends have been made, similar interests have been identified, and spaces and stories have been shared. Aren’t all these forms of permanency?

There is a model that we have created around this system, as part of the analysis. Like Donella Medows states in her paper, ‘Leverage Points’, people intuitively think they know where the leverage points are and often push the system in the wrong direction and in this case, I would say, an unexpected direction. Sometimes a small push can create a ripple effect that creates a massive change that lasts long. Thus, this project could be taken as such an example or a pilot that could help Helsinki city recreate other such spaces and projects. Even if tall buildings soon cover this area, the stories and knowledge that was created over the past few years, is here to stay.  It is only a beginning for something similar yet new. The learning from this project can be carried forward and applied elsewhere, to start something new. In the end, everything is only part of a vicious cycle of being temporary yet highly permanent in some way.