We Should Learn from the Openness of Kalasatama Temporary

By: Jarkko Kurronen

The old harbor of Sörnäinen looked like a massive parking lot with a stark industrial backdrop. There were graffitis, spray cans, containers, construction fences, wooden pallets etc. in a disorder, giving an impression of decadence and abandonment. The reason I ended up there on a Saturday evening was that, with a friend of mine, we had heard that there was a pizza oven there open for everyone. The idea of a baking event in such an unusual place was strange enough to be tempting.

We prepared the dough and ingredients for pizza, got some fire wood and announced the event for our friends in Facebook. The night was cold, as the openness of the space offered little protection from the chilly winds of late September, but it only added to the atmosphere. There was definitely something magical about standing there in the darkness of the vast industrial landscape, having to resort to pizza, beer and friends for warmth. But it was more than just the unique setting, food and good people that made the event. It was the awareness that for a moment, we had turned the nothingness into something meaningful to us.

After witnessing and joining some of the events held in Kalasatama area, I was surprised that nobody ever was there to stop it. From the surface, it seemed like unregulated, reckless, potentially illegal activity by random groups of people and individuals. There were rave parties, guerrilla gardening, graffiti painting, demonstrations, flee markets, art exhibitions etc. happening in the area. However, when I later interviewed the project engineer, Anni Bäckman of city of Helsinki, I was surprised to find out that it was the city itself behind the whole scheme. Then again, according to Bäckman, it didn’t go exactly as planned.

The city decided that they might as well use the unused area to promote the future neighborhood. They put up some environmental art at the former harbor in order to attract visitors, then opened a coastal route that made it possible to pass through the area. Further ideation lead to placement of a few shipping containers onto the old dock. They were supposed to serve as platforms for the constructors to showcase their work and to promote the new houses. But the containers remained unused, and the area mostly attracted antisocial likes. This was not the type of pleasant liveliness the city had planned for.

A new approach was crafted. Having learned from their previous mistake, the new strategy was more open. The city decided to offer the area to any art school, -group or individual artist for their art pieces. Furthermore, they made the containers and other spaces available for any organized community for hiring for their own activities. The only terms were that the activities or events were to be open and free to everyone. The city was taken by a surprise by the resulting boom of different activities in Kalasatama. There turned out to be a repressed demand for a place like this in Helsinki.

The city has undoubtedly invested in providing even uncommercialised facilities for its citizens to enjoy cultural activities, but Kalasatama Temporary -type of open venues have not really been available so far. It is hard to imagine that the kind of activities, including graffiti painting, skate park building or bicycle cruises, carried on in the area, would have ever taken place in a more regulated or defined place than this. It is precisely the forementioned openness that defines Kalasatama Temporary and that has made the project into a success.

These days especially young adults, the most active user group of Kalasatama, want to take more initiative in transforming the city to their liking by defining the spaces, events and activities by themselves. This is part of a distinct grass-root movement, taking shape in many industrialized countries at the moment, questioning formal, bureaucratic ways of management and celebrating openness. There is a different kind of ownership over a skate park, for example, that you have designed and built by yourself with your friends, than over one provided by a faceless organization. However, this kind of activity does not fit well in a conformal society, as the system has a more structured, top-down approach to organization and decision making.

With the Kalasatama Temporary -project, city of Helsinki, even if by accident, piloted a more human centered, communally managed system inside the city. The decision-making of the usage of Kalasatama was open in a sense that all the stakeholders could equally contribute to how the spaces and the structures were used and developed. The city listened to the organizers and reacted to their wishes and actions by providing the resources where it could. The open model made it possible for different operators to hold their events and carry out their activities legally without a ton of paperwork and the hassle of finding a space.

The project might have been possible from the city’s perspective for the reason that it was temporary to begin with. The future residential area might eventually bring the city more revenue than some graffiti fences and urban gardens. However, the experiment shows that the citizens are getting more active in taking responsibility of their own actions and their surroundings. This should be considered a very positive sign, as the public sector can no longer support its own weight. The top-down approach and the heavy bureaucracy of the current model do not work anymore. Citizen initiative is and will be needed in order for the city to have enough resources to become sustainable in providing of services.

Even though, the city might be the first ones to admit the need for it, so far Helsinki has been known for being counterproductive in promoting social innovation and the empowerment of its citizens. For instance, when some elderly ladies of Malmi were recently proactive enough to start their own knitting club in order to enhance social networking, the city rushed to stop it, because they saw the ladies’ activities of knitting and selling the manufactured items in a public place as criminal activity. According to a newspaper, one of the ladies told that by their actions the city is pushing them into their graves.

It can be argued that instead of trying to bridge the budget gap by luring big tax payers in by building luxurious apartments, the money should be spent on fixing the underlying problem, namely the system itself. Kalasatama Temporary should be seen as something more valuable than mere promotion for the area and added cultural offering for the city. It is a rare prototype of a more open kind of a management system. It works by empowering people, giving them a sense of ownership of their own environment and their own lives. The new system does not rely on some external force to hand down solutions. It brings back the power of people and of communality.

The pizza oven of Kalasatama has already collapsed and construction fences have disconnected the route through the area. But even though Kalasatama Temporary was just what it claimed in its name, the movement that it represented is here to stay. People are finally realizing that the city does not have to be just some faceless monster of a system that eats them up and pushes them to their graves. The city is an open platform. It is the citizens themselves. They have the power to make it whatever they want it to be. The kind of openness manifested in the Kalasatama project will be needed to keep the city livable in the future. The project is evidence that a system more open has hope.