I try to get my head around the idea that people I respect think it’s a good idea to spend millions of euros (with the quoted figure rising by the month, see here, under LIIKENNESUUNNITTELUPAALLIKKO) on rearranging Aleksanterinkatu at the Senate Square.
But I stumble over the vocabulary. What to me is black to others is white. I love the square and feel it just needs a bit of maintenance and necessary repair, for others it is dead and in need of “renewal”.
To me their vision of renewal looks a lot like “killing off”. Moving tram routes so that passengers have to make awkward loops in their travels, and allowing for restaurants to spill out into the open (shady side of the buildings, see photo) on the Senate Square is to kill off something precious, let’s call it ordinary life, and to replace it with something expensive. I’d call that pseudo life or, if you want specifics, high-end commercial ventures even if the hope is that in their wake will come the “opening up” of the area. The assumption underlying that, is that city-centre office space is somehow wasted space and that working in them is less lively an act than, say, drinking bubbly or beer.
For me the Senate Square in its current evening glow is a marvel. Others think that it is dead. No bars. No shops. No signs of life, apparently. Deceased, a late square, it has ceased to be …
But obviously a square cannot be dead – it is made of stones, metal and memories, rhythms and meanings and importantly, of livelihoods and mundane routine. This square is not even scary let alone dangerous, even in the middle of the night. But because it does not, it seems, cater enough to the consuming classes and because the small shops that have been there for years, seem not to suffice, the whole now needs heavy-handed altering.
Of course commerce is a big part of cities, always has been. But to confuse showy consumption with life is a mistake and also the result of 100 years of extremely consumerist culture. (The recent Worldwatch Report makes the case v. well). It’s also the achievement (fault) of all those who read and believed in the creative-classes (reg. trademark!) thesis embroidered by one Richard Florida. Despite repeated, heavy (this in Finnish), not to say devastating criticism, the banalities he has so successfully packaged and peddled now routinely pass for good political sense. Florida’s thesis is summed up in the idea that the post-industrial new economy needs new behaviours and new places for its elite, the creative class as he calls them. Cities will prosper if these people find them attractive, because then they will move and invest there, and contribute to city coffers by creating wealth.
The old is valued by the creatives too – it’s bohemian and attracts creative talent after all – but it must be adapted to suit the needs of the 21st century, of course, according to the creative city hype.
Creatives work in marketing, product development and the financial services that sustain them, or they design and entertain for a living. They’re hard to please, but they enjoy considerable status, comforts and, undoubtedly, intellectual rewards. They are lucky indeed, cities everywhere have been falling over their own feet seeking to accommodate their imagined needs – cafes and bars, wired and wireless instant connections and trendiness. Enthusiasm for the creative cities thesis has also allowed people to forget that anybody grows older than, say, 35 years old. Enthusiasm for the thesis has also led to the odd belief that using beautiful spaces to house the office workers is somehow a “waste”. Here is a 1970s annex to the City Hall by Aarno Ruusuvuori. When it was built it was much maligned, but it’s hardly an eyesore.
What is an eyesore are the efforts to turn all that is beautiful into a backdrop for consumption or spectacle. You also end up with homogenous places because you just can’t reproduce the bohemian chic of a seattle or a san francicso everywhere. Instead you get blandness and inauthenticity. The architecture blogger Tarja Nurmi writes about this in Finnish, notes that even in wonderful Italy places that have been “regenerated” to suit expensive tastes are actually rather, well, dead.
The creative class thesis has supported arguments to “regenerate” a lot that never needed regenerating. But as critic after critic has pointed out, the results often diminish the public realm and reduce opportunities for genuine urban encounters. They even risk turning the most intriguing and layered places into theme parks and disney-esque rubbish.
Helsinki’ Senate Square may be less noisy and less showy than what commercial regeneration and spectacle production likes to call “lively” or “vibrant”, but it’s also less exhausting and probably a good bit more sustainable.
Gradually the creative cities missionaries have woken up to the reality that life isn’t just consumption and spectacle – even in a city. Unfortunatly, cities all over the world meanwhile believed that by following the Florida-recipy, they could avoid thinking too hard about economic or sociopolitical realities. As Prospect Magazine reported last month, this is what one town in New York State is now grappling with:
Inspired, Elmira’s newly elected mayor, John Tonello … oversaw the redevelopment of several buildings downtown. “The grand hope was to create retail spaces that would enable people to make money and serve the creative class Florida talks about,” Tonello says. The new market-rate apartments filled up quickly, but the bohemian coffee shops the mayor fantasizes about have yet to materialize.
It would be so much easir and livelier not to stifle real life by plonking down great, big “renewal” schemes in the first place!