Our most devoted reader pointed out that this post was a bit challenging. What is it about? To help clarify, JHJ ventured out into the internet and found … that the thing that inspired it, the administration responsible for environmental services in Helsinki (the spur for the post) is all changing. What for decades was just an office responsible for the city’s streets and parks and paid for by taxes, has now been reorganised and rebranded. As of the beginning of this year it’s part of STARA [STAdin RAkentamispalvelu]. Finnish and Swedish speakers are likely to cringe at this use of old-fashined Helsinki slang, but then again you could say it’s a cute use of a cute adoption/adaptation of the English word ‘star’. Anyway, the changes give us a good excuse to post on the topic of place-branding in a later post. THIS one, really is about the idea of the environment in a city.
Here’s an image that nicely illustrates an idea that we here at JHJ just can’t get our heads around. This truck – looks like it’s used for street sweeping – is labelled “environmental production” and carries Helsinki’s municipal logo. The environment is produced? By city government? (But then again, to one born when the internet was just another piece of clunky military technology, Kekkonen was a king and Ronald Reagan an actor, the idea of environmental production by anyone is a bit of a challenge.)
It used to be that the environment just was. It was nature – our surroundings, our foundations, the primal stuff that set the conditions for all the other stuff.
Well, then came climate change, we guess, making the idea that anything was stable and beyond human manipulation seem rather old-fashioned.
This year, we are told by trusty informants via the internet (another human-made environment) that Helsinki is enjoying a truly wonderful real winter with proper freezes and white snow. So much better than the dark grey that depresses eveveryone in snowless Helsinki winters, the kind small kids had already got used to.
What makes those dark days bearable for some is the thought of spring to come. (And spring in Finland is a pretty flexible term – seems anything in that interminable stretch from Christmas to the summer holidays in June can qualify).
For us at JHJ what makes a bad winter bearable and a good winter potentially thrilling is the environment. And yes, it includes buildings, most certainly it does.
Which is saying something for generations of Finnish planners, architects and speculative builders. In the early 20th century when the place was engulfed in a frenzy of creative destruction (see Signe Brander, again), nobody had a blueprint of what the city as a whole would look like, but together these built environment experts produced a rather fine and special place, a human town with a mix of old and new, of ordinary and weird, built for the people who would live there.
Can they keep it up?
Trying to find answers there, I think sometimes about the Georgian parts of London (and the early Victorian that pretty much copies its ancestor e.g. around Eaton Square, below). Speculative the lot – no real master plan here, though much co-ordinating, engineering and profiteering, of course. The best of it now selling for astronomical sums but also an enjoyable urban environment for those of us who can’t afford to live in them.
But hey, what use is a historical example anyway, and a foreign one at that.