In Helsinki's climate plan, community comes before bureaucracy

(Roni Rekomaa/AFP via Getty Images)

This article appears on CityMetric courtesy of Blueprint magazine.

“Helsinki is primarily a place and a community, not a bureaucracy.”

Just a few weeks into my role as the chief design officer of the City of Helsinki, this line from the city’s strategy for 2017-2021 keeps coming back to me.

It has stuck with me for a couple of reasons. First, Helsinki's nearly 40,000 city employees form a resourceful, dedicated group of people who want to continue making Helsinki a better place. This has become apparent in every meeting and discussion I have had so far. Second, many of the key strategic aims set for the city’s future speak of the same ethos: to build a better place for all. This is especially true of Helsinki’s call for climate action.

Helsinki aims to be carbon neutral by 2035. That initiative is monitored closely, and involves everything from construction to transport to electricity production. Progress can be explored on the open-source Helsinki Climate Watch service.

Helsinki’s path to carbon neutrality focuses primarily on actions that the city itself can directly influence. At the same time, the city is actively seeking new solutions and partnerships to tackle the climate emergency.

The city launched the Helsinki Energy Challenge, a global, €1 million competition for innovators anywhere to devise serious solutions to decarbonize the heating of Helsinki by 2029. Currently, over half of Helsinki’s carbon dioxide emissions originate directly from the production of district heating, and more than half of the city’s heat is produced with coal. If the right solution is found, the competition has huge global potential for reducing the consumption of coal and subsequent carbon production.

In other words, Helsinki is offering itself as a testbed where solutions to internationally shared issues can be sought and created. To this end, the city is committed to openly sharing know-how generated during the process. Cities including Toronto, Amsterdam, Vancouver, and Leeds – as well as organisations like the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council and C40 City Solutions Platform – are already supporting the initiative.

On another level, the City of Helsinki recognises that reaching its carbon neutral goal will also require a shift in the everyday behaviour of individuals in the post-Covid landscape.

Launched in 2019 as part of the Carbon-Free Initiative, Think Sustainably is a first-of-its kind digital service designed to encourage locals and visitors to enjoy the city in sustainable ways. The service profiles local businesses according to their environmental impact.

From restaurants to attractions, accommodation to retail, businesses must meet a range of sustainability criteria in order to be part of the service. According to the most recent impact analysis, the service has helped its users experience the city in more sustainable ways. Importantly, it has also driven businesses to change how they produce their services.

Nearly 90% of participating service providers have been motivated to move towards more sustainable operations. A third have already implemented changes and another 63% have begun working on changes to improve their sustainability credentials. Of this work, 69% has been directly influenced by the Think Sustainably service.

For many of the Think Sustainably service providers, introducing the programme was a convenient way of comprehensively reviewing their own operations in terms of responsibility amid the usual rush of running a business.

Hanna Harris. (Image: Sakari Röyskö)

Of course, recent events have put the concept of “usual rush” into a different perspective altogether. Cities all over the world are under tremendous pressure to reorganise what they do and how they do it. They are busy developing a range of tools and initiatives to make sure locals, especially the most vulnerable groups of people, are getting the help they need.

After delivering the immediate responses and solutions to the Covid-19 crisis, cities and nations across the world will be looking into how they can best envisage and rebuild their futures.

More than ever, it is of vital importance that we do so in ways that help achieve a carbon-free and sustainable future. Initiatives such as the Helsinki Energy Challenge and Think Sustainably show that this work is best achieved by seeking innovation through collaboration, testing and sharing. We need the collective efforts of our leaders, innovators and citizens to enact meaningful, long-term change.  

Our urban environments play a significant role in this process. Architecture and design are essential in strategically defining how we will lead, manage and build our cities, and most importantly, they help us imagine our futures.

In Helsinki, we will continue to re-imagine ourselves as a place and a community that delivers a sustainable future on several fronts.

Hanna Harris is the Chief Design Officer of the City of Helsinki.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.