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.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.