Three invisible things in Finnish planning I: ecology

18 tammi 2017
Kimmo Lapintie
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One of the main problems of contemporary planning is that it is done in silos: the various experts and decision makers all have their specific interests and practices, which are confined within thematic and geographical areas. Even if integration is the buzz-word, it is not easy to make it real. There is a certain path-dependency in urban and regional expertise: each profession has its own history of combining knowledge with power, and it is also important to defend one’s position in the planning commission. Who is needed, and what kind of knowledge is relevant? There is nothing self-evident in this. Different countries have used different experts; in Finland for instance, there is no actual planning profession, but planning is done by architects, landscape architects, civil engineers, planning and urban geographers, among others. They all have different educational backgrounds and, correspondingly, different priorities.

On the other hand, urban and regional governance is also confined within specific geographical areas. The cities are drawing their detailed and structural or master plans – mainly blueprints – and the regional authorities consider regional policies and land-use. At the moment the current government of Finland is planning a major new reform in regional governance, in which independent regions (with elected councils) would take care of social and health-care services, as well as regional land-use plans. The existing independent municipalities (many of which are too small to take care of their ageing population) would be left with local municipal plans and educational and cultural services. Whatever will be the result of this reform, one problem seems to persist: the different authorities take good care not to step on each others’ toes. Helsinki is careful not to suggest anything for the other cities of the metropolitan area (Espoo, Vantaa and Kauniainen), to say nothing of the larger urban region – and vice versa.

People – in contrast – are not confined. They may be living in one municipality and working in another – nay, they may be living and working in several municipalities and even city regions at the same time, changing their home and workplace as soon as it fits their purposes. They may have primary and secondary homes for both living and working, which is made possible by fast computer networks everywhere. In addition to the home and the office, they may occupy libraries and coffee shops for multi-local working. They would also like to use services according to their preferences and accessibility, but here they face a problem: urban and regional governance has no way of dealing with this fluidity and complexity. From the governance point of view, people are still conceived to be more or less fixed, with one place and neighbourhood of residence determining their local taxes, their public services, their local and national identity, and their political citizenship. Thus the functional urban region is not corresponding to the institutional framework that is supposed to govern it. This incongruence is only partly remedied by the voluntary agreements between the national and the local states, the so-called MALPE-agreements, trying to integrate land-use, transportation, services and the economy.

With nature we have another wicked problem at hand. Before the concepts of sustainable development and ecology came so widespread in planning discourses, the main functions of green areas and networks were recreation and preservation of endangered species and cultural landscapes. They fitted nicely with the overall scheme of functionalistic land-use planning, allowing the confinement of a suitable amount of green around or within the more profitable functions of housing, industry or transportation. At the same time they could be dealt with as structural elements connecting housing with recreational functions. Surely they were understood as having ecological roles as well, as e.g. corridors for species or water retention areas, but not necessarily analysed as such.

How different is our understanding of the urban and regional green today, after decades of research on green infrastructures, ecosystem services, health effects, micro-climates, stormwater management etc. that urban ecology is dealing with. Not so different as one might expect. The two functions of recreation and preservation still dominate the field: we are debating on how much green can be sacrificed for urban development, which areas should be preserved, and what form the green network should take. The main points seem to be too difficult to handle: the avoiding of the juxtaposition of urban development and urban green, the understanding of urban ecology in systemic terms (and not as end-states that can be represented with two-dimensional maps), and addressing the different qualities of the urban green and the respective ecosystem services. An urban forest and a golf course are both green, but they provide very different services, both ecologically and socially.

The issue, thus, does not seem to be the existence or the amount of knowledge, but the way that urban reality is conceptualised through this knowledge, whether it is scientific or professional. And if so, dealing with the complex and dynamic urban reality at hand requires re-concpetualisation, and this is exactly what we are interested in.

Publications:

Libraries as transitory workspaces and spatial incubators
Di Marino, M. & Lapintie, K. 2015 In : LIBRARY AND INFORMATION SCIENCE RESEARCH. 37, 2, p. 118-129

Emerging workplaces in the post-functionalist cities
Di Marino, M. & Lapintie, K. Forthcoming in JOURNAL OF URBAN TECHNOLOGY.

Exploring the concept of green infrastructure in urban landscape. Experiences from Italy, Canada and Finland
Di Marino, M. & Lapintie, K. Forthcoming in LANDSCAPE RESEARCH.

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