Three invisible things in Finnish urban planning III: multiculturalism

14 helmi 2017
Kimmo Lapintie

A couple of years ago I went through the planning legislation in Finland, architectural policy programme of the Uusimaa region and comprehensive and detailed planning documents in the city of Helsinki, in order to find out how multiculturalism and its impacts were defined and understood (Lapintie 2014). They weren’t. The silence was so complete and loud that I became interested in trying to understand why this was the case. It is true that Finland has been a rather homogenous nation with much fewer immigrants that our neighbouring Sweden, for instance. Our national imagination has also cherished the idea of common values and national spirit, such as honesty, hard work and persistant attitude towards obstacles, but also melancholy. However, nobody could have missed the fact that our population growth is already based entirely on immigration. In the years 1990-2015 the proportion of the population with foreign background has grown from 0,8% to 6,2% (Statistics Finland).

So one would expect that planners, together with  other policy sectors such as housing and social policy, would be interested in where the new ethnic and language groups will live, how their specialised needs will be satisfied, and how this change in our national and local identities will affect the urban and regional development, including aesthetics. But no: time and again we get the answer that these are not planning issues, that they belong exclusively to housing and social policy sectors. This in spite of the fact that there is a widely shared understanding that segregation and its adverse effects should be avoided. But how? And if we are successful in this endeavour, what does it mean? And are we sure that this is the right answer?

If our anti-segregation policy is based on distributing all minority groups evenly in the metropolitan area, this does not mean that they simply disappear. They will need specialised services, and these services have to be offered in central areas most accessible by public transportation. Something like this is actually happening: one of the few mosques is located in Eastern Pasila, in the middle of the metropolitan area. But it was not planned there. Rather the users who needed the service found the empty premises of a former bank and transformed them to their purposes. Large gatherings during Friday prayers and the need of parking space might be considered as a planning issue. However, there is more to it: if Pasila is going to be the centre of multiculturalism in Helsinki, surely it is taken into account in the current plans of Central and Northern Pasila? But it is not even mentioned. Not once.

On the other hand, if we would give up the current policy of even distribution and allow (or even force?) ethnic and social concentrations, most probably in the Eastern parts of Helsinki, we could also concentrate specialised services there. But this would naturally have further segregation effects, since these areas would become more attractive to new immigrants, at the same time as many other groups would start looking for alternative places. This kind of selectivity in housing and public services such as schools has already started. Not a planning issue?

How could we understand this systematic silence? It is not that planners do not know, or that they never come to think of it. In the recent plan of Central Pasila, we can even find the following subtitle in the environmental impact assessment: ”Impacts on people’s health, safety, the opportunities for activities of different population groups in the vicinity, social conditions and culture”.  But what do we find under the title? Air quality, noise, wind, shading, soil contamination. That’s it. Important issues surely, but they only concern environmental health effects. People as active beings with social and cultural features do not exist. Why?

This is where Foucault could give us a hand. In his later writings, he coined the term ’biopolitics’, meaning that modern societies are mainly interested in people as population groups with biological features, such as age, gender, fertility, health and disability. These are all relevant to the size and productivity of the population which, in turn, defines the economic strength of nations. Not surprisingly, then, all these features have been taken into account in modernist urban planning. Children are given their playing fields, core families their suburban dreams, environmental health standards are used, and disabilities are addressed by principles of design-for-all. These are all clearly visible, but not the cultural and social features that make social groups active and meaning-generating beings, not just bodies.

But a change in our mindset is clearly inevitable. The Finnish population and workforce is already in decline, and the current birth rate of 1.65 children per woman (instead of 2.1 that would allow ’natural’ growth) will mean that the future of our country will be multicultural. Different social and ethnic groups will become visible, particularly in the cities. But what would a post-biopolitical planning be like? Let us find out by creating it.



Kimmo Lapintie (2014) Miksi monikulttuurisuus ei mahdu suunnittelijan suuhun – eikä päähän? Yhdyskuntasuunnittelu, vol. 52, n:o 3.



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