The pandemic has helped us find urban outdoor areas

After the COVID-19 pandemic, we will see that our relationship with public urban spaces, green spaces and yards has changed. We utilise the areas more boldly and creatively and enjoy them more than before.

This would more or less sum up the discussion we had with the interesting guests in the panel of the After Covid City Helsinki event, which I had the pleasure of attending at the beginning of June.

Delightful examples of the accuracy of the claim are easy to see. People have returned in abundance to parks and beaches. Outdoor areas, national parks and other outdoor recreation areas have hardly ever been so popular. Restaurants and their terraces are spread out in the street space, of which more has already earlier been used for walkers and cyclists.

The trend will certainly continue after the pandemic, especially as the cities are attracting residents who have been rushing to the cottages again for remote work.

The panel highlighted a wide range of interesting themes related to active urban life. Elisa Lähde (WSP) reminded listeners of the importance of green spaces and urban greenery, for example, for the well-being of urban residents, and was also inspired to envision the everyman’s rights in the city. Most of us know what we can do in the forest, but how clear is it what we can do in the city? Stuba Nikula (Helsinki Event Foundation) and Pasi Mäenpää (University of Helsinki) spoke about events and how they support the well-being of different people. Free events held in the urban space also bring meaningful cultural experiences to those who do not seek out the cultural offerings themselves. All the panelists were interested in the theme: 'how can we encourage citizens to do things?'.

The event was organised in cooperation with the Placemaking Europe network. Discussions on the topic were brought together from actors in the field from many different countries. Unifying themes included: how to redesign public space, activate city residents and create a sense of community and a sense of place. Placemaking includes the idea of an agile and participatory way to bring an element into a public space that encourages people to be present. The idea is that projects are experiments that can gradually become something permanent. The organiser of the event, Päivi Raivio (RaivioBumann/Parkly Oy), highlighted the feeling of playfulness when creating an urban environment. The joy that it brings should not be underestimated!

Another interesting point of view was the essence of being in the city: being able to spend time alone, but with others; enjoying being surrounded by people, but in peace and quiet. It was also discussed that since the corona pandemic, people have learned to value the experience of calmness in a different way than before, so how do we preserve this world of experience as part of urban culture?

Creating an active and comfortable urban space is also part of YIT's strategy. We want to pay attention to the quality of the built environment, as well as the comfort, attractiveness, safety and vitality of the urban environment. We believe in the idea of the so-called 15-minute city, where everything that is important in daily life should be reachable in 15 minutes by walking, cycling or public transport. Such a city is created by a mix of activities, supported by a sufficient density. Combining dense urban structures with good public transport connections protects the local nature of cities and makes it more accessible. This creates a vibrant urban life, which in turn attracts people to movement and being on the move.

After the epidemic, we will experience changes in society and urban life. The multi-location of work has been mainstreamed at a rapid pace. People no longer agree to spend long periods of their days traveling, resulting in a more porous and flexible urban structure. Once the restrictions are lifted, I believe that the trend of increased use of restaurants and other services will continue. People want to live where services, work opportunities, urban life and green recreational areas are close to home. The importance of urban spaces is increasing and the importance of considering the scale of the walkers is growing, not only in the city centres, but also in their sub-centres.

The City of Helsinki has also focused on walkers in its new Walking Promotion Programme.

If placemaking is an agile tool for new rapid experiments in urban spaces, then as a representative of a construction company I am also interested in considering how to bring the same objectives of creating a place to more permanent urban structures. The idea of a suitably dense and mixed 15-minute city is a great way to support local community and local events. Culture can be created for all residents in different parts of the city, not just in the city centre. An integral part of buildings’ activation is the surrounding urban spaces and how they are set up, such as how indoor and outdoor spaces are connected and how flexible they are. Can we cover the outdoors in an imaginative way and according to the weather? Can we support the presence of different actors and activities in the street space?

Playfulness and the joy of discovery make everyday surroundings inspiring for both adults and children. It can come from small things: a surprising pocket-sized park, art, a glimpse of special architecture, structures that enable skateboarding, a stream that acts as a stormwater structure, special lighting, maybe an inner yard with a café or even outdoor movies. On the other hand, the possibility of calming down in more densely built cities is also important. The pockets of calming can be created by massing buildings, by the suitably small scale of the ground floor, by different degrees of public and private space which can be created, for example, by differences in levels, vegetation, water topics and other different structures.

It is good to promote an encouraging and permissive atmosphere in public areas, but also in the yards of housing companies, for example. This has been developed in YIT's yard concept, where residents can influence the final implementation of the yard with their choices. The concept also includes the idea of different levels of activity, which means that there are suitable places for social encounters and calming down in the yard, for example.

A courtyard can also be an open space for everyone. In my opinion, Tripla's inner yard in Pasila, Helsinki, is one good example of an urban space where anyone has the opportunity to relax and breathe in the green rolling landscape.

Linda Wiksten
Urban design manager