Parks & Recreation

Citizen’s Insights Shaping of the National Urban Park Project in Helsinki

November 26, 2018
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The national urban park is a concept that aims to bring up and preserve the most remarkable cultural and ecological values of a city. Maptionnaire helped the City of Helsinki organize their online citizen engagement process for exploring what the general public thinks about having a national urban park in Helsinki.

In addition, Maptionnaire team helped Helsinki’s planners collaborate with the members of pressure groups who had been actively campaigning for the establishment of a national urban park in Helsinki.

What is a National Urban Park?

There is no solid agreement about the definition of a ‘national urban park’, but there are examples of projects that define themselves as national urban parks or national city parks. Common characteristics for these parks include a central location and the aim to bring up the most remarkable cultural and ecological values of the city. They function much like national parks with goals to preserve the environment and to educate visitors. The difference is that in national urban parks the built environment plays an essential role as well.        

title page of the survey about helsinki's national urban park

In many cities the idea of establishing a national urban park originates from the will to protect urban nature from urban development. This was the case also with the world’s first national urban park, the Royal National City Park of Stockholm. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) of Sweden had a significant role in outlining an idea to join up three separate parks into a bigger “Ekoparken”, which then formed the basis of founding the national city park and giving it legal protection.

Following the example of Sweden, nine Finnish cities have established national urban parks. The Finnish national urban park concept is defined by a set of criteria written into the Land Use and Building Act. The legislative frameworks have not, however, removed the original tension between ‘nature’ and ‘town’. The discussion around the establishment of national urban parks often seems to be characterized by a debate between the city’s building pressures and leaving the green network untouched. And on top of the difficult land-use questions within the city, the national urban park status would add regulations governed by the central government into the mix of things local governments need to deal with. This is fruitful soil for heated discussions.

The idea of founding a national urban park in Helsinki was brought up to the city council by the citizen group National Urban Park in Helsinki. The idea had been brought up by different actors also before, but in autumn 2017 the city started investigating its potential. This was done in demanding times. Helsinki’s new city plan had earlier marked slices of popular green areas as possible building sites, creating concerns over their fate among citizens. Acknowledging this background, the city wanted to collaborate with the activists of the park group and asked them to join the planning of the participation process.

Facilitating a Participation Workshop & Co-Creating the Survey

As often in discussions around urban green areas, the debate around having a national urban park in Helsinki was characterized by a tension between urban growth pressures and the conservation of adequate recreational areas.

In the consulting project, we first facilitated a workshop for the city’s planners and the park activists to co-create the structure and questions of a survey that would be shared to the general public. Once everyone was satisfied with the contents, we finalized the survey and delivered it to the city for them to share it with the public.          

a screenshot from a maptionnaire survey co-created with planners and activists
A citizen engagement survey that Maptionnaire designed together with planners and park activists.
There is certain controversy attached to the national urban park project, so it was good that there was a third party involved in the process. Also, the workshop that gathered together the stakeholders and participants of the project was very useful – we were able to compile questions for the questionnaire that everyone agreed was good, and this way the credibility of this project was perceived to be higher. 
Juha-Pekka Turunen, The City of Helsinki

Results Provided Valuable Data for Later Stages of Planning

Ultimately, more than 1000 respondents shared their insights on what the national urban park of Helsinki could be like. We went through the responses and summarized the findings into a report.

In the report, people’s place-based responses were presented as heatmaps that highlighted where answers clustered. Each map question category was also accompanied by reoccurring or otherwise interesting comments.

The survey findings showed that the residents of Helsinki love the sea and urban forests, delivering important information about the core contents of the possible park. Moreover, people’s ideas about the borders of the national urban park proved to be a high-quality data set that has been useful in later stages of the planning process.

a visualization of citizens' insights regarding the borders of the national urban park
The future borders of Helsinki’s national urban park as perceived by residents.
The concept of national urban park was unclear for many citizens, but thanks to the questionnaire, we could open it up for the participants. The questionnaire was implemented in the beginning of the process, so it was possible to form an image of the possible borders with it. The borders were projected on the map quite well, and it has also had the biggest impact on the project going further.
Juha-Pekka Turunen, Participation Coordinator, the City of Helsinki

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