Luck meets urban planning in Finland’s capital

As I promised last week, I’m starting to write a bit more about my trip to Finland a year ago for Worldcon 75. As I write this, Worldcon 76 is taking place in San Jose, California, which I had little interest in going to, so I’ve been sitting in my home office trying to figure out how to organize these photos. Every time I thought I knew what I was going to say, however, I’d open up Wikipedia to check some particular bit of data and find myself ratholed (in a good way) by the links between the places and events I was looking to write about and other things that were happening at the same time, and then I’d get stuck. I think I finally have an organizing theme for at least one part of it, and it’s about how bad luck (the bankruptcy of a major employer) and good luck (the end of the Cold War and expansion of the European Union) combined with good transportation policy and urban planning to make something really interesting happen in Helsinki.

View south from my hotel's roof deck

Like many coastal cities, Helsinki is where it is because of a natural harbor. Thanks to a series of peninsulas and islands off the southern coast of Finland, Helsinki actually has several natural harbors, and land-making over time expanded those natural harbors into an important center of maritime commerce (especially between Western Europe and Russia) and shipbuilding. In the photo above, at the far left you can see Hietalahti shipyard, which opened in 1865; towards the right are cruise and ferry terminals serving passenger lines to St. Petersburg and the Estonian capital Tallinn. If you look closely, you can see the tram reservation down the middle of the street running from bottom right towards Länsiterminaali, West Terminal, and the whole area is Länsisatama, West Harbor. (Other harbors include South Harbor, Fish Harbor, and … let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

For most of the twentieth century, Hietalahti shipyard was owned by the Finnish industrial conglomerate Wärtsilä. In 1986, Wärtsilä agreed to acquire the shipbuilding operations of the then state-owned industrial conglomerate Valmet, in response to excess capacity in Finnish shipyards. The combined operations were spun off as Wärtsilä Marine, which collapsed less than three years later, declaring bankruptcy on October 23, 1989. As a part of the reorganization, Wärtsilä Marine’s (ex-Valmet) Vuosaari shipyard in the eastern part of Helsinki was closed.

(Aside: It’s not widely known outside Finland and Russia, but Finland was a co-combatant with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union during World War II. As a part of war reparations, Finland agreed to build ships for the Soviet state in its shipyards, and after this debt was paid off, Finnish shipyards continued to build ships for export to the USSR at below-market rates, most notably at the Valmet shipyards, which were being heavily subsidized by the Finnish state as an employment measure. With the Soviet economic crisis and restructuring under Mikhail Gorbachev, this market dried up, leaving a huge excess of shipbuilding capacity that was unable to compete on the world market with Asian shipbuilders. While the collapse of Wärtsilä Marine took place long before Finland joined the European Union, the EU’s rules on state-owned enterprises would have forbidden such subsidies, and did later require many of Finland’s other SOEs to be restructured — many of which would ultimately be privatized.)

There was a lot of debate over what should happen to Vuosaari yard. It had the longest drydock in Finland, and for a while there was some hope held out that another shipbuilder would have an interest in it, but ultimately it was decided that the Port of Helsinki would build a new harbor there (cutting the drydock off from the Baltic in the process) and move oil imports and container shipping there from existing facilities elsewhere in the city. The old port facilities — and the transportation infrastructure that serviced them — were then opened up for redevelopment.

Jätkäsaari rising quickly and colorfully

This is the result. The old container terminal was located on Jätkäsaari, adjacent to the West Harbor, and very close to the central business district, where there was a huge demand for both office space and new residences. In this photo, you see the new Jätkäsaari, and off to the right, a bit of the somewhat earlier development in Salmisaari, part of the larger neighborhood of Ruoholahti. Not visible on the left-hand side of the photo is a part of the former container terminal that has yet to be redeveloped; ultimately, plans are for this district to house 15,000 people. In the distance is the much lower density suburb of Lauttasaari. (And yes, “saari” is Finnish for “island” — Jätkäsaari was an island once, before it was enlarged and connected to the mainland by land-making; likewise Salmisaari.)

Hotel roof deck

The photos above were taken from the rooftop pool deck of the Clarion Hotel Helsinki, the newest hotel in the city and one of the largest, which occupies one of the tallest buildings in Helsinki and is one of the anchors of the new Jätkäsaari. The hotel is located one tram stop away from the ferry terminal, and convenient to four tram lines (after the 2017 tram line reorganization, the 6/6T, 7, 8, and 9 trams all stop either in front of the hotel or within a short walk of the entrance). When I went to Helsinki in April, 2017, I stayed the Radisson BLU Seaside hotel, which is across the harbor in Hietalahti, and I noted then that there was this brand-new-looking hotel quite conveniently located, so when I saw that the Clarion had a room block for Worldcon 75, I immediately decided to reserve there despite it being quite far from the con festivities. (The convention was held in Messukeskus, near Pasila train station and a short walk from Hartwall Arena where the figure skating had been, so I was confident that I would be able to navigate the trip easily, even after dark.) Americans take note: Clarion Hotels in the Nordics are operated by a company called Nordic Choice, which has a license agreement with our Choice Hotels to use the name “Clarion” but does not otherwise interoperate, and in particular does not participate in US Choice’s frequent-traveler programs. I had been expecting to get points for this (rather expensive) stay and was not able to.

Boat tied up outside my hotel's harborside entrance

Although Jätkäsaari is being rapidly redeveloped as a residential neighborhood (with ground-floor office and retail space), it is still located on a harbor, and there are plenty of boats to be seen lining both sides of the inner part of the harbor. Stepping out of the harborside entrance of the Clarion, I was immediately confronted with a line of smaller boats tied up outside the hotel, like this one.

Looking aross the bay at Hietalahti

Looking across the harbor toward Hietalahti, you can see the Radisson BLU Seaside hotel where I had stayed in April, just left of center. If you look very carefully to the left of the vessel that says “55” on it, you can just barely make out the 6 tram waiting for its next departure. (All current Helsinki trams are single-ended and thus the tram routes must end in loops in order to turn around. This is a fairly large one, which runs in a square about a kilometer around. During peak ferry arrival times, the 6T replaces the 6 and runs all the way to Länsiterminaali, the passenger ferry terminal on Jätkäsaari.) Hietalahti is a much older neighborhood, although it too has seen some redevelopment, as is obvious from the newer facades showing in this photo. What’s not obvious is the route of the former harbor rail line, which formerly passed right along the shoreline Ruoholahti all the way to Katajanokka, east of the market square and the other main passenger terminals at South Harbor (Eteläsatama). Freight service was terminated in the South Harbor area and the line was gradually cut back starting in 1980, with service to Hietalahti shipyard terminated in 2005; the tracks there were removed in 2008, and in 2009, with the relocation of the container terminal to Vuosaari, the entire line became redundant. The tracks between Helsinki Central railway station (where there were warehouses) and Ruoholahti, which were in an open cut, were removed and replaced with a cycling and pedestrian path called “Baana”. (Somehow I neglected seeing this despite being literally on top of it while I was walking around last year, so I have no pictures.) In the last years of the harbor rail line’s operation, it was supported by part of the large Pasila rail yard; with the relocation of container traffic to Vuosaari, that facility was also made redundant, which opened up another large brownfield in the Pasila area — the redevelopment of which I discussed in my previous series of articles on Helsinki transportation, published in mid-2017.


One of the things Helsinki is known for is its large quantity of outdoor public sculpture. This sculpture (sculptures?) is right outside the Clarion on the harbor side. I don’t seem to have taken a picture of any signage that might have explained what it was supposed to be and whether it was one piece or two (or indeed if the pile of rusty chain is art or just junk).

A closer view of the sign showing maps and notable destinations

Throughout the Jätkäsaari area, the city government has provided these wayfinding kiosks, showing walking directions to major transportation nodes with labels in English and Russian in addition to the two official languages. This sign became obsolete on the day I photographed it, as the routes of the 7 and 9 trams changed in a large-scale network restructuring. (The 8 tram still runs to Ruoholahti, although it was extended; we’ll see more of the 8 later.)

"Wood City" development under construction across the street

Not far from the Clarion, “Wood City” is a new complex erected on what was apparently once a ferry parking lot — and the yellow sign warns in Russian about non-resident vehicles being towed.

Looking back at the Clarion from Hietalahti

Now from the Hietalahti side of the harbor, I can get a nice view of the Clarion, which opened in late 2016. Imagine how this would have looked late on a foggy March evening as I was walking from the tram stop back to my hotel.

Modern building next to the 8 tram tracks and loop

Now for something a bit different. I’ve caught the 8 tram, which nominally goes to Ruoholahti but was recently extended into Jätkäsaari, to the new end of the line. Right next to the terminal station (passengers are not allowed to ride around the loop) is this very modern looking building.

Loop for the 8 and now 9 trams in Jätkäsaari

Here’s the actual tram turning loop. You can see that this part of Jätkäsaari has yet to be fully redeveloped; we are quite literally on the edge of the construction zone here. In addition to the rerouted 8 tram, the 9 route now ends here as well, so two separate routes turn at this loop. (This is not uncommon in Helsinki’s tram network, which serves 200,000 passengers per day. The eastern end of both the 8 and the 6 is in Arabia, and they share a turning loop there although they otherwise follow completely different routes through the city — with the 6 passing through the CBD and the 8 following a more northerly route.) You’ll notice that HKL has a preference for paving tram tracks, even on exclusive rights of way, unlike Boston’s MBTA which leaves the ties and ballast exposed whenever possible.

That weird building, in context

Here’s another view of that weird building with a bit more of its context. At far right you can see the cable-stayed bridge over Ruoholahti canal, and beyond it the smokestack of Salmisaari power plant. We’ll see more of both of these shortly.

8 tram coming out of the loop and heading north toward Ruoholahti

And there goes an 8 tram, coming out of the turning loop and heading north on Länsisatamankatu toward Ruoholahti. I believe this loop facility is intended to be only temporary, until more of the old container terminal is redeveloped and there are actual destinations beyond this point.

Looking east up Välimerenkatu

I’ve now turned back east(ish), looking up Välimerenkatu towards my hotel and ultimately the CBD. The tram tracks in the central reservation are for the 9 route. (Incidentally, as befits a former marine terminal, most of the street names here reflect places you could have taken a ship to in the days before air travel. Välimerenkatu is “Mediterranean Sea Street”, for example.)

New building on Välimerenkatu

Here’s a closer look at one of the new buildings on Välimerenkatu, which is probably full of apartments. Most of the new buildings in the neighborhood, whether offices or residences, maintain this same scale and hold the streetwall like this one.

Pedestrian bridge (yellow) across Välimerenkatu, with cranes and the Clarion in the distance

The metal lattice towers supporting streetlamps on a span wire are quite common throughout Helsinki for illumination, traffic signals, and tram power infrastructure. Note the Clarion off in the distance, just to the left of the yellow crane.

Diverse new residential construction along Välimerenkatu

Note how, even though the scale of these new buildings is pretty much the same, each one has a unique design. Helsinki prides itself as a global capital of architecture and design, and it simply would not do to have block upon block of identical residential towers as you might see in a planned development in the US.

Farther up Välimerenkatu: these buildings have ground-floor retail/office

Continuing up Välimerenkatu back towards my hotel, you can see how some of the buildings have undulating or bump-out facades above street level, again giving a bit of visual interest to a streetscape that could otherwise be quite boring given that all the buildings were constructed at the same time and by only a handful of large developers.

Another building under construction

This building, still clad in its white plastic vapor-barrier wrap, is clearly designed to mimic much older buildings found in other dense Helsinki neighborhoods.

Colorful building across the tram tracks

The parts of Jätkäsaari closest to the CBD have clearly had a bit more time to settle, and many of the residences and commercial spaces are occupied. At left at ground level there’s a supermarket, and the flag at right announces the offices of one of the major developers.

Branch library and fire-rescue training center

Directly across the street from my hotel is this obviously much older building, which in front houses a library, and in the rear is a fire and rescue training center.

Interesting bas-relief on the rescue training center

This bas-relief on the library building is apparently commemorating the pre-containerization loading of bulk goods at the harbor by dockworkers.

Full-wrap tram ad in Helsinki dialect

This 9 tram making a stop in front of the library has a full-wrap ad for Alepa, a discount grocery store. The speech bubble here is in Helsinki slang, which I can’t parse (and neither can Google Translate).

Tram departing the brand-new station on first day of operation

There’s the whole tram. Wikipedia identifies it as a “Valmet Nr. I” tram, originally built in the early 1970s, which was modified within the last decade to add a low-floor center section.

Looking west from the tram stop on Välimerenkatu

Just looking back west along Välimerenkatu from the same tram stop, so you can see the street-level retail in the buildings on the right. I expect the roadway has been repaved by now: the opening of the tram line here was a bit rushed and not all of the construction was complete.

That green-grey-peach building again

I just thought this building looked interesting. Note the raised tram platform, ramping down to crosswalk level. I assume that some sort of safety fencing has been installed by now where the construction barriers were last August.

Gap between tram plafrorm and floor

A view of the gap between the platform and the tram floor. The blue button on the door is for wheelchair boarding; I don’t know if that just increases the door cycle time or if there’s something the driver is supposed to do. Note the spring-loaded folding seats in the wheelchair bay — an advantage of Helsinki’s single-ended trams since they need not have boarding doors on the off side.

Still some ships berthed in the harbor

It’s now Tuesday morning after Worldcon (the preceding photos were all taken on the Monday) and I’m back out at the eastern end of the Ruoholahti canal, where I noted at least one ship still actively using the west harbor. I’m standing on the bridge over the canal, looking northwest. There is no longer a railway serving this port, so the cargo will have to be transferred to and from trucks to get wherever it’s going.

High Tech Centre

Architect: Kai Wartiainen

Continuing north past the ship we get our first glimpse of the High Tech Centre office park (constructed 2001), which consists of these four buildings plus a fifth across the road to the right.

The 8 tram and Länsisatamankatu traverse this cute little cable-stayed bridge

Looking a back south across the bridge, an 8 tram heads north towards Ruoholahti.

HTC "Vega" building

“Vega” is the most prominent of the HTC buildings, with two street frontages; it’s home to F-Secure, best known for its antivirus software.

HTC building guide (on northwest corner of "Vega" at Länsisatamankatu)

On the northwest corner of “Vega”, easily visible to passers-by on Länsisatamankatu, this guide identifies each of the five buildings. I don’t claim to understand the choice of naming here.

Three museums in one repurposed building

Also fronting Länsisatamankatu, just north of the HTC complex, is a cultural center called “Kaapelitehdas“. In its previous, industrial life, it was a cable factory (kaapelitehdas) owned by Nokia. Now it’s home to three museums and a number of other performing-arts organizations, as well as some radio studios. The three museums are the Theatre Museum (Teatterimuseo), the Hotel and Restaurant Museum (Hotelli- ja Ravintolamuseo), and the Finnish Museum of Art Photography (Suomen Valokuvataiteenmuseo). The building is managed by a city-owned enterprise.

Former Nokia cable factory

Various performing-arts companies occupy the building on the right. (The neon sign above “Kaapeli” reads “Radio City”!)

HTC "Nina" building

Back over at HTC, I noted the intriguing roofed-over passageway between the “Vega” building and its next-door neighbor, “Santa Maria”. See the bike parking on the far side?

Wheelchair ramp between two of the HTC buildings

A rather modern-looking wheelchair ramp that is. From this angle it almost looks like it was designed by Escher.

Back side of Kaapelitehdas

The back side of Kaapelitehdas definitely has that “former factory” aesthetic down. You could probably pinpoint when it was built to within five years or so, with a bit more architectural sophistication than I have.

Looking across the bay at Lauttasaari

There are two vehicular bridges across the bay to Lauttasaari, which unlike all the other -saari places we’ve been discussing actually still is an island. Despite the relatively low-density residential and commercial development, Lauttasaari is one of the most populous islands in Finland, and has a stop on the newly extended Helsinki Metro.

Large cargo ship and pier with smaller boats docked, Tammassaarenranta

From the same vantage point behind Kaapelitehdas, I’m looking south towards that cargo ship and, in the distance, the newer construction on Jätkäsaari. Closer to me, smaller boats are tied up in a marina.

Waterfront sculpture

Continuing my walk north along the shore, I found this piece of outdoor sculpture. Outdoor sculpture really is all over this city.

City courthouse

Still right along the water in Ruoholahti, this is the Helsinki City Courthouse. Another part of the building is part of Altia, a liquor manufacturing concern that was formerly part of the formerly state-owned former monopoly Alko, which itself still exists as a retail enterprise without state support.

Bas-reliefs on the front of the courthouse

More bas-reliefs! They seem to be a thing on public buildings….

New office buildings in Salmisaari

Just north of the courthouse and the Salmisaari power plant (see next photo), there is a large newish office park and marina. It’s a bit farther from the tram and metro than the other buildings I’ve shown you, but still an easy walk (at least in August!). I actually went this far because one of our vendors at work, Ekahau, has its main offices in one of these buildings. Alas, they apparently don’t pay enough rent to get their name hung on the outside. (Ekahau makes wireless network design and measurement software.) This area is quite close to the end of the motorway bridge to Lauttasaari (you can just barely see part of at at the left edge of the photo), so it’s less desirable for residential development, and it was redeveloped in the late 2000s; the whole area was once coal storage for the power plant.

In case the district names are confusing to you, join the club. I find from the Wikipedia article that Helsinki has a hierarchical structure, so Salmisaari is a “sector” (pienalue) of the larger “quarter” (osa-alue) Ruoholahti, which is in turn part of the “neighborhood” (kaupunginosa) of Länsisatama (West Harbor), which is part of the Kampinmalmi “district” (peruspiiri), which finally is part of the Southern “major district” (suurpiiri) of Helsinki.

Salmisaari sports center, next to a power plant

Just north of the Salmisaari power plant is a sports and fitness center (liikuntakeskus). While it may seem a bit surprising that the power plant is still operating, many parts of Helsinki depend on neighborhood power plants for district heating: steam heat supplied by underground pipes as a public utility, which avoids the need for individual furnaces or heat pumps in most residential and commercial buildings. I’m not entirely certain, but I believe this corridor north of the power plant is where the western extension of the Metro runs (it formerly ended at a terminal in the center of Ruoholahti), so the sports center may have been built on top of the new tunnel or the launch box for a tunnel-boring machine. I’d welcome more accurate information — the route of the West Metro does not seem to be recorded in Google Maps, unlike the earlier Metro tunnels.

Looking back towards Salmisaari power plant

Looking back at the power plant from a different angle, you can see numerous older buildings that reflect this area’s more industrial heritage.


Back close to my hotel again, the Ruoholahti canal ends in a turning basin, and it’s paralleled by a public park, Ruoholahdenpuisto. That little cable-stayed bridge in the background is just a pedestrian bridge; it’s not the one at the mouth of the canal in the old port area.

Wood City under construction, Jätkäsaari

Another view of “Wood City”, yes that’s really what they called it, near the eastern end of the Ruoholahti canal. It’s another example of the trend I commented on after my first trip last year, of English popping up in commercial signage and advertising created by and for native Finnish speakers. (Finland has a large forest-products industry so it’s not surprising that they use a lot of wood in construction, even for large MDU developments like this.)


Every so often I like to take pictures of flowers. These were across the street from “Wood City” on my way back to the hotel.

Whew! That was a lot of pictures, and I’m not even close to done yet. That is, however, all I have to say about this particular neighborhood and its redevelopment; I have still more photos from the Suomenlinna sea fortress and from a couple of other walks I took in the southern districts of the city, which hopefully will be easier and faster to write up. Doing the research for this has made me wonder if there are enough transportation and urban planning people among my readers to actually organize a trip to Helsinki. (It’s kinda unlikely but I’m certain my prose and photographs do not do justice to the in-person experience, especially writing as I am more than a year after the fact, and I would love to actually get a chance to explore some of the other parts of this interesting, evolving Baltic port city.)

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