Improving the urban environment is key to the survival of Finnish towns

What will the future look like for small and medium sized Finnish cities? If people continue moving to larger cities in Finland and the Nordics, how can smaller cities influence their future? Think of it as a supply and demand problem. People and companies will go where their needs are best met. The quality of urban life will play a role even in small towns. We are going back to the future: streets are changing back into the public meeting and exchange places that they once were. This presents an economic opportunity for companies and is a lifeline for small cities that want to offer a high quality of life to current and new residents.

The Covid-19 pandemic did not destroy big cities, nor did it save small ones. Small towns may have hoped that 5G, the pandemic, remote work and low real estate prices would make up a perfect storm, but unfortunately we have no comprehensive data to show their prayers would have been answered. There are inspiring but nonetheless isolated and often contradictory examples. Some people moved outside the core of New York or Stockholm, where incidentally purchasing power is greater than elsewhere.

At the same time, more families with children have moved or stayed in the centre of Helsinki, Tampere and Turku. As to their reasons for making that choice, families cite there being more services and things to do in the city centre. The picture is nuanced. It is safe to assume that not all people will be able to move at will or work remotely. Nor is working from home full-time the ideal, as many have now learned. While jobs and the availability of real estate influence one’s decision to move, there are many personal factors at play – as is the urban environment.

What can be distinguished with a good level of certainty is that Covid accelerated the speed at which the importance of the urban environment is increasing. Demographics, technology, digitalization, new business models and a changing labour market will shape our streets.

The big picture: the urban environment as an opportunity

No matter how small an urban settlement, all cities have a centre. You can measure the life and “buzz” of a public space: the units are the number of people, how much time they spend there and how much money they spend in local businesses. A lively centre will increase the attractiveness of a city, which in turn can be measured quantitatively in the change and composition of residents, businesses, and real estate value. Let’s focus on the urban environment: how do you get more people to a city centre?

There are two things to distinguish here. First, urban planning and seeing the big picture is key. Digitalization, remote work, circular economy, new business models – all of these will affect people and companies. Although the hottest new mobility ideas or gadgets mostly come to life in big cities, they end up affecting small towns, too. The result may manifest as so-called dark stores and dark kitchens: new kinds of small-scale e-commerce warehouses that are not limited to outskirts of a city, and professional kitchens that cook for a number of restaurants offering home delivery only. It can be e-commerce affecting retail, or even as changes in how we design and what we expect from sidewalks. Naturally, the climate crisis, EU regulations (e.g., in construction) and an ageing population all play a role.

Companies would very much benefit from having a comprehensive understanding of how a city works and what its challenges are, whether it’s a metropolis or municipality that they operate in. For companies, any city can be a testbed, a market or a smörgåsbord of opportunities. A new kind of urban thinking across sectors can enable cities to best create their own future. This dynamic will play out in the everyday urban environment in our streets and squares.

The detailed picture: the city as our common urban living room

A variety of functions is what makes a public space like a street, square or city centre lively. More functions will attract more people: you need to have a reason to visit and stay at a place. This can be achieved by design. “People attract other people” is a time-tested wisdom brought to us by 20th century urbanists like William Whyte and Jane Jacobs.
The 15-minute city is a popular example of the shape of things to come in cities, but this is difficult to emulate in sparsely populated areas. In Sweden, the 1-minute city national project with ArkDes, the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design, strives to make all streets an instrument of direct democracy and street design with local residents. It is a mixture of experimenting with citizen dialogue and physical urban interventions: people will see the changes in their street as the project progresses.

A non-profit called Project for Public Spaces (PPS) has been working with public spaces since the 1970s. While they have worked with grand projects like the pedestrianization of New York’s Times Square, the work of what is called placemaking is about getting down to a granular level. It is about a corner of a street or a small square. It is about asking the shopkeeper and the old lady feeding the pigeons what they think is going on in the street. Where do people go, is it safe there, who uses the place and what for, what is missing? Why do people just pass through, or do they stay? Are there public benches? Are there public toilets? As exciting as these questions are, they define the user experience of public spaces.


The Swedish city of Sundsvall (population 95,000) is among the cities where the different sectors have co-operated to make their centre livelier. It is also now a candidate for the Årets Stadskärna or The City Centre of the Year in Sweden. Östersund (population 49,000) won the award in 2019 and the jury’s comment was that the municipality comes across as approachable and open to new ideas. People can have a dialogue and see their ideas come to life. When Estonia celebrated its centenary in 2018, a national 100 Great Public Spaces project was carried out in small towns in co-operation with the Estonian Centre for Architecture.

In our climate, public indoor spaces are important: Finns’ relationship with libraries has even become an international marketing instrument. Think of Oodi in Helsinki with its outdoor and indoor public space and rich services or Dokk1 in Aarhus or Deichmann Bjørvika library in Oslo. In Norway, Levende lokaler (literally living venues) was a project by DOGA (Design and Architecture Norway) in co-operation with Arendal, Lærdal and Tromsø in 2016–2018. The aim was to try and revitalise unused and vacant places. Sweden’s Skellefteå in the cold high north invested in one of the tallest timber buildings in the world: Sara kulturhus will have 20 floors of public space.

Reputation and marketing can make a difference. Every city can only deserve its reputation: marketing places is not like marketing products, but you can still be creative like in the Save Salla campaign. As the leading Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat reported in 2020, Porvoo (population 50,000) is growing steadily. Real estate is gaining value. Porvoo has no university or railway connection, but it is within a commutable distance to Helsinki. Many other small cities that are not growing are equally close to Helsinki, so what is Porvoo doing right? The city is about to replace a downtown shopping mall with a linear park that connects three squares. Other places, from Tampere to Järvenpää (44 ,.000), are working on their city centres.

Oulu’s story is perhaps best crystallised in the annual Polar Bear Pitch. It is a unique, popular event that is all about tech and a Finnish way of life (it’s basically pitching an idea in an ice hole) that made several trips around the world in the media. It is the winter cycling capital of the country. (if not the world): 25% of all trips are made on bike and 12% during winter months. The housing market is doing well: supply meets demand, construction companies praise the city’s approach and prices have not risen compared to other cities.

Services matter: when the Kivistö new development in Vantaa started a few years ago, hopes were high. But since apartments were built faster than services and amenities, data shows apartment sales are not doing that well. The urban environment matters, even if the location is good, I.e., near a hub or next to a railway station. A big shopping mall is expected. Numerous examples over decades show that big shopping malls are not good for the urban environment as they empty the streets of life. Copenhagen’s new over-dimensioned and much criticised Ørestad is a reminder of what a gigantic shopping mall can do to an urban environment, despite the best of intentions.

Facts don’t change minds. Experiences do.

Finally, providing a good urban environment for residents will attract visitors, the temporary locals. In Sweden, Jönköping (93 ,000) and Oskarshamn (17 ,000) are among those who have worked with place development in a comprehensive way, including tourism. Tourism can be a springboard for people to invest or move into a city. This is the colourful, documented case in Nantes in France, as well as the reason behind projects that invite people to try out their urban living rooms.

Public art and installations can play a bigger role. In Japan, socially engaged art projects or ato purojekuto (Japanese for art projects) and the Setouchi, Echigo-Tsumari or Ichihara Art x Mix triennales are part of regional development.
In Övertorneå (1,900) and Pajala (1,950) where Sweden and Finland meet, Hej Hemby is a joint project between two municipalities that offer people a chance to move temporarily – and permanently. The approach is simple for end users: if you want to try living in a smaller place, perhaps even with children, Hej Hemby is here to help you. Gotland did its provgute test-living campaign almost a decade ago. All cities can take a fresh perspective on marketing and tourism, start offering accommodation to people or doing private-public partnerships to offer similar things. Why not go even further: invite entire groups of friends, make it flexible. Make it fun.

The story of Finnish cities continues. We have entered the chapter of good urban design. What is your municipality doing to create a better urban environment?

Pärtel-Peeter Pere is a Senior Advisor on Urban Affairs. He has worked with Nordic capitals as well as small towns. He writes music and is following foreign and security affairs after his years in Brussels. As an urbanist, Pärtel can no longer unsee what he has seen in some of the best cities on the planet.

Miltton offers Urban Affairs services to companies and municipalities. Develop insight to understand, and the craft to champion the new urban reality. Do better business by positioning yourself as a vital part of the evolving society. Miltton helps to solve problems that occur in the urban landscape and due to its rapid development. Our insight is based on global outlook combined with local understanding. Our advisory is tailored to help clients with insight, understanding, inspiration and action. We provide analysis of opportunities and threats, assess risks and bring in expertise from throughout the Miltton services to address issues from a 360 degree perspective. Miltton’s unique offering enables us to address urbanization from multiple perspectives, including customer insight, global insight, brand and decision-making.