I wrote the essay below for Helsinki Beyond Dreams, a book edited by Hella Hernberg and available… today! It’s a collection of essays from a variety of contributors speculating on how to use the city as a resource for all. A bit exasperated after writing a lot earlier in the year, I chose to write my piece as a bit of near-future fiction.
Illustration by Pent Talvet
A generation from now, will Helsinki and Tallinn be connected as a twin city filled with local urbane industries: small factories, craft workshops, courtyard cafes and scientific research labs flourishing side by side in the city centre?
As soon as she glances at the teacup rattling in its saucer, the jostling stops. “Eighteen minutes left”, Anna says to her seatmate. The rail tunnel between Helsinki and Tallinn – the longest in the world – is also its largest timepiece. It tells one time only, but does it precisely. Eighteen minutes before coming to a careful stop at Helsinki’s Hernesaari station the train passes over a small dimple in the tracks that sets things jittering about, as if to let you know there’s still time for another cup of tea. It’s the kind of quirk that inevitably comes from making real things. Anna appreciates this as she can share the same charms with customers who seek out the bikes built in her courtyard factory in downtown Helsinki.
The train comes to a stop beneath a station built as a careful snowflake of timber and glass. Ghanaian and Chinese tourists are snapping pictures of this curious crystal, as they always do, while daily commuters drowsily sip flat whites and cinnamon rolls at the station’s reputable cafes.
Built in the 2020’s, during a time of careful but daring investment, the connection between Tallinn and Helsinki is now the crown jewel of the Baltic Ring Rail. Many were skeptical about the project, but with some hindsight it was an infrastructural gambit that has breathed a new spirit into the pair of sleeper capitals. It was sold as a mere ‘link’ between the two cities but instead it has proven to be more substantial. Essential, even. At a moment when global cities were fighting aggressively to distinguish themselves, Helsinki and Tallinn willingly rebuilt themselves as conjoined twins.
People who move back and forth frequently refer to “the other side of the lake”. Anna is one of those, having traded her apartment in Vallila, uptown Helsinki, for a townhouse just inside the walls of medieval Tallinn. Although most days she can and does work from home, Anna looks forward to the opportunity to visit her small factory in Punavuori.
Seven minutes by tram and Anna finds herself in the center of Punavuori’s lumpy streetscape. The district is now living a new revival as its many courtyards, previously closed and divided between housing cooperatives, have been opened up. In the end it was a citizens’ initiative in the neighborhood council that pushed through changes to property law and real estate tax and enabled new uses for the large interior spaces of the blocks. Many of the district’s courtyards have been converted into thriving pockets of activity including communal gardens, micro industrial parks, and restaurants.
In the past fifteen years, Helsinki has managed to capitalize on its deep legacy of craft. The hybrid businesses of neighborhoods like Punavuori are recognized as world-leading for their unique blend of technical excellence and pragmatic whimsy. The city’s bet on making better use of the numerous courtyards has paid off by creating new jobs, sure, but also by knitting the city together through the casual necessity of collaboration. Small business in the district’s many manufacturing hotspots would be difficult propositions on their own, but an immense asset when joined up into a flexible network of collaborators.
The building on Tehtaankatu (Factory Street) attracted Anna because its courtyard is renovated into something of an industrial piazza. The large doors that line the court reveal behind them enough talent and tools to manufacture just about anything. It’s a beautiful and productive chaos.
Today’s mix in the block suits Anna’s business better than it did in the past. The addition of an appliance repair shop has allowed her to quickly pull in additional help by hiring their staff during downtimes. This diversity makes sense for her business, and also helps the neighborhood feel more knitted together. The ma who operates the adjacent shop, comes out to offer a friendly “mooooooi” as Anna watches the front of her bicycle factory slowly fold into the ceiling.
“What do you have for me today?”
“The coating I mentioned yesterday is behaving better. Nothing sticks to it!”
“When you can figure out how to apply that to carbon fibre we have a mountain bike waiting to happen.”
That a nanochemist and a cycling entrepreneur would have anything to chit chat about at the start of the day, let alone collaborate on, was the gamble that the cities of Helsinki and Tallinn took when they adopted the Joined, Overlapping, & Dense strategy. By encouraging a diversity of endeavors to flourish in proximity to each other, by making this legible and by creating new incentives to encourage collaboration between business, individuals, and the public sector, this strategy continues to pay dividends. The “lake”, née Gulf of Finland, is now a go-to node in global innovation conversations, attracting clients from all over the world who desire the best of bespoke products.
Fifteen years ago it would have been almost unthinkable to find scientific research companies, factories, coffee shops and a school all in the same neighborhood, but now this kind of diversity is what allows Helsinki/Tallinn to punch above its weight.
Walking from the courtyard into the depth of her shop, Anna passes by assembly bays of differing levels of messiness containing bicycles at various states of completion. As the lights dance to life, she looks across the low tables of accessories and other wares that occupy the retail half of her shop, and out through the windows to spot the first people of the morning already on a stroll.
Despite a lucrative offer to move her family and the business to Rio de Janeiro, Anna stays because for her Helsinki/Tallinn is a city of happiness. It’s a place where small gestures matter, where connections are made easily, and where the streets are diverse and active. This is a place where one may feel part of the rushing flows of information, goods, and opinion – but still have time to enjoy a cup of tea and a bit of chatter with a friendly neighbor.