06 - Helsinki - Issue 5 - Magazine | Monocle

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Anni Sinnemäki, now a Finnish MP but previously a lyricist for the band Ultra Bra, described Helsinki thus in one song: “The city has changed/ but not very much/ we remember the colour/ that was more grey/ there wasn’t a single/ European clothes store/ beer just for those who dined/ the whole place resembled/ the Soviet Union.”

Today, Helsinki is a western city. Over the past decade the European fashion chains have arrived, while smart bars have replaced the old beer cafés. However, the city retains a distinctly Finnish quality. The fashion, music, film and art scenes are blooming, and the Nordic welfare model guarantees a high quality of life for virtually everyone.

When asked to list Helsinki’s best qualities, Jussi Pajunen, the mayor, says, “We are well-educated, knowledgeable people, and have less social differentiation than many other cities. The nature is fantastic and the city is safe. There’s an increasing amount of entertainment and culture for people to enjoy.”

The nearness of nature is wonderful, and the ease of moving around by foot or tram eliminates the stress from everyday life. The city has a strong commitment to architecture and design. As the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa has said, one can tell a lot about a city just by looking at its door handles – and in Helsinki many of them are designed by Alvar Aalto and Steven Holl.

However, the cold Nordic climate and lack of sunlight in winter can be depressing. Helsinki could do more to guarantee sustainability, as it still uses mostly fossil fuels in its energy production. Public services are in good shape, but Pajunen admits that they face some challenges as the population ages.

“We must improve the efficiency of our services, especially our healthcare,” he says. “Demand is growing and not enough money is coming in, but we’re not prepared to compromise our level of welfare.”

Helsinki metrics

Population: 560,905.

International flights: 1,000 international flights a week to over 100 destinations.

Crime rate: murders, 12; domestic break-ins 399 (2006).

State education: education is free. In OECD’s latest PISA-study, which tests the skills of 15-year-olds in four key areas, young Finns had the best mathematic, reading and science skills among the OECD countries.

Health care: affordable and universal.

Sunshine: annual average, 1,821 hours.

Temperature: in January the average temperature is -6C, in July 17C.

Wired: Helsinki has a free wireless internet network. Mobile coverage is very reliable.

Tolerance: 5.5 per cent of the city’s inhabitants are foreign nationals. Gay clubs, ethnic restaurants and food stores are now commonplace but it’s hardly diverse.

Drinking and shopping: many bars are open until 02.00, even during the week. Nightclubs usually close at 04.00. Supermarkets and convenience stores are open until 22.00 or 23.00.

Public transport: very efficient, consisting of buses, trams and one underground line serving the eastern part of the city.

Local media: Helsingin Sanomat is Finland’s largest newspaper, while Huvudstadsbladet caters for the Swedish-speaking minority. There are also a number of free dailies, local and state-owned radio stations, TV stations and two tabloids.

International media: leading foreign magazines are easy to find in most newsagents, whereas foreign newspapers can be more difficult to come by.

Green space: a third of Helsinki’s surface area is green space.

Access to nature: Helsinki is situated by the sea, so the archipelago is never far away. In the summer people take a short boat ride to the old fortress of Suomenlinna to swim, or head for Hietaniemi Beach.

Environmental initiatives: Helsinki has a sustainable development programme that aims to reduce greenhouse gases and save energy. Fossil fuels are still used to a great extent in district heating, and politically it has been difficult to set ambitious goals for the reduction of CO2 emissions. Helsinki plans to extend the tram and metro networks.

Monocle metrics: flag carrier Finnair and Vantaa Airport are going for broke and building a serious hub at the top of the world. Finnair has become the second biggest European carrier to Asia. What’s lost in the winter darkness is replaced by great cultural and sporting outlets, Stockmann’s bookstore and a good music scene.

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