Going underground in Helsinki

Underground spaces are part of Helsinki, and in heavy use. Annually there are 17 million metro station users at Helsinki Central Railway Station and 14.5 million at Kamppi. About 80 % of Helsinki centre’s grocery stores are underground.

Subsurface facilities and routes are a very important part of the functional, traffic and commercial center. They have a strong concentration of urban DMA: Density – Mix – Access. The triangle consists of a lot of people (and purchasing power), mixed activities, and very good accessibility. These are qualities that new shopping malls are trying their best to attain. The super-central underground in the core of the city will become increasingly important the longer and denser the linear subway-connected city of Helsinki-Espoo becomes.

Loitering to integration

With the City of Helsinki, we wanted to have a better perspective to: 

• What is the daily life of underground spaces like – what’s going on, how do people spend their time? 

• What is the quality of the underground space? Do the downtown public spaces meet current expectations? 

Let’s consider awhile what makes for significant places. The renowned Danish architect, Jan Gehl, would say it is the possibilities for staying, having a bit of a good time sociably with a friend, peacefully alone, or curiously among strangers. 

The Helsinki tunnels were not meant for loiterers. In the 1960s Helsinki started constructing pedestrian tunnels for quick passing-through, and apparently for clearing streets of pedestrians. These rough corridors still prevail, even though the needs of citizens have changed. 

Where are, in contemporary Helsinki, the places meant for would-be citizens, not-yet citizens, or downright strangers? Could they be welcome guests to perfectly open places? There is the grand public library Oodi, new pride of Helsinki, that promises to welcome all social groups. Oodi has the large capacity and brave staff needed to tackle the issues that arise. It is fair to say that with developments like this the expectation of openness, already high in the equitable Nordic countries, has risen.

Could subsurface spaces, for example, Helsinki’s well-worn Asematunneli (Station Tunnel) play a part in “open society”? 

What was found?

We made a set of studies of the underground city for the update or Helsinki’s Underground Master Plan. First we made a study plan and a concise benchmarking, then executed a series of studies, and lastly reported several proposals and recommendations. We assessed – besides ”walkability” itself – social safety, accessibility, orientation, and service supply, and, for the key spaces, also opportunities for staying, resting and engaging in social interaction.

The tunnel network is, and will continue to be, aimed at securing smooth mobility on the system level. This should be further improved by better physical accessibility, spatial orientation, and signage.

There is another need that is not being met however. This is a demand for places to stay. In the very heart of the city (which is located exactly in the Station Tunnel), there must also be places where staying is not only permitted but enjoyable. In our project, we devised a pop up experiment where groups of high-quality seating furniture was introduced to the Station Tunnel. The furniture was kindly provided by Norwegian design company Vestre.

’Positive takeover’ step by step

The experiment showed that people can be encouraged to take over the space by improving it with small, very affordable measures. Of course, having more eyes on the place improves also its atmosphere of safety.

It is crucial that expanding the underground world does not compromise the vitality of street-level services. In Helsinki centre, walking is by far the winning mode of transport, and the modal share of public transport is very high. Therefore, we can afford to develop underground routes and shops without a risk of the street level services withering or lacking customers. In good weather and summer, people will choose the street anyway.

Quality is however much more important than quantity. Especially for the sense of security and lively services, it is better to have just a few high-quality, busy places with attaching corridors than long gateways. And it is very important to plan routes so that there are no blank areas left.

Like city space, the subsurface space is also structured into squares and routes. If you want to stop a customer, it is much better to be on the square than along the route.

No lack of ideas

The boundary between the street and the underground should be as porous as possible. You could say a double decker city is the better the more transparent it is. This might mean big windows, multi-story atriums, bringing in natural light, gentle paths, and clear guidance to well-known places; weather protected, tidy connections to bus terminals, cultural sites such as theaters, clubs, museums. Natural light, greenery, public art, music, fountains. Han Admiraal and Antonia Cornaro cover many fancy possibilities Underground Spaces Unveiled (2018). Worth checking out!

Underground facilities offer opportunities to provide services and city “brand experiences” to thousands of users daily. Since we have the best digital library system in the world, could there be a pick-and-drop library point at a subway station gate, for example?

Jani Päivänen
johtava asiantuntija/tiimipäällikkö
jani.paivanen@fcg.fi

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