Timo Hämäläinen

They're not merely a suburban phenomenon, but also dominate the retail landscape inside the nation's cities.

You can hardly blame the Finns for wanting to shop in giant, self-contained malls. After all, winter tends to start early in Finland (like, November) and end late (say, in April). Temperatures in Helsinki, which is at the nation’s extreme south, with a relatively mild maritime climate, rarely get above freezing in the coldest months, and have been known to go as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit. In late December, the sun in Helsinki doesn’t rise until well after 9 a.m., sets soon after 3 p.m., and stays low in the sky — only getting to about 6.6 degrees above the horizon on December 27, for instance (compare that to New York, where it reaches an altitude of 26 degrees on the same day).

So it’s no surprise that the idea of walkable urban centers are a hard sell in Finland. Still, some in the nation are calling for Finland to rethink its love affair with the shopping mall.

On his blog From Rurban to Urban: Reinventing the Finnish City, Timo Hämäläinen has written a post titled, “Help Cure Finland’s Mall Fever.” Hämäläinen, a student of planning and geography, laments his nation’s continuing dependence on massive indoor malls, which in Finland are not merely a suburban phenomenon, but also dominate the retail landscape inside cities:

At every scale it’s respectively difficult if not impossible to speak of creating urban neighborhoods or lively town centers. At least not with the residential densities we have in Finland. This is because the commercial centers suck all forms of “urban life” from the surrounding area under its roof with the gravity of a black hole.

As an example, Hämäläinen cites a huge retail mall – at nearly 200,000 square feet, it will be the nation’s fifth-largest – that is planned as part of an inner-city development on a former freight harbor in the Kalasatama district of Helsinki. The concentration of both retail and public services within the mall’s walls, he fears, will mean that the surrounding residential area, slated for up to 7,000 units, will be lifeless and dull.

The parking lot at Shopping Centre Kaari in Helsinki. (Photo: Timo Hämäläinen)

Hämäläinen says that Finland’s development patterns are stubbornly rooted in the nation’s history. “Finland has urbanized very late in comparison to anyplace in the developed world,” he writes in an email. “This means that we never really had a strong urban culture. And then in the mid-20th century, Finland modernized very rapidly and in that process also adopted modernist planning principles very thoroughly … Rapid urbanization began and we built our cities with modernist model of separating land uses, etc. At the same time a lot of the little older urban fabric was destroyed in urban renewal interventions.” Concern over sprawl in the earlier part of the 2000s led to a law that requires malls to be built close to existing population centers, “but the concept of the mall has never really been questioned,” he says.

Neighboring Sweden, in contrast, has a comparable climate but builds on a stronger urban tradition, says Hämäläinen, and the central shopping district in Stockholm includes a long pedestrian street, Drottninggatan, while Helsinki’s shopping district consists of a cluster of indoor malls.

Future generations, Hämäläinen writes, will wonder “what on earth were they thinking” when they contemplate the legacy of Finnish malls built in the early 21st century – a time when the negative effects of “mallification” on cities are well known, including “the privatization of the market place, the loss of independent neighborhood stores, and the obvious linkages to car-dependent urban planning ideals.” He compares the “cozy liveliness” of the streets in the Dutch city of Utrecht with the sterile, gloomy new Kaari shopping center in Helsinki.

While Hämäläinen acknowledges that the Finns are unlikely to abandon indoor shopping anytime soon – he says it would be “utopia” to call for that – he thinks that the nation’s urban planners could harness the expertise of mall designers for their own uses:

My message for urban planners, urban designers and mall designers all around Finland is (as well as in other countries struggling with similar issues): please unite. The professionals who design shopping malls demonstrably have enormous know-how in designing attractive walkable environments which subtly lead people into places, make them want to pop into stores and generally just linger around. This is something we haven’t really been able to create in our urban environments during recent decades.

In my imagination this encounter of trades just might lead to places like downtown Utrecht. It most definitely is worth a try. There’s nothing to lose.

That in itself might be a “utopian” hope. But as Hämäläinen says, there really is nothing to lose.

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