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Human chain protests proposed zoning changes to Helsinki’s Central Park

Plans to change city plans in Helsinki’s Central Park in order to convert parts of the park into new housing have riled local residents and Green politicians. Despite active lobbying and protests, city planners appear to be standing their ground. The Helsinki City Council is scheduled to consider the master plan draft in October 2016.

Ihmisketju Keskuspuistossa.
Image: Toivo Koivisto

Protesters formed a human chain that extended from the Helsinki districts of Laakso to Pirkkola this week to show their opposition to Helsinki’s plans to open up parts of the Central Park (Keskuspuisto) for development.

The latest proposal from Helsinki’s city planners proposes removing anywhere from 40 to 50 hectares from the park’s current footprint to free up land for new housing and commercial property. 

Active lobbying from the city’s Greens political party have cut the total number of hectares to be cut from the park down somewhat, but even within the party, the city’s latest draft of the master plan has proven controversial. 

The new master plan proposed by the City Planning Board of Helsinki would extract 4-5 percent of the park’s area for the development of housing and commercial property. This part of the plan coincides with the city’s plans to turn the Hämeenlinna motorway into a city boulevard, and further extend the network of rail transport.

The western borders of the park would be most affected, as areas deemed to already suffer from nearby ramps and noise have been reserved for new construction.

In observance of Nature Day, people gathered in Helsinki’s Central Park on Saturday to form a human chain that extended from the Laakso district to Pirkkola. The protest’s arrangers estimate that about 1,000 people took part in the demonstration.

Greens are divided

Helsinki’s Greens have negotiated to save 16 hectares of the park already, but the city’s plans have caused division within the party as well.

Of the 85 permanent members on Helsinki’s City Council, the Greens hold 19 seats, making it the second-largest party on the council, behind only the centre-right National Coalition Party with 21 seats.

“As a rule, we support the master plan, but we’re hardly of one opinion on the matter. People have all sorts of different views of the issue. Some council members do not accept it at all. The Greens have received a lot of praise for successfully trimming down the number of hectares they plan to excise,” says veteran Greens Party member and City Councillor Osmo Soinninvaara.

Green MP and City Councillor Jukka Relander welcomes the idea of development along the Hämeenlinna motorway and Ring I. 

“Office buildings would block out the noise. I believe the bigger problem is the area between the streets of Pirkkolantie and Metsäläntie, which is currently home to the Haaga brook and a population of wild trout. The brook would not be able to handle residencies nearby,” Relander said.

Greens member Leo Stranius is the executive director of Finland’s Nature Association and also a City Council member. He accepts no cuts to the city’s largest and most popular park.

“My position is that there should be no development or downsizing of the Central Park. Without the contribution of the Greens, things would look even more bleak and regrettable, but the Greens alone can’t decide. This is a democracy,” Stranius said.

Not likely draft will be altered

Leo Stranius said that there is not a need for as much building reserve as is presented in the master plan draft. He would like to see more infill development in existing industrial areas. The need for more commercial property should also be re-evaluated, he says, as more and more companies are moving towards multipurpose facilities these days.

Stranius holds out hope that the city planners will make changes to their draft before all is said and done.

“Of course, the chances that this will happen are diminishing all the time. But, thanks to a group of active citizens, the issue has gained the attention of prominent decision-makers and become part of the public debate. All of this creates pressure,” he said.

Stranius believes that a new round of negotiations is possible, but Soinninvaara is quite certain that that time has passed. 

“The draft of the master plan has already been considered by all of the council groups, which means that the only thing left is for the City Council to either approve or reject it. As far as we are concerned then, the fight is now over,” Soinninvaara said.

The plan will come before the Helsinki City Council in October of this year.

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