Helsinki 2050 - diverse and tolerant or isolated and segregated?

Anonyymejä ihmisiä kadulla.
Image: Nella Nuora / Yle

City leaders like deputy mayor Pekka Sauri are thinking big when they picture Helsinki in the year 2050. They see an outward-looking, liberal and diverse city that is more open than ever to the wider world. However some experts say that Helsinki will face major challenges dealing with a more heterogeneous and geographically open capital region - and municipal officials will have to ensure that new arrivals to the city don't end up in segregated neighbourhoods.

What do municipal leaders see when they picture Helsinki in the year 2050? According to deputy mayor Pekka Sauri, the population will be bigger, rising from just under 900,000 today to 1.5 million. And the city will be much more diverse than it is today.

"In the year 2050 about 30 percent of the population of Helsinki will speak languages other than Finnish and Swedish. Primarily Russian, Estonian, English, as well as languages from Africa, China and the Middle East," Sauri said.

Although he acknowledges that integrating newcomers into the country requires additional resources and new strategies, Sauri said that he doesn't foresee any social problems arising from the city’s increased non-Finnish population.

"I am confident that Finland and Helsinki, which have the most highly educated citizens on the planet, are quite prepared to do that," the deputy mayor told Yle News.

However last year Helsinki University lecturer and researcher Johannes Kananen sounded a warning, noting that urban research in Finland had shown a growing trend toward residential segregation in the capital. Kananen noted that socio-economic segregation meant that eastern and northern parts of Helsinki tended to feature the greatest diversity, and at the same time were socio-economically worse off than other areas.

Efforts needed to prevent inequality, ghettoisation

Helsinki University assistant professor of sociology Lena Näre agrees with Sauri’s projections for a more diverse Helsinki than today’s city. However she doesn’t share his seemingly boundless optimism that Finns have all the answers to deal with the many social challenges that immigration may bring. Näre said that city leaders will have to be vigilant to ensure that different forms of inequality don’t arise.

"Providing options for social mobility for everyone, preventing segregation, preventing developments where we have neighbourhoods where people are poor. Research has proven that mixed housing policy is the best way to prevent that and ensure a more equal way forward," Näre suggested.

The sociologist and researcher also said that would require Finns to re-think and possibly broaden their concept of Finnishness.

"The language requirements cannot be as high as they are at the moment. We need to understand that Finnish can be spoken with very different accents. We need to think of our institutions in a way that they don’t take homogeneous Finnishness as the starting point," Näre added.

The sociologist noted that Helsinki isn't a stranger to diversity - she pointed out that in 1870, 17 percent of the capital spoke foreign languages - more than today's estimated 11 percent.

Housing still a distant dream for the homeless

Näre’s view stresses the importance of housing policy to prevent inequalities between native Finns and Helsinki residents with immigrant backgrounds in 2050. Sanna Tiivola, executive director of the NGO No Fixed Abode, also said that housing policy is the key to tackling Helsinki’s inevitable homeless problem in 2050.

Nainen nukkuu sohvalla Mustassa Lampaassa.
Sanna Tiivola of the NGO No Fixed Abode says decision-makers will have to come up with innovative ideas to keep homelessness in check. Image: Petri Aaltonen / Yle

She pointed out that the metropolitan population has been growing since 1952 – her current projections also put the population in 2050 at around 1.5 million.  Tiivola said that the homeless problem has been expanding along with the region’s headcount, although it remains relatively low by European standards. Since the addition of new housing stock has not kept pace with population growth over the years, the situation is hardly likely to be any different in 2050, she said.

In 2015 official data put the number of homeless in Finland at 7,000, down from a peak of nearly 20,000 in 1987. Half of the country's indigent people reside in the capital area and a growing number are immigrants. Generally city officials and NGOs can only provide assistance to destitute people who are registered in the capital region.

"We need a strategy and money for government programmes, good attempts are ongoing to resolve the problem but homeless people need to be more involved in working groups, and contribute their needs, take that into account and see what happens," Tiivola said.

Climate pressures on migration

Traditional internal migration from within Finland to the metropolitan area as well as external cross-border migration are not the only factors that could influence population growth in Helsinki. According to meteorologist Pauli Jokinen, if world leaders don’t get their act together to rein in rising global temperatures and resulting climate change, by 2050 Helsinki could see the arrival of climate refugees.

"People are concerned about climate refugees, where masses of people have to move because their own living conditions are so bad – so hot or so dry that they have to move," Jokinen speculated.

Tulva on katkaissut tien.
Extreme weather could push people to relocate, says meteorologist Pauli Jokinen. Image: Antti Pylväs / Yle

"So Finland and Helsinki might be a very good choice because living conditions might still be good, it’s not too hot during the summer, it’s not too dry, so people might flock to cities like Helsinki."

Jokinen, who works with the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI), said that one of the immediate outcomes of climate change that will affect Helsinki as well as other parts of the world is rising sea levels. He noted that although this is currently being factored into zoning decisions in Helsinki, it will have to be balanced with the pressure to build waterfront properties.

Darker winters and warmer summers

If climate change continues at its present rate, Jokinen said, Helsinki residents can expect to see changes in local weather.

"During the winter months we do expect to see, especially in Helsinki, less snow because of the rising temperatures, and in addition to the increased cloudiness it means that the winters will be darker because there’s just not much sunlight and there’s no snow to actually reflect light."

Jokinen added that given the rising summer temperatures recorded in recent years, Finns – and Helsinki residents – can also expect warmer temperatures, with record highs occurring more frequently – once every 10 or 15 years instead of once every 60 years.

According to Sauri, the kernel of his vision for Helsinki involves a rail tunnel between Helsinki and Tallinn, which would connect Finland to the Baltic countries and central Europe via the EU’s nearly 1,000 kilometre-long Rail Baltica high speed train connection.

The deputy mayor said that without this lifeline, Helsinki will remain an island, largely isolated from continental Europe. It's a development that's also likely to tempt more newcomers to travel -- and possibly settle - in the north.

How well city leaders prepare for this unprecedented level of exposure will determine whether Helsinki in 2050 is a more diverse and tolerant place to live, or more isolated and segregated than city officials can now imagine.