Helsinki adapts to climate change

As Helsinki starts to implement a detailed action plan to render the city carbon neutral by 2035, the city draws up other plans to prepare for changes in the climate ahead.

The Helsinki district of Kuninkaantammi provides a glimpse into the future of the city. The district is a pilot area for climate-smart development.

Smart and green living in Kuninkaantammi

Colourful apartment buildings and townhouses line curving streets that form spirals of housing, some completed and more still under construction. The buildings are marked and separated from each other by conspicuous volumes of green. The courtyards have rain gardens, some with stony brooks that can turn into rapids when it rains. Grass and shrubs grow at ponds that the brooks drain into. Much of the yard area is not paved.

All low-rise buildings have green roofs, and some of the walls of higher-rise buildings are green walls. Street lanes will be divided or lined by rows of trees growing at green hollows.

The housing ends in a park, which could occasionally be flooded with runoff from the brooks and ponds in the housing area to form a small lake.

The green and water elements are distinguishing markers of the Kuninkaantammi (“king’s oak”) residential area under construction in northern Helsinki, bordering on Vantaa. The elements help to make the area climate resilient, meaning that the area can absorb the impact of changes in the climate. The water elements are parts of an intricate system to manage stormwater – that is, surface water resulting from heavy rainfall that could cause flooding and related damage.

Helsinki city planner Suvi Tyynilä (photo by Pertti Nisonen)

Helsinki city planner Suvi Tyynilä. (Photo by Pertti Nisonen)

“When we have to solve some challenge, let’s make the most of it,” says Helsinki city planner and the principal planner of Kuninkaantammi, Suvi Tyynilä, explaining Kuninkaantammi’s planning principles.

“Our planning goals with Kuninkaantammi were to make the area fun to live in, communal and climate smart,” Tyynilä says. “Our means to achieve these goals serve a double role, creating synergy: the solutions to prevent urban flooding create a nature-themed and pleasant living environment.”

The Kuninkaantammi rain gardens and park can hold stormwater until it can be absorbed by vegetation and into the soil or run off into the nearby Vantaa River.

The green roofs also hold and absorb water, and they help to keep buildings cool during hot weather. Green walls and other vegetation do the same.

“Kuninkaantammi was a pilot area for a ‘green factor tool’,” Tyynilä explains further. “This is a new city planning tool for architects and landscape designers to ensure that there are enough green elements at properties for climate resilience,” Tyynilä explains.

A lot more weather in the forecast

“Cities are built with the future in mind, and any area now under construction should serve us for some 100 years,” Tyynilä asserts, underscoring the challenge of city planning and development. She reminds us, “The climate has already changed and will be changing further.”

Climate specialists seek to answer the question how the climate will be changing.

“While we can’t pinpoint any single phenomenon definitely caused by climate change, we can foresee trends,” says Helsinki climate specialist Susanna Kankaanpää.

“First, predictability with the climate will decrease, so we’ll be less able to anticipate the climate. We’re likely to face more extreme weather events,” Kankaanpää explains.

She lists likely climate scenarios: Winters will become shorter, and wintertime precipitation will be more in the form of rain rather than snow. Slipperiness could increase. Spring will come earlier. There will be more cloudy days in winter, more rain overall and heavy rainfalls. There will be more hot weather and dry spells. Insect pests and invasive species will be more prevalent.

“The changes in our living environment due to climate change can have a multitude of effects on our lifestyles, health and wellbeing,” Kankaanpää says.

Prepared for changes in the climate

The stormwater and green solutions of Kuninkaantammi, to be repeated in other new areas of Helsinki, are some of many plans and programmes drawn up by the City of Helsinki throughout the organization to prepare for climate change.

Helsinki climate specialist Jari Viinanen explains that climate preparedness has been on Helsinki’s agenda for well over 10 years, ever since greats floods in the city in 2005, which prompted the City to produce a flood preparedness and response strategy.

As the secretary of a Helsinki climate-adaptation working group, Viinanen has overseen a process to compile climate adaptation guidelines in the City of Helsinki organization not covered by earlier plans and programmes. The guidelines constitute a strategic plan envisioned to enable Helsinki to adapt to climate change. They help Helsinki to reduce the adverse impacts of climate change on the city and on people’s everyday lives.

While the new plan lists foreseeable consequences of climate change in the city and how to manage them, it does not stop with adverse impacts. The plan also lists ways in which Helsinki could benefit by turning challenges into opportunities.

Viinanen points out that Helsinki’s strategic goal is to become the most functional city in the world. “This could also apply to climate adaptation,” he affirms.

Helsinki climate adaptation guidelines (in Finnish only) were approved by the Helsinki City Board in May 2019.

Caption: Kuninkaantammi. (Photo by Susa Junnola)

Text: Johanna Lemola