Helsinki from air.

A functional city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic

A World Bank Blog by Sameh Wahba and Jan Vapaavuori.

Simultaneously a health crisis, social crisis, and economic crisis, COVID-19 is laying bare how well cities are planned and managed. Its impact is showing the extent to which each city is able to function – or not – especially during times of crisis. 

A functional city means that governance and service delivery systems work seamlessly, effectively and simultaneously along a range of dimensions – it is a city that delivers high-quality public services for all people, in both rich and poor neighborhoods; that works hard to create economic opportunities for residents and businesses; that prioritizes community participation and inclusion for all, and that makes policies and decisions that create a stimulating and enjoyable life for its residents.

Helsinki’s management approach is based on grounding every city decision on functionality, safety and openness. This approach results in a high level of trust between citizens and the local government, which in turn facilitates the city leadership’s ability to operate more effectively in a time of crisis.

Helsinki’s functional city approach combines three pillars, all of which are proving critical to the city’s efforts to tackle the COVID-19 crisis. The first pillar is a smart city, in which digital technology and innovation are the foundation of efficient service delivery. The second is an inclusive city, in which community participation is at the center of policymaking, the design and delivery of public services, and the prioritization of budgets and investments. The third is a sustainable city, set on a course to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035 while strengthening energy security, enhancing mobility and improving the quality of life.

How has Helsinki’s functionality performed during the COVID-19 pandemic?

In Finland, the implementation of most restrictive measures and the day-to-day management of the crisis situation is the responsibility of cities. Helsinki has been especially proactive in managing its response to the pandemic and has drawn on its local and international networks for city-to-city collaboration.

To contain the spread of the epidemic, schools have been closed since March 18, although pre-schools and grades 1-3 were allowed to remain open to allow critical personnel to work. To maintain the quality of its school system, the city leveraged its impressive digital technology platforms to create digital classrooms for students.

The city has been especially attentive to its vulnerable population, especially the elderly who are at risk from potential viral exposure and also at risk of social isolation. Teaming up with NGOs and the church, the city ensured that each and every one of its elderly residents above 70 years of age may get personalized services, including support in their shopping for food or pharmacy needs.

Overall, the city’s efforts – facilitated by its functional city pillars – are having results in terms of curbing the number of infected, maintaining a good level of health care facilities and personnel that has thus far been able to cope with surges in infections, sustaining the delivery of quality public services despite the evolving situation, and keeping up good communication channels with residents and a cohesive public spirit as people respond positively to restrictions. The effective delivery of measures has been supported by the trust-based relationship between local government and citizens that allows the administration to act efficiently.

City Hall maintains a special Operations Group that collects data through various digital technology platforms and runs scenario analysis to inform decision-making. The Mayor leads a special Coordination Group that has met daily since March 1 to monitor progress of the crisis management systems, prepare for recovery and take timely decisions. There is streaming of the Mayor’s information sessions to citizens and staff. The city has also transferred civil servant staff from non-critical to critical functions. This has been one way to keep the social and health services high-functioning throughout the crisis.

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Coronavirus updates from Helsinki

Photo: City of Helsinki