Charles Landry. Photo: Annamari Tolonen.

Urban Academy strengthened by international experts

If you only see sad faces on the street, what’s your impression of the city? The city is as sad as its citizens, says Charles Landry, a British urban development expert. He believes that Helsinki should look urban development and decision-making through a psychologist’s lens.

Landry has a long international career in urban development and has published several books on the theme. He is a member of the Urban Academy network’s international advisory group, who first met in Helsinki in mid-February. Urban Academy is a network of the University of Helsinki, Aalto University and the City of Helsinki, tasked to promote interaction among urban planning, development and research.

“I come from outside the academia and cities, so I can present provocative ideas in a positive way, and I can inspire people to think in new ways. For example, I now want to emphasize urban psychology. I can also present good examples from around the world, because I have worked with several cities,” Landry says describing his role in the advisory group.

Cities possess a great deal of hidden expertise

The goal of Urban Academy is to develop solutions to the challenges of urban development, the appeal of cities and the competitiveness of cities. An important part of the collaboration is a multidisciplinary and jointly organized programme for students of University of Helsinki and Aalto University.

“Urban Academy brings together academic research, students, city decision-makers, city planners, civil servants and residents to learn from each other through case studies and problem solving. Thus we can create a better city for all,” says City of Helsinki Economic Development Director Marja-Leena Rinkineva, who chairs the Urban Academy steering group. Urban Academy’s strength is its multidisciplinary nature and inspiration to look at things from novel perspectives.

“Because we have here a new type of collaboration, and we want to set ambitious goals to the impact of the collaboration, we have wanted to put together an advisory group consisting of top names in urban research,” Rinkineva comments. The advisory group gives Helsinki an international perspective to urban research and development, and it opens opportunities for international cooperation. In addition to Landry, the group includes other experienced experts, such as the Copenhagen city architect Tina Saaby and Mike Batty, an award-winning professor from London. According to Landry, the Netherlands has produced good networks combining art and science, education, administration and business. He says that utilization of expertise outside the academia and city organizations is vital for Urban Academy.

“There are many different kinds of actors with ideas and things to offer to urban development. For example, startups can have workable solutions to technological problems,” Landry says.

The future of cities: Where does Helsinki stand?

According to Landry, climate change, the aging population and the co-existence of diverse communities constitute major challenges, which impact cities worldwide. Apart from these, Helsinki has its own special challenges to solve.

“In Helsinki, young people are estranged from decision-making. It’ll be a major challenge to make young people committed to the city, as they will ultimately have the ownership of it.”

According to Landry, Helsinki now needs international experts in order to better operate on the international scene. To attract international talent, it’s important what kind of impression Helsinki creates and how the city is seen and experienced – important aspects of Landry’s urban psychology.

“One challenge is to fight faulty impressions of a cold, grey and dull city. Helsinki has been very successful in doing that.”

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Text and photos: Annamari Tolonen