Arabianranta, Mervi Illomen and Klaus Kunzmann


Mervi Illomen and Klaus kunzmann descibe creative urban regeneration in Finland

Urban regeneration through projects related to culture and creative industries have become a popular activity in industrial cities, where technological change has left an abundance of brown field sites. Arabianranta in Helsinki is an urban regeneration project which demonstrates that culture and creativity are more than just urban window dressing. The Arabianranta district is one of several major new development sites in the city where, technical, social and design innovations have been combined to regenerate the former production site of Arabia, the glassware, ceramics and home appliances factory, into an attractive twenty-first century creative neighbourhood.

The project has received much national and international acclaim as it combines local assets and spirit with thoughtful urban design, using culture as a catalyst for regenerating a derelict industrial site and creating a future-oriented urban district.

Procurement and development

The City of Helsinki owns 64 per cent of its municipal land area, and the public sector typically gives municipal land to private developers as well as providing infrastructure and municipal services. In Arabianranta the City owned almost all of the land allocated for new housing development. As much as 40 per cent of the residential units will be for rent, and all of the waterfront sites are allocated for cost-quality controlled housing. Helsinki has a housing policy of mixing municipal housing and owner-occupied units in new developments areas. The cost-quality control means that the developer cannot, for example, increase apartment prices without increasing the quality of construction. Private sector involvement takes place through partnerships, such as Art and Design City Helsinki Ltd (ADC Ltd), which is responsible for implementing the vision and goals in co-operation with the City of Helsinki and other area owners. By 2010, Arabianranta will be a community of 10,000 residents, 8,000 jobs and 6,000 students. The City Real Estate Department has issued all of the development sites in Arabianranta to private contractors through open site competitions and developers therefore accept the conditions that the City sets within the briefs.

The process and the outcome of regenerating the site are therefore quite different from conventional American, western and central European approaches, following traditional Nordic values, and relying on the spirit - genius loci - of the location. The project as a whole reflects the planning and urban development goals of the City of Helsinki, rather than the philosophy of grand projects elsewhere in Europe - to please tourists and urban consumers.

Furthermore, contrary to many other European cultural regeneration projects where regulation is seen as an obstacle to creativity, Arabianranta is the product of planning regulation. By enforcing innovative planning guidelines, it has been possible to establish arts projects, as well as a local information and communication network; this has been installed throughout the site, giving universal access to high-speed communication and the provision of local e-services to workers, residents and visitors, as well as innovative housing in terms of ecological principles, urban design and tenure.

The local ICT infrastructure mean that each new housing unit is connected free of extra charge to a local area broadband network. The backbone of the local ICT solution is a fibre optic cable, constructed by the Helsinki Energy company together with the City Council, and is super-fast at 1 Gbps. There is also an EU ‘Innovative Cities for the Next Generation' (ICING) project to promote citizens' use of technologies.

Arabianranta reflects the long tradition of Nordic regulative planning where the main aim is to build homogeneous and socially balanced urban areas. The outcome is a result of cooperation, but also coincidences and contradictions between different municipal, governmental and private actors.

Arts and Culture

Yet, it is not coincidental however that arts and culture has proved to be the most captivating part of the project both locally and internationally. Although not originally the main focus when planning the area, the arts have proved to be the most dynamic partner of the project, drawing in artists locally and worldwide.

Art and Design City Helsinki Ltd was founded to promote this vision in 1995 as part of the regeneration of the area with the creation of a major national campus for art, design and media schools, and currently 300 small and medium size enterprises in these fields. In addition, one to two per cent of the acquisition cost of the plots have to be invested in artworks, located in the common yards and doorways, using artistic building materials and environmental art. This principle also includes street works and the development of green zones, with an artistic co-ordinator working with contractors, architects and artists.

In addition to the new housing development, Arabianranta hosts:

  • University of Art and Design Helsinki contributing to the economic, cultural and social vitality of Finland through innovation and excellence in art, media, design and technology;
  • The Helsinki Pop & Jazz Conservatory, Finland's only music institution specialising in pop, rock, and jazz music; and
  • The Arabia Primary school, designed for 18 basic education groups and three special education groups, altogether for about 560 students. The curriculum has special emphasis on arts and crafts, as well as environment and natural sciences.

Arabianranta is being developed into a ‘Living Lab', which means combining the everyday needs and experiences of the people who live, work and study in Arabianranta with research, product and service innovation and development, taking place in the educational institutions and companies in the area.

As a result, Arabianranta has become part of the international discussion re-imagining and rebuilding the European industrial city through culture. It is currently one of the few examples in Europe where a university of the arts and design has been a catalyst and symbol of the innovative refurbishment and expansion of an urban quarter. It demonstrates that municipal organisations, the arts and businesses can join forces to develop a new urban competitive economy.

Preserving Cultural Identity

Globalisation and today's fashionable trend of branding and flagship projects (built by global architectural icons) have led to the loss of local identity. Yet, European cities are much more complex than simple Koolhaas-inspired modernist urban environments, where each building follows its own logic and ambition, or shopping malls hidden in Gothic or Baroque simulacra. By the time that the redundant railway yards of each city in Europe have been transformed into a Shanghai Xintiandi-style entertainment districts, and topped off by yet another version of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the ‘European city' will have vanished.

Arabianranta is a pertinent example of how the European city can be modernised while maintaining its local character. It is possible for the European city to have a future in a globalised world dominated by mega-cities, if it is envisioned by reading the past and respecting strong local traditions. In this respect Arabianranta shows the way forward.

Mervi Ilmonen is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies, Helsinki University of Technology (HUT); 
Klaus Kunzmann is Professor for Spatial Planning in Europe, School of Planning, University of Dortmund


1 Ilmonen, Mervi et al. (2000): Peace and Carnivals. Housing preferences of ICT and Design professionals in Helsinki Metropoltan Region. Otaniemi. Helsinki University of Technology. Centre for Urban and Regional Studies B 23.
2 Ilmonen, Mervi & Klaus Kunzmann. (2007). ‘Culture, Creativity and Urban Regeneration'. In: Arabianranta. Rethinking Urban Living. Helsingin City of Urban Facts. Jonna Kangasoja & Harry Schulman (eds) .
3 Kunzmann, Klaus (2004): ‘Culture, Creativity and Spatial Planning'. Town Planning Review, vol. 75, no 4, 383-404.