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Between naturalness and urbanity, how are protected areas integrated into cities? The case of Helsinki (Finland)

Camille Girault


Helsinki boasts numerous protected nature areas with a variety of statuses and objectives, including 52 nature reserves within the metropolitan area and two national parks just outside the city. Given this abundance of protected sites, Helsinki is an excellent example through which to examine nature-conservation policies in the socio-economic and environmental context of northern Europe. How strongly and how directly are these sites integrated into the city’s fabric? The situation in Finland’s capital shows that protection can become a factor in metropolization and that, in some cases, protected areas can be considered components of urbanity. This paper investigates the relationship between urbanity and naturalness by examining how protected areas are used, portrayed and construed. Urban policies and processes, the rhythms of city life and city dwellers’ habits and imaginations shape urban protected areas to such an extent that the urbanity of a city and the naturalness of its protected areas become inseparable. Hence, the “natural” character of these sites combines with their “urban” location in relationships that are usually complex and sometimes paradoxical. More generally, the situation in Helsinki highlights the important roles nature areas can play in shaping a city’s identity and in the process of metropolization.

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1Studies of urban protected nature areas can provide insights into society’s relations with its environment, the relationship between the “complex and multidimensional spatial object” that is a city (Lussault 2000) and the nebulous concept referred to as nature (Whitehead and Douchement 1957, Berque 1997, Renard 2012). Given the commonly held conception of nature and urbanity as diametric opposites, investigating nature in cities would appear to be both problematic and meaningless. However, by considering the physical and conceptual interconnections between the two concepts, it is possible to go beyond this over-simplistic and sterile dualism and envisage a more nuanced reflection on the character of urbanity and the essence of nature (Latour 1999, Descola 2005, Head et al. 2016). This is the path followed by urban ecologists, many of who now view the relationship between naturalness and urbanity as quasi-symbiotic (Niemelä 1999, Forman 2014).

2Before presenting an analysis of Helsinki’s protected areas by a geographer approach (Warf and Arias 2009) and not an ecological perspective, it is worthwhile defining some of the terms used. Adopting a functional view of the city, as opposed to a morphological view, the Helsinki referred to here extends beyond municipal boundaries to encompass the entire urban region, which, in turn, is defined with respect to the co-presence of greater otherness, density and diversity than elsewhere, rather than in terms of urbanization and building density (Lévy 2003). This functional definition of a city raises the notion of urbanity, that is, “the truly urban character of an area” (Lussault 2013), the “nature of urban space” (Acebillo et al. 2013), which depends on criteria such as an urban area’s compactness, accessibility, polarity, socio-cultural diversity and transportation network. Although this conception of the city has its critics, it provides a stimulating perspective from which to examine northern European societies, including those which, in some respects, have low levels of urbanity but a strong tradition regarding political ecologies (Benjaminsen and Robbins 2015). The first hypotheses examined in this research relate to the urbanity of protected areas. Can protected areas exhibit certain forms of urbanity and can they be considered components of a city’s overall urbanity? In other words, does Calenge’s (2000) conclusion that parks should be considered “urban forms of nature” and “figures of urbanity” also apply to some protected areas?

3The term “protected area” is sometimes confounded with park, nature area and green area. Without going in to the differences between these concepts, for the purposes of the present investigation of the links between protected areas and urban areas, a protected area can be defined as a precisely delineated area subject to specific legislation aimed primarily at protecting the environment, although this objective may be associated with other goals (Depraz 2008, Laslaz 2012). To obtain protection, nature reserves, national parks and other protected areas must have a specific environmental value worthy of protection, but this does not preclude them from also having social and, in some cases, economic value. Hence, the nature that is protected by conservation policies is a social construct and nature cannot be considered incompatible with society (Moscovici 1977). According to ecologists and biologists, “the idea of nature conservation is [first] to modify land-use practices that exploit natural resources and cause loss of species and ecosystem richness” (Paloniemi and Vilja 2009). However, a geographical and social science approach postulates that conservation policies are “a product of post-Enlightenment modernity” and a “conceptual and ideological background” (Haila 2012) which influences spaces and spatialities beyond the simple perimeters of protected areas. In addition, protected areas are never presumed to be inviolate and untouched by humankind. Rather, they are human productions arising from choices and representations that are, in part, manifested by non-humans in the biophysical world. It is for convenience that they are referred to as nature areas. And, just as urbanity defines the urban space, nature defines the protected area. If one accepts the fundamental compatibility between cities and nature, it is by no means incongruous to establish protected areas within urban areas. Hence, urbanity can incorporate naturalness and naturalness can incorporate urbanity.

4Nevertheless, the geographer wishing to avoid any suggestion of determinism would never automatically label a protected area an “urban protected area” just because it is in an urban space. Thus, the second hypothesis investigated here is that spatial proximity between an urban hub and a protected area is not enough to make a protected area urban. When attempting to determine whether a nature area can be qualified as “urban”, it is better to consider different forms of urbanity and how an area is integrated into the urban, or even the metropolitan, fabric. For example, the Nuuksio and Sipoonkorpi National Parks, to the northwest and northeast of Helsinki, can be considered urban protected areas due to the way they are used, the planning policies applied to them and the representations associated with them.

5This reasoning suggests another hypothesis: nature conservation can be a factor in metropolization because it contributes to a “process of concentrating value within and around the largest cities” (Ascher 2003). In fact, the environmental, social and, in some cases, economic values incarnated by protected areas contribute to the development of city-regions. As the process of forming an administrative and institutional capital region around the city of Helsinki is still in its infancy, the Finnish government may have seen the creation of national parks in neighboring municipalities as a way of putting pressure on local councils to create a metropolitan authority.

6To conduct this research, several qualitative methods have been invested and crossed. The following reflection is based on observations in situ, interviews with different political actors (in particular in the planning and environmental departments of Helsinki) and associations. They are supplemented by the study of urban planning documents, the analysis of institutional communication media and the review of environmental policies at different scales. The analysis of these different materials and the articulation of these methods make it possible to cross the sources and adopt a critical posture with regard to the object of research. The aim is not to assess biologically the relevance and usefulness of protected areas in relation to urban biodiversity, but rather to consider the social realities and the discourses that revolve around them.

7Hence, the present paper uses the example of Helsinki to examine the degree to which protected areas are integrated into a city’s urban fabric and the ability of conservation policies to contribute to the metropolization process. It also represents an initial step in developing an approach for deciphering the relations between urbanity and naturalness and the creation of a “naturbanity” (Landy and Laslaz 2012).

The workings of Helsinki’s protected areas in the light of national and European environmental policies and the dynamics of urban development

8Both Finland in general and Helsinki in particular provide numerous examples that dispel certain misconceptions about protected areas and that can be used to study the whys and hows of nature conservation in a northern European socio-cultural context (Törn et al. 2008, Paloniemi and Vilja 2009, Niemelä et al. 2010, Venn et al. 2015). Given its numerous advantages, ranging from favorable national legislation to a low population density, Helsinki could be expected to be a model of urban nature conservation. However, detailed examination of the picture shows that the model remains imperfect.

Nature conservation policies in Finland

9Protected sites cover only about 9% of Finland’s land area (Metsähallitus 2015), a figure that is much lower than the European average of 21% (EEA 2012). However, because nature conservation measures were introduced relatively early and are quite strict, Finland, alongside other northern European countries, is widely thought of as a model of environmental protection (Laslaz 2012). Today, Finland’s network of protected areas is centred round 39 national parks and 19 strict nature reserves, complemented by several other types of protected area (Figure 1), including private nature reserves, wilderness reserves, and areas set aside to protect specific ecosystems such as peat bogs, wetlands with rich birdlife, coastlines and ancient forests (Metsähallitus 2007, 2016). Natura 2000 areas, set up under the European Union’s Birds and Habitats Directives, tend to be superimposed upon these protected areas with the result that 97% of Finland’s Natura 2000 network is also subject to a national protection measure.

Figure 1 – Diversity and uneven distribution of protected areas in northern Europe.

Figure 1 – Diversity and uneven distribution of protected areas in northern Europe.

For reasons of clarity, Natura 2000 areas are not shown on this map.

10As in many other countries, Finland’s protected areas have both environmental and social objectives (Depraz 2008, Borgström 2009, Laslaz 2012) in that they are intended to conserve species and ecosystem diversity while contributing to people’s well-being by improving the living environment (Lehtonen et al. 2003, Tyrväinen et al. 2007). The objectives and modalities of Finland’s nature conservation measures are set out in three main pieces of legislation (Metsähallitus 2016). In 1973, Finland’s parliament passed a bill focusing on outdoor activities, which resulted in the creation of seven national hiking reserves with facilities to promote outdoor sports. This legislation can be seen as a reaffirmation of the traditional right of access to the countryside and demonstrates the societal value accorded to nature areas in Finland’s approach to nature conservation. Almost 20 years later, the 1991 Wilderness Act established twelve Wilderness Reserves in Lapland with the aim of maintaining the country’s vast northern expanses as a wilderness, conserving the culture of the Sami people and encouraging the varied and responsible use of nature. It was followed in 1996 by the Nature Conservation Act, drawn up to replace an act of 1923, which sets out the main principles underlying nature conservation in Finland. These are: maintaining biodiversity, preserving the aesthetic and landscape value of the natural environment, ensuring the sustainable use of natural resources, raising public awareness of nature and furthering scientific research. In addition, the 1996 Act also strengthened the protection accorded to the wilderness reserves set up under the Wilderness Act.

11Finland’s protected areas may be either publicly or privately owned. State-owned protected areas, whether national parks, nature reserves or other types of protected site, constitute 90% of Finland’s protected land and are managed by the Ministry for the Environment via a national agency called Metsähallitus. This state-owned enterprise is responsible for managing more than 12 million hectares of state-owned land; it manages in particular forests, both economically and ecologically, as well as protected sites and areas for conservative, recreational and tourist purposes. The remaining 10% of protected land is owned either by private individuals/bodies or by non-state public bodies, most frequently municipal councils. These so-called private reserves are often quite small (almost three-quarters cover less than 10 ha) but they are an important part of the national network, especially in the south of the country (Stolton et al., 2014). They are managed locally by one of the country’s 15 Centres for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment (ELY Centres). This ownership pattern is the reason for the patchwork character of some protected areas, whose boundaries are based on real estate divisions, rather than ecological criteria.

12In addition, the 1999 planning code added a new, hybrid form of protected area in the shape of urban national parks. Finland now has eight such parks (Hämeenlinna, Heinola, Pori, Hanko, Porvoo, Turku, Kotka, Forssa); however, their status is somewhat ambiguous as they are simultaneously nature conservation areas, marketing tools, planning instruments and neighbourhood improvement mechanisms. Inspired by the park set up in Stockholm in 1994, Finland’s urban national parks are a perfect illustration of the country’s tendency to borrow from the Swedish model, especially in terms of environmental policy (Andersen and Liefferink 1999). They also appear to be a way of shaping the dialogue between the Finnish government, which would like to limit urban sprawl and promote more sustainable forms of development, and the local authorities, whose priorities tend to be the economic and social development of the areas for which they are responsible (Schantz 2005). Nevertheless, neither Helsinki nor its neighbouring municipalities have set up any urban national parks or launched plans to create any, which raises questions about the measure’s true objectives. In some respects, it appears to be just a way for the national government to interfere in local policies. Viewed from this perspective, conservation policies can be effective instruments for urban development, especially in a country where urbanization has occurred relatively recently and rapidly.

Protected areas in a context of recent, rapid and sprawling urbanization

13Finland remained a predominantly rural society for much longer than most other European countries and its urbanization has been relatively recent and rapid. At the beginning of the 1970s, less than 50% of Finland’s population was categorized as urban; today that figure is 84.9% (Statistics Finland 2015). In comparison, more than 50% of the population of the United Kingdom was already classified as urban by the mid-19th century and in France, another country in which urbanization occurred relatively late, the population became mostly urban in the 1950s. In fact, major structural changes in Finnish society began in the 1950s, but the first population movements occurred within the countryside and the rural exodus did not begin until the late 1960s (Heikkilä and Järvinen 2002). These changes led to a 60% increase in the number of Finland’s towns and cities between 1950 and 2000, although most towns have populations of less than 50,000 and, even today, the country has only eight municipalities with more than 100,000 inhabitants. Three of these–Helsinki, Espoo and Vantaa–are the main municipalities in the capital region (Figure 3) and have a combined population of over 1 million (20% of Finland’s population). Tampere, with a population of just over 200,000, is five times smaller than the capital region. In addition, the Helsinki-Uusimaa region generates 37% of the country’s GDP and has become one of northern Europe’s most important skills and innovation centres. This concentration of demographic and economic resources provides an opportunity for investigating the metropolization process, that is, the “concentration of value within and around the largest cities” (Ascher 2003).

Figure 2 – A relatively recent urban transition in a context of sustained population growth and marked by the dominance of Helsinki.

Figure 2 – A relatively recent urban transition in a context of sustained population growth and marked by the dominance of Helsinki.

Sources: Statistics Finland and Helsinki-Uusimaa Regional Council
Drawn up by C. Girault, 2015

14Helsinki’s growth within this context appears to be characterized by urban sprawl–a corollary of metropolization–even if there is no official definition of what constitutes the metropolitan area. In fact, the process of creating a “Greater Helsinki” authority is still in its infancy, so the Helsinki capital region does not have a metropolitan council or any other form of coordinating administrative body (Kuokkanen 2016).

15Finland is the most sparsely populated country (18 inhabitants/km²) in the European Union (average population density = 116 inhabitants/km²), so it unsurprising that the population densities of both the municipality of Helsinki (2,832 inhabitants/km²) and the capital region (365 inhabitants/km²) should also be relatively low. Travellers landing at Vantaa airport get the impression that Helsinki is actually a vast forest dotted with islands of residential housing (Tyrväinen et al. 2007). This impression of space is confirmed by satellite images and land-use maps, and reflected in current planning documents (City of Helsinki, 1999, 2012a, 2012b, 2013), whose flexible nature is a legacy of the rapid, low-density urbanization that took place between the 1950s and 1970s. The paradigm shift away from sprawling cities to more compact and more sustainable development (Emelianoff 2007) has resulted in urban planners trying to densify this diffuse urban fabric.

16One of the objectives of Helsinki’s draft development plan (City of Helsinki, 2015) is to prepare the city for the forecast 25% growth (250,000 people) in its population by 2050. The city council would like to achieve this by developing new satellite centres in the Malmi, Itäkeskus, Herttoniemi and Kannelmäki districts, and by bringing together residential, business, commercial and leisure developments around existing transportation networks, especially the train and tram networks. The council’s stated aims are encapsulated in its slogan for the draft plan: “More people, less space for cars, a higher population density”. However, some people are questioning whether the city is truly committed to the plan’s stated objective of increasing housing densities in order to preserve most of the city’s unbuilt spaces: they see the plan’s large-scale grid (each square corresponds to one hectare of land) as a ploy to hide details, rather than a way of incorporating flexibility and adaptability.

17Hence, the objectives of Finland’s nature conservation policy can be interpreted in several different and sometimes conflicting ways. For example, it can be seen as proof that the public authorities have taken into account people’s concerns about the quality of the environment and recognized the contributions urban nature areas can make to sustainable development and well-being. However, it can also be considered a means of managing urban real estate, for example, by using conservation legislation to block certain development projects. When these projects are in cities, the density and diversity of the interests and issues involved may accentuate the different forms of environmental conflict that frequently arise around conservation projects (Budowski 1976, Hiedanpää 2002, Laslaz et al. 2014). Granting an area protected status can also have an effect–inadvertent or intentional, direct or indirect–on the price of real estate, thereby contributing to the gentrification of the surrounding area and working against the sustainable city’s aim of maintaining social diversity. Protected areas may also have contradictory effects on urban densification, another tenet of the sustainable city (Burgess 2000, Lévy 2010). On the one hand, they may help densify the urban fabric by concentrating building in areas that are not protected; on the other hand, they can provide de facto obstacles to urban development by discouraging construction in certain areas. In this respect, having a coherent environmental policy and a coherent network of nature areas, whether protected or not, is more important than the strength of the protection given to a specific area of the city.

18Almost 80% of the land within the municipality of Helsinki is directly managed by the public authorities, as 66% is owned by the city council and 13% is owned by the state, both of which have a great deal of latitude in terms of local development. In fact, the municipal council has a virtual monopoly over urban development (City of Helsinki 2012a, 2015) and the city’s urban planning department is responsible for managing all new development projects. Although this virtual monopoly should make it relatively easy to create and manage a coherent network of protected areas, this is not always the case, as there are tensions between the different council departments involved due to their differing views on how important it is to protect urban nature areas and on how planning documents should be interpreted.

The variable integration of protected areas in the Helsinki metropolis

19Finland has a wide variety of protected areas (Figure 1) with different with legal statuses and objectives. The different types of area are found throughout the country (Figure 3), even in Finland’s more urban regions, where they also differ in terms of their integration into the urban and/or metropolitan fabric. Some protected areas appear to occupy interstices in the urban fabric, whereas others are integral components of the urban space and may even contribute to the metropolization process (Leroy 2000, Krätke 2007, Girault 2016). The degree to which a protected area is integrated into the urban environment depends on its links with the urban fabric. These links may be strong and numerous, or they may be tenuous and rare; they may be tangible, or they may be intangible, that is, resulting from the uses, values and representations associated with an area. Given that metropolitan integration is based on “the strengthening of the links that unite the elements in a system” (Bret 2005), Helsinki’s protected areas are quite well integrated into the metropolitan fabric.

Sipoonkorpi and Nuuksio: nature areas with high added value for city dwellers

  • 1 Finland’s first national parks (Pallas-Ounastunturi and Pyhätunturi, in Finnish Lapland; the island (...)

20The Nuuksio and Sipoonkorpi National Parks were created in 1994 and 2011, respectively.1 Each park extends over three municipalities: Espoo, Kirkkonummi and Vihti in the case of Nuuksio National Park; Vantaa, Sipoo and Helsinki in the case of Sipoonkorpi National Park (Figure 3).

Figure 3 – Diversity of Helsinki’s protected areas

Figure 3 – Diversity of Helsinki’s protected areas

21Only a few hectares (74 ha out of 1857 ha) of Sipoonkorpi National Park lie within the municipality of Helsinki, in the Östersundom district, which Helsinki annexed from the municipalities of Vantaa and Sipoo in 2008 in order to facilitate a major urban development linked to the building of a new port at Vuosaari. Consequently, the creation of Sipoonkorpi National Park can be interpreted as compensation for the new urban developments, even though the only official compensatory measure was the extension of the Mustavuoren Natura 2000 site, which partly overlaps the Östersundom nature reserve (Figure 3). In reality, the creation of Sipoonkorpi National Park helped politicians reach a compromise with environmental groups regarding the new port and residential developments. Nevertheless, some stakeholders, including members of the Finnish Nature Conservation Association (Suomen luonnonsuojeluliitto), were disappointed that the park did not also cover this area of the coast. The reasons for setting up Sipoonkorpi National Park were, therefore, both environmental and social. The decree creating the park reiterated all the habit and wildlife protection measures included in the 1996 Nature Conservation Act, but it also highlighted, in its first paragraph, the need to preserve this natural environment for its social value as a place of leisure and tranquility. It is meant to be a place where people can relax and unwind far from the noise and pollution of the city.

22These protected areas also provide economic benefits, even if they are smaller than in Finland’s other national parks, where tourism is more important, and visitors stay longer. Although most of the visitors to Sipoonkorpi and Nuuksio National Parks are local people, they contributed around 100,000 euros (Sipoonkorpi National Park, 75,200 visitors) and 2.2 million euros (Nuuksio National Park, 285,200 visitors) to the areas’ economies in 2014 (Metsähallitus 2015). In addition, Metsähallitus found that park users estimate the wellness effects of a visit to the parks to be worth 208 euros, based on a study carried out in three national parks and one strict nature reserve (Vähäsarja, 2014). Another simple figure highlighted by Metsähallitus is the ratio one to ten: each euro of taxpayer’s money invested in national parks generates 10 euros for the Finnish economy, mostly through tourism. This very good return on investment encourages the government to develop the country’s network of parks. These financial considerations have resulted in the intensive marketing of Finland’s national parks, especially Nuuksio, where visitors are considered clients (Blinde 2009). For example, the Haltia - Finnish Nature Centre, at the entrance to Nuuksio National Park, which opened in May 2013, promotes “nature” through exhibitions and educational services, has a restaurant and is associated with a website that serves as a showcase for the park. Haltia is also presented as “the gateway to all of Finland’s national parks, treating visitors to the pleasures of nature through all five senses” (Metsähallitus website). Hence, conservation promotes the creation and concentration of environmental, social and economic value in and around a nature area.

23This desire to assess the economic value of the environmental and societal benefits provided by protected areas is indicative of the conception of nature underlying conservation policies. In fact, it shows that nature is protected more for its commercial value than for its intrinsic value: conservation measures are not based on moral and non-negotiable foundations; they are self-serving ways of extracting value, even if indirectly, from protected areas (Larrère and Larrère 2015). This example in Finland shows that viewing nature areas in this way is not a uniquely southern European phenomenon.

The Viikki and Laajalahti nature reserves, “everyday” protected areas

24The Viikki-Vanhankaupunginlahti and Laajalahti Bay nature reserves were both formed by a series of conservation measures. Viikki-Vanhankaupunginlahti, hereinafter referred to as the Viikki nature reserve and otherwise known as the “Old Town Bay”, is a large (316 ha) wetland area to the northeast of Helsinki city centre. It consists of a private reserve (two-thirds of the area) and a public reserve (the remaining third), a Natura 2000 Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the European “Birds” directive and an area that has been protected under the Ramsar convention since 1974. A similar assortment of measures protects Laajalahti Bay, an area of open waters and reed beds to the northwest of Helsinki city centre (figures 3 and 4). However, the following discussion focuses not on the overprotection generated by such superimposed measures (Girault and Laslaz 2015) but on the integration of these nature reserves into the urban fabric via the way they have been appropriated by local people (Lazzarotti 2006).

Figure 4 – The variable integration of protected areas into the urban fabric

Figure 4 – The variable integration of protected areas into the urban fabric

25In fact, both these nature reserves are popular with local people, who use them the same way they use the city’s other public spaces. They are places with meaning that bring together urbanity and naturalness. The Viikki nature reserve is usually associated with the eponymous eco-district (Figure 5), whose inhabitants use the reserve regularly for both physical activities and more contemplative pastimes, the way they would use a public park. For example, according to a senior member of the Tringa bird protection association in the Uusimaa region, up to 20% of Finnish people are thought to be regular bird watchers. Moreover, Viikki is renowned as a “paradise for birds in the centre of the city” because of the dozens of bird species that can be seen there – this expression is found in numerous documents and websites and it has become almost a generic description of the Viikki nature reserve. At Laajalahti Bay, the Villa Elfvik, an early-20th century Art Nouveau-style mansion, has been turned into a nature centre and gateway to the reserve. It is an ideal entry point for families and school groups, who can learn about the reserve’s fauna and flora through the brochures and activities on offer at the centre and then put this knowledge into practice as they follow the natural trail through the reserve.

26Activity at both these “everyday” nature reserves tends to follow the rhythm of urban life, with peak visitor periods in the evenings and at weekends, as at many other urban facilities such as stations and shops. The use of these areas is also highly seasonal, largely due to the harshness of the winter climate. In fact, the space available to visitors increases in winter, as large areas of the reserves’ open waters freeze over. Although summer water sports such as boating and swimming are banned during this period, the huge expanses of ice provide a magnificent playground for skiers and walkers. On the other hand, the short winter days mean visitors have less time in which to enjoy the reserves, even if some areas are floodlit at night (Figure 5).

Figure 5 – Viikki and Laajalahti: nature reserves and popular leisure areas

Figure 5 – Viikki and Laajalahti: nature reserves and popular leisure areas

Apartment blocks on the northeastern edge of Viikki Bay run along the edge of the nature reserve, whose trails are used by local people throughout the year. As at Laajalahti, Viikki’s bird watching towers are very popular and symbolize the coming together of city and nature. Residents from the eponymous eco-district, built recently to the west of the reserve, also make good use of the Viikki nature reserve.

27Both these protected areas are served by public transportation and are thereby functionally integrated into the urban fabric. The diversity of their visitors and the activities for which the reserves are used reflect the diversity of the city. Just as traffic flows on roads are managed according to the different forms of transportation, visitors to the reserves are encouraged to use different circuits for different activities in order to avoid conflicts between users. The renown and accessibility of the Viikki and Laajalahti nature reserves mean they now exist as both nature areas with urbanity and urban areas with naturalness.

Small nature reserves scattered across the metropolis with little ecological continuity

28In addition to the four protected areas discussed in the preceding sections, the municipality of Helsinki and the Helsinki region contain a multitude of other protected areas. Nevertheless, not all of them can be considered “urban protected areas”. Whereas the Nuuksio, Sipoonkorpi, Viikki and Laajalahti parks and reserves are well integrated into the urban and metropolitan space, the other protected areas are much more fragmented and can be considered “discontinuous areas forming an archipelago (Bret, 2005).

Table 1 – Helsinki’s numerous but small nature reserves.

Types of nature reserves


Area (hectares)
















Endangered species






Source: City of Helsinki, 2015

29The fact that Helsinki contains no fewer than 52 nature reserves might suggest that its network of protected areas is quite dense (Table 1; Figure 3). In reality, most of these protected areas are very small (more than half cover less than two hectares) and, most importantly, there are few links between them. According to urban ecology specialists, the large number of nature reserves masks an absence of real ecosystem continuity and may have delayed reflection about establishing a green network. Current plans are to create several new reserves and thereby increase the total area protected, although, somewhat paradoxically, this may reduce the number of protected areas, as most of the new reserves will be created by connecting existing, small reserves. In addition, many of Helsinki’s nature reserves are small (Venn et al. 2015), rocky islets that cannot be reached by public transportation, so even though these reserves are within the Helsinki urban area, they cannot be considered urban protected areas.

The interplay between metropolization and habitat protection: when nature becomes an object with urbanity

30Protected areas may be linked to their urban surroundings in a variety of ways. When these links are numerous and diverse, a protected area can be considered strongly integrated into the urban fabric. This is the case for areas such as Nuuksio National Park and the Viikki nature reserve, which combine exceptional “naturalness” with a high degree of “urbanity”. Conversely, when protection is aimed solely at preserving a certain habitat, without taking into account the social dimension, the result will be a regulated area from which the urban dimension may be almost entirely absent, without this necessarily enhancing the area’s “naturalness”.

From national to local, nature conservation as a factor in metropolization

31Nevertheless, the above comments should not be seen as an attempt to equate the urbanity of protected areas with the urbanity of a metropolis’ central public spaces, such as Helsinki’s Cathedral Square, Forum and Kamppi shopping malls, and central station. Rather, the aim is to identify similarities in the ways spaces are used, in social interactions, in forms of mobility and in opportunities for happenstance, as it is these similarities that give protected nature areas their urban character, their urbanity. Because distance is not just a spatial concept (Warf and Arias 2009), national parks 25 or 40 kilometres from the city centre, such as Nuuksio and Sipoonkorpi, can be fully integrated into metropolitan dynamics (figure 4).

32The people responsible for developing the Helsinki of tomorrow have noted this fact by planning the future of Finland’s capital in terms of networks and according to the city’s urbanity. Viewed from this perspective, the green network is just one network among others, and green areas and the sea are distinct elements of urbanity (figure 6).

Figure 6 – Diagrammatic model of Helsinki’s “Vision 2050” city plan.

Figure 6 – Diagrammatic model of Helsinki’s “Vision 2050” city plan.

Source: City of Helsinki, 2013

33Nevertheless, Helsinki’s urban development plan remains centred round the municipality of Helsinki and includes few development projects for the conurbation’s other large municipalities, Vantaa and Espoo. Although Helsinki presents itself as a European metropolis (Laakso and Kostiainen 2007), the process of bringing together the region’s local authorities to create a metropolitan council has only just begun (Kuokkanen 2016).

34Rather surprisingly perhaps, nature conservation could become an important lever in this metropolization process for a number of reasons. First, the unifying and global character of environmental issues encourages the different local authorities, most notably Helsinki, Espoo and Vantaa city councils, to consider projects that cover the entire metropolitan area, rather than being restricted to within municipal boundaries. Second, because many conservation measures, especially those concerning national parks, are taken nationally, their implementation by the state is less likely to be influenced by local rivalries and thereby result in protected areas that extend across municipal boundaries. In addition, the consultation and action framework drawn up by Metsähallitus, the national agency responsible for administering protected areas, could provide a model for drawing up joint policies at the metropolitan level. Third, protected areas may be seen as clusters of values and therefore part of the concentration required to achieve metropolization. Conversely, an urban location is probably an advantage in terms of protecting nature areas (Aschan-Leygonie et al. 2015) because of the heightened importance of these areas for the city’s inhabitants and the relatively strong environmental awareness shared by most Finns (Fischer and Hajer 1999, Paasi 2003) and promoted by different associations, as the Finnish Forest Association.

Granting protection: the roles of opportunism, pragmatism and volition

35Critical analysis of the ways stakeholders (politicians, urban planners, architects, landscape architects, activists, citizens) discuss and present the creation of protected areas reveals the different attitudes underlying these decisions. In the case of Helsinki’s protected nature areas these attitudes are opportunism, pragmatism and volition.

36Opportunism involves creating protected areas within the city’s diffuse urban fabric as and when opportunities arise. Areas may be given protected status for many reasons, including to satisfy certain special interests (Pouta et al. 2000). Although the people involved will rarely admit it, support for conservation measures often involves at least a degree of opportunism. For example, an Espoo angler’s association has backed a proposal to enlarge Nuuksio National Park because it would increase the area available for fishing. In addition, private landowners may act opportunistically when asked to accept conservation measures, because they receive financial compensation when their land is subject to new measures.

37A pragmatic attitude is taken when constraints such as current land use and ownership are allowed to shape conservation measures. This results in nature reserves and national parks being created on land that is easily available and then being enlarged as more land is acquired. In contrast to the opportunistic approach, the pragmatic approach involves focusing on practical choices, even if this means accepting compromises. For example, both Nuuksio National Park and the Östersundom nature reserve (Figure 3) consist of a number of unconnected parcels of land because it was decided to launch both protected areas on land that was immediately available and to fill in the gaps later by negotiating with other, mostly private landowners.

38The volitional approach involves using public demand and/or political will to justify imposing conservation measures, even if this requires overcoming obstacles. In fact, all protected areas are, to a greater or lesser extent, the result of volition, as they are the consequence of political decisions and therefore of political will. However, the institution or body whose political will created them does not always implement conservation measures. For example, the Natura 2000 program was created by the political will of the European parliament, but its implementation is the responsibility of individual member countries, usually through their environment ministries. Nevertheless, official speeches, reports and documents unfailingly give the impression that nature conservation measures are the result of the local authorities’ determination to protect the environment. In reality, this volitional stance is also a reflection of the complex mixture of opportunism, pragmatism and volition involved in the protection process. Figure 7 summarizes and compares these three attitudes.

Figure 7 – The three attitudes underlying protection decisions

Figure 7 – The three attitudes underlying protection decisions

Drawn up by C. Girault, 2015

Conclusion – From urban nature to naturbanity: Is Helsinki a model for the protection of urban nature areas?

39The findings of this initial research into nature conservation in Helsinki support several hypotheses about urban protected areas. First, just having a large number of protected sites does not necessarily make an area a model of nature conservation, as the efficacy of conservation measures depends on the way in which protected areas are managed and integrated into the urban fabric. Protected sites are not independent of other aspects of urban life; rather, they are an integral part of it. However, there are large variations in their functional integration into the urban fabric and in their contribution to city life, which are determined by the interactions between stakeholders and the way local people use them. The process through which conservation consolidates the urban system by protecting nature areas and by reducing physical and representational distances is another argument against considering cities and nature as irreconcilable opposites. Furthermore, it makes the urban protected area a specific object containing a degree of urbanity, even though this urbanity (in terms of the density of population, buildings, services, etc.) is lower than in other urban areas. The situation in Helsinki supports the idea of “naturbanity” (Landy and Laslaz 2012), that is, the existence of a strong, almost essentialist interweaving between naturalness and urbanity. In this respect, Helsinki may be representative of other cities, especially those in northern Europe, where nature areas are protected to improve their integration into the urban fabric, rather than to save them from the threat of predatory urban development. One result of this process is to turn the urban protected area into a protected urban area.

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1 Finland’s first national parks (Pallas-Ounastunturi and Pyhätunturi, in Finnish Lapland; the island of Heinäsaaret, nowadays part of Kandalaksha strict nature reserve, in Russia; the island of Stora Träskö, about fifty kilometers south-west of Helsinki) were created in 1938, after six decades of debate to decide on the legislative framework for the park. Their creation was a question of national pride, as was the case for the first parks created in North America.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1 – Diversity and uneven distribution of protected areas in northern Europe.
Credits For reasons of clarity, Natura 2000 areas are not shown on this map.
File image/jpeg, 1.3M
Title Figure 2 – A relatively recent urban transition in a context of sustained population growth and marked by the dominance of Helsinki.
Credits Sources: Statistics Finland and Helsinki-Uusimaa Regional CouncilDrawn up by C. Girault, 2015
File image/jpeg, 56k
Title Figure 3 – Diversity of Helsinki’s protected areas
File image/jpeg, 736k
Title Figure 4 – The variable integration of protected areas into the urban fabric
File image/jpeg, 1.7M
Title Figure 5 – Viikki and Laajalahti: nature reserves and popular leisure areas
Credits Apartment blocks on the northeastern edge of Viikki Bay run along the edge of the nature reserve, whose trails are used by local people throughout the year. As at Laajalahti, Viikki’s bird watching towers are very popular and symbolize the coming together of city and nature. Residents from the eponymous eco-district, built recently to the west of the reserve, also make good use of the Viikki nature reserve.
File image/jpeg, 132k
Title Figure 6 – Diagrammatic model of Helsinki’s “Vision 2050” city plan.
Credits Source: City of Helsinki, 2013
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Title Figure 7 – The three attitudes underlying protection decisions
Credits Drawn up by C. Girault, 2015
File image/jpeg, 105k
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Electronic reference

Camille Girault, Between naturalness and urbanity, how are protected areas integrated into cities? The case of Helsinki (Finland)Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 16 | 2017, Online since 30 November 2017, connection on 23 June 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Camille Girault

Camille Girault is assistant lecturer in human geography at the laboratory EDYTEM (University of Savoie Mont Blanc – CNRS). His doctoral dissertation focuses on the protection policies in both an urban and northern European context. He studies the spatialities of urban space through the social practices and the political frame of protected areas. More generally, he explores the relationship between urbanity and naturalness. Laboratoire EDYTEM : UMR 5204 CNRS - Université Savoie Mont Blanc. Email:

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