City Building

Helsinki, Finland’s Lessons in Municipal Reform

By September 18, 2018 No Comments

By Ken Greenberg

As everyone knows, the future of Toronto City Council is right now uncertain, its size and ward boundaries dependent on the pending decision about Bill 5, proposed by the new Provincial government. This upheaval is profoundly not the municipal reform we need. To understand what a dynamic, contemporary city needs in terms of municipal structure equipped to handle the planning and operation of all city services, we must look to the radical overhaul begun over a year ago in Helsinki, led by Mayor Jan Vapaavuori.

Like Toronto, Helsinki is in the midst of a remarkable stage of urban evolution as the city’s population continues to grow rapidly and at an accelerating rate. The overt goal of the Helsinki City Strategy is to make it the world’s most functional city. Helsinki is already functional in many respects–it has been ranked highly in a number of international surveys on the quality of life, education, the environment and safety. But policy makers and leaders there are not resting on their laurels. They have embraced the role of cities in solving major global challenges, and the need to be solution-oriented and agile in searching for answers to the challenges of social segregation, climate change, public participation and digitalization.

Helsinki population growth

Helsinki’s critical insight was that they can no longer afford to solve one of these problems at a time in isolation; the key to unlocking their true potential as a city lay in convergence, moving away from compartmentalizing things; blending public and private initiatives; working across disciplinary lines.

Every discussion of Toronto’s future tends to reveal a similar set of daunting challenges. Some of these, like runaway congestion, are problems of success in a period of extraordinary growth. We are now playing catch-up, having to make major investments in affordable housing and public services both hard and soft to accommodate the major increases and changing needs of our population. We have accumulated a serious infrastructure deficit as we failed for decades to make essential investments in public transit. Our narrow sidewalks and poorly designed streets are jammed and uncomfortable. Many of our public spaces are meager and poorly equipped and maintained. And the burning question is how can we ensure that our city will be truly equitable and inclusive in the face of its newfound popularity?

Only by embracing the perspective of convergence and pulling major challenges out of their assigned silos would it become possible to achieve multiple goals by aligning priorities.

Aiming for full integration of city centre and post-war suburbs, Helsinki

In Helsinki, the city recognized that the inherited civic machinery often still functioned as if these interrelated problems occupied separate spheres, both inside and outside of City Hall. Clearly a new way of working was needed. The Helsinki City Council made a bold decision at its meeting of June 22, 2016, creating a new City of Helsinki governance system. The City now has a Mayor and four Deputy Mayors. Former City departments have been abolished and replaced by four divisions comprising Education, Urban Environment, Culture and Leisure, and Social Services and Health Care.

  • The Education Divisionconsists of four segments: early childhood and preschool education, basic education, upper secondary education and liberal adult education, and Swedish-language services (second official language along with Finnish).
  • The Urban Environment Divisionconsists of three segments: land use and city structure, buildings and public areas, and services and permits. The rescue function and the Helsinki City Transport (HKL) municipal enterprise are organizational units.
  • The Culture and Leisure Division consists of three segments: culture, youth and sports. The culture segment comprises the Cultural Office, Helsinki Art Museum HAM, Helsinki City Museum, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and Helsinki City Library.
  • The Social Services and Health Care Division’s segments are family and social services, health care and substance abuse services, and hospital, rehabilitation and nursing services.

New integrated clusters of City government, Helsinki

Helsinki’s new structure has reorganized around today’s priorities, and created fully integrated teams to improve outcomes and get more out of limited resources while making city government more accountable, accessible and transparent. Senior city staff reported to me that the change seems to be working, and the early results are truly impressive, including new mixed-use, mixed income neighbourhoods with an abundance of well-maintained public space and amenities.

While the reform so far has not been painless, the need was obvious, and they are excited about the results. Obviously we in Toronto can’t simply cut and paste the Helsinki reform onto our city, there is a great deal Toronto could learn from what Helsinki is doing.

Kalasatama “Smart City,” one of emerging new mixed-use mixed-income neighbourhoods, Helsinki

For more, read Helsinki’s 2017 annual report, available on the City of Helsinki website.