The social development bank for Europe

Interview with Jan Vapaavuori, Mayor of Helsinki

'Much of the city’s recovery plan is based on amplifying these foundations of the city strategy, namely digital city services, inclusive development and sustainable infrastructure.'

Jan VapaavuoriAddressing urban inequalities is essential to ensuring that the COVID-19 is inclusive. What measures is your city taking to mitigate the social and economic impact of the pandemic, particularly on the most vulnerable?

From the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the City of Helsinki has acknowledged the social and economic angles of the crisis. We have taken into account that not everyone is online, not everyone speaks the official languages of Finland and not everyone is agile in looking for help.

The main concern from the outset was the social impacts of the restrictive measures such as social distancing. Mental health issues, domestic violence, disadvantaged youth in danger of falling behind and substance abuse problems were some the threats targeted from the outset.

With schools closed from March 18 until May 14, the city leveraged its impressive digital technology platforms to create digital classrooms for students. The city also developed digital cultural services for its population in its aim to maintain a stimulating urban life and to reduce the mental health impacts from social distancing and isolation.

The city has been especially attentive to its vulnerable population, particularly the elderly who are at risk of potential viral exposure and 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.

Helsinki set up several phone helplines for the elderly to the families and to the businesses. There are also a number of online services from chat windows to SnapChat and TikTok outreach for the youth. A lot of effort has been put into maintaining the city’s well-functioning services such as warm free lunches to all children under 16 years old and the help for the homeless people.

In general, the support has included:

  • answering direct questions about the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • running errands;
  • assisting in everyday needs;
  • family guidance;
  • educational issues;
  • providing short-term supervision and care for young adults with disabilities;
  • distributing free meals;
  • help with the use of mobile devices.

The businesses and entrepreneurs have also been supported, for example with:

  • free counselling services;
  • streamlining the city’s permit processes;
  • allowing temporary activities to take place in public areas;
  • early payments of pending invoices.

Helsinki has been especially attuned to supporting the creative industries, which are the mainstay of the economy and especially vulnerable during the COVID-19 epidemic. One important policy early on was to provide three-month rent-free periods in city-owned properties for entrepreneurs affected by the coronavirus, which proved an important measure as the city controls about two-thirds of the land in Helsinki’s urbanized area.  

How is your city ensuring that the COVID-19’s recovery is also a green recovery that meets climate change goals?

iStock-183996236.jpgEven though we are still living in the shadows of the virus and none of us are able to fully comprehend the magnitude of the social and economic consequences, we are moving forward. COVID brought resilience to the core of urban context. 

The climate crisis is the most crucial challenge of our time, and cities have a key role in driving the shift to a low-carbon economy. 

We need sustainable traffic solutions. We need more energy-efficient buildings. We need smart and clean economy. We need clean energy production.

Helsinki is one of the leading cities in the transition towards a sustainable future, with the goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2035. We are sticking with this goal even though COVID-19 has brought us new challenges to resolve. In our opinion, these new challenges might even help in resolving the older ones.

Currently, more than half of the Helsinki’s heat is produced with coal. In order to achieve carbon-neutrality, we need radically new solutions to meet Helsinki’s heat demand. And we are not alone.  To fight climate change, sustainable heating solutions are needed in cities all over the world. That is why we have launched the Helsinki Energy Challenge, a global €1 million competition to answer the question: How can we decarbonise the heating of Helsinki, using as little biomass as possible?

The whole action plan for carbon-neutral Helsinki 2035 has been prepared in collaboration with hundreds of experts, Helsinki residents and corporate representatives. The same principle of openness will continue in the implementation phase. 

What long-term investments are required to increase your city’s preparedness to future pandemics and boost its resilience to shocks?

iStock-639109564.jpgCOVID-19 is a massive challenge for cities on the front line, rich and poor alike. In normal times, there might be many attributes that cities strive to compete on and excel at the global level including livability, competitiveness, and sustainability.  But in any given day and especially in a time of crisis, a city must function well for its citizens.

functional city delivers high-quality public services for all people, in both rich and poor neighborhoods; works hard to create economic opportunities for residents and businesses; prioritizes community participation and inclusion for all; and makes policies and decisions that create a stimulating and enjoyable life for its residents.

Functionality in Helsinki grows from an emphasis on equal opportunity for all. 

This includes ability to live, work, play and express oneself in a safe environment.  Education is one of the cornerstones – not only does the city have some of the best schools in the world, but more importantly it has some of the “best worst schools,” meaning there is little difference between the schools in rich and poor neighborhoods.

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.

Much of the city’s recovery plan is based on amplifying these foundations of the city strategy, namely digital city services, inclusive development and sustainable infrastructure. 

While cities like Helsinki are not able to totally prevent the combined effects of the current health, economic, and social crisis resulting from COVID-19, the foundations of its functional city approach are enabling the city to manage the crisis holistically and deliver results efficiently.

One concrete issue for Helsinki, and many other cities, is the lack of centralized data collection. Even though the city has plenty of data, making the data actionable is a challenge, as well as combining data sets from different sources. Helsinki will develop its data strategy based on these COVID-19 experiences. This will take Helsinki closer to one of its goals: to be the city in the world that makes the best use of digitalization

Partnerships and collaborative efforts are critical to support local leaders in the COVID-19 recovery.  What do you expect from the cooperation with national and European actors?

Helsinki’s global collaboration was active even before the epidemic. The city has updated its international engagement strategy and beyond city diplomacy also worked closely with global NGO’s and research organizations.

From Helsinki’s perspective global partnerships and collaboration brings us the ability to benchmark and learn from other cities, find quick tests and long-term development opportunities, and share our experiences with other cities and institutions. 

In our international work we are pragmatic and hands-on, always searching for new ways to develop services to our citizens.

The COVID-19 recovery phase is not different. We are collaborating with numerous global organisations (like Bloomberg Philanthropies, World Bank, World Economic Forum) on many issues and also fostering our strategic city-to-city relationships.

On the national level we have further activated our so called C21 network. The network comprises the 21 largest cities in Finland that collaborate closely on information sharing, response policies and lobbying the national government.

Moving forward we expect our international partnerships and collaborations develop even further. Some central topics now include green infrastructure development, data and AI utilization, and development of more efficient public-private partnerships.