Understanding cultural diversity and increasing the experience of inclusion in Finnish urban development - Case Kontula Shopping Mall

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractScientificpeer-review


According to Finnish legislation, citizens have a fundamental right to participate in the planning of their living environment (Finlex, 1999). However, participants reached by formal participation processes represent a small segment of the diverse realities present in cities. Top-down participatory methods often serve and reinforce the inclusion of those with certain abilities. Prevailing practices require knowledge of national languages, the ability to express oneself in writing and, increasingly, the use of IT equipment and services. Influencing planning also requires long-term thinking, trust in administration and an understanding of planning practices and processes. Those whose skills deviate from this norm are at a disadvantage. This can leave urban planners with an incomplete understanding of the social and cultural characteristics of the area, and lead to a planning outcome serving few.

Our case study seeks to address this challenge of participation in the planning process of the Kontula Mall (City of Helsinki, 2020) in Helsinki, Finland. Kontula is a multicultural suburb in East Helsinki, mainly built in the 1960s and 1970s, and is burdened by the reputation of the 1990s recession as a place for marginalised people (Tuominen, 2017). The shopping mall in the centre of the suburb, completed in 1967, is the largest open-air shopping centre in Finland. Today, Kontula shopping mall is known not only for its social problems, but also for local cultural activities and a wide range of ethnic restaurants. The Kontula Mall is one of the clusters of immigrant entrepreneurs in Helsinki (Lilius & Hewidy, 2019).

For the planning of the renewal of the mall in 2019 the city granted a planning reservation to three property owners in the area (City of Helsinki, 2019). An international architectural competition was held in 2020 (City of Helsinki, 2020). Currently, planning is carried out by the owner companies as an internal planning exercise and it is not possible to participate in this planning phase as in the city's formal planning processes. However, this is the early stage of planning, where the plans could still be influenced. Based on our enquiries with the city, the official planning process would start in 2024 at the earliest. Thus, the Kontula urban development process raises the question on whose terms public spaces are being renewed. In this case study, we look at how local entrepreneurs with an immigrant background could be engaged in the development of the new mall.

Theoretically, our research builds on the concept of expanded urban planning (EP), which is based on communicative planning approaches (e.g. Healey, 2006; Forester, 1999). EP has sought to address the disconnect between institutional planning and citizen engagement. It brings top-down, government-led planning participation alongside bottom-up participation through people's self-organization and everyday practices. Additionally, EP expands citizen engagement from institutional planning to urban development processes. (Staffans & Horelli, 2014; Wallin, 2019).

Applying action research and methods of social design, we explore how bottom-up and culture-based approaches could be combined with administration-led participation, and consider whether such approaches could reach more diverse knowledge relevant to the planning task. To date, we have interviewed a wide range of actors to understand the systemic problems underlying this case. This fall, we will conduct participatory experiments to engage the immigrant entrepreneurs and convey their perspective in planning.

In the experiment, we produce an easy-to-understand information package on the development of the Kontula Mall, which will be translated into the different languages understood by the entrepreneurs. We will test different ways of gathering and conveying the perspectives of immigrant entrepreneurs in the planning process. This will involve translating information in different languages and modes into a format that is specific to urban planning. To do this, we will use the Maptionnaire (https://maptionnaire.com), a map survey tool commonly used in administration-led participatory processes, in a creative way. Our intention is to bring the data collected through interviews and experimentation during our project on the Maptionnaire platform.

The preliminary results of this ongoing research show systemic problems in the planning process of Kontula mall. First, the development process appears intransparent for citizens; the immigrant entrepreneurs lack understandable information about the planning process and their voices appear not to be heard. Second, in city administration it is perceived as difficult or impossible to reach immigrant entrepreneurs due to language and cultural barriers. To solve these challenges, this research project aims to produce easy-to-read information for this stakeholder group about the planning and to find functional solutions for engaging them. Third, at the current stage of the process, property owners seem to have the power over the content of the planning. We argue that there is a need for increasing the openness, transparency and inclusivity of urban planning processes going on outside the institutional planning processes, especially when it comes to the planning of public spaces. Additionally, strengthening the inclusion of the stakeholders with immigrant backgrounds the participation methods need to be designed together with these people. Making their viewpoints visible is essential for understanding local multiculturalism and diversity of values and opinions.

This project is part of Sitra's change-making program (Sitra, 2021), which aims to address the bottlenecks of Finnish democracy. Our three-person project team is a mix of researchers and urban activists, each with a different relationship to the area.

City of Helsinki (2019) Kontulan keskusta-alueen varaaminen kehityshankkeen toteutusedellytysten jatkoselvittämistä varten (Mellunkylä, Kontulan keskusta-alue, tontit 47021/8–12). Retrieved 28.6.2021 at: https://dev.hel.fi/paatokset/asia/hel-2019-006077/kylk-2019-18/
City of Helsinki (2020) Kontulan keskuksen arkkitehtuurikilpailu. Retrieved 4.6.2021 at: : https://www.uuttahelsinkia.fi/fi/mellunkyla/kontulankeskus
Finlex. (1999). Maankäyttö- ja rakennuslaki. Land Use and Building Act. Retrieved 14.10.2021 at: http://www.finlex.fi/fi/laki/ajantasa/1999/19990132
Forester, J. (1999). The deliberative practitioner. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Healey, P. (2006). Collaborative planning, Shaping places in fragmented societies (2. painos). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Lilius, J., & Hewidy, H. (2019). Serving whom? Immigrant entrepreneurs in a new local context . Fennia - International Journal of Geography, 197(2), 215–231.
Sitra, (2021). Case Kontulan ostari. Retrieved 15.10.2021 at: https://www.sitra.fi/caset/case-kontulan-ostari/
Staffans, A., & Horelli, L. (2014). Expanded urban planning as a vehicle for understanding and shaping smart, liveable cities. Journal of Community Informatics, 10(3).
Tuominen, P. (2017) Kontula Electronic – lähiö muutosten keskellä. Retrieved 9.9.2021 at: https://antroblogi.fi/2017/04/kontula-electronic-lahio-muutosten-keskella/
Wallin, S. (2019). Managing urban complexity. Participatory planning, self-organization and co-production of urban space. Dissertation. Aalto University, 159/2019.

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 21 Oct 2021
MoE publication typeNot Eligible
EventAnnual Symposium of Architectural Research in Finland: Diversity - Aalto University, Espoo, Finland
Duration: 21 Oct 202122 Oct 2021
Conference number: 13


ConferenceAnnual Symposium of Architectural Research in Finland
Abbreviated titleATUT
Internet address


  • urban development
  • public participation
  • people-driven participation
  • cultural diversity
  • expanded urban planning


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