Helsinki Makes Sustainability a Guiding Principle for Development

Every building in the neighborhood is connected to a network of pneumatic tubes that propel seven categories of trash at 70 kilometers an hour to a central collection point, where the materials arrive pre-sorted.

And no parent need walk farther than 300 meters to reach a free day care center.

Until recently, another neighborhood feature was a driverless “last mile” electric bus that would whisk passengers in less than five minutes to a metro station, but Helsinki’s growing fleet of autonomous buses has been shifted to other neighborhoods for testing, in settings with more bustling traffic.

“The area was designed to reduce the need for cars” said Kimmo Tupala, a communications manager for UNICEF Finland who lives in the area. “Maybe they did too good of a job, because I hardly see any cars on the road. Before moving here, I spent at least 40 minutes a day in my car. Since last September, I’ve hardly used my car ever, and I’m thinking of selling it.”

Ryan Weber, a 30-something software programmer from Minnesota, moved to Helsinki six years ago. Along with his Finnish partner, he bought a two-bedroom unit in Kalasatama.

“Back home, we spend a lot of time looking at data on what’s going wrong, or we create neighborhood apps that help us save a minute here, a minute there,” Mr. Weber said. “What I love here is all these features designed to make my life better. There’s a lot of trust in government here to make smart decisions, and compared to home, it just feels like everything runs smoothly.”

To improve services, the Kalasatama district now collects and freely circulates public digital data for 21 buildings, including information from water meters, heating systems and elevators.

“Data like that are the glue of a smart city, and like a lot of cities, Helsinki has really embraced experimentation,” said Carlo Ratti, director of the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “What’s interesting is that unlike, say, Google’s Sidewalk project in Toronto, which provoked a populist backlash, Helsinki has embraced a bottom-up approach to using data to improving the lives of residents.”

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