If anything is often lost in translation about the concept of Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper Placemaking strategies, it is the idea that they are meant to be part of long-term efforts to create dynamic public spaces. The real value of a parklet or a pop-up is in its ability to get people talking, and to change perceptions about how a space can be used. To those who would argue that LQC interventions “aren’t enough,” the answer is “Exactly.” They’re merely paving the way by building new constituencies for transformative change in public spaces.

Hella Hernberg captures this nicely in her new book, Helsinki Beyond Dreams. In presenting a wide variety of projects and events that reflect the LQC ethos of citizens of the Finnish capital, the editor firmly underlines the idea that each of these pieces is part of a larger awakening around the idea that each citizen should have the opportunity to help shape their city. “People are motivated by doing concrete things that have an impact–however temporary–on their environment,” Hernberg writes. “Soft criticism of the city’s bureaucracy is being channeled into urban gardens and street parties.”

A city cannot meet every need of every person, but the LQC approach allows more people to make their desires known, so that officials and designers can be more responsive when making permanent changes to public spaces. This approach also has a way of bubbling over from one project, and changing the way that people think about public spaces far across town. Early on, Helsinki Beyond Dreams traces the title city’s contemporary fondness for LQC interventions back to the formation of Elmu, a live music association that took over an abandoned warehouse in 1979 and created an alternative cultural hub. One of the founders of the group, Teemu Lehto, explains the project’s origins frankly: “There were lots of enthusiastic bands and audiences, but simply no places to meet, so Elmu was born.”

The point made here seems central to the book’s message: we earn our public spaces. The most important aspect of successful Placemaking is that the people who are intended to use a space be engaged in the process of shaping it. If the people in charge of a city’s public spaces don’t adequately meet citizens’ needs, those citizens will go out and make their own great places, wherever they can find room. “We should endeavor to make our city a paradise,” Lehto says in the book. “Otherwise, it may turn into an empire of greed. It’s entirely up to us to decide what kind of city we want to live in.”

A map of several of the major sites in transition around central Helsinki; Kalasatama is site #2.

Many people these days feel disconnected from the processes that shape their neighborhoods and their public spaces. LQC projects are a way of grabbing the “low-hanging fruit,” so to speak, by showing people who are already looking for ways to get engaged in their cities but are unsure or tentative about how to start that they don’t need millions of dollars to start driving real change. In a chapter on the Kalasatama Temporary site, Hernberg writes that the idea behind this LQC cultural center “was based on a hunch that there were active people in Helsinki who would organize inspiring things–if they were given a little push to do so.”

The results, as chronicled in Helsinki Beyond Dreams, are truly remarkable. The site has transformed an abandoned industrial site into a place for experimentation; its organizers acknowledge that it’s been a learning process for citizens and city officials, and that there is value in that process. “The first years,” Hernberg writes, “have given hints as to what kind of methods and tools are needed to make the interaction between the city and its residents run more smoothly.”

At PPS, we have a term for places like Kalasatama Temporary: we call them “bureaucracy-free zones.” At their heart, many Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper projects are zones of this type, to varying degrees. While Kalasatama itself is exceptional for its flexibility and its inclusiveness, every community garden and painted piazza is an attempt to strip away some layers of the old way of doing things, and try something new. Helsinki Beyond Dreams illustrates how LQC interventions add up to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts by generating a more robust public discussion around public space. For that alone–never mind the crisp writing and beautiful illustrations–the book is well worth a read.

One of Helsinki Beyond Dreams' charming illustrations by Sac Magique

Book Review: Helsinki Beyond Dreams was last modified: August 6th, 2012 by Brendan Crain