Which city are you in right now?

Pauli Saloranta
You are the city - and I, he, she, you and us

European change affects Helsinki and its residents in many ways. Our city is constantly being redesigned, and at the same time new ways of living and shaping the city are emerging.

Helsinki is going through interesting times right now. The population is growing and the population is changing more than in living memory. The spectrum of lifestyles is becoming more diverse - at the same time, the experiences of the residents, their lifestyles and their ideas of a good city may differ. Social media reduces the exchange of ideas with people outside of your own bubble. Instead of the spatial expansion that has been customary for a hundred years, the buildings are becoming more densely populated. Climate neutrality requires stricter framework conditions for the effective energy consumption of all parties involved. The public administration is looking for a new role, while the city dwellers want - and take advantage of - ever greater scope for action. The interaction increases overall and the demands on their quality increase. In addition to the traditional representative decision-making and the established preparatory bodies, new forms of influence are desired. How can we live and get things done together when we may have different opinions?

The reform of the city administration makes the voices of the inhabitants more audible

The Helsinki City Council took three important steps towards a more interactive democracy in 2016. It decided to introduce the mayor model, in which a mayor is elected according to the election result for the four-year city council period, and the transition to the business area model, in which the previous 31 offices and municipal companies were combined in four business areas with the corresponding committees. At the same time it was decided to create a new model of participation and interaction that standardizes the participation practices of the city, establishes earlier experiments and uses new methods, such as participatory budgeting for the whole city. All of these reforms make the voices of the inhabitants more audible, while at the same time efforts were made to speed up internal city activities and to dismantle administrative “silos”.

Significantly, the model that defines participation and interaction in Helsinki was developed in broad collaboration with residents and communities. The principles of participation and interaction that emerged were laid down in the city's administrative regulations:
  1. Leveraging the know-how and expertise of the city's residents, communities, businesses and service users in developing the city's services
  2. Enabling the townspeople to work independently as well
  3. The creation of equal opportunities for participation
They oblige the entire organization of the city to develop their activities towards ever greater openness. In 2017, the city administration decided to implement and finance the model.

In Helsinki one would like to understand participation in a broad sense: as a characteristic of all being and doing in the city, not as a separate island or an addition. From a civil servants' point of view, participation should not be something additional that is done in addition to what is usual, but a procedure in which the ability, initiative and equality of the city dwellers help me to do my work better, easier or more effectively.

The city of HELSINKI promotes A VERSATILE participation of the city's residents

We are already doing more than the current Finnish municipal law requires, but we want to make progress in ten areas of participation. A wide variety of practices have long been used in the services arena, from customer panels to mapping surveys and collaborative planning. Seven city guides were hired to develop participation in the districts and three company guides were employed to develop company participation. Every year, thousands of city dwellers take on voluntary offices, ranging from park sponsors to cultural buddies. We are constantly opening new urban spaces that can be found in the electronic reservation system for the residents to use. In accordance with the open data principle, both the documentation of the resolutions and the real-time public transport timetables are accessible to everyone. Digital participation is promoted by training senior citizens in the digital field and promoting digital advice to organizations. Our feedback system channels the 66,000 responses that are received annually to the correct addressees and also tracks whether they have been answered. The legally regulated expert bodies represent special groups, and among them the youth council in particular has increased its role in recent years. There is also an official, legally required municipal citizens' initiative, which, however, is only used marginally.

The direction is clear: it is necessary to lower the threshold of participation further and at the same time to increase its actual effectiveness. In the concept of Sherry Arnstein's participation ladder, this means the ascent from consultation to real partnership. The partnership creates a new culture of joint action and freedom of action and changes the power structures. Somewhere between representative and direct democracy lies the fertile zone of deliberative democracy, a decision-making process based on public deliberation and deliberate discussion. But the invisible power of preparation behind the decision-making power is also real, which is why participation in planning must be made possible in addition to participation in decision-making. This may even be a more radical step than increasing decision-making power.

participatory BUDGETING stimulates discussion of values

The culture of joint action represents participatory budgeting, which has been known in other parts of the world in various forms for decades and has been tested and developed in Helsinki since 2013 in services for young people. An expanded version of this procedure was put into use across the city in 2018 under the name OmaStadi and with a budget of 4.4 million euros. Participatory budgeting came to Scandinavia from the global south, and the people of Helsinki embraced it with great zeal. The first round yielded 1,261 ideas, from which 299 workable plans were worked out through joint development. In autumn 2019, the city residents selected 44 of them for realization. The vote prompted individual residents and non-political groups to campaign for their proposals and to engage in a discussion of values ​​that was heated at times, but above all meaningful.


Many projects that are successful in participatory budgeting affect public urban space and change the prioritization in this area. We get more basic things like benches and trash cans. Trampolines are set up in the parks. Lawns are being converted into flower meadows and urban horticultural areas. An extensive program to promote cycling is initiated. All voting results are available to everyone on the city's website: The voting results

A critical assessment is that co-development and other forms of interaction are slow and therefore expensive. That's how it should be. In the best case, this slowness and thoroughness can produce a new space that is perceived as common, in which public power and private actors as well as the most diverse city dwellers operate together: you and me, he, she, you and us.



Pauli Saloranta (born 1971) works as an expert on participation for the City of Helsinki and is writing a master's thesis on participatory budgeting at the University of Helsinki. He has also been active in district and civic organizations for a long time. In the summer of 2019 he took part as a facilitator at the Freiraum event at the Stoa cultural center in East Helsinki.

Translation: Gabriele Schrey-Vasara