Typography

Helsinki suburb Vuosaari is emerging as a dynamic and international centre in its own right.

“What makes Vuosaari interesting and special as an area is that it comes across as a fascinating, modern and urban city district that pulsates with life.” This is what Aku Louhimies, one of Finland’s front-line film directors, said in an interview about a year ago. His new film Vuosaari, a collection of contemporary love stories, is hitting cinemas on 3 February.

“I chose Vuosaari as the setting, because it allowed the different stories in the film to be naturally intertwined, owing to its essence as an East Helsinki suburb by the sea, with a large port, the eastern terminus of the metro train, absolutely exquisite residences as well as a good number of council estates,” he explains in January 2012. “In short: a broad variety of people and stories. I have been somewhat inspired by films with a strong milieu presence, including Heat (1995) and Short Cuts (1993) that show the city of Los Angeles from original standpoints.”

In topographical terms, you can easily appreciate the diversity when you look at a map of Vuosaari. There is a large residential and commercial area, east of which there is the port and a bustling industrial area including the coffee roasting plant, sandwiched against a golf course. All these border the Baltic sea to the south, with marinas and the boat club, and are interspersed elsewhere with forest patches of varying sizes highlighted by splendid recreational areas on the shoreline. Overlooking it all is Cirrus, a high rise that stands as Finland’s tallest residential building.

But what about the people living there and the international angle? To get an idea, SixDegrees spoke with a couple of local residents.

This is just like Europe!

The above perception of Aurinkolahti, an area of Vuosaari, comes from Yonas Tadesse Hagos, of Ethiopian origin, who moved to Vuosaari from abroad with his wife Johanna Leppänen, a native Finn. “We needed a place rather quickly, and the first good flat we found was in Vuosaari,” Leppänen recounts. “East Helsinki was in fact our first choice, because there are more people of international origin there.”

“Vuosaari is peaceful, not too crowded,” Hagos observes, when asked how he likes living there.

“This is a great place for families, also foreign ones,” Leppänen explains. “We have other foreign neighbours, so being a foreigner here does not arise similar attention as it may somewhere else.”

According to Leppänen, a variety of services are well within proximity. “They are all near us: the shops, the health centre, the public library, the swimming hall,” she explains. “Everything is easily accessed, with prams as well. The metro is also very practical for pram pushers, making Itäkeskus readily available.”

“Even though there are a lot of foreigners and you read in the papers about the problems, we must say that we have many international neighbours, but the only discomfort we have experienced has stemmed from some born-and-bread local people who seem to habitually take to the drink slightly in excess of what would be good for them.”

“This is a great
place for
families, also
foreign ones.”

More international than its counterparts in Helsinki

East Helsinki, including Vuosaari, does have an above-average proportion of immigrants. But how much so, in actual fact? “Looking at the official stats, you can see that there is a difference, but to me the difference seems quite small,” says Ilkka Laine, architect with the City of Helsinki, having accumulated a decade’s worth of experience with the city planning department where Vuosaari fell under his sphere of responsibilities. “In the entire district of Vuosaari, the share of people whose first language is not Finnish or Swedish exceeds 16 per cent, compared with an average of 10 per cent in all of Helsinki.”

So is the talk about Vuosaari becoming another sink estate just an urban legend? “One explanation as to why people may have felt that way is that there are indeed differences between the various areas of Vuosaari, which is a large district soon numbering 40,000 people,” Laine explains. “In some limited areas, the proportion of immigrant residents is in fact clearly above the average, and this is something that the city does pay constant attention to, so as to avoid the development spiralling into the wrong direction with negative effects.”

• A dynamic and international
district in eastern Helsinki, with
36,000 residents.
• Boasts Aurinkolahti, a new
elegant residential development
by the sea.
• Features a large shopping
centre at the metro train terminus.
• Large natural recreational
areas at Kallahti, Uutela and
Mustavuori.
• Maritime features include
marinas, a boat club and the
port.
• The port is the most modern
cargo port by the Baltic Sea
and the largest in Finland in
terms of cargo volume.
• 16% of Vuosaari residents
are immigrants (10% in all of
Helsinki, 2.5% in Länsi-Pakila
and 2.7% in all of Finland).
• Of these, the largest groups
by nation of origin are Estonians,
Russians and Somalis.
• The top year for foreign
language-speakers immigrating/
relocating to Vuosaari was 2008.
• The film Vuosaari by Aku
Louhimies is released on 3
February. It is a co-production
between Finland, Germany,
Russia and Austria.

Statistical source:
City of Helsinki Urban Facts

Vuosaari is no sink estate

Nevertheless, one can hardly compare Vuosaari with areas such as Rinkeby in Stockholm, Sweden. As of 2007, 89.1 per cent of Rinkeby’s population had a first or second generation immigrant background. But the situation here will not come to that, right? “I would find it extremely hard to believe that such unilateral development could ever take place in Vuosaari,” Laine replies. “I’ve hosted visiting parties of city planners from abroad on trips to Vuosaari, and they have mostly chuckled at the notion of, say, Meri-Rastila being locally considered somewhat of a problem area – they have basically seen it as an attractive suburb.”

One finds this difference in viewpoint easy to understand, after riding – in broad daylight – through some Stateside areas such as the South Side of Chicago and North Philadelphia, which in their own stark way surely make Rinkeby seem more like the posh part of Westend in Espoo. Those familiar with, say, some of the sink estates in major French cities will probably nod their heads in agreement.

But what has brought immigrants to Vuosaari? “During the big Finnish recession of the 1990s, the development of proprietary housing for consumers was very slow,” Laine says, “and in Helsinki, a lot of new residential construction naturally took place where the city had free space.” Vuosaari, originally the conceptual “forest city” of the 1960s, was one such area, growing since the beginning of the ‘90s at a rate of about 1,000 new residents per annum. Around the same time, immigration to Finland, then a new phenomenon, started in earnest, and newcomers to Helsinki found their homes in the expanding areas, including Vuosaari. After 20 years of busy housing construction, the growth of Vuosaari as a residential area is now slowing down naturally, as there is less free space available.

Vuosaari is released on 3 February. The film’s English title is The Naked Harbour.
Aku Louhimies lines up a shot.

Enjoying in permanence and transience

The above experiences were the result of more or less permanent relationships with Vuosaari, but the district can be enjoyed equally well on shorter visits. In view of tips for sojourns and cameo appearances, let’s spend a final minute virtually in wondrous Vuosaari with our interviewees. “The nature of Vuosaari, particularly in the shoreline areas, is simply magnificent,” says Laine. “Circling the district for work purposes, I often find myself in awe of some beautiful or pleasant spot, such as the newer developments of Aurinkoranta and the Uutela recreational canal, which features a waterfall in Aurinkolahti,” he continues.

Filmmaker Louhimies feels much the same. “The cape of Kallahti appeals with its natural beauty and the sights from atop Cirrus really unravel it all for you. If you see my film, you may see Vuosaari in a new light,” he concludes. And then, when you visit Vuosaari, you may be enlightened yet anew.

Mika Oksanen