2nd Urban Economy Forum 5.-6.10.2020 World Habitat Day

2nd Urban Economy Forum 5.-6.10.2020 World Habitat Day

2nd URBAN ECONOMY FORUM 5.-6.10.2020 on occasion of the Canadian Celebration of 75 th Anniversary of United Nations and World Habitat Day, 5.10.2020

Mayor Vapaavuori’s speech at the Opening Session


Representatives of United Nations, UN-Habitat and Urban Economy Forum

Honorable Ministers,

Dear Friends,

Today we gather at unprecedented times. We are challenged in ways only a mere year ago seemed unlikely. Much like other current transformations and threats Covid-19 is global in nature. The virus sees no national borders or separates between people. Our ability to succeed in beating the epidemic is depended upon how closely we are able to work together, how seriously we take into heart our joint global responsibility and how committed we can be to each other regardless of physical or mental borders. Not everyone can successfully make this commitment. But we who can, must.

Covid-19 is inherently urban. It spreads in density and feeds from close human interactions. Many commentators around the world have predicted that Covid-19 will succeed in what all previous global plagues were unable to do – bring an end to the global megatrend of urbanization.  I have serious doubts that this will not happen.

Urbanization has existed almost as long as humans, but accelerated rapidly beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century. It is driven by people’s need for community and co-existence. In many parts of the world it is also driven by necessity. The talk about the end of urbanization is a luxury for the well-to-do. Moreover, end of urbanization would be an ecological disaster. Sustainability in numbers can only be achieved in cities. It’s reality that cities are the answer to the majority of the mankind. And that’s why we must make the cities of the future work better for people.

Covid-19 has amplified what’s good and bad in cities. Cities that were developing well before seem to have stronger resilience than cities where the crisis has only amplified past failures. Crisis has also made visible the basic building blocks of a successful city: open and trust-based society, ecologically viable growth, and strong commitment to equity. In turn, some of our biggest threats – growing segregation, the housing challenge and inability to develop green infrastructure effectively enough – are rooted in the way cities are being build.

Segregation is one of the most difficult challenges. To solve it, equity must become an act, instead of value.  In cities this means that we must use a new lens not only in education, health and services, but also in city planning, zoning and transportation infrastructure. Cities must be planned in a way that leads to balanced urban structure. Covid-19 will lead to many changes in how we plan urban environments, public spaces and transportation. The goal must be not only safer and greened city space, but also an equity-building space where living promotes well-being for all.

In Helsinki our mission has always been that for each child the best school is the closest school. And that every child is able to walk or bicycle to that school safely on their own. And that after school they are able to choose a safe, inspiring way to spend their free time as active participants in their own community. This can be achieved only by investing to teachers’ education, quality of the school buildings, functional public transportation system and effective mixed housing principle. Success requires holistic leadership from the city directors. No single program or act can create a space that effectively fights segregation. There are no silver bullets.

Housing is one of the central questions of our time. According to a World Economic Forum white paper about 90% of cities around the world do not provide affordable housing or of adequate quality. The cost of housing, as well as location, prohibits people from meeting other basic living costs, thus threatening their employment, health and quality of life. Home is a fundamental human right.

The housing problem is not the result of market conditions only, but a multitude of social-political factors, environmental factors and cultural questions have a great impact on how cities are able to find solutions to the affordability issue. If we are not able to solve this problem cities face a mounting threat of loosing essential key workers, harming the effectiveness of the urban framework and lessening the ability to attract much-in-demand skilled professionals. Moreover, the questions of social inclusion, economic effectiveness and environmental protection support the effective use of public and private resources for affordable and sustainable housing.

In Helsinki – like in many other cities – we have resorted to long-term planning for increasing the supply for affordable housing, minimizing urban sprawl and connecting the development of public transportation system to land-use with national multi-year agreements. Our advantage is that the City of Helsinki owns most of the land within its area and most housing development projects start from a need assessment and regulatory framework set by the city. Still, a major concern is making sure that the growing need and speed of housing development doesn’t lead to lessening our commitment to the mixed-housing principle.

Intelligent urban planning takes into consideration the connection between people, place and community. It is essential to asks the right questions and find real long-term solutions. One example is urban mobility planning. Smart city solutions for urban mobility should not primarily focus on how to get cars off the road – but on how to lessen the need for driving by intelligent urban planning.

Cities are ecosystems where everything impacts everything else. In the future we should use AI and digital tools in order to create better scenarios and more accurate holistic predictions on how city planning effects well-being, health and equity. Open, user-friendly and participatory data platforms should also be used to transfer and share knowledge among national, subnational and local governments and relevant stakeholders to enhance effective urban planning and management, efficiency and transparency. Strengthening local infrastructure capacity should be a key priority.

In order to succeed Helsinki strongly supports bringing formally together international city leaders, urban development organizations, academia, financial institutions, civil society and all relevant stakeholder. Scalable, pragmatic solutions and best practices must be shared and an open, innovation-driven and supportive structure.

The year 2020 will be a turning point for Sustainable Development Goals. It is our mutual interest to involve more leaders from all levels of the society in the pragmatic and progressive work for Agenda 2030. I know I speak for many mayors when I say that we are ready, willing and able to take the measures needed to achieve sustainable urban economy and use it as a means to implement the SDGs with success.


Kuva: UN Habitat