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Towards Local Democracy


Report 21.9.2011 Think Tank Demos Helsinki Outi Kuittinen, Tommi Laitio, Ilkka Lovio and Maria Ritola

VETOA JA VOIMAA MELLUNKYLÄÄN 2009-2011 The Vetoa ja Voimaa Mellunkylään project (Let’s Make Mellunklylä More Attractive) in Eastern Helsinki is realising the promise of democracy. The project strengthens The Public – a group of people sharing interests - in one of the less well-off parts of Helsinki. Goals, activities and modes of operations react to changes in the environment.

The project identifies existing resources and links them together. This has made it possible to resolve problems in people’s daily life, from support services for young people and bus timetables to the lack of viability in the shopping centres. The project has also generated permanence for new actors while finding and securing spaces for shared action. It has clearly increased the opportunities for the older population to influence affairs and therefore improved the level of available information to support decision-making.

The project has been implemented without any changes in legislation or redistribution of power. The shared image of the desired future for the area has improved communication with the City of Helsinki and pushed reforms forward.

Above all, the Vetoa ja Voimaa Mellunkylään project has reinforced the culture of action and advocacy, which bonds people with their environment and thus improves their wellbeing. Visible improvements that can be experienced are creating a belief that the future is in the hands of the people.

The achievements of the first few years are considerable. This project shows the way forward for the development of local democracy in Helsinki. It is therefore of vital importance to model the approach, analyse the requirements for success and format a model for others to follow.

Nevertheless, the Vetoa ja Voimaa Mellunkylään project is far from complete. The next challenge is to shape the operating methods to match the ways in which young people participate and to broaden the profile of activities considered important for democracy.



Mellunkylä, with its 36,000 inhabitants, is the largest urban district in Finland, consisting of Kivikko, Kontula, Kurkimäki, Mellunmäki and Vesala.

The area has experienced three major influxes. Growth began in the 1960s when homes were needed for people moving into the cities from the countryside. In the late 1980s, the completion of the metro gave a boost to construction, which led to the creation of the new Kurkimäki and Kivikko districts around the existing Kontula. Increased immigration in the 1990s made Mellunkylä one of Finland’s most multi-cultural areas within a period of twenty years.

As far as opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities are concerned, Mellunkylä is one of the foremost areas in Helsinki. Because of its verdant nature, Mellunkylä is equipped to be a ‘Garden City’ for the everyman and has been compared from time to time to Espoo’s Tapiola. Research has shown that Mellunkylä residents consider its green areas and recreation facilities to be a prime factor in building congeniality and wellbeing. The area also houses Europe’s biggest indoor skate-park which is used actively by an enormous number of young people from both inside and outside Mellunkylä.

However, a good deal of inequality has accumulated in Mellunkylä, which was only exacerbated by the recession of the early 1990s. As the next recession is already looming over Finland, the scars of the previous recession are still being repaired. The level of education in Mellunkylä is clearly lower than in other parts of the City of Helsinki and unemployment is about 50% higher. Over 20% of the population speak a foreign language, well above the city average. Rental levels are second to lowest in Helsinki. There are very few jobs in the area – only about 4,000. Over 15% of adults live on governmental subsidies. For many immigrants and many of those moving from the countryside, Mellunkylä is the first place to settle. Building social networks for newcomers is one of the key challenges in Mellunkylä.

Unemployment and low incomes have weakened the background for entrepreneurs to operate. A tightly adhering reputation as an insecure area has kept property values low and tended to make students, for example, reject offers of flats in the area.

The Vetoa ja Voimaa Mellunkylään project was launched in 2009, in an atmosphere in which the five residents’ associations in the area were not really communicating with each other. Contact with City of Helsinki leadership was chaotic and city communications failed to reach residents. Residents were experiencing bus-stops removed and children’s daycare centres flattened without consulting the local people properly.


The Mellunkylä model

The Vetoa ja Voimaa Mellunkylään project, launched in 2009, represents pioneering work in urban policy on both a Finnish and a European scale. The ingenious aspect of the project is that it links communities together to resolve problems that are recognised by all. The activists within the project frequently act as intermediaries in negotiations between administrative bodies and individual operators. Cooperation with the area’s entrepreneurs is at an exceptionally active level. Indeed, the project is a splendid realisation of the promise of democracy, where we, as a community, are as good as our shared knowledge and work.

At the core of the project is a joint action group which brings together grass-roots activists, entrepreneurs, political decision-makers, religious groups, hobby groups and city departments. Regular meetings draw a shared image of the area and sink their teeth into recognised problems. Instead of relying on the power of official decision-making, this discussion, trust and ability to make use of each and everybody’s own influence is often sufficient. Continuous interaction helps to find practical solutions to problematic situation together, without unnecessary accusations or blame.

In Finnish governmental culture, this way of seeing voluntary organizations, the private sector and public authority as a part of the same action group is an unusual way of thinking. People´s joint communication, decision-making power and ability to operate becomes more important than perfect structures. The joint action group changes form when identifying new issues or meeting new actors. When it is successful, it produces solutions which not only create lasting wellbeing, but can also be used elsewhere. The solutions that arise create persistent economic and social capital (Demos Helsinki 2011: Metropolin hyvinvointi – The Wellbeing of the Metropolis)

An extract from the minutes of a meeting of the joint action group in spring 2011 describes well the operating ethos of the project: “The meeting held on 12.5 dealt with the conflict between FC Kontu and the City of Helsinki Sports Department, concerning the construction of an indoor football hall for juniors at Jakomäki. With the help of Risto Rautava, one of the members of the joint action group and Chairman of the City Board, the conflict was defused and the football hall will be completed on time next winter.”

The emergence of joint understanding has strengthened the voice of the area to such a degree that it is heard more clearly in City of Helsinki decision-making. The City has been provided with a reliable, pluralistic and representative discussion partner. As a result of this discussion contact, official communication reaches residents more efficiently. For instance, changes in urban planning and social services come less often as a surprise. On many occasions, the project has succeeded in acting as an intermediary between City of Helsinki departments which are officially part of the same organization but in practice are frequently worlds apart in planning their activities. The project has been successful in situations related to agreeing on the


sensible use of premises and financing for small operators. As an indication of this, considerably more joint planning projects have been implemented in the Mellunkylä area than the average for Helsinki as a whole.

Improved services, premises for shared activities, festivals which draw large numbers of people and discussions which gather people’s own experiences have been of enormous importance in increasing and maintaining interest. SkidiRock and the KontuFestari are splendid examples of activity on a tight budget. The fact that Paavo Arhinmäki, Minister for Culture and Sport, took part in the 2011 KontuFestari shows that word is spreading about the good work.

Making the framework more visible has produced a positive cycle which makes it easier for new people to take part and for new modes of activity to be invented. For example, all local residents can confirm that the Kontula shopping centre is safer than it used to be and that the number of pupils at Vesala upper-stage comprehensive school has increased. At the same time, the number of members of the joint action group has increased over three successive years. When local operators have channelled resources into joint projects, it has saved time and money.

The joint action group has ensured that citizen initiatives make it through into the city ‘machinery’. Handling initiatives at local forums and informal meetings has reinforced people’s belief in democracy when they have received a proper response.

Table 1. Adapting the Design process to the Mellunkylä local democracy project Stage of design process

Example from applications within the Vetoa ja Voimaa Mellunkylään project

Identifying groups to create a larger society:

Linking groups with wicked problems:

Emergence and strengthening of peer groups. Assembling local civil servants, political representatives, residents’ associations, parish, non-governmental organisations, entrepreneurs and event organizers in one joint action group.

Finding and revealing the real causes of problems. Regular meetings to resolve recognised problems and create a picture of a joint action area. Agreeing on greater (e.g. Kontula shopping centre, KontuFestivals)

Constant prototyping: Learning tools for a new kind of community, driving the system forwards. Combining Lotto point, residents’ clubroom, services for youngsters and low threshold social services at Kontula shopping centre. Combining recycling centre, services for the disabled and residents’ clubrooms at Mellunmäki shopping centre. Setting up an allotment association. Themed local forums at which residents get responses to their own concerns. Founding the Mellunkylä People’s Academy to share people’s own abilities.


Table 2. Success in basic goals identified by actors in the Mellunkylä project


Sample achievements

Interest in shared matters -higher election turnouts -more effective monitoring of interests -better and more enlightened decisions

-emergence of joint action group, active participation in meetings -City gets a shared opinion -handling and monitoring of citizen initiatives -actors get to know each other -city information bulletins reach people better -Mellunkylä magazine distributed to homes through schools -effective, natural and regular interaction -interest in joint issues demonstrated by increase in members on the joint action group

Public services -decision-making involves participation and consultation -permanent cooperation on the project -smoother flow of information -more people benefit from services -preventing exclusion of young people -information flow within departments and from one to another -more direct channels for feedback -low threshold Symppis for lonely people. the homeless and those on the fringes of society -busy Kontupiste for all those needing computers -services planned jointly by departments and clients (e.g. services for children and young people), Kontutalo, housing advice, Kontu Festarit -joint action group help in organizing and funding bilingual children’s cultural centre in Musikantti premises

Self-organised activities -bigger things achieved through collaboration -frommarginalisation to participation -increase ways of bringing grass-roots influence to bear -more premises for operators -collaboration between local actors -harmony between neighbours -more things to do

-operators know each other -low cost or even free premises for associations and groups -shopping centre has become residents’ ‘living room’ and Kontutalo has become a busy place for activities and meeting (150,000 visitors a year) -free children’s festival SkidiRock aimed at children’s daycare centres -develop KontuFestival in terms of quality and numbers of visitors

Reputation of area - better reputation (Helsinki’s Tapiola) -build a positive image -make the shopping centre more peaceful and more profitable

-residents’ pride in their own neighbourhood given a boost -less shoplifting -shopping centre 75% less rowdy -Kontula shopping centre is a prime example of the renaissance of old shopping centres. -cooperation between different activities at Kontutalo recognised as a prime example at the City level


In a development workshop in June 2011, the social fabric of the area was approached in a shared situation via recognised groups of people ( The exercise, which began in playful mode, produced a rich picture of Mellunkylä as an area where all the people sharing the urban space have a recognisable purpose for using either shared spaces or services. There were mothers with shopping bags in both hands dragging petulant children home. There were alcoholics seeking their next oblivion. There were boys heading for the indoor skate-park. There were elderly people, still in love and holding hands. There were desperate individuals searching for packs of minced-meat on discount.

Observing people through purpose makes them actors themselves – subjects of their own lives with abilities and desires. It also shows, in a new way, those who are not reached. The next stage of the project is dialogue and activity with them.


The current modes of operation easily reach those who are interested in traditional grass-roots activities and those who come within the scope of social services. This is an excellent foundation on which to build. The actors in the project are well aware of the groups that are harder to reach. Among the groups that are most difficult to reach are families with children going through the busiest period, immigrants, entrepreneurs other than those operating in the Kontula shopping centre, individuals on the fringes of society who are struggling to stay afloat, unemployed young men, widows, young people’s subcultures and girls. An example of the challenges can be seen in the neighbourhood of Mellunmäki where a quarter of the residents are immigrants who are not reached at all by existing operations.

Consequently, one of the key issues in the project demanding reform is how to broaden and diversify the operating methods used. At present, joint action follows the traditional NGO culture which relies on meetings in the evening or in the morning, on attendance and on keeping minutes. Neither does the current one-way Internet communications fulfil today’s demands for dialogue. Getting something done, such as organizing festivals or children’s parties, tends to attract other people than those who come to debates. The project could more often listen to people in the places they already come together rather than trying to get them to join the organised meetings. By inviting residents to join concrete action they can be introduced to the people who are active in the area and to the decision-makers. They can be tempted to become interested in joint issues and thus experience the pleasure of successfully accomplishing things together, which in turn reinforces belief in being able to ‘have a say’ in how things are done. The development of Internet-based participation should not be seen as a threat to current operations, rather than as a diversification of the opinions gathered.

In the area of reaching out to youngsters, there are excellent tools available. Levels of education are rising rapidly. Already, the largest indoor skate-park in Europe draws huge numbers of young people to the area. Furthermore, Ruuti, the city’s new channel for young people, will be providing new ways for youngsters to exchange news at both district and city level.

The Vetoa ja Voimaa Mellunkylään project has succeeded in generating a strong tail wind. Currently, every active participant can identify daily issues that have improved. Shop-lifting in the shopping centre has diminished, timetables have been drawn up for the bus services and gymnasium premises have been repaired. Elderly people’s opportunities for influencing affairs have increased recognisably and local operators are producing new solutions across a broad front.

For these very reasons, the project needs to be continued. The Vetoa ja Voimaa Mellunkylään project is a prime example of a way of producing a significant impact using public funds earmarked for local development. Continuing the project would create possibilities for applying the lessons learned. If the project is continued, it will also be possible to model it so that it can be applied in other places, too. The Mellunkylä project is in fact starting a collaboration with the Aalto University Design Department on adapting design


thinking to urban development, as part of World Design Capital Helsinki 2012. Developing and trying out new modes of operation would be an excellent challenge for designers.

Future ideas at the workshop, which can be used to attract new groups to operate, strengthen local residents’ abilities to act, and create insights into joint interests among different groups. •

Organize evening sessions in children’s play parks.

The area needs a university campus.

• • •

Teach Finnish in daycare centres and play parks.

Bring families together to support peer-group activity.

Involve student unions, youth organizations, parents’ associations and housing management

A festival forum to decide jointly what kind of festivals to organize. Use swimming hall saunas as places for discussion.

companies in local forums according to themes.

• •

Kontula info-television in metro stations. Use notice boards in apartment buildings and under trash bin clids for communications. More visual messages to meet the needs of non-Finnish speakers.

Go out, meet people and get them involved, instead of just publishing details of opportunities.

Set up a local shop operating on a cooperative basis.

• •

Art museum. Support for a time bank to prevent social challenges which may be affected by concentration of social networks. This would have an impact on language learning and schooling for immigrants’ children, reinforce their parents’ integration, reduce elderly people’s loneliness and construct a support network for people on the fringes of society who are struggling to stay afloat. This would need one paid employee and existing organizations around the same table, plus a mentor at the launch stage.

Roof planting (e.g. library). Helsinki University is running a research and experimental project on the subject entitled The Fifth Dimension.

Make courtyards livelier.

Make shop entriances more attractive in collaboration with customers, organizations (e.g. Martat) and adult education centres.

Invite civic groups operating in other parts of Helsinki to launch activities in Mellunkylä, e.g. get the urban environmental group Dodo to advise how to involve people in livening up internal courtyards.

On the basis of one or two experimental sessions of afternoon activity in schools, young people could be attracted to try out new things and new leaders could be recruited to experiment with collaborating with schools.

Organize film screenings.

Mellunkylä is a natural place to experiment integrated services for the elderly as well as new forms of supporting personal growth and change.


Towards Local Democracy report by Demos Helsinki  

As part of an local democracy project in Helsinki, an report about the project was made by Demos Helsinki

Towards Local Democracy report by Demos Helsinki  

As part of an local democracy project in Helsinki, an report about the project was made by Demos Helsinki