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  • Joonatan Hamari

Verticality in urban space

As is the case with many prime books, even scratching the surface of Stephen Graham's Vertical provided an intriguing new tool for critical thinking. I ordered the book in order to gain new perspectives when preparing the cultural mapping of Oulu's Kaijonharju area in 2021. In this blog, I reflect on the beginning of the book and the socio-economic aspects presented in it to the urban space in Finland – and more closely in Oulu – while combining its contents with other urban planning perspectives that I reckon feasible. For starters, I will briefly discuss the topic on a general level, then in the context of Oulu. Finally, I will outline examples of what kinds of solutions cities in the early stages of the urban stacking process can end up with by applying aspects introduced in Vertical. Although in my blog post I pay attention to the observations brought by the perspective of issues related to power and stacking, my purpose is to encourage the reader to look for opportunities in the development of a better city.

Vertical leads the reader to look at people's control and division of space, as its name suggests, from a vertical perspective. The core of the book is in urban space and the wider organization of humanity, as well as in what the established horizontal approach to managing space ignores. Eurocentric geography, based on planar projections, was built in the era when Europeans explored and took over corners of the world unknown to the imaginary sophistication. Since the best identified power relations between populations, such as the (post)colonial activities carried out by Europeans, have been drawn on a horizontal level, the social dimensions related to verticality have received less attention. For historical reasons, the management of areas is based on a horizontal perspective even from a legal point of view, which causes unsolved issues regarding management and operations both underground and in the atmosphere or outside of it. A flat approach ignores especially the layering of urban space and the space-time solutions of the neoliberal urban elite (one's own problems are moved outside one's circle of experience in space or time, spatio-temporal fix). On the other hand, even the polar regions are divided on the map into areas controlled by different states.

Verticality is a key spatial manifestation of power. It is so ingrained in our culture that established linguistic expressions associate height with relative superiority and power. Due to cultural entrenchment, the power associated with verticality is replicated the same around the world. In cities, socio-economic status can be observed vertically along with the horizontal regional division. Skyscrapers in big cities, in particular, symbolize masculine prosperity right down to their design – up to 30% of their height can be built for other reasons than human activities. The height of the buildings stands for light, vistas and perspective of power and control. On the other hand, the working and middle class travel at street level or on the subway underground. As the wealthiest part of the population perceives street life like ants from a bird's-eye view (cf. God's view), it enjoys clean air, light and space, and avoids the flashing lights of advertising aimed at the consuming middle class. The distance from the noise of the highways and air pollution offers health to the wealthy, and the higher the skyscrapers reach for light, the longer the shadows drawn on the streets.

Verticalization of urban space in Oulu

The vertical perspectives of urban space have been discussed in Finland rather one-sidedly. I suspect the reason to be the shame of rurality prevalent in Finland, due to which many phenomena of the "big world" are seen as progressive without considering how they relate to the basic values ​​of one's own society, the social system or urban identities. Culturally, efficiency is valued in Finland, which is reflected in the choices of words by planners and developers when it comes to high-rise construction. On the other hand, the change of state described by professor Sami Moisio in his book Valtio, alue, politiikka from a comprehensively populated welfare state to a competitive state and then to a metropolitan state is yet to be addressed in public debate on the power related to ownership of urban space. In any case, spacious Finnish cities are not to be equated with multiple, stacked megalopolises with multiple times higher population densities, a low green factor, huge population and higher levels of air pollution. Therefore, the effects of stacking are likely to be both milder and better hidden from the general population. However, by understanding the phenomenon, it is possible to harness it as part of the toolbox of sustainable urban development.

It is interesting how, in the context of our town of Oulu, the relationship between verticality and wealth differs from big cities at least for the time being. Oulu is famous for its flatness, and from a construction point of view there is still little stacking. The first step in the change of the local growth discourse from horizontal to vertical was the long-debated underground parking area called Kivisydän. The goal was to decrease car traffic in the central business district, free up street space from parking lots for other uses, and promote the trendy pedestrian CBD ideology. Unlike in megalopolises, the underground world was aimed at affluent population as a simple parking solution for private cars.

Next, high-rise construction began. The construction has taken place in the city center or within a short radius of a couple of kilometers from Rotuaari. Square footage prices of apartments in high-rise buildings are high relative to the general price level, which is lower than in reference cities. The price level rises schematically floor by floor. Intriguingly, the now rather common high-rise buildings in Oulu have been criticized mainly for aesthetic reasons. According to reports, the construction cost per square meter of tower blocks is higher floor by floor. The greatest economic benefits of stacking are achieved in a situation where the property value increases due to strong population growth and demand, so the basis for its economic profitability are either the network effects related to the services of the area or a strong view of the development of the land's price and rent levels.

Since the underground or above-ground world is still fragmented like a cluster of dots, there is still a conflict between different population groups over space at street level. While global cities have a clear hierarchical vertical arrangement, in Oulu the middle class and the wealthy population, who hold political and economical power, try to guide those in a socio-economically weaker position out of their territory, also horizontally and temporally through security measures and the rhythm of space. An example of this is the local “human garbage scandal” and the constant confrontation between people who are young or of immigrant background, and the middle-class older population in the half public hallway of Valkea. Also the so-called hostile architecture has recently established itself in the furnishing of public areas. There are individual indications of vertical displacement of the underprivileged who are staying in the basements in the city center or illegally housed in windowless basements.

Contradictions related to light and landscape have provided emerging signals about the topicality of questions related to airspace. Since the early 2010s, the spotlight of a private lighting shop in Oulu has directed a beam of light into the sky in the evenings, which can be seen from up to thirty kilometers away. The matter has aroused anger among the townspeople. However, the company has clarified the position of the town of Oulu, Trafi and the local airport on the matter. None of them have raised concerns about the harmfulness of the beam of light. In the fall of 2022, Kaleva reported on Oulu's light pollution from the point of view of watching the stars and northern lights. Regarding light pollution, regulation seems to be minimal, despite the fact that the concept is well established. However, the local construction control has recently increased regulation of advertising displays in outdoor spaces, referring to the safety of passenger car traffic. Former astronomy professor Pertti Rautiainen stated that Kaijonlahti, located about six kilometers north of the city center, is a rare and popular oasis for observing the sky. It remains to be seen how the perspective will be taken into account in future reforms. At least the strategy documents do not look for tourist attraction with the means of little light pollution, aurora borealis, light phenomena or polar stratospheric clouds.

Wind turbines that have become very common in recent years also flash red light to prevent collisions, which, together with landscape disturbances and infrasound, are the main causes of conflicts related to land use in wind power projects. In terms of airspace, I am following with interest the drone trials planned for the housing fair area, as well as the regulations related to them, for example, in terms of travel routes and sensors used. In Oulu, underground activity is still moderate and there are no mines near the CBD.

Possibilities in Finnish urban space

In spite of Moisio's theory of state change, Finland's landscape is still strongly based on pure nature, well-being and equality, along with engineering skills. The verticality of urban space is almost always associated with power and socio-economic hierarchy. How could Finnish landscape and identity be reflected in the design of tightening and verticalized cities? Listed below are three examples that are easy to come up with, but the whole spectrum of possibilities is huge!

1. Dark corners

Northern darkness and phenomena of the sky, such as the northern lights, are of interest in Finland and the world. Darkness and illuminating celestial phenomena can be translated into cultural resources that provide both economic and well-being benefits. In addition, restricting light pollution can improve the quality of sleep and the living conditions of other organisms.

2. Public roof tops

Few things scale as beautifully as cozy public spaces! Open roof decks in connection with public buildings bring diverse views and identity landscapes accessible to everyone. The platforms also provide a platform for cloud gazing, as well as viewing the northern lights and light phenomena. More interest can be achieved by reducing light pollution.

3. Underground event and meeting places

Building foundations and layers of the ground dampen sounds and hide strong lights. By utilizing underground spaces, it is possible to organize events or meet other townspeople all year round, regardless of the time of day. The environments can be particularly interesting and modifiable, and the temperature is higher in winter than outside areas. In connection with underground parking solutions, it is possible to develop creative means of entertainment, such as urban sledding places in connection with ramps.

4. Other public layering

People like to visit different environments. Offering spaces of different sizes and feels increases the attractiveness of urban space. Special places to visit and varied environments increase the possibilities of extraordinary spatial experiences and the formation of emotional bonds.

The blog was written by Joonatan Hamari, who is an urban developer from Oulu and part of the Kaupunkimme festival's work group. He also works on boards of several local cultural associations.

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