Imagine. Your home is in a place that is safe and attractive. You and your family can walk and cycle
to schools, shops, cafes and jobs. In less than a block, you can get a haircut or go to the dentist.
There are a variety of places you can meet up with friends and it’s easy to move around your
neighbourhood. If you need to travel further there are options that don’t require a car.
This city has frequent, comfortable and safe transport facilities and services are available on
neighbourhood roads: bike lanes, trams, buses, ride shares. You can also drive a car to and from your
home, but you don’t have to own a car.
For one city this vision became reality through a bold new approach to urban growth.
Helsinki has transformed its thinking around assessing land use and movement concepts, leading to
the development of the “urban capacity” methodology.
Traditionally traffic engineers measure traffic capacity (vehicle and people throughput) and end up
with car-centric solutions (because “the transport model told you so”). Meanwhile, architects
measure residential capacity (quality of living) when planning land use and tend to accept their
solution as a given, because the reasoning for it is based on years of this thinking. Both groups have
developed their own tools to measure the performance of any given solution for many decades but
don’t speak the same language when approaching planning. This is why cars continue to dominate.
In the city centre, urban diversity creates a resilient and vibrant society. This diversity calls for
proximity and connectivity, or “reachability”. The methodology for measuring urban capacity
considers the possibilities for people to interact. People, jobs, properties and services within a
neighbourhood (area within walking distance of a given location, 700 m) are measured and define
this urban capacity.
Planners recognise that as the urban structure becomes denser, the need for mobility increases,
whereas the space available for traffic doesn’t. A dense urban structure needs an efficient transport
system, capable of moving maximum of people and materials in limited space.
Urban capacity is highest in areas that are densely built up, where mixed land use creates high levels
of activity within a highly connected street network. Features that diminish urban capacity include
highways and massive shopping centres because they limit neighbourhood interactions and
When done well urban capacity has a positive impact on traffic. While the number of trips per
person doesn’t change, the modes do (because the trip generators are near each other). A
neighbourhood with good urban capacity provides many services within walking distance and mean
walking and cycling trips are the most convenient way of moving. High urban capacity also calls for
effective public transport services.
The beauty in urban capacity is in the fact that it serves both – land use planning and transport
As a result of this thinking Helsinki’s growth will transform many of the motorway-like thoroughfares
into boulevards with adjacent mixed use development that support public transport and increase
the attractiveness of walking and cycling.
The densification of a city has to happen in a way that is
attractive for everybody – people/residents, businesses and services.
However, the journey to urban boulevards has been challenging and there was significant
opposition. Key to success was educating stakeholders and authorities about the positive effects of
transforming motorways to a “less efficient” transport corridor and executing a broad range of
interactive methods during the process to ensure that citizens were closely involved.
People behave according to the environment and opportunities that are available. Sustainable
modes of transport will be the most attractive choice if street space is prioritised for active and
My challenge is to not let the car dictate how our environment looks. We know what attractive and
safe neighbourhoods look like, so why not make it happen?