tiistai 1. huhtikuuta 2014

Could Better Urban Planning Help Keep the Baltic Sea Clean?

Guest post by Timo Hämäläinen, the author of From Rurban to Urban.

I recently wrote a piece in my urban planning blog about Helsinki’s relationship with the Baltic Sea. The focus was to discuss how Helsinki uses its shorelines as urban space and stages for civic life. Soon after, I got called up by Project AWARE to learn more about the current state of our sea and their efforts to save it. The inconvenient truth is that the element which connects the countries and cities of the Baltic Sea Region together is typically called the most polluted sea in the world. The pollutants come from sources such as industrial facilities, farming, untreated sewage waters and seafaring. And if these weren’t enough, people all too often just throw stuff into the sea. Project AWARE has particularly showcased this cruddy habit by having divers haul car batteries, shopping carts and countless beverage containers up from the inner-city waters.

Here’s some of the debris Project AWARE cleared from the sea in Helsinki last year. Photo by Ode Huttunen / Project AWARE Helsinki 2014 Facebook group.

After getting acquainted with what they do at Project AWARE, I got interested in taking a moment to think about the relationship between the urban realm and littering. People who litter are obviously personally responsible for their actions and the sea is an element typically beyond the scope of urban planning, but the littering nonetheless happens in urban space. With insightful interventions planners and city officials might also be able to encourage people to act more responsibly.

In any case, something needs to be done. Helsinki and Finns in particular have a lot to do. The Baltic Marine Litter project has assessed the state of coastal areas around the Baltic Sea Region and found that the Finnish shores are the most littered in the region.

The city of Helsinki has responded to the litter problem by surveying people on their experiences, attitudes and expectations about littering. Suggested reasons for littering varied from general indifference to blaming irresponsible youngsters and the lack of convenient trash cans. Generally, the respondents concluded that littering could be increased with working on people’s attitudes.

This sounds reasonable. But the Australians have taken on a more robust approach to understanding littering behavior in cities and concluded that surveying people is not the best approach to understanding the problem. In their national littering study, the Aussies focused on observing and documenting actual littering behavior and found for example that contrary to common belief, placing blame on the youth is shortsighted. According to their findings, there is no such thing as a littering ‘type’ as both sexes and people of all ages and social backgrounds were observed littering and using trash cans appropriately. Moreover, the people least likely to litter were those aged under 15. All adults of all ages littered more than this group.

The research also suggests that littering indeed has a spatial context by noting that the design, placement and location of trash cans influences littering behavior. And even more importantly, the nature of a site is also a factor that contributes to littering patterns. Heavily littered places are sites that are already grimy. 

A sunny Sunday afternoon in central Helsinki. Uninviting urban coastal areas like this don’t exactly attract people to spend time in them. Photo by Timo Hämäläinen.

This is where urban planning and design come into the picture. My observations are that much of the shorelines in Helsinki’s inner city areas are characterized by uninviting parking lots, urban no-man’s land, and heavily trafficked roads. In suburbia, coastal areas are often in a “natural” state and act as urban forests for recreation. Very often this means that those areas are not filled with people, making the act of littering relatively invisible. In the inner city many of these spots are also not a sight that would get your spirits high. With respect to the Australian research, these are just the kind of sites where people tend to litter more because there already is a visible state of decay.

This is another reason to focus on making the zones where the city meets the sea better places for civic life. Not only would that bring new areas for urban buzz in Helsinki, beautiful urban environments may inspire people to take better care of them. Throwing a car battery into the sea is less likely to happen at the edge of an attractive plaza filled with people than at a secluded parking lot.

A central, uninviting and muddy stretch of Helsinki’s seaside. Yes, there’s litter everywhere. Photo by Timo Hämäläinen.

A more direct measure would obviously be to add trash cans along the shorelines. Since their design is also a factor to take into consideration, why not introduce trash cans with a message? When I was in Istanbul a couple of months ago, I went for an early morning stroll by the sea and discovered that there they had transformed many dumpsters into works of art. We could borrow this idea in Helsinki by introducing waste containers that in different ways showcase the importance of taking care of the Baltic Sea. Cool designs would not only draw attention to the trash cans, but their message could hopefully inspire some people to start acting more responsibly.

Dumpster art from Istanbul. Photo by Timo Hämäläinen.

These are just some ideas how urban innovators could make a difference in protecting the Baltic Sea. I urge everyone to come up with plenty more!

3 kommenttia:

  1. Very thought-inspiring article!

    It´s just so that the ununrban shoreline forests work as a buffer zone against the polluting and eutrophicating runoff from the city - which still are bigger problems for the Baltc Sea than littering. Now, there´s a challence for landscape planners: create an urban shoreline with a deep enough vegetation zone. I´m a little afraid those are somewhat excluding each others, but then again, I´m no landscape architect.

  2. In a sense the planning of environmentally sustainable shore areas is not that complicated. For the time being the toughest obstacles come from sclerotic opinions and politics. Shop keepers are not at all à jour about public's way of using urban areas and imagine that the only way of getting business opportunities is to offer cheap parking right in front of their businesses. There are several researches showing the opposite; if you have pleasant, pedestrian-friendly surroundings, which persuades people to stay and stroll, even the small businesses obtain better results. http://www.livingstreets.org.uk/make-a-change/library/the-pedestrian-pound-the-business-case-for-better-streets-and-places
    Also it is a fact that public places, which are conceived as beautiful, are places where people stay longer, litter less and feel better. These are factors, which should be priorities for any politicians as they all have direct health and well-being benefits.

  3. People and Places: public attitude to beauty.