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Creating public spaces in a sustainable way

What role water plays in urban design?

Welcome to the Urbanista blog where we discuss water management challenges of Nordic cities. From safe drinking water distribution and stormwater collection, to building sustainable urban living environments. The Urbanista blog is based on the Urbanista podcast episodes. This post is based on the interview with  Päivi Raivio, Helsinki-based designer who has dedicated her career to creating better public spaces through urban interventions and placemaking.
Listen to the full interview

Creating public spaces in a sustainable way

Päivi Raivio works with Daniel Bumann in the multidisciplinary urban design and placemaking agency RaivioBumann. The duo has also founded modular urban furniture company Parkly to revitalise urban spaces. Päivi won the Helsinki Design Award in 2022 for her extensive work in community-driven and place-led urban design. 
Päivi is also a Leader-member of the Placemaking Europe network and an active writer. 
 During this insightful conversation we discussed topics such as urban place making and a role of water in urban design.
  • What role water plays in place making?
  • Creating public spaces in a sustainable way 
  • What urban planners / place makers need to think when designing new spaces sustainably?
  • Rainwater management in public parks or new leisure areas
Watch the full interview!

Who are you and what do you do?

- My name is Päivi Raivio. I’m an urban designer and placemaker, particularly focused on urban spaces and the interaction between people and cities. I’m the founder of RavioBumann which is a consultancy focused on projects, consulting and facilitating. But I’m also a founder of Parkly which tries to make a difference by adding social and green spaces with modular furniture. I’m also very active in the placemaking field and a leader member of Placemaking Europe which received the Helsinki Design Award last year.

Can you tell us about the placemaking conference you spoke at in Pontevedra?

- Placemaking is a really great umbrella because it gathers together a wide variety of people who are somehow working with urban spaces. There might be developers, real estate owners, designers and architects, but also facilitators and people who work for municipalities. At the placemaking week in Pontevedra we discussed a great variety of topics and the city itself is a great success story of creating a really nice, large pedestrianised centre. That was one of the key topics there, how to create cities like that, car-free cities. But other topics included some workshops on Playful Cities which I was involved in (cities and urban spaces that welcome all age groups with a specific focus on children) and Transformative Placemaking, where we start with strategic small actions with the goal of transforming a whole district. It really starts with small actions like placing a few chairs, watching where people move, and from there building up a place-led development.

From which point do you normally start a placemaking project?

- It starts at the place, on the site which is maybe unused or with a dynamic that perhaps should be changed, it might be too empty or feel unfriendly or unsafe, lack greenery or activity. Basically, as cities are becoming denser, we need higher quality urban spaces and from a placemaking point of view this means opportunities for people to meet each other, have a space to relax but also to enjoy the good urban life. So, often the project starts by identifying the issues and challenges of a certain space, let’s say a square. But we also look at the strengths or potential of a place: there might be community or resident groups that are active in that area but who don’t have a foothold on the square. There might be a daycare close by that is not even using the square because it doesn’t fit their needs. These are the things we start exploring and creating more and new connections between people and place. That might work in different ways, like placing modular furniture, green elements of playful elements and also facilitating gatherings and events.

What are some typical solutions you can bring to a simple community square?

- The basic request we often get from residents is: more seating, more greenery, more life. We often call it market life, where you could get a coffee or have opportunities to linger, but in a good way. Our needs arrive from different age groups. If you think about families, that sort of age group also has several age groups within it. The adults would like to sit down and have a coffee, but then the kids might want something to play with. Often the greenery is interesting for children. These are the basic elements, but there are many others. There could be public art, or maybe some opportunities to organise events. It comes down to quite simple things. And often, just the idea of somewhere to sit down, is really important when it comes to anchoring people to a place.

Which type of materials do you use?

- We’ve often used wood in the modular projects. This is with a view to sustainability, but wood is also a comfortable material. The material choices and the design is such that each piece can be replaced or changed, so that gives us extra flexibility allowing us to go back and redesign elements based on the feedback that we get. So hyper-modularity and circularity is embedded in the concept. But in terms of materials, it is also important to highlight the green / bio-materials like plants. We have moved away from the idea that plants are only decorative, we also want them to support biodiversity, or we choose edible plants, which gives another dimension to the idea we can have a connection between nature and urban spaces. We want to bring that greenery close to people because quite often, things like flowerpots are in one place, and the benches are separate, and we want to bring them physically closer, because that has quite a positive effect on people when they can actually sit next to the plants, see the bees and have a multi-sensory experience.

How do you keep the green elements, like plants, of the design alive and healthy?

- Of course, plants need watering, but this really varies depending on the amount of rainfall. There may be weeks when they don’t need watering at all so these are all planned according to the weather conditions. In most cases the watering is done in a way that the soils absorbs all the water and nothing goes through to the ground. Our planters also have reservoirs which retain a certain amount of water so the watering frequency is not as high as normal plants.

Do you have any problems with floods from the designs?

- No. The most common floods happen when the water hits the concrete or tarmac, so there is nothing to absorb the water and it races to the sewers and quite often creates flooding problems. Interestingly, I was at a seminar in Turkku where they said that a few years ago they had really heavy rains which had caused floods and cost the city hundreds of thousands of euros. Basically, the solutions to alleviate this kind of runoff problem is to add more greenery, to add these rainwater gardens. Our solutions will help to slow down the rainwater, but the more greenery and soil surfaces you have, the slower these flash floods will happen.

Are the materials used in urban design usually sustainable?

- I think that in general there is a lifecycle assessment and more durable materials, more permanent and sturdy, are used. But I think there could be many more wooden structures in public spaces. I would say that the current situation regarding materials is quite good, but I would stress the opportunity to add greenery and I wish that in urban and street projects this kind of greenery would be prioritised more.
One example is just around the corner, in Töölö, Helsinki. One street was recently renovated and the citizens were able to give their feedback on the plans. There were hundreds of comments saying, we would really want more trees on this street. However, they haven’t put any trees there. There is space and wide cycle lanes, but I am puzzled as to why it is not possible to place more trees there.

Why is it that we don’t have more green areas and trees in public spaces?

- I think there is a slow shift in culture regarding the priorities of the development or architecture. This comes from many directions. The citizens, targets and strategies that the city has to meet, policies and regulations, but I wonder if these priorities have quite reached the public spaces yet. Perhaps including trees on the plan is the last on the list of priorities, more a case of ‘if there’s space and money, we’ll add them if possible’. However, if the planning started from the idea of adding ten more trees to a particular street, then all the other planning would have to work around that. There are compromises we have to make, but I think more and more the greenery is becoming a higher priority in the planning. But we still have a long way to go in terms of sustainability being at the core of our planning.

Do you see an increase in sustainability awareness in urban design?

- It’s definitely coming. In our projects we try to do, by default, greenery solutions that support biodiversity and are circular products which break the idea of linear ownership. A friend and colleague from London, Jan Kattein said, it’s really about how you respond to a brief. You can expand the understanding of what sustainability is and you can bring solutions to a project that people didn’t even imagine they could ask for in terms of sustainability. Lahti is a good example of this. We did a project there which was one of my favourites which had a placemaking frame of creating a big impact with small actions. We worked with eight different daycares in Lahti, and our aim was to include more greenery in their yards.
Access to greenery for children is a playful thing, it’s also a health thing, it’s a way to develop your relationship to nature. The quality of the environment where they spend so many hours per day has a big effect of how they interact with plants. It’s even proven that contact with soil on a daily basis can boost children’s immunity systems. But when we did the Lahti project, we really noticed the potential that having more greenery in daycares has. And this can be planters or gardens. But we noticed that the least satisfied personnel were those in the new buildings, buildings which have been designed to be really functional, with limited greenery, with few trees unlike the older daycares which had much more variety and greenery in their yards.

Which project are you most proud of?

- There are many projects, but perhaps I would choose the project we did with the Helsinki Market Square with placemaking methodology, and we experimented with modular elements and furniture for the first time. We realised that there is actually a need for such a furniture system and since we don’t find it on the market, we are going to create it ourselves. That was a big push to create Parkly, but also important in terms of being able to make a big impact with fairly small actions, basically greenery and seating.
There were multiple goals. One was to communicate and have some sort of visible action related to the whole development of the southern harbour area. As one of the first steps, the city decided to remove some of the carparking from the waterfront, which I think is a really valuable first step towards making it more people-friendly. And in those spaces, we were commissioned to create a pop-up park and then a stage-like structure. This really showed us that with just these elements, we can really anchor people onsite and they can enjoy their city and this waterfront area was particularly important because it is a key asset of Helsinki.            
Cities are always evolving. They are getting hotter, so we need to include greenery to cool our urban spaces. The demographics can change, the density is increasing so these public spaces become important places to play or picnic. And we want to help keep them alive even though their original design no longer fits our needs.

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