Collective landscapes of Helsinki

Using Instagram data to reveal how the city of Helsinki is perceived

Place-branding is an important activity in cities around the world. Brands and their ability to represent territorial identities has proven strong in the intensified competition between geographical areas.

The novel concept of visual landscape branding¹ emphasizes the key role of landscape in place branding. With this concept as a starting point, we wanted study the popular landscapes of Helsinki photographed in social media to expose visual landscapes determined by locals of Helsinki.

We want to bring forward the local views of visual landscapes instead of defining visual landscapes for branding strategies merely by a top-down manner, defined by local government and city authorities.

Group members

Zuhair IFTIKHAR, Tiina LAATIKAINEN, Chau NGUYEN, Essi OIKARINEN, Simo SAARI, Long Chau TRAN

Where are the landscape photography hotspots of Helsinki located?

We analysed 60,000 photos posted to Instagram, from which 9,000 were landscape photos.

We found out that most of the landscape photos are situated on the urban Helsinki peninsula. There are also some individual hotspots further away. These spots were for example hills and natural areas.

The landscape photographs posted on Instagram were categorized according to their content: urban, natural and mixed landscapes.

Even though Helsinki is a very urban metropol area and the majority of landscape pictures from Instagram were geo-located in Helsinki peninsula, the most of the photos presented natural landscapes, both green and blue or landscapes with mixed urban and natural features.

Also the weather and visual pleasantness were evaluated.

Case Studies

We chose five districts where the activity of taking landscape photos is high according to our analysis. Each of the districts, Jätkäsaari, Kruununhaka, Punavuori, Kallio and Töölönlahti, tell different story and produce their own collective landscape. We overlaid the most photographed views from every five districts.

This is the collective landscape of Helsinki.

Kruununhaka is known for its institutions: Empire Cathedral on Senate Square, Presidential Palace, Government Palace, City Hall, University of Helsinki and many others. Cathedral tower plays important part in Kruununhaka from the local viewpoint as well, giving a distiguished identity to the area. Instead as a touristic object seen from the Senate Square, it is more like a backdrop for daily life, most often peeking among other buildings as a part of the urbanscape.

In Kruununhaka there is least amount of green space per resident within the whole city of Helsinki. The collective landscapes show water and streetscapes with long perspectives. A red restaurant boat in the harbour, ML/Relandersgrund, is photographed more than for example President’s Palace or even Senate Square, which emphasizes the importance of human scale objects are important fro people to connect with the landscape.

Punavuori is a former worker district that has slowly turned to laid-back and enjoyable, without losing its vitality. The area is known for its hipsters, trendy creative workers lunching out in the cool local eateries and working in cafés.

Streets of Punavuori are rather narrow, so instead of vast landscapes people focus on recording the decorative streetcorners with spires and other architectural features, with view expanding to two perspectives. One of the collective landscapes includes the red-bricked tower in Sinebrychoff Park, which is also popular place for leisure. Mikael Agricola church gives Punavuori a distinguishable skyline.

Kallio is well-known for alternative culture. The steep hill leads to the Kallio church as the highest spot in the district. The rhythm of streets façades accentuates the focal perspective to the church. 

From the junction of the Agricolankatu street and the Fleminginkatu street, turning left leads to Kotiharjun sauna located in a corner of the Franzenin garden and a townhouse block. Near the front door of the sauna, there is usually a sauna group, peacefully resting in the courtyard and enjoying the art of naked networking.

Töölölahti is a popular area for outdoor activities in the heart of Helsinki downtown. There are many monumental buildings (i.e. Finnish National Opera and Ballet, Finlandia Hall, Kiasma, Sanomatalo) situated around the bay.

The collective landscapes of Töölönlahti are full of life, ranging from wildlife swans, ducks and birds to sporty activities. Modern architecture frames the landscape of Töölönlahti – especially during the night time when the buildings fill up with cultural activities.

Jätkäsaari is a newly built residential area in southern Helsinki. The location by the Baltic sea, Länsisatama harbour and the ongoing construction and urban development in the area are giving the specific character to the landscape of Jätkäsaari. Due to the rapid development of the area the landscape of Jätkäsaari is constantly changing and it is still missing pieces of its urban skyline.

The sea is present in the most of the pictures but the main object of landscape is usually something from the built environment. The Collective landscapes are representing big monumental objects that are photographed from a distance and from the same place.

Now what?

The collective images of the areas were in most cases quite clear. Yet also, different from each other. For example, the spatial configuration of the place and the architecture prompted people to take photos in a certain way and about certain objects (i.e. monuments in Jätkäsaari in the middle of empty landscape, street corners in Punavuori).

This type of study on collective images helps understand better how citizens perceive and experience their environments. Even though perceptions are subjective, the areas clearly had a collective identity coming through Instagram images. But are these social media landscapes different from the ones perceived otherwise?

Instagram as a media probably encourages people take photos in a certain way. Embedded in social media there is also be an aspect of copying: when a popular user chooses a certain aesthetic style, others follow. This effect might have affected our results.

However, the interaction of social media and physical space cannot be forgotten. If social media usage practices influence the way we interact with urban space and perceive urban environment and landscape, how should we take that into account? Should we start for example designing ”instagrammable” streets and squares?

Seeing that people photograph similar places within neighbourhoods, brings up the question, what other possibilities apart from branding these collective images can offer for the city officials.

 1  Jordi de San Eugenio Vela, Joan Nogué, Robert Govers, (2017) Visual landscape as a key element of place branding”, Journal of Place Management and Development, Vol. 10 Issue: 1, pp.23-44, https://doi.org/10.1108/JPMD-09-2016-0060