pearl(s) of the baltic sea

researching the urban waterfront of downtown helsinki

Helsinki, the capital city of Finland, has often been described as the pearl of the Baltic Sea. The central location at the north coast of the Gulf of Finland has been the roots and lifeblood of becoming both nationally and internationally a vibrant metropolis and the central hub of Finnish history, economy, culture and governance throughout the years.

What does the small and shiny pearl of Helsinki actually include? What are the spaces and activities which form its unique character and identity especially as a seaside city? What does the waterfront location mean to the citizens what is the value of it? Does the pearl have smaller beads inside of it – or actually, should we reconsider the waterfront of Helsinki more as a necklace than as a single pearl?

the story

Today, the story of Helsinki continues when it’s enlargening bigger and bigger. The flow of new inhabitants can increase the population inside the municipality to approximately 860,000 by the year 2050, according to the new City Plan Vision of Helsinki. Helsinki can also be a large urban conurbation when growing more together with the inland neighbor cities and also the beloved little sister” on the other side of the gulf, the city of Tallinn. The connection with the third corner of triangle, St. Petersburg, is developing more intense too.

Analogously, pearls are usually being born very slowly during the years around a tiny grain of sand. Inside the sea shell, the animal accumulates multiple layers of different minerals and proteins around the grain, which produce the iconic shape, texture and shining color. It’s probably not a pure coincidence that the legendary slogan” connects Helsinki to sea pearls. During our project, we found that the analogue is still quite descriptive but we could rethink it a bit more. It links the sea and the multiple layers of spaces, activities and values together with the city.

hietaniemi & töölö

The first pearl is Hietaniemi & Töölö. Hietaniemi’s character is majorly formed by the legendary sand beach, especially in the summer time: swimming, sunbathing and the running children are the most iconic visual memories from this sunny area. In short, the values of Hietaniemi are mostly recreational ones – which are also very important for the youngsters.

ruoholahti & lapinlahti

Ruoholahti & Lapinlahti are the “West End” of Helsinki. The tall buildings for business and housing at the waterfront are shaping strongly its landscape. The students are also enjoying themselves there. One reason for these may be the good mobility of Ruoholahti – represented iconicly by the orange Helsinki metro.


jätkäsaari & hietalahti

Jätkäsaari is the young chap of Helsinki. Its youth and freshness can be seen through the vibrant diversity of exercised activities: leisure & social activities, business & income, personal care, food, etc. Also the housing value is rising rapidly when the construction process reaches its targets. The unforgettable value of Jätkäsaari is also mobility, created by the great Helsinki West Harbour.



Kaivopuisto is the sparkling emerald of Helsinki. The green color reigns the summer time when it’s all about the recreation, outdoor space, food and social activities. Events, gigs, picnics, holidays – you can have all types of fun! Despite the greenness, sunshine and joy of summer, the outdoor values of Kaivopuisto are actually growing stronger in the middle of snow and ice! How cool!


the market square

Everyone who knows a bit of Helsinki and especially have seen some images of it can probably recognise its most active and vibrant pearl. The market square is the hottest spot for almost everything at the waterfront: food, income, consumption, social & civic activities and leisure time. The legendary view from the sea towards the city centre is now dominated by a fresh landmark of Helsinki: the Sky Wheel.


the hakas

hakaniemi, merihaka & kruununhaka

The most eastern pearl on the downtown peninsula is formed by the three Hakas – the three hooks in English: Hakaniemi, Merihaka & Kruununhaka. The hooking effect encloses mostly recreational, social and consumptional values in the middle of interesting selection of architecture. Hence it’s not a surprise that these three “brothers” are also one of the hot spots for using Airbnb services at the waterfront.



the analysis

With the guidance of Helsinki’s new City plan vision, we analysed the social media data to unveil the “invisible” socio-spatial fabric at the Helsinki waterfront in a one-year time scale, from July 2014 to June 2015. Our analysis included also these previously mentioned three layers – space, activities, and values – to guide the insights.

With space, we analysed which are the hot spots – the most represented places and locations – in the social media and if we could recognise some particular patterns in the use of the urban space at the waterfront.

With activities, we looked at which are the main types of activities and functions exercised in these hot spots and if there’s also some particular activity patterns.

With values, we connected the previous layers to merge a narrative for each hot spot: what does the people in Helsinki appreciate in these places and hence which kind of values they attach to these places?


Click here to access to all interactive maps and explore activity patterns in Helsinki extracted from Instagram data.

Please, be aware that the data page is quite heavy to download.

the vision

The City of Helsinki started to form a new City plan in 2012, and in October 2016, the City Council approved it. The plan visions Helsinki at the year of 2050. The vision has seven main themes and one of those is Helsinki’s seaside areas.

The plan says: In 2050, Helsinki’s seaside areas and the archipelago will be stages for active life featuring residential and working areas, parks, cafés and public saunas without forgetting natural landscapes perfect for quiet relaxation.” The nature and the cultural-history of the seaside are seen valuable both for the citizens but also for a large amount of tourists. In short, the maritime Helsinki is wanted to be developed as functionally versatile places offering opportunities for recreation, entrepreneurship and housing throughout the year.” (Helsinki City Plan: Vision 2050, 2013, p. 6, 11, 55)


our workshop

The purpose of our project has been researching the city of Helsinki through analysing the big data from different social media. The metaTre” workshop, arranged by the SPIN Unit network, used the location-based data from Instagram, Twitter, Foursquare and Airbnb to unveil the metamorphology of Helsinki.

The research itself took its location in Tampere University of Technology (TUT), in city of Tampere, and hence the project is also about researching a city without actually being there. As the SPIN unit website says, we have approached the project as a new way to look at the city and city planning: Combining spatial configuration, known amenities and the everyday activities people engage in, the metamorphological approach paints a novel view to the city.” (SPIN Unit,, loaded 14.6.2017.)

our team

Negin Armioun, master student of sustainable architecture
Tampere University of Technology


Dalia Milian Bernal, architect & PhD student in architechture
Universidad Autonoma de Querétaro
Tampere University of Technology


Oleksandr Karasov, PhD student in environmental science
Estonian University of Life Sciences


Sami Maaizate, bachelor student of architechture
Tampere University of Technology


Joonas Salmijärvi, bachelor student of social sciences
University of Tampere

drawings © Dalia Milian Bernal – texts © Joonas Salmijärvi – pictures © Sami Maaizate & Negin Armioun – maps © Oleksandr Karasov