Collective landscapes of Helsinki

Using Instagram data to reveal public perception of the City of Helsinki

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

The novel concept of visual landscape branding¹ emphasises 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, planned by local government and city authorities.

Where are the landscape photography hotspots of Helsinki?

We analysed 60,000 photos posted to Instagram, of 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 categorised according to their content: urban, natural, and mixed landscapes.

Even though Helsinki is a very urban metropolitan area and the majority of landscape pictures from Instagram were geolocated within the Helsinki peninsula, 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 highlighted.

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, tells a different story and produces its own collective landscape. We overlaid the most photographed views from each of the five districts.

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 the 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 emphasises the importance of human-scale objects for people to connect with the landscape.

Punavuori is a former working-class 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.

The 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 views expanding to two perspectives. One of the collective landscapes includes the red-bricked tower in Sinebrychoff Park, which is also popular place for leisure. The Mikael Agricola church gives Punavuori a recognisable skyline.

Kallio is well-known for its 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 downtown Helsinki. 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 a 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 photographs 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 position.

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 us better understand 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 social media platform probably encourages people to take photos in a certain way. Embedded in social media there is also an aspect of copying: when a popular user chooses a certain aesthetic style, others follow. This behaviour 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 the 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 do these collective images offer city officials?

Team members

Zuhair Iftikhar, Tiina Laatikainen, Chau Nguyen, Essi Oikarinen, Simo Saari, Long Chau Tran


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