Do Statistics Document the History of Cities?

Laura Kolbe

How do Finnish cities describe themselves? Visits to their websites in autumn 2015 showed that their approaches are very similar. They present themselves by providing information organised according to the structures of local administration into linked sections entitled Housing and Environment, Culture and Leisure, Transport and Streets, Social Services and Health and Jobs and Enterprise. Those interested in the background soon find themselves on a page featuring a brief and chronological history of the city, describing its strategic goals and offering statistical information about the economy and population. A few photographs of cultural events and architectural gems as well as a link to the home pages of the tourism office do not change the overall impression that Finnish cities wish to portray themselves in their communications through statistics, administration and policy-making.

When cities and regions or states and the nation are discussed in Finland, figures and facts (Facts about Finland, Helsinki Facts) often play a key role. The surface area, population numbers, the GNP, the average life expectancy, climate conditions and similar data are mentioned, and the reader is left to fill in the blanks. Numbers become the nation’s symbol, a structured means to present the country. Statistics are part of the Modern Project of progress, although critics say that numbers do not tell us enough about real life. Both approaches, both for and against statistics, have long histories. In October 1907, a decision was made in Helsinki, the capital of the Grand Duchy of Finland, to collect and organise statistical material. But why were numbers needed in the growing Helsinki of the time? How did urban statistics emerge, and how does the interpretation of figures help us understand local history?

Our statistical thinking or numerical mentality has its roots in history. In eighteenth-century Sweden, general interests coincided with private ones: the notion of a “population” gained a new meaning derived from industrial policy. It became the state’s duty to address population development and promote marriage, and this objective inspired the academic-patriotic elements of society. There is a good reason for the strong roots of statistical culture in Sweden (and Finland), and that reason is unique in the European perspective. The people within the immediate circle of Professor Carl von Linné, the founder of scientific taxonomy, included Pehr Wargentin, who was an astronomer by training and served as the secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for several decades. In this post, he was able to concentrate on his favourite pastime, the collection of population statistics, which later earned him the title of “the father of Swedish statistics”. The Swedish Tabellverket (“Tables Office”) thrived under Wargentin’s leadership. He breathed life into statistics, made them tell stories and knew how to make the most of statistical material.

The systematic collection of statistical information soon began, and the world’s first statistical office, Tabellkomissionen (“Tables Commission”), was established in Stockholm in 1756. Data were needed about those baptised, deceased and buried (according to gender), marriages and their dissolution (through death) as well as population numbers at the year-end according to gender and social class. In crude terms, this was a large-scale population census. Wargentin and his contemporaries provided us with a model for looking at numbers in his 1755 booklet Anmärkningar om nyttan af årliga Förteckningar på födda och döda i ett Land (“Notes on the usefulness of annual records of persons born and deceased in a country”). The booklet’s title sheds light on its purpose: to help the state prosper and to strive for the greater good. The term ‘statistics’ entered the Swedish language in the 1790s, and the atmosphere of the time contributed to the term’s success: the French Revolution and the Enlightenment promoted belief in knowledge, reason, the collection and organisation of information, and systematic and well-organised mechanisms.

Elsewhere in Europe, statistics became fashionable in the early nineteenth century. Everyone needed statistics, particularly parliaments needed them to justify their decisions. Statistics and books on statistics were popular reading material, a veritable trend in leisure activities. Statistics had become a specialist branch equal to political science. Statistics no longer focused solely on the population, taxation and the state’s income and expenditure, but could also be used to interpret the physical and moral properties of individuals and communities, “to read small-town gossip”, as contemporary critics noted. Statistics were assigned a political task: numbers were used to define the development of nations. Social statistics helped increase understanding about prevalent conditions and thus differed from political arithmetic, which developed into a state theory of numbers. Statistics were differentiated to describe different groups and places. Rural and urban statistics were separated, and social conditions were highlighted alongside social classes.

This was the ground from which the statistical system of cities emerged. The idea of measuring and comparing everything led to the establishment of a strong and extensive network of statistics experts by the mid-nineteenth century, along with international meetings, conferences and transnational interaction. It is no coincidence that the turning point for international cooperation on statistics took place in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace, London. The Statistical Office of Finland was established in 1865. World’s fairs, in which Finland actively participated as a separate section from 1878 onwards, were a place for nations to present themselves, compete against each other and compare their achievements – all in the name of progress and development. Numbers revealed the moral and cultural state of nations, which had to be improved with the power of “progress”. Comparison provided the tools for nationalist discourse. Qualitative statistical material described financial competence, natural and other resources, the cultural state of the nation, and population development.

Urban statistics developed through interaction between the national and the international. Statistical offices were established in German cities from the 1860s onwards; by the turn of the century, one had been established in almost every German city with more than 100,000 residents. Thanks to the offices and their publications (Statistisches Jahrbuch Deutscher Städte), material that had previously been non-existent was now widely available, and consequently the focus on comparability again increased. Urban statistics developed simultaneously with the modernisation of local administration. It is no coincidence that statistics on populations, urban economics, local infrastructure, health, education, trade, shipping and travel became tools for the administration of cities.

Statistics pertaining to Finland and Helsinki were classified similarly as in other European cities. Statistical material was used to create an urban universe in which different sectors created a unified whole. The statistical yearbook was like a Bible which offered a gospel of information on the city’s surface area, climate conditions, population, buildings, cases of illness, poor relief, child protection, courts, police, sanitation, fire service, industry, trade, shipping, transport, city workers, consumption, social conditions, elections, wealth and income relations. The morality of statistics was about the drive towards something better and higher, a movement away from squalor.

The comparisons enabled by urban statistics affected the goals of urban planning and construction in the Nordic countries and Helsinki in the nineteenth century: the aim was to reach the level of larger, more highly developed cities. Statistical comparisons revealed problems, flaws and faults. Statistics on health care and causes of death served as tools in discussions on urban policy. The keyword was development. Industrialisation led to regional segregation within cities, which highlighted the problems of urbanisation in a novel way. Statistics were used to collect, organise and interpret information about the social consequences of industrialisation. The same themes emerged in the writings of social reformers, city planners and architects alike.

The metropolises of Europe had shown that the earlier a city grew and was industrialised, the more likely it was to develop socially segregated areas. Lack of housing affected both of the “new classes” of nineteenth-century cities, the middle class and the working population. Industrialisation did not yet promote urbanisation in nineteenth-century Finland (with the exception of Tampere) in the same way as other European countries. Statistics and statistical analyses have played a crucial role in the planning and policies of European cities. With the awareness of cities increasing in the nineteenth century, it was possible to show that social problems were the result of rapid and uncontrolled urbanisation. Mortality was higher in cities than in the countryside. Poor nutrition and hygiene, inadequate water and sewage systems and unsatisfactory waste management promoted the spread of perilous diseases, such as tuberculosis and cholera. Statistics demonstrated that alcoholism, prostitution and child abandonment were urban phenomena, as were the strikes, demonstrations, street anarchy and political violence that followed the organisation of workers. The prevailing scientific theory of the time asserted that environmental factors influenced human and biological evolution.

Hostility towards cities fed the romantic idea of a good environment. When the statistically demonstrated “evil” was linked to a poorly constructed and cramped urban environment, suburbs and their rural, spacious, bright and garden-like environment came to represent the “good”. A close, organic relationship to nature, the landscape and the countryside was deemed an instrument for good, educational and non-violent social reform. The uncontrolled growth of cities was difficult to steer, both in Helsinki and in other major European cities. Lack of housing and urban decay developed into some of the most important political issues in Helsinki and elsewhere. In Helsinki, the 1904 housing survey by city physician Vilhelm Sucksdorff proved decisive. It demonstrated that the problem of cramped housing was real: one-third of the urban working population lived in one-room apartments, with residential density reaching peak levels. The survey also revealed that the system of subletting had spread widely in Helsinki.

The statistical material was supplemented with visual and verbal narratives. Literature, photographs, paintings, caricatures and drawings showed what was already common knowledge: the poor and the destitute lived in unbearable conditions. The problems caused by rapid, uncontrolled growth in the continent’s metropolises increased hostility towards cities from the 1880s onwards. Violent, dirty and dangerous cities were set against an idyllic, harmonious, preindustrial and aesthetically uplifting environment. Nature, light, air, space and verdancy were seen as symbols of physical change. The pan-European roots of the fear of cities lie in this escapist attitude towards urban reality, which took a unique form in each country. In Finland, the change of attitude came fairly late in comparison to other European countries. It was not until the political turmoil of the new century that the fear of cities entered the permanent vocabulary of the bourgeoisie in Helsinki.

A Nordic section was included in the statistical yearbook of Helsinki in 1936. The Nordic capitals provided the most important European reference group immediately after the First World War and later during the Cold War. The breakthrough of local democracy, the expansion of local jurisdiction and the local economy as well as new types of social problems required cooperation across national borders, and the Nordic countries represented a suitable reference group at a time when the major Central Powers were losing their positions. Nordic cooperation was justified by emphasising the similarities between the countries’ political, legislative and administrative systems.

Until Finland’s accession to the European Union in the 1990s, the Nordic capitals constituted the most important European network for Helsinki. The models for welfare and local service production came from Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo; occasionally Helsinki also played a more contributing role. All Nordic capitals contended with similar issues at the close of the Second World War in 1945: housing, traffic, the relationship between the state and the city, social and health services, the “youth problem” and the rationalisation of local administration. Cities were planned and modernised with similar aims of contemporary functionality, viability and rationality. The focus was on dynamic urban and traffic planning as well as on the production of welfare services for all areas of local administration. The Nordic capitals resolved many major local policy issues, from housing to the construction of the metro system, in similar ways.

The Nordic countries also developed a unique way to resolve problems in local administration and policies: engineering and statistical data were combined to provide a realistic basis for decision-making. At its most fundamental, the idea of a new city was outlined in urban master plans; the first such plan for Helsinki was approved in 1970. Statistical data have been used proactively in master plans to steer and thus define the future in which statistics provide the direction. The international dimension was again emphasised at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s when Helsinki increasingly opened up to the outside world beyond the national and Nordic paradigms. The future strategies of the 1990s described Helsinki as Northern Europe’s city of science and knowledge in a new spirit of competition. Capitals and metropolitan areas no longer competed with their location, status and industrial production, but rather with universities and other institutes of higher education as well as knowledge and research results. Statistics were needed to demonstrate that Helsinki was a “European” city.

The statistical activities of cities represent a historical continuity. The question to be asked is whether statistics and technical reports play the same role in 2016 as they did a hundred years ago, that is, to encourage nations (and cities) to compete against each other in excellence and to cultivate their local self-image. Technical reports and statistics are no longer enough to describe reality; people crave experience rather than facts, stories rather than numbers, individual impressions rather than collective ones. There is room for criticism of statistics even today: God certainly did not create people and phenomena to be classified. But classification creates order, gives shape to the story and facilitates communication. As the history of Helsinki demonstrates, statistics are needed – at the very least to document our period in history and its special features for future generations.


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Laura Kolbe

PhD, Professor in European History, Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies, University of Helsinki.