Immigration – a chance to enhance urban planning?

Elina Eskelä, member of the board of The Finnish Society of Urban Planning

“we come from a country where we are surrounded by people all the time […] therefore I chose [this neighbourhood] because I think that it is a little bit more vibrant and at least you see people around, there are kids playing in the park, things like that” Indian skilled migrant, male, 41, biotechnology

Slowly but steadily, the population of Finland is diversifying due to growing numbers of immigrants. The refugee crisis in autumn 2015 started a new era in the discussion on immigration and on the ways of incorporating newcomers into Finnish society.

As the refugee centres are located all over Finland, immigration is nationally more visible and tangible than ever before. However, the majority of the immigrant population live in the Helsinki metropolitan area. At the beginning of 2015, the number of residents in Helsinki with a foreign mother tongue (i.e. other than Finnish, Swedish or Sámi) was 13.5 per cent (around 80,000 people). According to the population projections, the number of residents with a foreign mother tongue will double, and their share of the total population will rise to around one fourth of the total population (Population… 2016).

What does immigration mean for urban planning in Finland, a country where net immigration turned positive only in the 1990’s and which still hosts a low share of foreign population compared to many other European countries? Do we need to take the diversifying population structure into consideration when planning the urban environment, and if so, how?

In many other parts of the world immigration has been a part of urban life for decades, and it has sparked studies on the locations and housing of immigrants, starting from the Chicago School of Sociology at the beginning of the 20th century. In Finland, the housing of immigrants has already gained some attention from academics, but urban planners have remained silent on the topic. As Professor Kimmo Lapintie (2014) wrote earlier in this journal, immigration is not discussed in the context of Finnish land use planning, but it is seen only as a question of employment and integration.

Obviously, immigrants are not a homogenous group of people. On the one hand, we have educated, skilled migrants who are sought after by cities and states that wish to compete in the global economy. On the other hand, we have refugees who have fled for their lives and are seeking asylum. Of course, some immigrants fit both these categories.

One way of acknowledging the growing presence of immigrants in the urban environment is to listen and learn from their experiences. My doctoral dissertation in urban geography (Eskelä 2015) examined the residential satisfaction among skilled migrants living and working in the Helsinki metropolitan area. The qualitative study drew on altogether 70 interviews with international students, workers in creative and knowledge-intensive sectors and experts on skilled migration. I paid careful attention not only to their present housing situation, but to mapping the migrants’ housing pathways in their past locations, as immigrants’ housing needs and preferences are influenced by their cultural, socio-economic and personal backgrounds, and previous housing experiences affect their evaluation of their current housing situation.

The results of the study are not very surprising for those who have experience of living in the Helsinki metropolitan area. The migrants’ assessment was that housing is expensive, cramped and uniform. In other words, skilled migrants struggled to find reasonably priced and satisfactory housing. This finding is highlighted by the fact that the interviewees’ cultural and socio-economic backgrounds varied greatly. The high prices of housing were a burden, especially to freelancers and families with children, who were generally on a tighter budget. Those who were better-off criticised the monotonous nature of the built environment, which is manifest in the predominance of apartment housing and boring architecture.

Interestingly, the study showed that the social aspect of housing significantly affects the residential satisfaction among skilled migrants. Almost all the interviewees wanted to have more interaction with their neighbours and roommates. The underlying reasons for scarce interaction were cultural differences and individuals’ personalities, but the problem also related to the forms of housing and the lack of common spaces in student housing.

At its best, built environment can offer meeting places for immigrants and native population. One interviewee mentioned how a public playground changed the situation of his wife, who suffered from loneliness as a stay-at-home mother and eventually became depressed. There was a playground in the neighbourhood, but it was not clear for a non-Finnish-speaker who the playground was intended for, so the mother did not enter the park. Finally, after many weeks, other parents in the playground signalled her to come in, and it changed her whole daily routine and social life for the better. The study also showed that international students have more social interaction with their neighbours in private rental dwellings than in student housing. To put it simply, social interactions develop in everyday encounters, which are assisted by a diverse population structure and also by voluntary neighbourhood work.

The worrying aspect is that although the interviewees were mostly in socio-economically good positions, it was clear that housing in the Helsinki metropolitan area posed several challenges for them. When educated, working immigrants face as many challenges as described above, the situation is obviously even harder for the refugees. However, it is probable that the need for social inclusion and interaction is present in the case of refugees as well. The lack of social ties weakens migrants’ attachment to the neighbourhood and their chances of joining the social networks that could benefit their integration into society.

It has to be remembered that immigration is only one, albeit significant, factor that is changing the population structure. The numbers of lone dwellers and new family forms are increasing, which creates needs for new types of housing and built environment. Furthermore, immigrants are not the only population group that suffers from the problematic housing market situation in the Helsinki metropolitan area or longs for more social interaction in their neighbourhoods. New housing solutions, such as the multi-generation block in Jätkäsaari, Helsinki, can make a difference for many vulnerable population groups. While learning about the residential needs and situations of the newcomers, urban planners could have a chance to try new solutions that would probably benefit many others as well.

Built environment forms a platform for daily life, well-being and social interaction. The diversifying population structure should be acknowledged when discussing and planning the urban environment. Well-designed residential areas can increase social interaction and also help the process of integration into Finnish society. Therefore more research on the housing experiences of diverse residents, including immigrants, is needed as it would yield valuable insights into the daily lives people lead in the built environment.



Eskelä, Elina (2015). Housing talent: Residential satisfaction among skilled migrants in the Helsinki metropolitan area. Department of Geosciences and Geography A33. Unigrafia, Helsinki.

Lapintie, Kimmo (2014). Miksi monikulttuurisuus ei mahdu suunnittelijan suuhun – eikä päähän? Yhdyskuntasuunnittelu 52:3, 36-44.

Population with foreign background in Helsinki 2015 (2016). Statistics 2016:2. City of Helsinki Urban Facts.