New Social Movements and the Commodification of Places

Mikko Laukkanen

According to the new master plan, Helsinki aims to utilise the exclusion areas of urban motorways to densify the urban structure and expand the urban core outwards. The lack of developable land in good locations near adequate transport infrastructure, the rigidity of the zoning system and problems with infill development, have made building new housing for the growing population increasingly difficult. By turning motorways inside Ring Road I into boulevards, the exclusion areas could be designated for residential use, which would help tackle the worsening housing shortage. If the boulevards are not built, the land-use potential of the new master plan is significantly reduced. This could ultimately result in greenfield development or new landfills. Greenspaces are however highly valued, and vast new landfills are technically and economically challenging to implement. In addition, developing exclusion areas would also mean sacrificing their existing greenspace.

In his article The City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place (1976), Harvey Molotch strove to explain the transition of cities in the United States in the 1970s, and to describe the reasons behind their pursuit of growth. This growth machine theory has explanatory power regarding the planned ‘boulevardisations’ in Helsinki. Land parcels represent the interests of landowners or other individuals that benefit from land use. Thus, it is beneficial to parties with similar goals to form a growth coalition and commit to strategic cooperation. Although the ultimate goal might vary, the cooperation is profitable. As the driving force of growth machines, the rentier class derives a monetary gain from property holdings through the commodification of places. According to Scott Rodgers (2009), the structural speculator rentiers, such as real estate agents and developers, pursue exchange value from land, contrarily to the end-users – residents or environmental activists – who favour the use value of land. This controversy is highlighted in the land-use conflict related to the plans to develop strips of the Central Park as part of the boulevardisation of Hämeenlinnanväylä. The residents oppose the commodification of these strips, emphasising their use value. After the introduction of the master plan proposal, a social movement including residents, citizens and various NGOs, called Keskuspuistoryhmä (The Central Park Coalition), was formed.

Outi Rissanen (2012) studied in her thesis the formation of a new social movement. The study suggests that social and cultural changes in civic society and advancements in information technology have enhanced the possibilities for civic engagement. Today it is fairly easy to start a new social movement. New ways of interaction provide a wide range of possibilities for individuals to have an impact on societal matters. Participation is flexible and does not necessarily require membership in an organisation. This flexibility and ‘carnivalesque’ action evoking a sense of belonging in essence, define new social movements. In a similar fashion, the Keskuspuistoryhmä group operates on social media, gathering unofficial members via Facebook. It has also organised a carnivalistic event and gathered names for a petition. These are characteristic modes of operation for a new social movement. The rentier–resident strife over the commodification of places has indeed gained from the rise of new social movements and social media in land-use related disputes. Without taking a stance on the plans for Central Park, it is nevertheless great to see that societal agency and local democracy have adopted new self-organising forms and that residents feel empowered to influence the development of their living environments.

In urban planning, there are many voices to be heard. It can be tricky to strike a balance between the needs of residents and growth, as growth is ultimately needed to fund services and other city operations. Therefore, it is not a given that the needs of the residents and growth contradict. Other stakeholders also exist with their own needs and demands. In growth machines, as in Helsinki, growth is often legitimised with reference to ‘the common good’, but this raises questions over how ‘common’ the good is. Growth needs to be steered in order to achieve healthy and sustainable development and resident input provides valuable information in the pursuit of this goal. After all, aren’t the residents the ones for whom cities are ultimately planned?

This text is partly based on my Planning Geography master’s thesis Boulevards of Growth.


Molotch, Harvey (1976). The City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place. American Journal of Sociology 82:2, 309-332.

Rissanen, Outi (2012). Omaehtoista osallistumista: Tapaustutkimus Kallio-liikkeestä 2000-luvun kaupunginosatoimintana. Pro Gradu. Helsingin yliopisto.

Rodgers, Scott (2009). Urban Geography: Urban Growth Machine. The international encyclopedia of human geography. Elsevier, Oxford.