How Helsinki Built ‘Book Heaven’

You might say, “Yes, of course I love the library.” We do, too. But I’m not sure anyone loves libraries quite like the Finns do.

In a country that boasts one of the world’s highest literacy rates, the arrival of the new central library in Helsinki last year was a kind of moon-landing-like moment of national bonding. The €98 million facility, whose opening in December 2018 marked the centenary of Finnish independence, has since been widely celebrated internationally as a model reimagining of these critical pieces of social infrastructure. At the CityLab DC conference this week, Tommi Laitio, Helsinki’s executive director for culture and leisure, offered his own, more personal take on exactly why this building is so important to Finland’s future.

(City of Helsinki)

Designed by Finnish architecture firm ALA and dubbed Oodi (“ode” in Finnish), the three-level structure is a kind of spruce-clad monument to the principles of Nordic society-building. Still, Laitio opened his talk not with shots of the building’s sleek interiors but with a sobering image from Finland’s brutal civil war of 1918, which killed 36,000 people, many of whom perished in prison camps.

“This progress from one of the poorest countries of Europe to one of the most prosperous has not been an accident. It’s based on this idea that when there are so few of us—only 5.5 million people—everyone has to live up to their full potential,” he said. “Our society is fundamentally dependent on people being able to trust the kindness of strangers.”

(City of Helsinki)

That conviction has helped support modern Finland’s emphasis on education and literacy—each Finn takes out more than 15 books a year from the library (10 more than the average American). But Nordic-style social services have not shielded the residents of Finland’s largest city from 21st-century anxieties about climate change, migrants, disruptive technology, and the other forces fueling right-leaning populist movements across Europe. Oodi, which was the product of a 10-year-long public consultation and design process, was conceived in part to resist these fears. “When people are afraid, they focus on short-term selfish solutions,” Laitio said. “They also start looking for scapegoats.”

The central library is built to serve as a kind of citizenship factory, a space for old and new residents to learn about the world, the city, and each other. It’s pointedly sited across from (and at the same level as) the Finnish Parliament House that it shares a public square with.

(City of Helsinki)

Its design reflects that lofty mission. The ground floor is an extension of the public square outside—a space for meetings, free events, and informal gatherings, with a cafe, theater, and various public amenities. On the second level, a series of flexible rooms provide a host of au courant attractions and borrowables—3-D printers and power tools, sewing machines and music rooms and makerspaces. Language classes are offered for migrants; gamers get VR-equipped computer rooms. Patrons can even borrow season tickets for the Helsinki’s popular professional basketball games. Only on the topmost level—in a soaring, light-filled space Laitio calls “book heaven”—will one find actual volumes for readers, a 100,000-book collection that’s in very high demand.

Inside and out, the facility is as handsome as Finnish Modernism fans might expect, and it has proved to be absurdly popular: About 10,000 patrons stop by every day, on average (it’s open until 10 p.m.), and Oodi just hit 3 million visitors this year—“a lot for a city of 650,000,” Laitio said. In its very first month, 420,000 Helsinki residents—almost two-thirds of the population—went to the library. Some may only have been skateboarders coming in to use the bathroom, but that’s fine: The library has a “commitment to openness and welcoming without judgement,” he said. “It’s probably the most diverse place in our city, in many ways.”

(City of Helsinki)

The crush of Finnish biblio-enthusiasm also runs counter to trends in nations like the U.S. and U.K., where budget cuts and defunding threats have strained library systems. In too many places, libraries are “places that many people value in principle but few use in practice,” Laitio said. “We’re losing out on their democratic potential. … Libraries have this incredible promise—that you can build your future in here. You can be your best person inside this building.”

This kind of devotion to the civic power of book-borrowing doesn’t come cheap, exactly. Besides the €100 million spent in building the central flagship, Finland spends another €35 million running the national system, or about €50 per resident. But to Finns like Laitio, it’s money very well spent: “I don’t think €50 for restoring people’s hope in living together is a bad investment.”

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This Conservative City Built a $132 Million Park Using One Weird Trick

In the early 1990s, a crisis of confidence—and urbanism—gripped Oklahoma City. Oklahoma’s capital wanted a bustling, active city center that would attract and retain large corporations and the people who would staff them. But the city had mostly been a luckless suitor. Foreshadowing the Amazon HQ2 cage match, in 1991, after a 21-month bidding war, United Airlines rejected Oklahoma City for a $1 billion dollar maintenance facility that instead went to Indianapolis, on the basis of its superior quality of life and urban amenities.

The city was “desperate,” says Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt, a Republican. Land values were low, and there was no one downtown. “We realized we didn’t have any of the amenities of a great American city.” Even with a metropolitan population of over 1 million, Oklahoma City felt like it was punching below its weight. “We felt like America’s biggest small town,” says Holt.

The answer, in one of the most conservative states in the nation, was to raise taxes. Civic leaders developed the MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects) program, a series of limited-time, one-cent sales taxes, which have brought in a total of more than $1.5 billion.

MAPS has paid for convention centers, sports arenas, transit, and more, with a strong emphasis on developing the city’s center. Its most recent achievement is the new Scissortail Park, named for Oklahoma’s state bird, the scissor-tailed flycatcher. Opened in late September, the park is a new civic front yard on the edge of downtown, framing views of the city’s skyline with its concert stage and broad lawn.

Young visitors play in a water feature at the park. The x-shaped Skydance Bridge and a row of “sky pillars” are visible at right. (Courtesy Doug Hoke)

“It’s an aspirational park, in that it’s the kind of amenity that people in Oklahoma City used to imagine only existing in other places,” says Holt. The $132 million park was designed by the landscape architects Hargreaves Associates. Mary Margaret Jones, a senior principal at Hargreaves, says that whatever the political orientation of her clients, “we’ve never found it hard to convince people that they want parks.”

As a gathering space in the heart of the city, Scissortail Park aims to find a large and diverse audience with a wide range of features and landscape types. Pedestrian and biking paths alternately curve or slice across it, though nearly everything orbits the park’s ovular great lawn and concert stage venue.

The park’s northern edge, bordering downtown Oklahoma City, is its most urban and connected, with a boulevard planted with lines of London planetrees. Along this edge is an entrance pavilion and café that marks the beginning of the park, designed with subtle references to the history of settlement and colonization in Oklahoma by Butzer Architects and Urbanism (who designed all of the park’s new buildings). The entrance pavilion’s 45-foot-high open-air tower is lined in red and orange metal panels and lit brilliantly, so that this crimson glow extends outside of its walls, like a hearth or campfire.

The café “lantern” at night. (Courtesy BAU)

“The image of the fires and gathering spots across a landscape seemed so relevant for a park in the midst of our city,” says Torrey Butzer, a partner at Butzer Architects and Urbanism. The original inspiration came from an 1889 quote from Harper’s Weekly. In “The Rush to Oklahoma,” William Willard Howard wrote, “At twilight the campfires of 10,000 people gleamed on the grassy slopes of the Cimarron Valley, where, the night before, the coyote, the gray wolf, and the deer had roamed undisturbed.”

The new buildings (the café, a performance stage, a boathouse, a play and picnic pavilion, and a multi-purpose shade pavilion) use low-key chromatic references to the Great Plains as well, with a champagne-colored metal that’s “the color of dust,” says Butzer. The hot and windy climate meant that the buildings are “as much about shade as they are about interior space,” says Jones; they deploy deep roof overhangs and low, broad profiles to block out wind and sun.

The eastern edge of the park hosts a promenade leading south, lined by native Shumard oaks, with 22-foot-high, luminous “sky pillars” by light artist James Carpenter. Further south, a pond offers paddle boating and plenty of shoreline.

To the south and west of the park are woodland gardens that are densely planted, more sylvan than civic; a “place for people to get lost,” says Jones. These areas are also home to one of the park’s most expressive landscape features: “lens gardens.” The lens gardens are slight depressions or mounds, about 40 feet in diameter. These are covered in themed plantings (cactus, grasses, perennials, sages) and adapted for several purposes, like stormwater retention or playscapes. With such clear artificial geometry, “we like to strike formal moves [that] are clearly discernible as manmade,” Jones says. “These perfect circles appeared within the field of ‘nature.’ [But] this is not nature. This is a made place. [It’s] form-giving to make a place memorable.”

View of the circular “lens gardens” and pond. (Courtesy Doug Hoke)

A dog park, picnic grounds, playgrounds, and more round out the park’s offerings. And this 36 acres is just the first segment of Scissortail Park to be unveiled. By 2021, Oklahoma City is planning to open a southern section of the park, to be connected over Interstate 40 at the existing park’s southern border via a pedestrian bridge, called the Skydance Bridge, also designed by Butzer Architects and Urbanism (with the consortium S-X-L) and completed in 2012. The upcoming park will feature more naturalistic plantings and sports fields, and together, the two halves will form a 70-acre park that stretches from the central business district to the banks of the Oklahoma River.

An overview map shows the recently completed northern portion of the park (foreground) linking to the future southern section and down to the Oklahoma River, via the Skydance Bridge, which spans Interstate 40. (Hargreaves Associates)

The linkage of downtown to the river via a park is the long-running manifestation of the Core to Shore plan, which Hans Butzer, a partner at Butzer Architects and Urbanism and dean of the architecture school at the University of Oklahoma, proposed more than a decade ago through a series of studio exercises focusing on Oklahoma City urbanism. Working with city planners, his students identified many of the key infrastructural revisions that would come to define the park space, setting up civic conversations that would encourage residents and leaders to “start to dream a bit,” says Hans Butzer.

One impediment was the previous location of Interstate 40, which cut off downtown from the rest of the city. It was relocated southward and bridged with Skydance, allowing the central business district to expand organically without having to hop over a freeway. “It was really an opportunity to build a new part of our downtown,” says Holt.

The upcoming section of the park will end at the Oklahoma River. Forty percent of residents live south of the river, but not a single mayor has come from this part of the city, says Holt. It’s less affluent and less white than the north side. “Decision-making and political power has favored the north side of Oklahoma City,” says Holt. “I think it’s really important that our city overcome that.” He hopes the park can pull people from disparate areas of the city together.

MAPS 3 (which funded the park) raised $777 million with a tax that ran from April 2010 to December 2017, slowly but surely providing debt-free financing for streetcar services, a convention center, streetscape projects, the park, and more. The MAPS program has an established record of investment in Oklahoma City’s civic center, but it’s not perfect. Sales taxes are regressive, meaning that they penalize poorer people more than affluent ones, because poorer people spend a larger percentage of their income. Asking voters to explicitly approve each tax doesn’t allow for a reliable funding source. And much (though not all) MAPS spending has been laser-focused on the city’s downtown.

But a wider test is coming for MAPS. In December, the city will ask voters to approve the largest MAPS package yet, $978 million dollars for what Holt calls “neighborhood and human needs.” This includes mental health services, homelessness, and domestic violence funding.

Scissortail Park is among MAPS’s most democratic offerings. It’s notable that Skydance Bridge was completed a full 7 years before the park, when the surrounding neighborhood was a disused warehouse district. Without the long track record of MAPS, it might have ended up as a literal bridge to nowhere, the kind that lawmakers enjoy lambasting as a feckless waste of public dollars. As Oklahoma City continues to invest money and resources into Scissortail Park, there’s reason to hope that, like the bridge, it creates more paths for investment to flow beyond the borders of downtown.

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