City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

How street food culture tracks and shapes an evolving city

These screen grabs of an iPhone app are interesting for a number of reasons. One reason is seemingly mundane, and concerns the procurement of such things, yet could unlock possibilities nonetheless.

The other reason is genuinely inspirational, potentially transformational even, and this post describes why, through both journal entry and essay.

The screen grab is from the Ravintolapäivä iPhone app. Ravintolapäivä is “Restaurant Day”: each of the map’s little green or black shields represents a pop-up restaurant of sorts. After starting in Helsinki a year ago, Ravintolapäivä’s role is to suggest “a food carnival when anyone can open a restaurant for a day”.

Which it is, although this doesn’t quite describe the genesis of the event, which came out of frustration with the effort required to set up a restaurant in Helsinki, of the kind that is open for more than a single day. (More on that below.)

Today, though, the sun was shining, the streets were full, and that frustration was long forgotten, given the explosion of invention on offer. While each of the little black shapes on the map above purported to represent a “restaurant”, imagine “restaurant” in the widest sense of the word.

For instance, our first stop this morning was for breakfast served from a little wicker basket lowered from a first floor window into the group of waiting customers below. Euros are stuffed in the basket, and up it goes. You shout up your order. Breakfast comes back.

The string had a menu attached, featuring egg and bacon, or eggs benedict, in home-baked English muffins (both hot bacon sandwiches and English muffins are extremely difficult to come by in Helsinki.) This is, again, not exactly within the law, but if this is considered a problem, then I believe the saying is the law is an ass.

(Me, C and the kids shared our walk with Marcus Westbury, of Renew Newcastle fame, who we (Sitra) had flown over to Helsinki from London the day before. He was here to give a talk on his own opportunistic urbanism experiments in Australia, at the excellent World Design Capital pavilion down the road. A day later he was, I think, slightly bewildered and slightly delighted to see the sights of Ravintolapäivä. We agreed that any civil insurrection starting with egg and bacon muffins was probably a good thing.)

The following description of “BLTs & Beer” on Laivurinkatu is also worth noting. This is Finland.

Other highlights of a wander around the city on Ravintolapäivä:

Fat Tony’s BBQ was doing a fine line in pork ribs and Kobe beef at Koffinpuisto:

Next to this, some very fine carrot cake and quiche, from women who had clearly thought about the entire experience (the radio was playing music that matched their garb.) Note: these nice ladies are effectively criminals. They do not have a license to do this. Or at least, if not criminals, they have situated themselves in some kind of legal grey area. Here, you can immediately see the absurdity of the situation—this is clearly good, yet not legal.

Further on, around the corner, our intern at Sitra’s Strategic Design Unit (Ed. later, Kalle would set up Sudden Coffee) was running a coffee shop out of the ground floor window of a co-working space (expertly-made flat whites and rosemary meadowsweet truffles):

(Incidentally, we were ‘parasitically’ using the coffee stall as a kind of “design research honey-pot”. Kalle had come up with the idea of getting people to scribble down what they’d like to see more of on Helsinki’s streets, and I quickly made a poster featuring a ‘blank’ kiosk, as seen all over Helsinki and largely under-used, for people to sketch on. It seemed to be working, and more on this later.)

We also sampled a crêperie run by a French fashion student, sampling blueberry crêpes before walking past some kind of Cuban scenario:

Ice cream for the kids from the (finally open) lippakioski (“baseball cap kiosk”) at Johanneksen kirkon puisto. This is a kioski I walk past every day, yearning for it to open.

And finally, gourmet Italian sausages, spaghetti and tiramisu cooked inside a cooking equipment shop, ‘Eiring’, and served directly outside, on Korkeavuorenkatu.

All were fantastic. The quality was excellent — especially the Italian and Kalle’s coffee — and how delightful to compose a brunch by walking around the city, following your nose (or rather, the app), as if the streets themselves were one giant smörgåsbord.

But the street experience itself was a joy to behold. It truly felt like a new kind of Helsinki. International, cosmopolitan, diverse yet uniquely Finnish. A mix of punters, experiences, spaces. Hipsters and grannies, and hipster grannies. The previously grey, buttoned-up, sparse and often deserted central streets — an atmosphere carefully cultivated by the City’s anachronistic approach to urban design and planning — were suddenly flowering in the warm spring sunshine. The smiles on everyone’s faces utterly belied the stereotypical taciturn character of the locals. That characterisation is of course a generalisation, but as Monique Truong wrote in The Atlantic this week, on Helsinki’s food markets, there is “a Finnish matter-of-factness that can register as dolefulness or resignation to a newcomer’s ears.” But increasingly less so, and certainly not today.

It’s the essence of urbanism, this coming together of diverse elements on the streets, to exchange, to generate culture.

It might sound patronising — I don’t mean it to be — but it felt like a city discovering they could use their own streets as they liked; that the streets might be their responsibility (compare with my recent notes from Berlin.)

While it might seem trivial to those who have seen cities with a looser approach to the streets, it’s somewhat extraordinary in this context. At some point, this happens to a city. In Brisbane, it took until Expo 88 for the city to discover eating and drinking on the street, despite the climate. In Manchester, maybe the mid-’90s. In Helsinki, perhaps given the far less favourable weather for half the year, multiplied by the stentorian governance regime of the recent past, food in the street has only flared at points in the pre-modern city, at the ’52 Olympics, and perhaps only again now (read our history of Helsinki street food here.) Whatever the contested history, I was proud to be a citizen of Helsinki today.

Again, the kind of restaurants you see above are, in essence, illegal within the City of Helsinki’s jurisdiction. The only establishments licensed to prepare and sell food in the street context are the tightly regulated grilli, generally selling variations on appalling hot dogs for drunk people, and at a handful of places designated by the city.

Or at least, if it is not illegal, it is in a very grey area indeed. Deeply grey. And this city has plenty of grey area. Helsinki is an extremely opaque city, in which governance is often exercised through interpretation and tacit understandings which — traditionally — has been enabled by having been relatively homogenous and relatively small. All of this is now changing, with the diversity described by events like Ravintolapäivä, which is, in a sense, a positive reaction to that opacity.

Ravintolapäivä has created a giant floating question mark over the city: who decides what the streets are for? And so, who they are for?

I’d suggest that, in this, it also describes an broader ill-fit between contemporary institutions and contemporary conditions or problems, with the former still in a 19th century organisational model, largely, and the latter very much not in that mode. Ravintolapäivä is exploiting the gaps between the City of Helsinki’s 34 different departments, few of whom talk to each other coherently. To be clear, this is not an issue unique to Helsinki — almost all city governments are in this ill-fitting mode. As noted, they are often still 19th century structures, facing 21st century challenges and opportunities.

Elsewhere, this wider institutional ill-fit — essentially, inappropriate cultures of decision-making — is probably responsible for the people on the streets of Athens, Moscow and Madrid this year, Occupy Everywhere and the UK riots last year, the Eurozone debt crisis and the Arab Spring, the tetchy political deadlock in Washington. That last year of peak news was down to this.

In Helsinki, with its robust economy, firm social contract, and, now it’s late May, a summery disposition, the people on the streets are chasing after first world problems : how to get a good falafal on Iso Roobertinkatu.

Yet somehow this is all connected, and the form of activity, as well as the chosen mode of operation, between Ravintolapäivä and Occupy, Arab Spring, UK riots and Athens protests, is strikingly similar, even if the outcomes and intentions are, at this point, radically different. All are engaged in maginot-lining institutions, using networked organisational models and social media communications infrastructure, to sidestep bureaucracy rather than engage with it. All are emerge from some tension with the way authority has been exercised. Here, with a blithe blindsiding of some of the real issues in town, it is only expressed through pork ribs and carrot cakes. It won’t always be so benign, however.

As we know, while these are supremely powerful organisational tactics, these approaches tend not — so far — to provide a decision-making culture that can provide solutions, never mind frame better questions.

We think it’s necessary to bring institutions with us, not least given our investment in them, but importantly, because the institutions enables a strategic, holistic and considered response that the emergent does not. This is not to overplay their importance — they are not everything, for every situation. Clearly they can be structurally flawed, poorly run, even dangerous. Yet no more so than the alternative, and as designers, it would be a gross dereliction of duty to ignore the opportunity of reshaping institutions to work within these contemporary conditions. This slow unravelling at both ends of our societal fabric is not good enough. We need to figure out the systemic conditions required to enable, say, 10% of Ravintolapäivä to thrive the day after. In doing such a strategic piece of work, our institutions get to practice working with diversity, quality, experience, service, identity, and other productive intangibles. That will be valuable later, in other arena. And more on this later, perhaps

(Briefly back to that iPhone app. It is excellent, and was designed and developed, along with all other mobile versions, via a 40-hour hackathon by a small team of volunteer designer/developers. It knocks spots off any comparable publicly-procured app in terms of performance (incl. stability, resilience, user-centred design, accessibility, you name it) and was developed in a fraction of the time and cost. We know it is possible to work in this way, yet why can’t public procurement do this? One couldn’t even get through legal discussions about the tender process that quickly, never mind tender, develop and deliver the app that quickly. Why this might be, and how we might redesign that knot of dark matter, is another strategic question for another day.)

All of this is fascinating for us, from a strategic design viewpoint, and we’ve been somewhat obsessed with documenting and understanding the emergent networked activity of Ravintolapäivä, as well as engaging in positive discussions with the City of Helsinki around this area.

Download and read ‘Helsinki Street Eats’ via See also ‘Ravintolapäivä, edible urbanism and civic opportunism’ and ‘An edible urbanism: Ravintolapäivä and food culture in Helsinki’. See a set of photos from Ravintolapäivä in 2012. A broader discussion of these themes is covered in my short book ‘Dark Matter & Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary’. This piece originally published at on May 20, 2012.


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