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

Essays: An edible urbanism

Written in


Video of egg & bacon muffins via first floor apartment window / Ravintolapäivä

(Blog admin: keen-eyed readers will have noted I posted the following piece as part of my post on Ravintolapäivä a few weeks ago. But I thought it is better off filed on its own, for the sake of both pieces. Occasionally, reader, you have to suffer my filing whims.)

In the midst of all our (Sitra's) field work on street food in Helsinki, and its wider context, I was asked by Artek to write a short piece for a new magazine—Manifest—that they were co-producing for Helsinki World Design Capital (also to be deployed at the Salone design show in Milan.)

I quickly wrote a kind of evolving backdrop to where our work is going which looks at Helsinki's street food "revolution" of the last year, and describes some familiar ideas of citizen participation, the everyday operating system of the city, fluid and soft cities, and so on: It doesn't quite discuss them in those terms—the free publication is distributed across the city and beyond through shops, clubs etc. You can also download the PDF from their website (English and Finnish). The rest ofManifest is certainly worth a look too.

Here's the article I wrote, or rather, the slightly longer original edit of what is a short piece. It, like the Helsinki Street Eats book, is kind of a public set-up job for what follows. Bon appetit.

An edible urbanism

Last summer, Helsinki witnessed two culinary insurgency movements in quick succession. One was fixed in space, and had the outward appearance of an old Citroén van parked outside Lasipalatsi. The other was fixed in time, manifesting itself as a distributed festival of pop-up restaurants, sudden flashes of inspiration appearing and disappearing on a single day, 21st May 2011. Each would hint at a new city emerging.

The first was the 'Camionette', and sold coffee and crepes. Odd as it may seem, this didn't fit into the City's conceptions of street food. In turn, the Camionette cast the City of Helsinki, rightly or wrongly, as a stolid, opaque institution mitigating against an entrepreneur who had a different idea about street life and urban amenities. Only through adept use of social media, side-stepping the 'dark matter' of bureaucracy, did the Camionette's owner get his permits, enabling the first food truck in Helsinki to leave the city with a new notion of what street food can be. (The City has a different view of these events, but has subsequently embarked on a procurement of more food truck opportunities post-Camionette, perhaps tacitly admitting its value.)

The second incursion was 'Ravintolapäivä' (RP). RP started with a small group who were frustrated with the bureaucracy required to start a café (see a pattern emerging here?) So RP set themselves the lowest bar possible; it simply declared that a certain day would be "Ravintolapäivä" ("Restaurant Day") and anybody could open any kind of restaurant anywhere on that day. And that's what happened.

From frog's legs to flat whites, the city's food pallette expanded radically, but more importantly, it effortlessly reimagined the use of public space, demonstrating to Helsinki citizens what their streets could do. Although the resulting 'restaurants' were right at the edge of the City's legal boundaries—most were probably well over it, though it's difficult to tell—there was little the City could do about it.

For one thing, there was barely any organisation there. Ravintolapäivä is essentially a set of instructions, and you can hardly arrest a set of instructions. Coordinated by Facebook and Twitter, and disappearing as fast as they appeared, the restaurants were also essentially untouchable. It's not as if the City could send round fleets of public works operatives playing a form of urban 'Whac-a-Mole', scooping soup kitchens, pizza ovens and cooks into the back of their vans. RP is a demonstration of the easy power of an emergent urbanism, an opportunistic urbanism, enabled through social media and mobile apps and driven by a desire for participation in the city at the hyper-local level. The sense of a somewhat conservative city opening up to possibility is palpable.

Though exemplifying pop-up tactics, both interventions also have some strategic import. In their range of experiences, offerings and characters—participation in RP is an international affair, with other food cultures strongly represented—they are sketching out a diversifying Helsinki in a broader sense, as the city's foreign-born resident population is set to double in the next decade, to around 15-20% non-Finnish. So these incursions are 'lead users', indicating what Helsinki needs to be in the near future.

Street food is interesting precisely because it has this highly visible, quotidian accessibility, and is a carrier for cultural change.

Yet if we can understand the city through street food, we might also look to carefully shape its impact to strategic ends, rather than simply enjoy its haphazard flashes of inspiration. Because the only problem with 'Restaurant Day' is 'The Day After Restaurant Day'. Where there was a gourmet coffee shop, nothing. Where a bacon and egg muffin was lowered from a first floor window, nothing. Where an Italian sausage stall stood, nothing. There we see the limits of the intervention; it is too transient and variable to change a system.

The original frustration behind Ravintolapäivä – the inabilty to easily set up a café – has not been addressed by Ravintolapäivä. Cultural change will occur as a result of Ravintolapäivä, but slowly, grudgingly, awkwardly, and without addressing the dark matter, with little opportunity to develop wider strategic or holistic value. However, it has set a brilliant example, and an experiential example is the most powerful lever one could have.

We are interested in framing the right questions, and then shaping the new set of instructions for the city, its new operating system. How can we have more things like the Camionette in more places, and how can every day be a Restaurant Day? And more strategically, how can we use such street food incursions to describe a more resilient and enjoyable Helsinki, with a more active street life, strong service culture and start-up scene, and a diverse set of cultures at play? How might we use an event or the hint of a new service, in order to reshape the "dark matter" of urban governance?

Food is a great place to start. Everybody has to come to the table, several times a day, and every single thing we eat is part of a complex, multi-layered series of systems touching most aspects of modern life. Compared to built infrastructure, it moves rapidly, is malleable and adaptable, and highly influential. It provides the setting for lively social exchange or moments of solo reflection, runs the gamut from service to logistics, from entrepeurship to social services, from pragmatic refuelling to avant-garde experience, from organic to industrial, from luxury to waste, input to output. As a platform for design strategies aimed at systemic change within the city, street food involves engaging both the hard and soft infrastructure, recognising that the city'sraison d'etre is positioned firmly in the latter, but enabled by better understanding the former.

So can we see street food as a prototyping platform for a new kind of design strategy, and a new kind of city? As unlikely as it may seem, the humble hot dog might just unlock a new kind of urban design, a replicable systemic change centred on citizens and culture rather than concrete and cars.

Find out more at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: