• Helsinki, once named the world's most functional city, bases its management approach on grounding every decision on functionality, safety and openness.
  • The result is a high level of trust between citizens and the local government, which in turn facilitates the city leadership’s ability to operate more effectively in a time of crisis.

Cities are currently being tested to the extreme with the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19).

Simultaneously a health crisis, social crisis, and economic crisis, COVID-19 is laying bare how well cities are planned and managed. Its impact is showing the extent to which each city is able to function – or not – especially during times of crisis.

COVID-19 is a massive challenge for cities on the front line, rich and poor alike. The measures taken to control the spread of the virus are having massive implications on cities due to their economic structure; their preparedness for such a crisis, especially the state of their public health and service delivery systems; and the extent to which their population’s health and livelihoods are vulnerable.

In normal times, there might be many attributes that cities strive to compete on and excel at the global level including livability, competitiveness, and sustainability. But in any given day and especially in a time of crisis, a city must function well for its citizens.

But what does this mean? And how can a functional city make a difference now, during this time of crisis?

A functional city means that governance and service delivery systems work seamlessly, effectively and simultaneously along a range of dimensions – it is a city that delivers high-quality public services for all people, in both rich and poor neighborhoods; that works hard to create economic opportunities for residents and businesses; that prioritizes community participation and inclusion for all, and that makes policies and decisions that create a stimulating and enjoyable life for its residents.

A good example is Helsinki. Finland’s capital has 650,000 inhabitants and sits at the heart of a dynamic metropolitan region with 1.5 million inhabitants, a little over a quarter of the country’s population but with nearly 40 percent of the nation’s GDP.

In 2017, the new City Strategy modeled Helsinki as the world’s most functional city by offering the best conditions possible for good urban life for residents, businesses, and visitors. Functionality in Helsinki grows from an emphasis on equal opportunity for all. This includes ability to live, work, play and express oneself in a safe environment. Education is one of the cornerstones – not only does the city have some of the best schools in the world (Finland ranks among the highest countries globally in reading and science, with Helsinki’s schools leading the way), but more importantly it has some of the “best worst schools,” meaning there is little difference between the schools in rich and poor neighborhoods.

Helsinki’s management approach is based on grounding every city decision on functionality, safety and openness. This approach results in a high level of trust between citizens and the local government, which in turn facilitates the city leadership’s ability to operate more effectively in a time of crisis.

Helsinki’s functional city approach combines three pillars, all of which are proving critical to the city’s efforts to tackle the COVID-19 crisis. The first pillar is a smart city, in which digital technology and innovation are the foundation of efficient service delivery. The second is an inclusive city, in which community participation is at the center of policymaking, the design and delivery of public services, and the prioritization of budgets and investments. The third is a sustainable city, set on a course to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035 while strengthening energy security, enhancing mobility and improving the quality of life. Much of the city’s recovery plan is based on amplifying these foundations of the city strategy, namely digital city services, inclusive development and sustainable infrastructure.

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Helsinki’s approach grounds every city decision on functionality, safety and openness.
Image: World Bank

Much of Helsinki’s economy, like that of many cities in developed countries, is based on services and the creative economy, which are structured around people-to-people interactions and knowledge spillovers. So the COVID-19 virus is testing the city to its limits. Creative industries, the arts, travel, congresses, events, and the start-up scene have started feeling the impact of COVID-19 deeply. In addition, the inability to engage with others in an urban environment and the cancelation of events and the resulting impact on services takes a toll on people’s mental health. What makes a city is now temporarily gone.

While cities like Helsinki are not able to totally prevent the combined effects of the current health, economic, and social crisis resulting from COVID-19, the foundations of its functional city approach are enabling the city to manage the crisis holistically and deliver results efficiently.

How has Helsinki’s functionality performed during the COVID-19 pandemic?

In Finland, the implementation of most restrictive measures and the day-to-day management of the crisis situation is the responsibility of cities. Helsinki has been especially proactive in managing its response to the pandemic and has drawn on its local and international networks for city-to-city collaboration. The main concern from the outset was the social impacts of the restrictive measures such as social distancing and disruptions of everyday life, which were introduced early on. Mental health issues, domestic violence, disadvantaged youth in danger of falling behind and substance abuse problems were some the threats targeted from the outset.

To contain the spread of the epidemic, schools have been closed since March 18, although pre-schools and grades 1-3 were allowed to remain open to allow critical personnel to work. To maintain the quality of its school system, the city leveraged its impressive digital technology platforms to create digital classrooms for students. The city also developed digital cultural services for its population in its aim to maintain a stimulating urban life and to reduce the mental health impacts from social distancing and isolation.

The city has been especially attentive to its vulnerable population, especially the elderly who are at risk from potential viral exposure and also at risk of social isolation. Teaming up with NGOs and the church, the city ensured that each and every one of its elderly residents above 70 years of age may get personalized services, including support in their shopping for food or pharmacy needs.

Helsinki City Hall has been especially attuned to supporting the creative industries, which are a mainstay of the economy and especially vulnerable during the COVID-19 epidemic. One important policy early on was to provide three-month rent-free periods in city-owned properties for entrepreneurs affected by the coronavirus, which proved an important measure as the city controls about two-thirds of the land in Helsinki’s urbanized area.

City Hall maintains a special Operations Group that collects data through various digital technology platforms and runs scenario analysis to inform decision-making. The Mayor leads a special Coordination Group that has met daily since March 1 to monitor progress of the crisis management systems, prepare for recovery and take timely decisions. There is daily streaming of the Mayor’s information sessions to citizens and staff. The city has also transferred civil servant staff from non-critical to critical functions. This has been one way to keep the social and health services high-functioning throughout the crisis.

Overall, the city’s efforts – facilitated by its functional city pillars – are having results in terms of curbing the number of infected, maintaining a good level of health care facilities and personnel that has thus far been able to cope with surges in infections, sustaining the delivery of quality public services despite the evolving situation, and keeping up good communication channels with residents and a cohesive public spirit as people respond positively to restrictions. The effective delivery of measures has been supported by the trust-based relationship between local government and citizens that allows the administration to act efficiently.

The world will be very different post-COVID-19. Even though public health issues are still the first and foremost concern, cities are starting to move towards recovery planning. Every step taken now already helps build the post-COVID-19 world. Cities’ success is dependent upon their ability to anticipate global trends and transformations. Even though nations might be taking the lead for now in putting together stimulus packages, it will – in large part – be the job of cities to implement the return to the “new normal.”

Before the crisis, Helsinki was doing well with quality public services, a flourishing culture and lifestyle, a rapidly growing travel industry, a burgeoning and rapidly growing start-up scene, and a very healthy economy. The city was alive.

We strongly believe that the course of urbanization and the age of cities will not alter due to the crisis. Innovation, creativity and capital will keep gravitating and drawing people towards cities. People will keep having a continuous need for a community and each other. Digitalization will offer new solutions that will make the global community of cities even more interconnected.

The pressing global issues of this century – whether dealing with the refugee crisis, climate change or ravaging epidemics – have thrust cities like Helsinki as well as local governments into taking more and more of a global leadership role, on issues that were traditionally the remit of national governments. As a result, it looks like we are increasingly living in the century of cities.