Opening up underused spaces for residents

What would be the best way to make underused spaces available for use for the residents? Do we need new trials or competitions to find new ideas, or would increasing cooperation between residents, service providers and property developers help solve the issue? Architects, city planners and property developers together with service providers sought answers to these questions in a workshop held in September.

As part of the Flexi Spaces project (Joustotilat in Finnish), a new model for flexible and transparent usage of spaces is being developed and trialled. Forum Virium Helsinki invited property developers, city planners and architects to a workshop, with the aim of gaining a deeper understanding of the dynamics of sharing spaces and the possibilities of smart service solutions. A further aim was to share the findings gathered through the Flexi Spaces project and deepen the expertise within the project.

“Although the Flexi Spaces project is small, we’ve already noticed that its findings have begun to spread around Finland. This new way of utilising urban spaces attracts a broad range of interest, as it opens up new opportunities for residents and companies. One key for scaling up is the model of open digital ecosystem, which is enabled by open APIs”, summarises Veera Mustonen of Forum Virium Helsinki.

Opening up the spaces is a learning process

As part of Helsinki’s new strategy, better utilisation of empty and underused spaces, as well as opening them up to city residents, is one of the City’s objectives. The Flexi Spaces project has already seen success in opening up a range of different spaces with the help of digital solutions, such as smart locks.

Vallila Library and Kalasatama’s daycare and school building are examples of sites where resident use is already being trialled and investigated. Although there is no shortage of will to open up these spaces, typical challenges faced include issues relating to user safety, how to lock the spaces, and access control. Furthermore, in some places the open plan architecture sets it’s limits or the technical infrastructure used in the buildings is so old, that it has restricted potential flexi space usage. A good time for considering opening spaces for flexible use is, when old buildings are renovated and fire doors or access controls are renewed.

“Opening up the spaces is a learning process, above all. Work is progressing slowly, but it’s got off to a good start and processes for reserving the spaces are being developed all the time,” explains Hannu Kurki from the City of Helsinki, discussing the current situation.

The sharing economy opens up spaces for residents

The key idea behind the sharing economy is circulating, borrowing or hiring goods and items instead of owning them. Flexible use of spaces is an excellent way to be part of this trend, by allowing spaces to be hired out in an agile and cost-effective way.

The key to a relevant service is to allow the user to both browse, reserve and pay for the space in real time. Flextila service, developed by Joustotoimisto Oy, is a member in Flexi Space project consortium, and was presented at the workshop. The service has been used as a development platform in the project, and its technical features have been developed further duiring last 1,5 years based on user feedback from housing companies and city representatives. Currently, the service has over 4,000 registered users and over 30,000 bookings have been made through it.

Pasi Kivekäs from Joustotoimisto Oy contemplated on his speech, how the services associated with space sharing could be made more accessible from the users’ perspective. On the other hand, much progress has already been made; Airbnb and Uber have brought the sharing economy to a practical level and paved the way for new service concepts. The latest area of development is flexible parking, which is already being piloted on a small scale in the Kalasatama smart city district of Helsinki.

“The space booking service must be tailorable, so that the customer can add any extra services they may require to their booking. It would also be good to have automatic access to the spaces using smart locking, and in an ideal world the spaces themselves would be adaptable hybrid spaces. When we get the space booking service integrated into other services, we’ll be well on our way,” says Pasi Kivekäs, describing the features of the ideal flexi space.

Users’ needs a key focal point

Architect Hilla Rudanko gave listeners an insight into the cornerstones of spatial planning from an architect’s perspective. The spaces should be designed around users’ actual needs, as the users of the space are the real experts to explain, how well the spaces actually work when used for different purposes. Ideally, an co-design process would be used, involving all known users. This is particularly important when the space will be used by a range of very different user groups.

In the future, ensuring that spaces are fit for multiple uses will be a key point of interest, and the boundaries between work and hobbies will begin to blur even more. This opens up new opportunities for spatial planning, but at the same time also entails a number of challenges. For example, there must be a clear division of responsibilities, appropriate access control, a way to store goods and items, and cleaning services in joint usage spaces. Finland already has many new schools in which these perspectives have been taken into account, in particular when designing sports facilities.

Challenges and opportunities

The workshop saw lively conversation about the challenges and opportunities of flexi space activities on a practical level. Both the architects and the city planners felt that technical realisation often forms an obstacle to the use of flexi spaces. In other words, finding ways to boost the ventilation, heating, electrics and sound proofing to the required level is essentials.

Access control can be difficult to implement in situations such as where fire safety regulations or access control are not sufficiently adaptable to allow flexi space usage without major modification work – the best solution from a financial perspective is to take flexi space usage into consideration at the planning and construction stages.

Another result of the workshop was more detailed information from the architects and planners, what aspects should be taken into account at different stages of the construction projects. The participants reminded about the need for concepts, that are applicable to older buildings: the majority of the building stock we will be using already exists – how can these spaces be adapted for flexi space usage?

What should our next step be? More joint events between architects, service providers and property developers, was a suggestion put forward by the participants, who would also like more conversation between the key operators in the sector. Will you be the one to try a mini-alliance or the joint marketing of a new site and its future services?

Cover photo: Eetu Ahanen / Visit Helsinki

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