hen Finland took the helm of its third EU Presidency in July, its slogan was, "Sustainable Europe / Sustainable Future," with stated priorities of the EU's global leadership on climate action, strengthening the rule of law, and making the EU more competitive and socially inclusive. These lofty goals might seem unattainable for other nations, but Finland has repeatedly set and achieved high standards. And its capital city of Helsinki has had no small role to play.

Following the lead set by New York City, in 2018, Helsinki became the second city to commit to reporting its progress to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the local level. Agenda 2030, the United Nations' action plan for people, planet, and prosperity, of which the SDGs are a high-profile part, was designed for nations. In joining New York City in its commitment, Helsinki Mayor Jan Vapaavuori, strove to reiterate that the most pressing challenges facing the world today will be solved not by nations, but by its cities.

To that end, Vapaavuori has set a goal that Helsinki will be carbon neutral by 2035, and is about to launch a competition with a one-million-euro prize to make it happen. To help residents, visitors, and businesses make more environmentally-friendly decisions, the city has launched a portal to identify ways to experience Helsinki with a low carbon footprint, with sustainable food, low-impact events, responsible shopping, and hotels, attractions, and more that meet the city's sustainable criteria.

But while the portal, launched this summer, might be new, the idea of Finland as an environmentally-driven nation is not. From being the first LEED-certified embassy in Washington, DC (the U.S. embassy in Helsinki is one of few others in the world), to the naturally stunning and newly-opened Helsinki Oodi Central Library building and "living meeting space," which features on Time's Greatest Places 2019 list, Finland has long set the pace for sustainability.

It's not just nature that sets this Nordic nation apart. As reported in Diplomatic Courier in January, the Good Country Index found that, "relative to its size, Finland contributes more to humanity and burdens the planet less than any other country." The World Economic Forum gave Helsinki a perfect score of 100 on its recent list of Best Cities for Work-Life Balance, and Travel + Leisure named Helsinki on its 50 Places to Travel in 2019. With its sauna culture, stunning landscape, high levels of gender equality, and support of new parents with the famous "baby box," Finland in general—and Helsinki in particular—seems, from afar, to have largely escaped the problems of its urban peers around the world.

Vapaavuori says that the key to these successes is the Finnish approach to urban and national planning, which treats the entire urban ecosystem, rather than attempt to tackle one single problem or issue at a time. This means that when challenges do arise, they're not met with a simple task force, and an easy, if superficial solution designed for ribbon cutting and back-patting, but with a comprehensive, holistic approach.

Vapaavuori was in New York last week for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and to meet with New York City officials. With the sounds of New York City traffic in the background, Vapaavuori spoke with Diplomatic Courier at length by phone as he walked from UNHQ back to his hotel to retrieve his luggage, before going to the airport for his flight home. The conversation itself was also a brisk walk, wide-ranging and fast-paced, during which he quoted Fiorello H. La Guardia, former mayor of New York City after whom the airport is named, discussed some of Helsinki's shortcomings, and offered advice to his mayoral colleagues.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

"We have to improve the city in each and every thing all the time," says Mayor of Helsinki Jan Vapaavuori.

DC: Finland is regularly ranked among the most sustainable places in the world and Helsinki, of course, plays a huge role in that. How do you envision Helsinki's role in fulfilling the Finnish EU Presidency's promise of leadership in climate action?

JV: The government of Finland just recently decided of a goal to become carbon neutral by 2035 and that's very much in line with the fact that the city of Helsinki did the same thing two years ago. So, I think from a Helsinki point of view, we are glad that the government is following our example to do the same ambitious goal.

But from a mayor's point of view, I always want to remind them that the implementation of that kind of commitment always takes place at the local level in cities and communities. So, you have to keep in mind when the national government makes a commitment like this, that it is the cities who actually have to take care that this change takes place.

In Finland, it's not a problem, it's not controversial, because most Finnish cities have those kinds of goals already for some time, and we have a very complete operational plan to make that happen.  

DC: You've said many of the world’s most pressing challenges will be solved in cities and their ecosystems, yet it's no secret that many cities aren't rising to meet those challenges. Is it feasible to think that the efforts of a few cities, like Helsinki, make a difference on a global stage if everybody's not involved?

JV: I really believe that the implementation of all the sustainable development goals is more or less taking place in cities. We had to take care of them either forced by our national government, or by our marketplaces. Together, with the fact that the world is changing a lot more rapidly all the time, has led to a world where cities are part of the networks in the same way that nation states might have been networked a hundred years ago or so. Even if the level of development is different in big cities around the world, still it's easier if we tackle it together everywhere.

Unlike corporations that have to constantly innovate and be competing, cities are not competing with other cities. So, whatever you can learn from other cities, it helps you to go forward and be a better city for your citizens.

DC: You've spoken about other cities that are working in this area, and the need to learn from and share with other cities about what's working and what's not. What are some lessons you've learned from other mayors that you're applying to Helsinki?

JV: Each and every time you meet any other mayor in any other city, you capture something. Two examples. I was very impressed with the philosophy behind urban planning in Copenhagen, where they have an outspoken goal that they should plan the city in such a way that people should want to spend as much time outdoors as possible.

Another example which we have followed, we were very impressed of the way the City of New York used its international challenges in order to take quick steps forward with innovation. We have participated in one global challenge on cyber security, and now we are using the same effort in Helsinki to launch a global challenge to find the best possible solution to replace coal in our energy mix by 2029.

DC: And you've offered a million euros to that challenge, correct?

JV: Yes. So far, we have announced we are going to launch the competition and all the details are still in the works. I hope I'm able to launch the competition itself in January or February of next year. What I can say already is that the World Economic Forum is on board in this exercise and we are looking for some other good partners.

DC: Your administration has set ambitious goals for transport, education, culture, and housing, among other things. What are some of the biggest challenges you've had meeting those goals?

JV: To underline that, I have to say that our way to think and act is a very comprehensive, holistic one. I used to say the business sector has the luxury that they can choose whether they manufacture toothbrushes, make bicycles, or create mobile games but cities do not have that luxury. We are active in, more or less, the full scope of everything that touches our residents' lives.

I do solemnly believe that a good city is a city that has many strengths and few weaknesses and you really have to have a holistic approach instead of having some nice project, which is actually very typical in today's world. That's why I say we have to improve the city in each and every thing all the time.

But if you're asking me, what are our biggest headaches today? One, is that we are suffering from bad indoor air quality in our schools and kindergartens. Another is that the city is growing rapidly, which brings headaches and problems to provide good schools, healthcare to all the newcomers. And, of course, we have a very ambitious climate action plan which is not an easy thing.

I mean, everything is all relative compared to many other cities. Our situation is good, but those are the things that cross my mind first when you ask about our challenges.

DC: What are some of your notable successes?

JV: We have the best schools in the worlds. We are very proud of that, but at the same time, you have to know that the world is changing rapidly and we have to be able to improve and reform our school system to keep pace.

DC: Helsinki recently launched a campaign promoting itself as a "city of service." What does it mean to be a city that exists to be in service?

JV: We are in a world of tough competition of talents, and from Helsinki's point of view, our challenge sometime is that we are much better than people think and know. And sometimes it's difficult to get people here. The idea behind the campaign is that Helsinki is a nice place to live, we are a reliable city, a functional city, we are a clean place, a safe place, the best place to raise a family, and we're a walkable, nice, beautiful city.

DC: What advice would you have for other mayors who want to make their cities more sustainable but aren't sure where to start or are worried about the cost or the politics or maybe are just not sure where to begin?

JV: Cities are by nature less political than nation states. For instance, former New York City Mayor LaGuardia said there is not a Democratic or Republican way to clean streets, and that helps that it's not a question of what you think of an issue, but how you solve it, and how you create trust and confidence and understanding between political actors in your city, even if you are beginning completely again in the next elections.

You always have to have a comprehensive approach. You have to understand that you can't make revolutions. It's a question of small steps forwards, a continuous, consistent, holistic approach. You can always look around and see what cities that are a little bit more developed than your own have done, and study them. Then of course, you have to always adapt it to your own reality.

Molly McCluskey
Molly McCluskey is an international investigative journalist and Editor-at-Large of Diplomatic Courier. Follow her on Twitter @MollyEMcCluskey.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.