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 elegant 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. Each would hint that a new city was emerging.

The first was the Camionette, a mobile créperie that – by not being a sanctioned “grilli” or “kioski” (i.e. local street food vendor) – suggested an entirely new kind of street food, and street life, in the city.

The second incursion was Restaurant Day. This started with a small group who were frustrated at the paperwork required to start a café in Helsinki. So they set themselves the lowest bar possible; they simply declared that a certain day would be 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 palate expanded radically. But more importantly it reimagined the use of public space, demonstrating to Helsinki’s citizens what their streets could do. Although the resulting ’restaurants’ were right at the edge of the City’s legal boundaries, if not well over, there was little the City could do about it.

For one thing, there was barely any organization there. Restaurant Day is essentially a set of instructions, and you can hardly arrest a set of instructions. It’s a demonstration of the power of an emergent urbanism, enabled through social media and platform thinking, driven by an appetite for participation at the hyper-local level.

The only problem with Restaurant Day is The Day After Restaurant Day. It’s as yesterday never happened, and here we see the limits of the intervention, of the tactic as opposed to the strategy; it is too transient and variable to change a system. The original motivation – addressing the inabilty to easily set up a café – has not been addressed.

But can we see these examples of emergent urbanism as ’lead users’, indicating what a diversifying Helsinki needs to be? Street food is interesting precisely because it is a carrier for cultural change, through its highly visible quotidian accessibility, and the wider systems it sits within, ultimately touching most aspects of modern life. The shift from cold, impassive “grilli”, designed for heavy drinking and poor eating in darkness, to the colour, verve and diversity of Restaurant Day is both profound and explicable.

If we were to write a manifesto for a more resilient Helsinki, would street food give us a platform for prototyping systemic change within the city? Can every day be Restaurant Day? And more strategically, can we use street food systems to sketch a more sustainable Helsinki, with a more active street life, strong service culture and start-up scene, and a diverse set of cultures at play?

As unlikely as it may seem, rethinking the humble hot dog might just unlock a new kind of urban design, centred on citizens, culture and replicable systemic change rather than concrete one-offs.

Dan Hill is Strategic Design Lead for Sitra.


Helsinki Restaurant Day, Photography by Heidi Uutela.

Helsinki Restaurant Day, Photography by Heidi Uutela.