Protesters continue their fight, as Malmi Airport gets closer to closing

Activists are pursuing every option to stop something the city says is inevitable: building homes for 25,000 people on the site of an airport that's been in operation since the 1930s.

File picture of vintage livery plane at Helsinki's Malmi Airport / Credit: Sampo Kiviniemi, FoMA

Planes have been taking off and landing at Malmi Airport since 1936, making it one of the oldest international airports in Europe in continuous use.

But the City of Helsinki is insistent that flight operations will stop at the end of the year, even as protesters, who gathered again this weekend, say the airport should stay open not just for private pilots, but because of its cultural heritage and natural habitat importance.

The end of the runway for Malmi means that the City of Helsinki is taking major steps forward to build housing for 25,000 people over 330 hectares in the next three decades – the airport facilities itself that pressure groups are trying to save is just 95 hectares of this total area – making it the the biggest completely new housing project planned for the capital region.

The redevelopment plan has seen stiff resistance from various people in the aviation community who think their concerns have been ignored along the way.

Different associations, companies and aviation enthusiasts joined forces to amplify their voice back in 2002 as the Friends of Malmi Airport FoMA.

“Malmi Airport must be preserved at its present location” says FoMA Chairman Timo Hyvönen who says community meetings have had no effect on changing the city’s plans.

“They don’t listen to us, they don’t want to hear the facts. And now the situation has become even worse as city officials are not responding to our requests for discussion. They just say everything has been decided already” Hyvönen tells News Now Finland.

Wildflower meadow showing Malmi Airport in the distance / Credit: Sampo Kiviniemi, FoMA

Different options to halt the airport redevelopment 

FoMA has been exploring all possible avenues to get a reprieve for the airport.

A 2016 citizen’s initiative quickly attracted more than 50,000 signatures and was delivered to parliament, and called on MPs to guarantee Malmi’s survival through legislation.

However, Parliament rejected the initiative.

A municipal-level citizen’s initiative calling for a vote about the airport’s future attracted more than 17,000 signatures, the biggest number ever for such an initiative.

And a legal move to get the the airport protected based on the significance of its architectural heritage was rejected in June by the Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment ELY, but FoMA has already appealed against this decision.

“We are appealing to the Administrative Court, but I believe this is going to be a really long process” says Hyvönen.

“At least we can stretch the process out so that it will take years, if not tens of years. I don’t see any houses being built in the near future” he adds.

Another appeal from FoMA to the European Court of Human Rights in April this year charges that the State of Finland has infringed on the basic rights of the association and its members in the administrative court proceedings.

Yet another citizen’s initiative is trying to establish a nature reserve at Malmi Airport to stop the redevelopment from taking place.

And the group even had a presence at two Ed Sheeran concerts at the airport this summer, gathering signatures for their municipal initiative efforts from the 100,000 who attended.

Architect’s impression of what Malmi Airport will look like after redevelopment

Helsinki moving forward with its plans 

For its part the City of Helsinki has been preparing for the new housing project for two decades.

Since 2017 the area has been subject to an order that means nothing can happen until the legal situation has been resolved.

Project leaders say this shouldn’t be much of an issue since they can start work on areas away from the terminal buildings, for example.

“It does not hinder the planning of the area. The project can be carried out in phases outside the territory of the built cultural environment” says Kaisa Jama, Head of Detailed Planning for the Malmi project.

“Nonetheless, the process has gone almost as planned. We’re proceeding by a lawful city plan which indicates new housing in the area” she says.

The city’s plan is long-term land use target extending to 2050, based on the population
projection that Helsinki will have about 860,000 inhabitants by that time.

The whole process of redeveloping the Malmi Airport site to build houses for 25,000 of those projected new residents will take decades as each part of the plan takes several years to implement, and several more years after that for construction.

The question of Malmi Airport has a long and complex history when it comes to urban planning, Jama points out.

“It has been studied for over twenty years, but now within the new city plan we are in the
planning phase once again. The city has also been looking for alternate fields for flight operations across the region for decades” she explains.

“It is unfortunate that the operations are about coming to end but there has been legal interaction at all stages of the process.”

Problems finding a new ‘Malmi’

According to The Friends of Malmi Airport, no other substitute airfield in the same scale can be found anywhere near the capital area with the closest comparable airfields located more than 150km away.

The current setup includes pilot training; professional, business and recreational aviation; and an extensive range of aviation services such as maintenance and repairs to aircraft

Also, several pilot schools and flying clubs use the legacy airfield.

“Malmi is by far the most active aviation site in Finland” says Hyvönen.

“The scale of aviation activities in an airport is something that people mostly do not understand as there are about 40 thousand operations in a year. This makes Malmi the second busiest airport altogether, after Helsinki Airport.”

Hyvönen also highlights the community’s concern over cultural history in the area and the natural habitats in the areas around main airport buildings.

“There is also lot of flaws when it comes to the environmental impact assessment, nature evaluation, and the position of the The Finnish Heritage Agency has not been properly taken in account on the project” he says.

In 2016 the airport was visited by a delegation of European experts, who listed the venue among “The 7 Most Endangered” heritage sites in Europe by Europa Nostra and the European Investment Bank Institute.

“Malmi Airport is the best-preserved of the three remaining pre-World War II airports in Europe from the pioneering aviation industry, with its original facilities still in place, the other two airports being Lido Airport in Italy and Shoreham in the United Kingdom,” the experts concluded.

The area is popular with local residents for walking / Credit: Sampo Kiviniemi, FoMA

More voices for local residents in the planning process

Marketta Kyttä, Professor of Land Use Planning at Aalto University, doesn’t advocate for one or the other side in the Malmi Airport dispute but says both partied have become very effectively organised.

Professor Kyttä notes that over the last 15 years public participation in the debate has improved.

“There has been a general improvement in city planning, as many cities have already been adopting new technologies to promote participatory planning. Nowadays there’s a service where residents can share their experiences and opinions on a map. Place-based information produces a lot of new usable data to help in decision making” she tells News Now Finland.

“One positive remark is that we have been able to gather opinions from the so-called silent majority, not just by loud activists. It shows that residents in reality don’t have necessarily only one point of view.”