Paving Paradise: Nature Lovers Battle Espoo Building Plans

A young goldeneye at Finnoo wetland area / Credit: Paul Stevens

Environmental groups, some politicians, and local nature enthusiasts are uniting in a bid to stop a pair of controversial building developments in Espoo, which they say could irreparably harm a wetlands site where rare birds and other animals live.

There are three interlinked plans to build around the Finnoo area of southern Espoo – the last undeveloped coastal area of the capital city region.

The first phase at Finnoo-Djupsundsbäcken was finally approved earlier this month, after a year of appeals. It’s described by the city as ‘urban ecological living’ and will provide homes for 1800 people. The development envisages apartment blocks up to 12 stories high near the entrance to a future new metro station, and a new school.

Another part of the plan is to build an artificial island – one project leader reportedly described this is being “somewhere to dump all the stones we dig from the new metro tunnels” – between the Espoo coast and Ryssjholmen Island. The new area would be known as Finnoo Marina City, with homes, shops and berths for boats integrated into the final design.

And the third phase of Finnoo’s makeover is the new town centre, which becomes home for 17,000 people in apartment buildings up to 20-storeys high, commercial and office buildings.

These two phases have been approved at committee level, but haven’t yet been given the green light by the city council. They’re expected to be up for a vote in the coming months, and are likely to face court challenges by opponents.

Architect’s design of how the completed Finnoo Centre might look / Credit: Cereqvist & Jäntti Architects

Environmental Impact

It’s the proposed Finnoo Centre area that is the most controversial, because environmentalists say it simply comes too near to the Finnoo wetland area.

“Finnoo keskus is coming pretty close. It’s not approved yet and even some nature protection societies have already complained to the court” says Jukka Ranta, an amateur photographer who recently published a coffee table book about the birds at Finnoo.

“It’s an internationally important bird area […] and the rule is when you are going close to that area you have to do an impact assessment”.

He says the city didn’t carry out a broad enough environmental study before moving ahead with their plans.

Espoo City Councillor Risto Nevanlinna (Green) explains that since Finnoo-Djupsundsbäcken, the artificial island of Finnoo Marina City, and the Finnoo Centre project are being considered as three distinct phases, they were dealt with separately in terms of environmental impact studies.

“Nobody really knows the effect these plans will have on the wetland area, because they are handled separately. If they were handled together, it would be easier to estimate the total effect they would have on the wetlands and the birds, and I think that’s a bad thing” says Nevanlinna.

Special Significance

So why are the wetlands so special? In a word: biodiversity.

During the 1950s and 60s when Espoo was going through a building boom, the area was used as a landfill site. That meant soil and plants from different parts of Espoo were dumped at Finnoo as land was cleared for building elsewhere.

Now, there are more than 600 species of plants, which attract insects and butterflies in particular, and a wide variety of mammals and birds too.

“For ordinary people it’s a special area. You can get close to birds, even some of the ‘red list’ birds like a coot, it’s nesting just three or five metres from the walking paths that go around the basin” says nature photographer Ranta.

“There are a lot of school classes in spring time so that it’s used for teaching. And for university people it’s a good place to make research” he says.

The wetlands are home to Finland’s second largest colony of black head gulls, with an estimated 3000 nesting pairs. There’s rare Slavonian grebes, Siberian nuthatches and pochards.

Muskrats, weasels, snow weasels, white tailed deer and forest deer are regular visitors, as well as field hares, rabbits and foxes.

Biodiversity at Finnoo wetlands, a thistle attracts a bee / Credit; Paul Stevens

Too Close For Comfort

The main concerns about the new Finnoo Centre plans are about how close it gets to the wetlands.

“There are a lot of question marks” says Jukka Ranta.

“The human population will increase so there will be more people going around. I think it might mean the bird basin will lose its attraction step by step.”

Green Alliance Councillor Risto Nevanlinna, who is also on the Espoo City Planning Board, says he tried to get the Finnoo Centre boundary moved further back from the wetlands area. “I didn’t get much supports and I lost the vote” he tells News Now Finland.

“There will be mainly apartment buildings for several thousand people, and the closest apartment buildings will be around one hundred metres away from the wetland. That’s really bad because the wetland has this very big colony of black headed gulls which is a protected species” says Nevanlinna.

“If the gulls leave the wetlands, then all the other species will be in danger, and it’s possible they leave as well, because the buildings, if they are built, will be very close to the wetlands and of course with all the people moving in, there will be a lot more traffic and disturbances to the birds.”

Construction is expected to start on Finnoo-Djupsundsbäcken before the end of 2017. The other areas were scheduled to be completed by the mid-2030s.

Espoo City’s Planning Director didn’t respond to interview requests for this story.