Jan Vapaavuori interview: the rebel Mayor and the rise of the cities

Helsinki's CEO talks about his battles against social and healthcare reform, uniting like-minded mayors, developing green energy solutions and the Tallinn tunnel.

File picture of Helsinki Mayor Jan Vapaavuori in his office at City Hall, 27th August 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

With its oversized potted plants and stylish furniture, the Helsinki Mayor’s office doesn’t look much like the headquarters of an insurgent movement.

And the urbane mayor himself Jan Vapaavuori doesn’t look much like the leader of a rebel alliance.

But in 2018 he managed to unite some of Finland’s biggest cities together in an unprecedented show of strength against the central government, decrying plans to overhaul the country’s social and healthcare system known in Finnish as sote.

The new model would have put an unnecessary financial burden on cities, they said.

The alliance of mayors didn’t quite bring down the government single-handedly, but their stance was one more nail in sote’s coffin.

“We are witnessing a growing role in the importance of cities all around the world. There are several reasons, first, urbanization itself. Another is that it has become more and more evident that the globally pressing problems are either solved in cities or not” says Vapaavuori.

The 54-year old Mayor, elected in 2017, doesn’t think that many national-level governments have realised how important it is to take cities into account when making policies – even when they’re ultimately likely going to be implementing any new initiatives.

“This was the biggest administrative change in Finnish history, and if cities which in any case have a bigger and bigger role in the future are in charge of the implementation oppose it, it’s evident and it’s natural that we are trying to ally ourselves in order to oppose the plans of the government” he tells News Now Finland.

“And it worked quite well!”

The staunch opposition to a plan that his own National Coalition Party had championed strained relations with the previous government, and although Vapaavuori says he was on good terms with some individual ministers, it’s clear there was bad blood.

Things have got off to a better start with the new government, lead by Prime Minister Antti Rinne (SDP).

“It remains to be seen how serious they are but at least so far we have been able to build a more fruitful, more natural, more genuine cooperation with them. More listening.”

Vapaavuori’s recipe for running the country – he may or may not have ambitions for national office, but claims not to want to think too far in advance – is to be more inclusive.

He says that it’s becoming “clearer and clearer all the time that no-one is running the country”. Instead he advocates that government, cities, big companies, universities, start-ups, consumer movements, climate campaigners, the media and others are all stakeholders.

“Maybe the change that I’m trying to drive, as some other mayors around the world, is that the voice of cities is also heard better than before.”

File picture showing detail on exterior of Helsinki City Hall / Credit: News Now Finland

Green heating for Helsinki

One of the major projects the city has undertaken is to get rid of two coal-fired power stations by 2029.

The first will shutter already in 2024 and there’s a plan in place for that, but closing the second power station in 2029 presents a number of challenges in how to replace it.

Especially in winter, the city relies on the power stations for heating and although a biomass plant has been proposed as a replacement, the city decided to cast their nets wider looking for options.

“We are not sure, actually I am very sceptical, whether biomass is a really sustainable source for the long run and that’s why we are going for an international competition” explains Vapaavuori.

In spring he announced a €1 million prize to come up with an innovative way to heat the capital

“We are challenging the whole world to help us where we can find a solution and where we do not have to replace one bad source of coal with another, maybe not that bad, like biomass and find some more sustainable, more modern, more dynamic. Something we can live with then for the next decades” he says.

The contest will be officially launched during the autumn and it’s likely not one single solution will be found but possibly a combination of new technology and innovation and more efficiencies.

“Our system has been based on providing a combined heat and power production, and producing heat, heating up the city, also cooling down the city every now and then, it’s more difficult to provide alternative solutions” says Vapaavuori.

File picture of Helsinki Mayor Jan Vapaavuori (NCP) / Credit: News Now Finland

Tallinn tunnel proposal 

One of the most discussed, and most controversial, infrastructure project proposed for the capital city region is a tunnel linking Helsinki Airport with Tallinn Airport by high speed train in just 30 minutes.

It’s being planned by entrepreneur Peter Vesterbacka who has secured funding promises for the total €15 billion budget from investors in China and the Middle East.

Vapaavuori has been vocal in his criticism of the initiative, adamantly stating that any tunnel should go through central Helsinki and not via a new hub in Espoo which is the preferred route of developers.

“I think it’s a nice dream” he tells News Now Finland.

“I think it would come with many very good things and advantages. But another issue is whether it’s realistic or not. Of course in this phase where we are only more or less deciding in general circumstances to build a tunnel some beautiful day, I think there is no reason to approve a solution which would not link Helsinki and Tallinn.”

Vapaavuori dismisses the idea that the capital region could have more than one transport hub – Helsinki’s airport is anyway already in the neighbouring city of Vantaa – and says that downtown Helsinki should be linked with downtown Tallinn.

“I’m not against the tunnel, not at all. I don’t think it’s realistic but I really hope that some beautiful day we will see a tunnel.”

And will he be on the first passenger train at Christmas Eve 2024, the date that Vesterbacka has been touting?

“I think if we have a tunnel then, of course I will. But I think it’s a long time ago when I heard those unrealistic plans, so there is more or less no chance to have it in 2024.”

“Whether we have it in 2034 or 2044 I think even that is an open issue”.

File picture, exterior of Helsinki City Hall, August 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland