Tafterjournal n. 42 - dicembre 2011 - numero speciale

Culture and urban space in academic research projects of Turku 2011 European Capital of Culture


Rubrica: Metropolis

Parole chiave: , , , ,



Even though most European Capitals of Culture (ECoC) have been university cities, academic research has seldom played much of a role in their programmes. The case of the Finnish city of Turku, European Capital of Culture 2011, is different. The local universities are connected to the ECoC in three ways. Firstly, there are 10 research projects (2009-12), which were selected in an open call and are partly financed from Turku ECoC 2011 funds. Secondly, Turku ECoC 2011 includes 14 cultural projects, which involve co-operation between university research and arts, for instance in background research, dialogue to co-create content, complementary lectures, and so on. In both categories, a number of PhD theses and numerous Master’s theses have been written about the content or impacts of the ECoC and the projects. Thirdly, the University of Turku is in charge of the Turku 2011 Evaluation Programme (2010-2016), a multi-layered impact assessment led by Professor Harri Andersson.


This article focuses on the first category, the research projects. The research question is how the research done within the framework of the Turku ECoC 2011 programme represents relations between culture and urban space. Out of the ten research projects, we concentrate on four that make an explicit connection.  Their ontological and epistemological approaches to culture and urban space – the ideas that they consist of and the sort of data that is considered relevant to analyse them – are already quite different.  Our aim is to use the viewpoints of four research projects to discuss the variety of significant culture and urban space related aspects of the ECoC. This list is by no means exhaustive, rather a random one, but it already sheds light on the complexity of the question of what is “the city” in the European Capital of Culture, as posed by this thematic volume of the Tafter Journal.


The article starts with a brief description of Turku as a diverse urban space to sketch the urban context.  It is followed by our own framework of four approaches to culture and urban space, which aims to point out differences and complementarities. The description of the research projects is based on their brief, fairly non-academic (with no theoretical frameworks) research proposals submitted for the Turku 2011 ECoC foundation. We conclude with what is “the city” that the planning and implementation of an ECoC has to deal with, seen through the prism of four approaches.



Turku as a diverse urban space


The City of Turku (pop. 180,000, with an urban region of 250,000) is located on the shore of the Baltic Sea in south-western Finland. It is a harbour city, for which a clear asset has been its road, rail and marine connections. At the gateway to Turku, Europe’s most extensive archipelago stretches out almost continuously all the way to Stockholm. Turku was one of the first industrialised cities in Finland. Dominating industry for centuries was shipbuilding. The main site for shipbuilding and related industries has been the mouth of the River Aura. The river is the most meaningful urban river in Finland, giving an industrial and nowadays also a cultural image for the city.


The mouth of the River Aura has been one of the largest urban renewal areas in the city. Before the regeneration process took place, the western river bank was, for a long time, an abandoned and underused industrial area. The renewal process on the western river bank started after the ideas competition at the end of the 1980s, and on the eastern river bank at the beginning of the 1990s by a private landowner. On the western river bank, the old shipyard and factory premises were rebuilt in 1994 to provide modern and functional facilities for cultural activities. At the same time, many apartment buildings were built on the western and eastern river banks, giving a new visual image for the former industrial area.


Many urban renewal projects along the banks of the River Aura, as well as in the other industrial areas and in the city centre, have been a part of place promotion politics. The promotional activities concerning the visual townscape, public spaces and spaces of creative infrastructure are facing up to the city’s post-industrial future. The empty or under-utilised docks, warehouses and factory areas are being turned into post-modern living and working spaces, including new areas of cultural industries (cf. Ward and Gold 1994).


Since the 1990s, Turku has produced several renewed areas for cultural activities, mainly along the River Aura, but also in inner city quarters. Cultural re-use projects in inner city areas have striven to create a balanced, versatile city structure. The closed nature of many urban spaces was opened up both physically and mentally. This has been the obvious thinking behind the riverfront walkway on the western river bank of the River Aura. This public space is one of the city’s dominant images. It is a place where many kinds of urban markets, events and festivals have been organised, and here people come together, crowds form, and strangers mingle.


Diverse urban spaces are facing the consequences of continuous processes of transformation. After Paolucci (2001: 647), “towns can be described as time machines, in the sense that the urban form gathers, interprets and makes concrete the different experiences of time, translating them into networks of social relations that are spatially oriented”. In Turku, which was established officially in 1229, the long history of the city gives possibilities to understand the meanings of different layers of a built-up environment, according to vertical integration in urban politics (urban governance), development companies (growth coalitions) and urban planning (architectural practice).



Specificity of Turku European Capital of Culture 2011


Mainstream criticism of ECoC titleholders has been that they concentrate on culture-led urban regeneration and city marketing, rather than ambitious cultural content or cultural inclusion of citizens (see the introduction to this volume).  ECoC year in Turku is a somewhat different case, since the wellbeing of citizens has been at the top of its agenda.  Because south-western Finland is not in a position to receive EU structural funds for infrastructure investments, no major public construction project was directly connected with the ECoC project. In fact, not a single Euro from the ECoC budget (€39 M) went directly into real-estate development. More traditionally, the aims of Turku ECoC 2011, as stated in the application, have been internationality, a creative economy and wellbeing (Turku on Fire, 2006). That is, to increase international attention and profit from it, to strengthen local creative industries and their role in the restructuring of Turku’s economic base, and to combine culture and wellbeing into cultural wellbeing through experiences and activities. These aims were also guidelines in the open project calls, which were used to select ¾ of the ECoC projects. Nonetheless, among artists and others who submitted the project ideas, wellbeing was the most popular theme. Consequently, it was raised as the main theme for Turku 2011, and the motto for the whole programme was formulated as “culture does good”. The Turku 2011 programme comprises approximately 150 productions, of which nearly half aim to contribute to wellbeing through the means of culture (Culture does good, 2011: 8). The other aims were rhetorically merged into the wellbeing agenda, stating that culture does good for “the city’s dynamism and creativity” and “attractiveness and pleasantness”, as well as for “the city’s residents and urban communities” (Culture does good, 2011: 4).


The narrative of Turku ECoC 2011 focuses on a dynamic city with active residents whose quality of life is increased via active participation and open cultural interaction. Similar ideas to promote wellbeing and health through culturally active lifestyles have also been on the national policy agenda (e.g. von Brandenburg, 2008). The surveys commissioned by Turku ECoC 2011 in fact suggest that residents in the Turku region have increased their cultural activities and have been more open to trying new types of culture during the ECoC year when compared with other Finnish regions (Saukkolin, 2011). Presumably the activated consumption of culture also broadly follows the lines of social stratification – as it does for the rest of the country (Kahma, 2011; Kahma & Toikka, 2011).


Nonetheless, it deserves to be emphasised that Turku ECoC 2011 has come across as a great effort to directly bring cultural experiences to or activate various residential groups who have otherwise been less mobile to participate due to social, health or age reasons. Examples of such activities include “cultural prescriptions” (vouchers to be converted into tickets free of charge, allocated by medical doctors who work in municipal healthcare), individually planned cultural activities for the elderly at old-people’s homes, activities for pupils in schools and kindergartens, and so on. Such programming reflects the Finnish aim to retain the strong welfare state and support social equality. Moreover, emphasis has been given to co-creating events with city residents. There has also been a broad spectrum of (generally very popular) urban events for various tastes as well as urban art available to anyone free of charge.  The most memorable of the open-air events was the grand opening on the riverfront, which was attended by 60,000 people, despite the crisp January winter weather and minus 19 degrees Celsius. The most crucial critical note, on the other hand, is the relative absence of multi-cultural contents and especially audiences from the city’s communities of ethnic minorities, some of whose integration is a contested topic.



Four approaches


For an urban scholar, the four projects at hand represent four different approaches to studying the relations between culture and urban space. The four approaches are geared to analysing the changing economic base of cities; public space; urban spaces of memories; and public art.  These approaches are by no means exhaustive, but they already shed light on the complexity of the question of what is “the city” of the European Capital of Culture.


Changing economic base of cities


Cities of advanced economies have shown increased interest in culture-related sectors as one promising sector of economic growth since the 1980s.  Emphasis has been given to the cultural dimension in adding value to the production of goods and services. “The cultural economy”, as Scott (2000) defines it, is “represented by a series of manufacturing and service sectors that are involved, in greater or lesser degree, in the production of images, symbols, and messages”. The search for user experiences has increasingly replaced narrow notions of utility in competition for consumers.  Consequently, more interest has been shown in the performance of cultural industries, which can be defined as economic actors involved in the production of goods and services with particular aesthetic, semiotic, sensory, or experimental content. Cultural industries include both traditional arts activities drawing audiences, such as performance, literary and visual arts, as well as the applied arts adding value to other industries, such as advertising, design, publishing, the media and computer software. The growth potential within the creative industries is often seen as emerging from a creative confluence of art, business and technology (Johnson, 2009: 8-21).


Culture has also been adopted as a strategy and theme of urban regeneration (Evans, 2001). A number of cities worldwide have recently and consciously made the arts and cultural industries central to their development of economy, urban form and place identity (Johnson, 2009). In these exercises, culture has been instrumentalised to assist in making a city known and successful in the inter-urban competition for investment, influence and tourism, enhancing local job growth in creative industries, as well as encouraging social integration, reviving civic culture and reducing social marginalisation (Griffiths, 1995).


Public space


In her book The Cultures of Cities (1995: 25), Sharon Zukin frames public space in several different dimensions. As a geographical community, public space has a certain location in the urban physical structure: market or monumental squares, plazas, boulevards, streets, parks and playgrounds – following the principles of urban planning. As a social community, public space is a meeting place for different purposes. Central to the notion of public space are its claims to be democratic and accessible.  Social interaction connects public space to physical security. Many public realms in the city are time-dependent in their nature. During the daytime, market squares, parks and streets might be magnetic and inclusive urban areas, but during the night-time they may turn into urban areas of fear.


Public spaces are often locally defined, but they are not simply local. The re-discovery of places where people can congregate becomes more important as people become more mobile, uniformity spreads across cultures, and local political institutions turn increasingly outward in order to maintain economic competitiveness. The fascination with public spaces is thereby neatly joined to globally driven, economic growth. In public spaces, tourists linger; alongside them, global businesspeople dine and make deals. These are the spaces of postcards and magazine advertisements. They are the raw material of city marketing (Beauregard 2001: 254-255).


An interesting dimension in Zukin’s frame is visual representation. It can be the architectural contribution to public space, dealing with monumental buildings lining urban squares. But it can also be artistic and media presentations, which create their own public spheres separated from more conventional urban spaces.

Urban space of memories


The urban landscape is something that we see, but it is also something that is produced by stories. There are many aesthetic, economic, emotional and nostalgic ties to the urban environment. Many meanings of signs and symbols are part of our history and identity. Human behaviour in urban space is influenced by subjective knowledge of the environment. It is possible to transfer this knowledge using such kinds of materials as novels, diaries, biographies, poems, photographs, paintings and films. These sources of material help to understand the deep, subjective and complex relationships between individuals, groups, places and landscapes.


The “grid of spatial practices” presented by Paul Knox (1995) provides a useful framework to interpret the production of urban space (of memories). The grid is based on David Harvey’s (1989: 220-221) interpretation of Henri Lefebvre’s distinction between experienced, perceived and imagined space. Material spatial practices refer to the interactions and physical flows that occur in and across space as part of fundamental processes of economic production and social reproduction. Representations of space include all the signs, symbols, codifications and knowledge that allow material spatial practices to be talked about and understood. Spaces of representation are intellectual constructs such as imaginary landscapes, paintings and symbolic structures that offer new meanings or possibilities of interpretation for spatial practices.


Public art


For an urban researcher, public art erases questions about to whom or for what purpose it has been directed. It is a single physical object turning into a “space of representation”, to use the Lefebvrian concept from above, open for contested interpretations of its significance in contributing to the understanding of the surrounding landscape. Finally, it will become one part of a “representation of spaces”. Equal to the built environment in which daily life is transacted, public art can give meaning to mundane practices (Paddison, 2009: 231).


As Paddison (2009: 236) writes, the meaning of places is “defined through their identity and more specifically through the harnessing of the traditions, memories and historicity held of them”.  Moreover, “precisely because of its publicness, how art becomes part of the urban landscape is critical to its meaningful inscription and its interpretation by the multiple audiences to which it is addressed” (ibid: 234). Art has a mighty power in stimulating imagination and perspectives of a city, but art in the immediate surroundings of residents is also a delicate area. Tuula Isohanni (2002: 132) makes a clear distinction that while art “can support the elements specific to the area”, it “cannot change the landscape into something else, improve buildings, or make life easier”. Residents will encounter the art project at all stages of everyday existence, which might be dominated by social tendencies (ibid). Therefore, unsurprisingly, depending on the context, research insights into the success of public art processes vary from enthusiastic support for identity-enrichment to critical assessments of design-led regeneration and commodification of public spaces.



Four projects


The four research projects are described based on their brief, fairly “non-academic” (e.g. no theoretical frameworks) research proposals. The managing departments (and the titles of their projects) are Organisation and Management Studies (Creatin’), Geography (Street Life), History together with Ethnology (Turku – Narrated and Experienced), and Art History together with Media Studies (Turku 2011 – Views on Public Art).




The project “Creatin’ – Analysing, Developing and Embedding Sustainable Creative Infrastructures: The Case of Turku 2011” (Creatin’, 2009) seeks to analyse the creative economy beneath the surface, zooming in on micro-level interactions and barriers as well as the lived experience of people eager to engage in creative entrepreneurship or broader consumption of culture. The project focuses on creative infrastructure as the embedded supporting structure. Redefinition of the concept is one of the research tasks, “focusing on how a traditionally closed system might open up and connect to a wider system thereby enhancing the possibilities of growth and dynamics” (Creatin’, 2009: 2). The research interest is both academic and pragmatic: the project aims to “create a framework for how the city of Turku can realise pragmatic, micro-level processes to engage citizens as active agents in creative economy” (ibid: 1). Turku ECoC 2011 is considered as a boost to this process and it is “analysed as development of a specific project of strengthening the city economy” (ibid: 1).


The research project is divided into three stages, starting from studies on existing structures, continuing to developing a new strategy, and finally embedding a novel or further developed infrastructure, which should then grow organically. Indeed, one of the aims is to develop a model of creative city infrastructures that could be presented as an outcome of Turku ECoC 2011. The research proposal emphasises the grass-roots level, including small, local projects, broadening of stakeholder perspective, and the engagement of non-obvious groups – with the elderly named as one – in the development of a creative economy. Yet the usual suspects such as policymakers and other key groups are present as well, as are ideas about partnerships between art institutions, businesses and the academic world.


Street Life


The Street Life research project is bound up with wide questions regarding the use of public space and the rights of various groups to use the streets. One main research question is how events reflect the urban experience and what kinds of permanent footprints they leave on urban life. The research project examines closely two Turku 2011 ECoC projects: the Eurocultured Street Festival and Turku365, which both have strong yet different insights into public space.


Eurocultured was a street culture festival with a series of events including animation, music and graffiti art workshops with children and young people, organised by European artists, as well as artist residencies to work on a shared art project. Parallel to the Eurocultured street festival, the academic Street Life project organised an international seminar, which discussed the transience of the city street and how a wide variety of groups use and control the streets. The participants in the academic seminar took part in the street events and met artists in their workshops. Likewise, some of the artists took part in an academicians’ panel discussion on urban space. A Dutch street artist crystallised his thoughts on urban space: “For me, urban space means people – the empty streets are not urban.”


Turku365 is a conceptual art project that has spread everywhere in the city as various urban art experiences during the whole ECoC year. The project comprises more than 130 individual happenings and temporary installations that comment on public space and encourage artistic thoughts on everyday surroundings, including convenience stores, city buses, streets, parks, river banks, and public buildings.  Artworks and events have included pensioners’ knitted graffiti in suburbs, a ballet by sweeping machines on Turku’s Market Square, a lullaby performed by a choir on the late-night train, pop-singers giving concerts in taxis, stand-up comedians performing on long-distance buses, a knitted rag-rug around a former prison area as a-former-closed-city-space-to-be-regenerated, and nap pillows made for benches along the River Aura. The recurring theme is the exploration of everyday urban life. The artworks have been produced partly by professional artists, and partly by voluntary individuals or groups who have joined “the Art Clinic”, in which the artist Meiju Niskala has develop tailored urban art concepts for them to perform, with roughly 3000 people altogether (see, http://arjenloytoretkeilijat.fi/in-english/).


One of Street Life’s project researchers is using Turku365 material to prepare a doctoral thesis. The main research questions are “how public space produces temporary cultural uses” and “how temporary cultural uses can produce public space”. The research project is interested in how culturally oriented developers can produce alternative material, social, and in a different way meaningful uses for urban space. The research project uses two kinds of material from the Turku365 art project: the Art Clinics and a “2011 Calendar Workbook” (Kalenteri…, 2010), which provides exercises for readers to explore everyday urban life in a fresh way.


Turku – Narrated and Experienced


The project “Turku – Narrated and Experienced” incorporates two main themes of research: the people’s memories of everyday experiences around the River Aura and women’s history in the city. In the case of the River Aura, a specific “history room” was established as a temporary building in several locations along the river banks, collecting different river-bank experiences and memories from the general public. The room stopped at various locations to get different insights – urban vs. rural, labour vs. recreation related, and so on. The women’s history concept also included collecting memories of locations in which the role of women in everyday urban life was significant, for instance in the roles of labourers or entrepreneurs.


“Turku – Narrated and Experienced” connects culture and urban space in many ways. Using the framework of David Harvey’s “grid of spatial practices” (see Four Approaches), it is possible to understand how the research project shows the ways in which urban places are constructed and experienced as material artefacts, how they are represented, and how they become used as symbolic spaces in contemporary culture.  Material spatial practices refer, for instance, to the working environments of female labourers or working class residential districts. Representations of space include all the signs, symbols, codifications and knowledge that allow material spatial practices to be talked about and understood. The history room collected these narratives, not only concerning personal experiences, but also stories produced by other citizens and media. Spaces of representation, that is, intellectual constructs that offer new meanings for spatial practices, is the most challenging part of the research project. The concept is closely related to artists’ sketches, mythologies of space and place, poetics of space, and spaces of desire (see Harvey, 1989: 218-222). Narratives of women’s spaces, for instance, are often these kinds of spaces, dealing with the construction of meanings in everyday life worlds and structures of feelings.


Turku 2011 – Views on Public Art


The joint project of the Art History and Media Studies disciplines examines five public art projects (Flux Aura, 2000 & 11 Self-portraits, Clay in the City, soundscapes, Live2011.com Grand Prix; for details, see www.turku2011.fi/en/) produced by the Turku 2011 programme.  Media research focuses on the role of artistic media in the formation of perceived public space, whereas art history as a discipline gained an opportunity to study the latest trends in public art. The project proposal envisions applying a new method of so-called participatory research, where the researcher, the object of the study and the object of the research interact in close cooperation.


The project comprises three types of action: research, open discussion and critique sessions, and organising an international symposium. Research is carried out mostly as student work, resulting in five Masters’ theses on art interventions in developing public spaces. Systemic documentation of public art and its perception as part of Turku ECoC 2011 is included in the process. In addition, open discussion and critique sessions near these artworks are being organised for researchers, artists and residents. Public usage of these “side-products” of academic research is a good example of synergy between academic insights and art projects during Turku ECoC 2011.





This article has sought to shed light on the complexity of the question of what is “the city” of the European Capital of Culture, by using the viewpoints of four research projects done within the Turku ECoC 2011 programme. The four approaches are by no means exhaustive, but they already reveal the richness of relevant interpretations.


The first, an analysis of the changing economic base of the city, tends to approach culture in a fairly instrumental way, as a resource for value-adding in a chain of urban experience economy. In this approach, art is also a resource, in the form of content to draw audiences – the consumers – to enrich the customer base in the local economy or interest in locally designed and made products or services.


The second, an analysis of public space, turns the question of culture into a question of inclusiveness of social interaction in urban space: the right to have a stake, (co-)own the city and use the freedom of expression. The human-centric qualities of material space are relevant, but the urban space is most of all a common resource, ground for democracy, when approached from this viewpoint.


The third, an analysis of memories of urban space, approaches culture as habits, shared understandings and, first and foremost, questions of identity. Urban space is a container of individual and shared memories, including involuntary memory: recognition of the past in a present moment, like the madeleine tart in Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time (1992).


The fourth, an analysis of public art, focuses on the question of the “medium” and the “message”. The first is the visual art or design object and the latter is the particular physical and social circumstances in which it is placed. “Culture” is primarily the visual artefact, which invites interpretation about the context, the urban space. This might also have an impact on the use-culture of the location and its users.


This article has shown how “the city” in ECoC is a resource to add economic value, ground for democracy, a container of memories, and physical and social circumstances for art to invite new interpretations. (Obviously the interpretations of “the city” are not limited to these four.) This is “the city” that ECoC or any other major culture-led urban development plan has to deal with, a complex whole and a sensitive issue. In principle, the viewpoints are complementary; none is better than the other. Yet in concrete development plans, there are inevitable contrasts between goals and interpretations (see other contributions in this volume). This is mostly a challenge for planning and decision-making, how to take these into account, how to include a continuous discussion of what is a “good” city.





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