Assessing Environmental Sustainability of Urban Plans Case Study Helsinki

By Eero Puurunen

This thesis investigates environmental assessment in urban planning – a structured process that projects the environmental impacts of an urban plan. The purpose of assessment is to provide planners with better means for distinguishing environmentally ‘good’ plans from ‘bad’ plans – and, ultimately, to create environmentally sustainable urban environments. Assessment has played a role in urban planning since the 1950s but its focus has only recently shifted towards environmental concerns. Concerns understood in this thesis in the sense promoted by the 1987 report ‘Our Common Future’ (WCED), which popularized the term sustainable development and added the global perspective to environmental thinking.

While the focus in planning has shifted amongst social, economic and environmental concerns over time, the role of planners has also changed. The planner as a rational decisionmaker (1950s and 60s) has turned into the planner as a facilitator of participation (today). It is now widely agreed that participation – the involvement of various stakeholders (individuals, and public and private organizations) in planning – is central to sustainable development. At the same time, however, the scientific community has come to agree that urban development is one of the primary drivers of global environmental problems such as climate change and habitat fragmentation. This has lead to a call for action based on expert knowledge. With these conflicting incentives, planners have been forced to reconsider their role in planning and the role of ‘expert’ and ‘lay’ knowledge in decision-making.

Against this background and through the case study of urban planning and environmental assessment in Helsinki, this thesis clarifies key issues in the tangled relationship between sustainable development, expert knowledge and citizen participation in environmentally oriented urban planning. The central finding that surfaces from this exploration is that if assessment is to play a role in sustainable urban planning, it has to be tied to a learning process – a framework that can learn from its mistakes and adjust with shifting value bases. In this process, the role of ‘lay’ knowledge is heightened when planners deal with problems that lack clear formulation. When parties involved in planning do not agree on the problem at hand expert assessment of the issue offers little guidance.