Value In My BackYard – a human solution
by Christian Sannemann

Muraali, Arabian katufestivaali 2017. Photo by: Vilja Keskimäki / Artova 2017


Value In My BackYard – a human solution


Value. What an interesting human phenomenon. In the currents of time societies rise and fall, cities rise and fall, and backyards rise and fall. Eventually everything we hold dear and near is prone to be lost in the forever consuming powers of entropy. I guess in a sense this inevitable impermanence is essentially what makes permanence so valuable. Yet, as it is, environments change, and in order to survive we need to be able to adapt to new situations – backyards included. Reasons might be many: housing shortage, rising sea levels, aging population, immigration patterns etc. In the face of change, we need to assess what is valuable, what should be conserved, and what renewed. From this perspective, cities can be seen as a constant battleground between attached value and the need to respond to environmental change. Shouldn’t be too complicated, right? Yeah. Right.


Value takes many forms. Think about the place of your most precious childhood memories, the place where you fell in love with that special one, the place where you go alone to think things straight, or the place where you really feel you belong to. Sound familiar? Most of us have some places towards which we feel an emotional attachment, places with a subjective sense of value that makes them feel so very special to us. Places might also hold many kinds of functional or esthetic value, personal value in cases of taking part in planning or building the place, and in some cases monetary value. No matter the reason really, valuing something seems to create a sense of ownership, which makes us want to protect it against change. As if by losing something we value, a part of us would be lost with it. Value is the driving force of permanence, and it doesn’t like to be threatened, devalued or taken away by others. It wants to be heard, understood, accepted and respected. And sometimes it’s blind to the changing environment. It might be fruitful to remind ourselves that the valuing attitude is not in itself a no to the future, it’s a yes to the things held worthy in the past and present.


Arabian katufestivaali 2015. Photo by: Paavo Pykäläinen Photography 


What I’m saying is that we should develop ways to aim at win-win solutions between locally attached value and the environmental pressure for change. The participatory methodologies related to urban planning and decision making are nowadays inherently top-down oriented and in general seem to lack resources, know-how, and the capacity to collect and handle subjective values and/or mass-scale feedback neither early enough nor very efficiently. More importantly, the crucial challenge seems to be communication of municipal planning needs in an understandable and acceptable form as well as integrating them with locally felt needs and values. So maybe by acknowledging and better understanding the human element – i.e. attached value – as the basis of the need to protect our environments, we could move further from the NIMBY – YIMBY dichotomy and start co-creating solutions of shared value in our backyards. As in any relationship, mutual respect, being understood and not trampled over, creates the baseline for optimal solutions and a pathway to valuable permanence – even when the subject matter takes a new form. However, while waiting for a value-based participation paradigm in urban planning, it’s important to not forget that value isn’t something solely attached to the physical environment. The social realm of human communities is at least as important a factor when defining a valuable living environment. And there’s been a pressing lack of focus in urban planning on this area of urban life. Granted, social life and value might be hard to plan for, but let’s consider it through a real life example and see if it sheds some light on the issue.


4 simple words: sharing power and responsibility. That is the basic ideology of the neighborhood association Artova, acting in an urban area of roughly 9000 inhabitants in the outskirts of inner Helsinki. Artovas operating model (ArtovaModelTM) is built on the idea of self-organized initiatives – groups of people having the freedom and support to bring their visions into life. By distributing power and responsibility, residents get the chance to bring forth what is important to them, i.e. make their values seen. By being part in creating the social life of the neighborhood increases a sense of ownership and value to the whole environment – not only to a certain backyard. It’s maybe not a wonder that the area is known for its communality and proactive spirit. Street art festival with 30 000 visitors, urban cultivation plots, sustainability projects, boat rental, local film festival, history related exhibitions, urban development group, local magazine, Kekri-festivities and much more, Artovas around 20 self-organized groups organize events for thousands, involve hundreds of volunteers, and most importantly, create value and social life to the environment. Giving a possibility for everyone to influence their own living environment is empowering and seems to correlate with a proactive mindset which underlies most of what is done in Artova. In essence, Artova tries to function as a background enabler, being a platform for growth for all the local actors. Its model has been shared both at home and abroad, and seems to hold its value against the winds of change. Maybe distributing power and responsibility could lead to proactivity in general and thus be another pathway for cities to get out of the NIMBY-trap, to end up co-creating shared value in a living environment? How about the city as an enabler?


So maybe it’s time to think anew. From building backyards to building bridges of understanding between local values and global/municipal needs? From controlling top-down structures prone to create conflict to enabling platforms where human potential can flourish? It is clear humanity faces large scale global, societal and municipal issues which need to be addressed accordingly, but we shouldn’t forget the human element. As a solution, we could consider developing participatory structures and methodologies allowing local policy making. An integrated solution where locally attached values and needs interact winningly with global, national and municipal needs. As a structural and methodological problem, it should be solved as such. Attitudes will follow. And in order to help creating a proactive culture, we might need to build new possibilities for interaction and influencing, underlined by the ideology of enabling. So to conclude, to optimize urban planning in a utilitarianistic way, we need a system that can adapt to change while honoring all that is valued (to the extent possible). We need a system that allows us to create a valuable life.


Christian Sannemann
Long-time activist in Artova (activist, board member, chair person)
A cognitive scientist interested in human-friendly and ecological living environments
Worked as a participation planner and project manager related to urban planning
Lecturer & facilitator


christian.sannemann [at] gmail [dot] com

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