A safe, clean, northern European centre
The capital of Finland is preparing to shoulder some big responsibilities around the turn of the millennium. The first will be associated with the country's Presidency of the EU in the latter half of 1999, then follow twelve months with Helsinki as one of the nine European Cities of Culture in 2000, the same year in which it celebrates its own 450th anniversary. There is little doubt either in Helsinki or elsewhere that the city will handle its tasks well. It has received international praise for the smoothness with which congresses, meetings and sports events have been arranged and Mayor Eva-Riita Siitonen is confident and full of energy as she contemplates the challenges that the coming couple of years will bring. Her pride in the city is unmistakable.
"When the international spotlight focuses on Helsinki during the EU summits here, we will certainly stand up to scrutiny. Indeed, we have even been accused of preparing too thoroughly, but that is unfair. We Finns take all of our tasks seriously; we do our best. As a host city, we want to offer conferences the most enjoyable and smoothly-functioning environment possible. It's a happy coincidence that all of these events are taking place within such a short time. They will support each other and enable us to step up our effort even further."
Helsinki has been adapting to a completely new situation in the world in recent years. As borders melt away, the city is within a day's road transport range of 80 million consumers. The Mayor believes that makes Helsinki very much a key centre in northern Europe.
"Nearly a hundred small companies with operations that take in St. Petersburg, Moscow and the three Baltic States are already based in the Helsinki region. Operations like that require familiarity with circumstances in the relevant markets. In this respect, Helsinki has invested strongly in training," she says. "Our logistic links are among Helsinki's trump cards in other respects too. This is the first Western European city for people arriving by air from Asia and there are good connections from here to everywhere. The European Union has paid special attention to the location of Finland and naturally also Helsinki between the vast energy resources of northern Russia and the markets for them in Central Europe. Helsinki wants to perform the tasks that geography assigns her in this respect as well as possible."
Traffic is often the most awkward problem afflicting big cities. Helsinki, by contrast, has a public transport system that is quite justifiably a great source of pride. More than 80 per cent of people use it during the rush hours.
"Helsinki probably ranks second only to Manhattan where use of public transport is concerned," says the Mayor. "There has been no need to force people to use public transport, they have been attracted to it. It is a high-quality, moderately-priced alternative, which the city strongly supports. Its effects are also reflected in environmental purity: for example, the metro system has only one chimney, which is certainly a better alternative than hundreds of thousands of exhaust pipes."
Another of Helsinki's big assets is its reputation as a safe city. The Mayor gives one example that tells a lot: when she was showing some foreign guests around the city, they met foreign minister Tarja Halonen (today President of Finland) walking towards them carrying a couple of shopping bags. "Look, she said, that's our foreign minister going into a shop." Her guests were astonished. "Alone? Walking? Going into a shop? The foreign minister?" Yes, indeed, a minister can walk the streets in Helsinki just as safely as anyone else.