Specialising in new community-based urban culture, placemaking, street art, and co-creation, Jaakko Blomberg believes in the power of people; in their power to change cities. And his formula? “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get a permission.”
There’s more than one way of changing a city – not all positive impacts have to follow a ‘conventional’ root. One CityChanger is transforming cities through art and community engagement. Jaakko is a co-founder, chairman, and producer of Helsinki Urban Art, and more importantly, he believes that the residents can and should change cities. Do you wonder: how?
To get to the roots of it, we have to step back a little, to the starting point. “I was looking for something meaningful to do. So, I decided that I will start to do things on my own,” states Jaakko of his introduction to the urbanism field.
It started with flea markets, organised without funding or permission. This led to volunteering projects, and in 2015, Jaakko started turning his love for creating into profit, working full-time on various projects.
Enter his current one:
Helsinki Urban Art
Founded by Jaakko and his friends in 2017, Helsinki Urban Art is an association focused on city-based arts, culture, and communities. Their projects connect art and culture in urban spaces, and range from 3D art, exhibitions, placemaking, creating murals and street art pieces, all the way to community engagement work.
To Jaakko, Helsinki Urban Art is more of a platform, an outlet for creative, engaging, unique urban art. “I wanted to see more street art in Helsinki, so I just started to make projects with some of my friends,” comments Jaakko modestly. What started as a hobby has grown into an internationally recognised organisation and a safe community for all citizens and artists.
“When we get a new idea, we just start to do it, and not think if it’s suitable for us, or not – if we want to do something, we do it.” This is the secret to the organisation’s success.
City dwellers have started to notice and it has helped shape the city. “It does change the city a lot. People have started to see the city in a different way,” says Jaakko, especially because he and his team like to incorporate rarely used streets or empty parks into their art. By changing the cityscape, they are in a way changing the “everyday life of the people”. In fact, as Jaakko tells us, many people have come to him and said:
“Now I see the city in a totally different way; because I have seen these events, I have seen that it’s possible for everyone to kind of change the city.”
“I like the most using underused sources. I like to use the resources that we have around us but are not kind of used in a good way,” Jaakko says. One example of such is where his office is located – in Itä-Pasila – a district built in the 1970s, with a lot of grey walls, concrete, staircases: “a perfect canvas for making art.”
It’s the creative aspect of community engagement work that gets this CityChanger going. From exhibitions and theatres in homes to open sounds, it’s about “using all these resources that we have, but in a new, better way”. Instead of building something completely new, it’s about transforming unused lands.
“Placemaking and urban art is where you can really change the environment.”
Eagerness for Creating
When it comes to Jaakko’s favourite project: each one so far has been a success in his eyes. Each one has made him proud. He’s enthusiastic about every project, every project is exciting, amazing to work on, the best – until another one comes along.
The secret to this excitement?
“Focus on what you really want to do,” don’t spend time on activities that you’re not actually interested in. “Because when you do these projects, you have to be 100% into it. And when you start to use your time for wrong things, then your motivation drops.”
“If something doesn’t feel like you want to do it, you shouldn’t do it.”
As a self-proclaimed addict of creating new things, Jaakko is always open to new, exciting, “weird” projects, without setting limitations on expectations for his future. It’s what makes this journey so fun and amazing.
Citizens Change Cities
“Municipalities and the public sector in general don’t yet understand enough about the power of the people,” emphasises Jaakko. Especially because “when people really want to do something, it’s a huge resource and it should be supported more”. Bottom-up plans and ideas should be more encouraged, instead of authorities deciding on a project and pushing participation onto their citizens.
“Participation is a big topic at the moment, but often it’s still just a layer that is put on the structure that already exists, instead of rethinking the whole structure so that it’s people participating in the best possible way.” This is where Jaakko hopes to see a change.
Individuals can change cities. Once a project gets going, it’s the power of the people that makes it into something bigger, something that even the City can’t take away from them.
One example is Jaakko’s first public event – a flea market. There was no official permission, no funding, just a Facebook post. People came and people made it bigger. And since 2014 it’s still an ongoing, weekly event that “everyone knows about,” but no one really questions its origin. It’s simply there, by the citizens, and for the citizens – as this CityChanger says: “You don’t have to make everything so official.”
Throughout the years of working in the urbanism field and throughout numerous versatile projects, many lessons have been learnt. Jaakko shares them with us:
“If you get an idea, just do it and try it. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t matter.” Start talking about it and people will find you, you will find new partnerships. You shouldn’t be planning it on your own – talk openly about your ideas, test them, and then amazing things will happen.
Jaakko is a reflection of his art: it screams courage. The courage to do things, to just start, and the courage to dare to do things, no matter how desperate the situation may seem. ‘No, we can’t’ is not a part of Jaakko’s vocabulary. It’s one of the skills crucial in this line of work.
Another would be “seeing what is possible. Seeing something that doesn’t exist yet.”
“It’s important that, instead of just following something that someone else has done, to try to imagine something new.”
Lastly, don’t forget about communication skills and flexibility. When working with and engaging a community, it’s important to get the message out in a clear and understandable manner, and simultaneously be ready to change the plans, “because when you are working in an urban space, it’s impossible to take everything into account. There are always people who think in a different way, who have new opinions,” advises Jaakko.