Exploring infill scenarios in Myllypuro

Urban Filler is a computational urbanism experiment, which takes the viewer a long way from the ideal of sociable city via the possibility of urban densification to the discussion of the current regulatory regime. As urban planners will attest, infill development is challenging: the local residents resist and regulations restrict. We explore the constraints that regulations create with the example of a single urban block in Myllypuro.

Introduction to infill development

Urban life in Helsinki comes in many forms. The centre naturally offers the most and possesses the historic urban fabric; the distant suburban areas provide the possibility of the living in one’s own home; and in between them lies a ring of the more recent history, large housing estates of 1960s -1970s. Appealing as they were to newcomers from across the country during rapid urban expansion of that period, they present a challenging case today. They neither possess the urban life we find in the central, traditional city districts, nor do they offer the attraction of detached housing. Instead they are a city environment, without the city life. They are typically a big open structures with the floor-to-area ratios of only 0.5-0.6, which compares unfavourably with a much lower-scale and closer-knit historic districts, such as Vallila. Their density is also lower than in the present-day mixed residential areas, such as Arabianranta, where the floor-to-area ratio reaches 1.5 (Figure 2).


Figure 2. The distinctly different Helsinki neighbourhoods of Vallila, Myllypuro and Arabianranta have different density and layout. Images: Bing Maps

A possible response to the challenge is revitalisation of 1960s – 1970s suburbs through densification. It will be logical to complement their structure with infill development, turning them in the process into decidedly urban environments, which could sustain street life in the same way as traditional city districts do.

Remaking urban environment, however, is difficult. The infill projects are more demanding technically, and most crucially, they depend on the support of local residents and condominium companies who own the existing real estate lots. The process, therefore, has to begin with creating interest among stakeholders. Urban Filler takes on this task by communicating the potential urban scenarios to the stakeholders. It visualises the volume and configuration of infill buildings for a different levels of height restriction and parking provision. The demonstration of relationship between the regulations and the resulting building volume will help the stakeholders to understand the trade-offs between provision of parking and overall density, and explore the effects of current regulation on infill projects. The visualization is implemented in the form of interactive display where the viewer can choose the level of building height and parking space and see the resulting infill building volumes (Figure 1).

Case area

In the project we produce infill scenarios for an urban block in the central area of Myllypuro district. The district is one in the series housing estates stretching along the metro line in East Helsinki. Its core was built in 1960 and it consists of large multi-storey apartment blocks set in an open plan in a pine forest. Although beautiful in some way, the district could benefit from additional activity and services, which intensification projects will bring. Presently Helsinki City implements a series of projects in Myllypuro. In place of the old shopping centre next to the metro station, a large complex of housing and service centre has been recently finished and there is an area of detached housing under construction in the south section of the district. There is now a new fabric both at the very centre and fringes, however most plots of multi-storey apartment blocks estate in between remain in the original form as designed in 1962 plan for the area (Figure 3). Continuing the densification from the metro station, we selected the next block to the west for our study.


Figure 3. Rings of urban development in Myllypuro. Source: Helsingin kaupungin rakennusrekisterin ote 6/2012


We decided to investigate using the ESRI CityEngine generative modeling package as the platform for producing the scenarios. The software uses CGA-scripts to generate building shapes according to specified rules. Our initial goal was to produce a script that would identify suitable locations for infill buildings within the existing plots, but this proved impossible due to limitations in the way CGA-scripts operate in the CityEngine software. We resorted to specifying the location of the infill buildings manually and concentrated on exploring the effects of two urban planning regulations on the urban structure.

Block architecture & generation algorithm

As the urban planning rules to explore, we selected parking regulation and maximum number of floors. From our discussions with planners at Helsinki urban planning office, we learned that the requirement for a minimum number of parking spaces is a key constraint in infill projects. According to the regulation, a certain number of parking spaces must be built based on the gross floor area and/or number of apartments (link to reg). Maximum number of floors on the other hand is a typical urban planning constraint and it has a significant effect on the architectural character of the block.

In the scenarios new infill buildings are located on the edges of the existing superblock. In this scheme views and access to sunlight have been preserved for the majority of current residents. The new buildings complete the sparse forest suburb block into a sheltered and more urban configuration.

The scenario generation algorithm takes the user supplied values for the regulations and “inflates” the buildings to produce the maximum gross floor area allowed. According to our calculations a maximum of 155 parking spaces can be accommodated on the plot without sacrificing too much area. This number serves as the constraint on the side of parking regulation. These spaces must suffice for both the existing residents and the new ones.

Discussion & future work

The scenario modeling shows that the current applicable parking regulation of one parking space per 120 m² of gross floor area basically prohibits any densification even on spacious plots of forest suburbs. The ~1600 m² allowed by the current regulation would amount only to three 2-floor buildings or one 6-floor building making the plan economically unviable. A less strict regulation of one space per 140 m² would already allow ~5000 m², providing homes for ~100 new residents.

Due to the fact that we were unable to generate scenarios for the general case, this study is limited in scope. More advanced methods such as constraint solvers or evolutionary algorithms should be investigated to approach the problem of identifying suitable locations for infill buildings.

Source code


Data sources

Building footprints and registry information: Helsinki Region Infoshare

Basemap image: National Land Survey


Current state of parking regulation: Planning Department of Helsinki City

Kicking off INT-VIS-HEL


Peter Tattersall talking about maps, visualization & power

Originally Janne Aukia brought up the idea on twitter to start a data visualization meetup in Helsinki. We started collaborating and Miska Knapek soon joined the effort. Data visualization in general has recently been the subject of many workshops and events. We felt there would be a need for a meetup group with a more focused theme. Janne, Miska and myself all work with UI design and we are fascinated by the possibilities of interactivity in data visualization. Focusing on this subject, the meetup got its name Interactive Visualisation Helsinki, or INT-VIS-HEL for short.

The program of the first meetup on November 20th was fairly straight forward. We had two topic starter speakers, five minute show-and-tell slots for anyone who wanted to talk about their work or interests and of course freeform mingling in between. Teemu Kurppa gave the first topic starter on “Tools for thinking” – how the right tools can expand human cognitive capabilities. Peter Tattersall‘s topic was “Visualization & power” – the role of maps and other visual representations in decision making and government.

The meetup gathered a crowd of about 30 people from very diverse fields. We had statisticians, designers, developers, journalists, social scientists, geographers, you name it! The level of interest confirmed my hopes that the meetup group will have an active future.

Futureful generously offered the spaces to host the meetup and provided some refreshments, too. Thanks!

The next INT-VIS-HEL will be organized early 2014.

eyeo 2013 festival experiences


Toolmakers Bill Atkinson (Hypercard creator), Kyle McDonald (openFrameworks contributor/team member), and Casey Reas (Processing co-founder), and host Jer Thorp.

The eyeo festival gathered once again a diverse group of data designers, artists and visualization enthusiasts to Minneapolis. Four days of talks covered a wide variety of subjects around a few central themes.

One interesting development was that the main questions being discussed relating to data visualization on the web have clearly shifted from “what?” and “how?” into “why?”. Only a few years ago one could take almost any dataset, define a visual mapping for the variables, produce a graphic, publish it online and become internet famous overnight. Today the web is full of this type of visualization work and the best ones stand out by having an interesting perspective and storyline.

Many of the speakers are or have been involved in developing tools (such as Processing, D3 & HyperCard) for authoring interactive content. A shared sentiment among the toolmakers was that good tools empower users to create, as Bill Atkinson put it, “let you think in the terms of what you are creating”. The subject of toolmaking also relates to teaching and education. Currently most students only learn how to use ready made software tools that have certain predefined functionality. In a way if you don’t make the tools, the tools make you. Only by learning to make and adapt tools can students truly take ownership of the digital medium.

Memo Akten approached the tool subject from an art perspective. Good artists have fully internalized the tools they use. By internalizing toolmaking tools such as Processing or OpenFrameworks a computational artist can achieve a level of finesse that gives the work poetic quality.

The atmosphere of the festival was very enthusiastic and inspiring. I’m sure I have met more new people during the festival than the whole year before. Looking forward to next year!