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Finnish design project to tackle youth homelessness

Designer Pablo Riquelme (second from left) and Miki Mielonen, project manager at the Youth Department of Helsinki (at the front), visited Vartiosaari with its future residents. Aleksi Poutanen

Could design solve a societal problem? Many countries are grappling with youth homelessness while cities are full of empty, habitable spaces. A Finnish design project is joining the dots of this dilemma.

A Helsinki-based youth community home closed its doors a few years ago but it was soon transformed into apartments for young people. In turn, a 100-year-old villa on the island of Vartiosaari in Helsinki housed young people over the summer and a retirement home’s residents had company from young flatmates. The City of Helsinki Youth Department’s “A Home That Fits” project uses existing spaces and buildings that may not immediately come to mind when dealing with youth homelessness, for housing.

An even greater idea exists in the background: what if the methods of design could be used to solve a large, structural societal problem? The issue of youth homelessness can be understood in more detail with the help of different trials. Instead of waiting for the one perfect solution to arise, design makes it possible to quickly try out different options. Several countries are dealing with youth homelessness. Could Finland set an example with this experimental problem-solving model?

Building a community

The project, which began in spring 2015, includes a project team that seeks empty habitable spaces and a designer, Pablo Riquelme, who helps to transform the spaces into functional communities.

Shipping container homes are a good example of turning unusual spaces into habitable flats. Obviously no one wants to live in a container for a long time but for a student who has just moved into a town, a few months of affordable container living helps to save up a deposit for a long-term apartment.

Several locations, such as youth community homes, do not really need physical revamping. This means the designer can focus on people and opportunities instead of walls.

“Designers are used to wild thinking and aren’t shackled to certain formulas,” says Miki Mielonen, project manager at the Youth Department. “Personally, it is often too easy to just fall into thinking about constraints.”

The pilot group for Vartiosaari’s trial living was compiled from construction students, who lived on the island for the summer and renovated an old villa and its environment at the same time. Image: Aleksi Poutanen

The most important aspect of the project is the cooperation between the young people and organisers. The youth is closely involved in the planning process with the designer and the Youth Department, who come up together the ground rules for living. In turn, Riquelme’s task is to make sure that the trials, that provide valuable information what works and what doesn’t, move forward.

In the best-case scenario, several problems are solved at once: a young person gets an apartment, empty space is put into use, and the young people get to use their know-how in developing new homes.

The pilot group for Vartiosaari’s trial living was compiled from construction students, who lived on the island for the summer and renovated the old villa and its environment at the same time.

Empty spaces need young people

More than enough partner organisations have signed up for the project and the pilot trials are now meant to be cultivated into continuous practices, which will provide permanent solutions to the Finland’s metropolitan area’s youth homelessness.

The project has strengthened the belief that young people want to – and can be – involved in decision making. Several young people have expressed their desire to come and help, not because homelessness personally concerns them at the moment, but because they know someone whose situation is not as good as their own.

The project wants to emphasise that young people should be trusted; as Vartiosaari’s old, but now renovated, villa demonstrates.

“It is easily thought of young people that you can’t let them here, they will destroy this place,” Riquelme says. “We want to show that the opposite is true: young people are needed to hold this place together.”

The article was originally published at Design Stories from Helsinki.

By: Enni Sahlman