A crowd gathered for the opening of Aleksanterinkatu Christmas Street in Helsinki on 19 November 2022. The opening ceremony drew around 35,000 people to the heart of the Finnish capital, according to the City of Helsinki. (Roni Rekomaa – Lehtikuva)


CENTRAL HELSINKI is attracting significantly fewer people than it did before the coronavirus pandemic, reveal mobile phone data-based statistics presented to Helsingin Sanomat.

Telia Finland utilised its mobile phone data at the newspaper's request to tally daily averages for each month for the number of people visiting the city centre, the rectangular area between the Parliament House, Helsinki Cathedral, Kasarmitori Square and Kamppi.

A person was ruled to have visited the area if they spend at least 20 minutes in the area. The statistics do not enable the detection of movements by an individual mobile phone user.

The statistics illustrate how much the city centre has quieted down since the onset of the pandemic. In September, for example, the mobile network operator tallied on average 202,400 daily visits in 2019, but only 121,700 in 2020, 115,300 in 2021 and 124,900 in 2022. The number of visits was thereby almost 40 per cent lower in September 2022 than in September 2019.

“The fundamental explanation for the drop in visitors to the city centre is likely that remote work is still common,” Tapio Levä, the head of data at Telia Finland, commented to Helsingin Sanomat in late November. “When you don’t go to the centre to work, you also don’t make visits to the centre.”

“People shopping increasingly online and in shopping centres outside the city centre has probably also contributed to visits to the centre declining.”

Limited to Finnish mobile subscriptions, the data offers no insight into how the number of foreign visitors has rebounded as the pandemic has started to abate.

Levä also estimated to the newspaper that it remains premature to speculate whether the decline in visits is permanent, given that many workplaces have only begun to trial new hybrid models that combine remote and in-person work.

“Many workplaces created a hybrid model that alternates between remote and in-person work after this year’s summer holidays. The models are now being trialled. Future will tell how work procedures are organised,” he commented.

Minna Maarttola, a development manager at the City of Helsinki, stressed to Helsingin Sanomat that large events continue to draw people to the city centre. Opening of Aleksanterinkatu Christmas Street brought roughly 35,000 people the centre on 19 November, according to data collected by the Finnish capital.

“Everything that increases and diversifies experiences enhances the appeal of the city centre. You have to also recognise that people visit the centre for different reasons at different times,” she said.

The City of Helsinki is already mulling over measures to rejuvenate the city centre, including reducing the red tape associated with organising events and developing downtown pedestrian-only areas. One possible answer to the latter is weeding out parking on pedestrian roads outside the designated service hours.

“We’ve got feedback from street-level businesses in the area that cars parked on the roads aren’t good from the viewpoint of retail or restaurants,” said Maarttola.

Aleksi Teivainen – HT