by Nina Bammer
Tiina is sitting alone at her table in Kahvila Lähde, next to her a signage on which she has written a message: „saa istua kaveriksi“, which translates as “you can sit here with me“. Even though not everyone follows her invitation in the cafeteria, her openness triggers an emotional reaction and a positive connection to a stranger, she explains to me. Especially now, due to the impact of Covid-19, a general awareness of the inseparable bonding between human connections and mental health is significantly growing.
Tiina’s small gesture is one example of social interactions happening in Lapinlahden Lähde, a community space open for everybody, striving for enhancing participation and decreasing loneliness. The Pro Lapinlahti Mental Health Association approaches this vision by interweaving the two powerful tools of culture and nature. Creative indoor and outdoor events linked to well-being and mental health are arranged in the former Lapinlahti mental hospital building, located in an atmospherical park at the shore.
The association is running the cafeteria Kahvila Lähde, the City Nature Centre, the Mental Museum Lapinlahden Lähde, as well as a public sauna. Their agenda is carrying the history of the building, which used to serve as a mental hospital until 2008. In 2014 engaged activists managed to breathe new life into the abandoned building and reanimated its original purpose—with the twist of transformation into a public culture place. Not only the building itself but also the spirit of this place is a substantial but yet contested cultural heritage of Helsinki, again and again threatened to be closed and sold, but over and over hard-won by joint forces of civic activism carried out by the Pro Lapinlahti Mental Health Association. The Lapinlahti movement is said to be the cradle of civic activism in Helsinki.
I am meeting Katja and Nonni who are leading this grassroot organisation to find out more about their motivation, strategy and success regarding tackling social exclusion and spatial injustice from bottom-up. It was in 1997 when Katja started to work as an occupational therapist in the hospital until it got closed in 2008. Back then, she joined the Pro Lapinlahti Mental Health Association which was already formed in the 1980s. In 2020 her responsibility lies in the coordination of cultural events. Due to the association’s long history, a naturally slow and steady growth of an authentic and vast social network was enabled, and so they were ready to strike civic-initiated activism when the time had come. Katja looks back: “I had a vision, an intuition.”, which nourished the motivation of not giving up on this building. She knew the potential of this place located in nature close to the sea and how effectively the quality of our physical surroundings is creating an impact on people’s well-being. There was a global trend towards mental health and less and less stigma about publicly dealing with mental issues. Social movements are powerful and successful at times when a certain societal change is already in the air.
Katja remembers that “it was quite wild in the beginning” when they accessed the building in 2014. Their strategy was to set up a cafeteria and run events to enhance visibility since the place was empty and isolated at that time. Once awareness was established, this concept benefited from the location which is not too far off from the centre and easily reachable. At the very beginning they were sharing the space only with some squatters and started to carry out self-initiated renovations with the help of engaged volunteers. The association’s constructional interventions aimed to stay on a frugal level, bearing in mind that the building is a protected cultural heritage since 1994.
The volunteer’s motivation about working on this project stemmed from their personal connections tied to this emotionally stirring place. Some of them have been former employees or patients of the mental hospital or were friends and family members of those. This social structure was the breeding ground for their fruitful activism. Another essential pillar of the movement’s success was the rise of meaningfulness in life when doing work which contributes to a bigger common vision. The human desire of being part of a community is an underlaying motivation for collaborative actions of all kind. In 2020 the same approach is still applicable to the currently around 40 active volunteers who are ensuring the continuation of the project. On occasion they are starting their own activist projects within the framework of the association which contributes to an open culture of participation. For example, volunteers with a migrant background initiated language classes and collaborative sport activities to strengthen communities. Apparently, the transacted growth of the association is not necessarily a contradiction to the preservation of do-it-yourself nature.
Grassroot initiatives are fighting top-down constraints and injust capitalistic structures by tradition, however, their scope of action is tied to their strategies of financial survival and political collaboration. Acknowledging the inevitability of a system would be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but the balance between rebellion and cooperation is crucial. Speaking of money, the more financial resources given, the broader the possibilities of supporting people in need. Currently the Pro Lapinlahti Mental Health Organisation is able to employ six people, some of which are part-time. The organisation is also the owner of Kahvila Lähde, a social entrepreneur, that employs people for whom it would be difficult to find a job in the business world. “There is no need to work with full power, participation is the most important thing.”, Katja says, a statement which is not common to hear in a performance-orientated society. People are enjoying to visit this place because they feel accepted here. The building’s atmosphere communicates an authentic message: “You do not need to be perfectly polished, here you can be as you are.”, as Nonni explains to me about their welcoming culture. It is a safer space by tradition, aiming to be stigma-free and thus contributes to a more inclusive and socially sustainable city.
Combating the societal issue of loneliness, which is the association’s main approach, can turn out to be tricky. People who are the most challenging to reach out to are those who are lonely since they are typically isolating themselves at home. One of the strategies to keep the entry barriers as low as possible is to offer most activities free of charge, thus at least money or status are no relevant aspects of approaching to join a community. Nonni tells me that the association is mainly funded by STEA, the Finnish Funding Center for Social Welfare and Health Organisation who supports non-profit corporations. Also the City of Helsinki shows financial support, more specifically by funding the operations of Miitti Tenant Space, a project to enhance integration of immigrants, as well as by promoting the City Nature Centre. With their overall income the Pro Lapinlahti Mental Health Association is able to coordinate the volunteer work and events, pay the building’s rent and the employee’s salary.
However, the traditional contradiction between social sustainability and financial profit is not solved, it is raising questions evolving around property ownership and economic responsibility. Due to the discussions about the necessity and cost of additional renovations, there have emerged many attempts to closing, selling or finding a new long-term usage for the building. Furthermore, the conventional policy of the City of Helsinki is to sell out their properties in case there are no attempts of implementing the City’s own public services there. Besides the association’s activist work regarding mental health, a majority of energy is also dedicated to utilise forms of urban activism to protect the building from unwanted interventions by policy-makers. Lapinlahden Lähde is able to reach out to about 14.000 supportive followers on Facebook, which is an efficient tool to mobilise joint forces and multiply civic pressure.
In the beginning of 2020 when the City of Helsinki announced the winner of its self-initiated idea competition, the building was threatened to be given into the hands of a private investor who planned to commercialize the area—a concept which obviously collides with the attempt of assuring social sustainability. Subsequently Pro Lapinlahti handed over a petition of 30.000 signatures collected, furthermore they published all the e-mail contacts of the responsible municipal politician on their Facebook page, calling for opposition. And so the policy-makers received thousands of pressuring messages until the City of Helsinki decided to show commitment towards the citizen’s needs. The movement succeeded again in stopping inappropriate operations. “We feel that we are strongly on the side of the citizens, we are the voice of the citizens.”, Nonni states. Her background is rooted in social organisations, she holds the position of the execute director for one year. Nonni explains that well-organised communication has always been the activist’s key tool to reach out for support, to raise awareness and thus enhance impact. At the same time the citizen’s participation in policymaking contributes to everybody’s right to the city.
How will the future of Lapinlahden Lähde look like? Currently a research group of three external experts is searching for a appropriate long-term solution. Until the beginning of 2021 they will come up with a new proposal which is supposed to respect the values of the area better than the previous one did. “We knew from the beginning that we will not be able to stay here forever, (…) but we try as long as possible. Next year there will be another ‘something’ again. It is a quite long battle.”, as Katja mentions when speculating about which new challenges might arise next. She does not sound tired. Also she tells me about her idea of writing down her experiences at some point to share her knowledge for future urban activists. People are feeling confident of joining the association’s actions since their 30 years’ experience in bottom-up solutions generated trustworthiness. People believe that this is the place where things are possible. Every spring 10.000 flowers are flourishing in the area of Lapinlahti, a positive symbol of protection and resistance, collectively planted year by year.