LONG LIVE THE ANIMAL KINGDOM. The world's first sustainable urban Zoo in Helsinki.

If there's something that might warm up even the toughest heart, it's the city quarter naming culture in Helsinki, Finland. Once lost, it has returned during this millennium, uniting a unique urban artefact, centuries-old tradition and even a sustainability narrative. In the light of celebrating the Finland's Independence day, we went to Helsinki again and collaborated with authors there to put a little and heartwarming story on the beauty of all the nature's creatures in urban environment.

capital r riga, finland, animal quarters

When wandering around the city on my first visit to Helsinki exactly 7 years ago, I noticed something unusual I had never seen in my life. Small plaques with mostly animals at many houses in the centre with not that many to give answers on why it's like that.


On the contrary, if anyone, particularly young at age, wandered around the old neighbourhoods of Helsinki in, say, the sixties, it would be impossible to either know or recall the unique elements of mostly animal kingdom defining the quarters in these neighbourhoods at all. Painted on little plaques, animals and also plants decorated and defined every block of the old Helsinki up to the early 1910s, when everything returned to the oldschool way of using numbers only. Some say, because of practical and rational reasons, others believe - because of trying to get rid of many "imported" traditions and habits the modern and post-modern Finish might not identify with later in the post-war era.

The latter could be reasoned with a new regulation issued in Stockholm in the beginning of XIX century (then the Swedish head city over ruling Finland, soon losing its ownership to Russia). As Jukka Hämäläinen from Helsinginuutise.fi revealed in one of his articles,
this regulation particularly envisaged the naming quarters and was brought from Stockholm by Johan Albrecht Ehrenström, a politician, who designed the Helsinki city plan in 1812 saying that "I saw the characters as guardians of their quarters.1
The regulations stipulated that plots within each street-lined quarter were to be individually numbered, additionally, the owners of corner buildings were to affix signs indicating the name of the quarter. In Stockholm, names were also given to blocks along with the numbers simply because they were easier to remember (the names drew on various subjects, for example trades, person’s names, sea life and birds that are still well known in Stockholm’s Old Town).

In Helsinki the numbering and naming of quarters was fully legalised in 1820 in connection with fire regulations. At the same time the first street names were also ratified. From here comes the seminal tradition to name the blocks after domestic and wild animals, fish as well as certain flowers after 1836, when the names of blocks were harmonised in certain areas to ensure that entire blocks’ nomenclature in existing city districts remained thematically consistent. Except for what is now Eira, the blocks in all of the city’s southern districts were named in this fashion.

Capital r riga, Finland, animal quarters

During the following decades blocks continued to be named according to the same themes, except in Katajanokka, where it was decided to name blocks after different tree species. The naming of blocks never extended north of Töölö and Pitkäsilta bridge - simply because the naming practice began to be discontinued from the 1890s up until the early 1910s, when, as mentioned earlier, blocks have been officially designated by number only.

The golden age of block nomenclature took place from mid-1800s up to the last decades of the century, when the blocks’ names were often better known than street addresses. The names in Kruununhaka and Kluuvi were terrestrial mammals; fish and other aquatic animals appeared in the Garten city, birds in Kamppi and Punavuori, fish with few exceptions of trees and shrubs in Katajanokka and flower plants in Kaivopuisto.

Officially, the blocks’ names were in Swedish then. A name directory of Finnish-language blocks was never officially published, but names in the native tongue were, however, used when it was necessary to mention the blocks in Finnish-language speeches or texts. For example, the Giraffe was known by the name Kamelipartti, Dromedary by the name Nopsakameeli, Gazelli by the name Lempikauris, Pelican by the name Kitahanhi and Cuttlefish by the name Läkkikala.

capital r riga, Finland, animal quarters


After this urban tradition vanishing from the minds of residents, it took more than 60 years, when several journalists and enthusiasts from "Helsinki Sanomat" decided - the history and meaning of the district nomenclature cannot fall into oblivion. By spending years, the story of the districts of Helsinki (not as much as the quarter names than the history of their development) resulted into publications and books.

Only in 1995, several downtown entrepreneurs affixed their block name signs to ten blocks along Aleksanterinkatu, but it took several more years until the concept of block naming enjoyed a resurgence since the 2000s when amusingly archaic-sounding names have again inspired new kinds of marketing and fostering of neighbourhood identities. For example, multiple blocks have given names to restaurants and companies located in the area - El Fant cafe, Gasell dentistry or Gaselli restaurant.

Since 2017, not only new block signs have now appeared alongside street signs in the city centre. They have also inspired artists to retell the story like graphic designer and illustrator Jarna Jäntti, who revitalized 203 creatures of blocks in her book "Helsingin korttelieläimet".
animal quarters, capital r riga, finland
A photo documentation from the book by Jarna Jäntti, 2019.

Today most of the blocks don't have the oldschoold paintings any more - the animals are rather ascetic, only representing the silhouettes of the creatures. But, what's interesting, is that one can take a trip around Helsinki and learn about animals, plants, trees, flowers and fish without visiting the Zoo and without looking at incarcerated animals. What's more, Helsinki now have many locations with open air animal sculptures. With the number growing, this new custom of showing wolves or bears, or deer might draw the attention of children to see the size and features of wild beasts without endangering or encapturing them.

In the times of vigorous fighting for wild animal well-being and against their extinction, such practice of developing "urban zoos" might not be a bad idea to both tell a story, illuminate and, yet, protect. The sculpture might not be alive, fluffy or lush, but it, at least, is here any time one wants and does not make anyone suffer. Lastly, such animal sculptures in Nordic countries particularly revitalizes any urban area and again lets the city not to lose connection to the wild. Could such sculptures, inanimate or almost like real, in gardens be the new zoos of the future?

If you want to read a bit more on the nomenclature of the streets, blocks and neighbourhoods in Helsinki, here is a pdf used by CAPITAL R in this article and prepared by Helsinki City Planning Department.

This article was born in collaboration with Gunta Krūmiņa in Helsinki.

1 Helsingin keskustasta löytyy eksoottisia eläimiä – kun osaa katsoa tarkasti. helsinginuutiset.fi