Season 1

Episode 7: Helsinki: Doomsday Bunkers and the Finnish sense of humor.

Why did the happiest nation on Earth build the most luxurious doomsday bunker in existence… right below their capital city?

Finland, the happiest nation on Earth, has a secret weapon below the streets of it’s beautiful capital city, Helsinki. But it’s not what you might be expecting… This week we look at a very prepared country and the city spearheading a new frontier in urban planning… but what does it say about the Finnish people? 

HELSINKI: THE UPSIDEDOWN

The history of Finland is one filled with war and conflict. And yet, the Finnish people consistently rank as some of the happiest on earth. In this episode of Passport, we head to the capital, Helsinki, to dig into the psyche of the happiest nation on earth. And to dig into something else too.  Underneath Helsinki is the infrastructure for an entire city – below the surface.  Parking, churches, swimming pools, soccer fields, go kart tracks – all the comforts of above-ground living.  It’s the most luxurious doomsday bunker you’ve ever seen.  But why?  

Has their tumultuous history – and their proximity to Russia – driven the innovations going on under the city of Helsinki?  Turns out, there’s a lot more to the story than “prepping”.

MORE TO EXPLORE

SAVED PINS

The Best of Finland – above AND below!

  1. SUOMENLINNA FORTRESS:
    Magnificent and terrifying.
  2. TEMPPELIAUKIO CHURCH:
    Beauty and spirituality – underground.
  3. ITAKESKUS SWIMMING HALL:
    Waterslides and all – underground.
  4. THE CENTRAL LIBRARY:
    Everyone’s favorite living room.
  5. FORMULA HELSINKI:
    Underground racing.

CONNECT WITH US!

On Instagram: @passportpodcast

On Facebook: @passportpod

On Twitter: @passportpod

On The Web: frequencymachine.com/passport

CONNECT WITH OUR GUESTS!

Anu Partenen on Twitter: @anupartanen

Annika Niskanan on Twitter: @annikanen

Petri Mäkelä on Twitter: @pmakela1

This episode of Passport was written, produced and edited by Neil Innes.

Huge thanks to Ulf Mansson, Petri Makela, Anu Partenan and Aninika Niskanen for talking with us.

All of our amazing music on this episode was created by our good friend and musical chameleon Nick Turner.

The show is mixed and mastered by Julian Kwasneski.

Our Production Assistant is Eliza Engel

Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari and Avi Glijansky are probably digging a hole somewhere in the woods, they also executive produce the show…

Which is hosted by Neil Innes and the worldly Andres Bartos.

We’ll see you in the next place!

Header image by jeetravels on Instagram.

EPISODE 7 – TRANSCRIPT

ANDRÉS: Wow. So long time, no talk, NEIL.

NEIL: I’ve been living in the underground.

ANDRÉS:  Have you?

NEIL: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: I’m excited.

[PASSPORT MAIN TITLE]

ANDRÉS: A destination isn’t always a place.

NEIL: Sometimes it’s a new way of seeing things.

I’m NEIL Innes

ANDRÉS: And I’m ANDRÉS Bartos.

NEIL: From Frequency Machine, this is Passport.

ANDRÉS: Your ticket to everywhere.

[END MAIN TITLE]

[Song playing]

NEIL: When you think about Finland, there’s a pretty good chance you’re thinking ice and snow and heavy metal music and saunas. A place where the sun never rises, but over the last decade, the Nordic country and its beautiful capital Helsinki has risen through the ranks of the UN’s World Happiness Report to take the number one spot.

Its been there for three years in a row. Three of its Nordic brothers take the next three spots. By the way, the U.S. is ranked 18th just above the Czech Republic. But apparently the Finns are the happiest people.

[Song playing]

NEIL: How has this cold, quiet country of only five and a half million people constantly taken the top prize? Well, they’re a nation whose personality completely matches the report’s scoring criteria. They value education, social inclusion, health, family, integration, humanitarian law, and safe living among many other things.

Free health care, childcare and education are huge and already much talked about factors in being comfortable and happy in your country. So for this episode, we’re in Helsinki to look at something else which may be putting a smile on the faces of the Finns. Something you might not know about the city at all.

[Song playing]

NEIL: Beneath the streets, Helsinki has been building something which may be the ultimate peace of mind. They’ve created a sprawling, connected underground city, dug deep into the bedrock below the ground. There are the only country on earth with an underground master plan. Today, we’re going to find out why.

[Song playing]

ANDRÉS: This tiny European country has set up an elaborate world underground to protect its citizens should the worst happen.

NEIL: Is, is it a thing that you would think about if you think about Finnish people?

ANDRÉS: No, definitely not. When I think about Finnish people, I think about a girl

NEIL: Okay, Romeo.

ANDRÉS: I had a short relationship with.

NEIL: Oh yeah?

ANDRÉS: She’d just come from a Vipassana retreat, she had a shaved head and we had a short love affair.

NEIL: Wow, with a girl with a shaved head from Finland.

ANDRÉS: The scene I remember is, um, we’re lying in bed together eating an apple, and she just threw the apple out the window.

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: I’m like, that’s different. There’s not many people in Finland, she said.

NEIL: Just apple cores everywhere.

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: Alright, so wait, how do we, yeah, where do we start?

NEIL: We start with my friend Ulf. He’s from Helsinki. He’s a very lovely retired or kind of retired lawyer and we met around the neighborhood, um, walking our dogs and, uh, he invited us over for dinner. The Finnish thing is you don’t meet anybody out.

ANDRÉS: So a cultural thing where you just, you don’t meet people? What do you mean?

NEIL: You have people at your house.

ANDRÉS: Okay. You invite people in?

NEIL: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: Okay. It’s just like a country with empty restaurants or is it just tables with just one person at each table ignoring each other?

[Laughter]

NEIL: So anyway, we do dinners sometimes. They cook very well at home and

ANDRÉS: Sometimes they cook very well, or

NEIL: We do dinner sometimes, they cook very well.

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: Punctuation, your worst enemy.

NEIL: I told Ulf I was doing this podcast and he told me, do you know the Helsinki underground?

ANDRÉS: The Helsinki underground.

NEIL: And I was like, the metro? So me, you know, I get home the next day and I look up Helsinki metro.

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: And it’s two lines, the metro

NEIL: Yeah, it’s one line underground, one line overground and I’m like, is this

ANDRÉS: That’s disappointing

NEIL: Is this like Finnish sense of humor? Like, is this a joke? Because one of the, so one of the lines is completely straight. The other line is in the perfect shape of a love heart.

ANDRÉS: Oh.

NEIL: And I was like, huh, maybe Ulf was just being weirdly poetic.

ANDRÉS: Yeah.

NEIL: And then I found this article

ANDRÉS: Beneath Helsinki Finns prepare for Russian threat. Defense planners develop vast network of tunnels and shelters as Moscow plans war games. Wow.

NEIL: This is a photograph from the article.

ANDRÉS: How would you describe it? It could be the entrance to a really horrendous parking lot.

NEIL: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: Or a nuclear, you know, waste site, maybe?

NEIL: Here’s the thing. Every parking lot in Helsinki is a bomb shelter.

ANDRÉS: What? Are they connected?

NEIL: Yes.

ANDRÉS: What? So wait, these are bomb shelters.

NEIL: They could be bomb shelters.

ANDRÉS: All right.

NEIL: Everything is prepared for this, just in case, national security mentality that they have. Everything. The whole, the whole of the underground. It is, it is crazy. And I went right into it, with help.

I also got some help with some saved pins, so we’ll be back at the end of this episode with the five places we discovered in Helsinki that you should definitely check out if you want to go underground.

Which is what we’re going to do right now.

[Song playing]

NEIL: It’s wild. It’s kind of hard to picture, but beneath Helsinki, there’s more than 12,700,000 cubic meters of usable space dug into the solid bedrock of the city.

I know that’s hard to picture, so just imagine 10 Empire State buildings worth of space underneath this tiny little city. It’s still hard to fathom, right? Well, put it this way. There’s enough parking for eight and a half thousand cars. There are football fields – that’d be soccer if you’re American. Don’t call it that there.

There’s also shopping malls, ice hockey rinks, Olympic size running tracks and swimming pools, pedestrian walkways, art galleries, bunkers, halls, tunnels, two natural 40 meter deep underground lakes. There are recycling plants, heating and cooling systems. There’s even a church and a go kart track. There’s also nearly 300 kilometers of tunnel. That might help put it into perspective.

The designers called it the Underground Master Plan, like something out of a James Bond film. Helsinki is the only place in the world with a citywide infrastructure plan like this, and sometime in 2020 it will begin to double that space. It’s amazing. What the hell is a for?

PETRI: Well, basically our national security can be boiled down to a single word. It’s Russia.

NEIL: This is Petri Makela. He’s an engineer, but he’s also a warfare writer. He specializes in Finnish national security. He was the perfect person to ask if the Finns were not just building but prepping for something a little darker.

If someone would know it would be Petri. I spoke to him over the phone from his house on a lake, on an island just 20 kilometers from the Russian border.

PETRI: From where I’m sitting at the moment, in the Southeast, there’s actually probably Russian artillery within firing range from where I am at the moment.

NEIL: There’s a 2017 Wall Street Journal article by Thomas Grove which looked at the city’s underground. They titled it Beneath Helsinki – Finns Prepare for Russian Threat. I asked Petri if it really was an accurate headline.

PETRI: Well, yes and no. We have this doctrine of comprehensive security. Every part of the establishment and the government and also the business world has been joined together to help with national security issues.

Uh, defense, population protection and resilience on hybrid threats and all kinds of that stuff. It’s not, uh, it’s not openly in the news, it’s not a topic that’s being discussed on coffee tables every day. It’s something that’s, um, that’s underlying there in the decision making.

NEIL: So is this national security doctrine, does that go for the underground too? Does that go, like, does that go into its planning.

PETRI: The main reason for building anything there with the few small exceptions, national security is not the reason to build something, but when you build something you take into account that if it could be used for something useful from the security viewpoint.

NEIL: Right, sure, I mean it’s a backup.

[Song playing]

This idea, this just in case security mentality, it’s kind of written into the Underground Master Plan. Every space created must be dual usage. A space which is practical in peacetime and necessary during exceptional times. I was fascinated. How does the citywide fallout shelter fit with the happiest nation on earth? How does it match with the personality of, of the country or of the city?

I went to my friend Ulf who we spoke about before. He’s the one who told me about the underground to begin with. I wanted to find out a bit more about Finland and about its people.

[Song playing]

ULF: I was born like 80 kilometers east from Helsinki towards the Russian border, but I moved to Helsinki when I started to study at the age of 18, and I’d been living there since then.

NEIL: What did you study?

ULF: Law. So I’m a lawyer.

NEIL: And you’ve been a lawyer for 150 years?

ULF: Yeah.

[Laughter]

NEIL: Ulf looks amazing for his age, which I can’t give away here.

It’s pretty remarkable. He’s tall, broad, strong looking, healthy, and he’s got that weird Nordic sparkle in his eyes and on his skin. I just had to ask him, why do you look as good as you look?

ULF: I have not lived a healthy life if that is what you’re asking. You have to understand that we are deep frozen half, half of the year, so at that point, that’s why we are

NEIL: Fresh.

ULF: Fresh.

NEIL: Certified fresh. Helsinki is a city of only 600,000 people. It sits on an archipelago, jutting out on to an arm of the Baltic Sea in the south of Finland. The place feels fresh and colorful, creative, and incredibly clean, but it’s a city with two faces, depending on the season.

ULF: I would like you to come there in January, February, because then we are more likely to have snow and ice and we could walk on the ice.

NEIL: Do the lakes?

ULF: Well, not in the lakes. It’s, it’s, it’s in the sea, in the Gulf of Helsinki. We have had less winters with, uh, uh, good ice. So for example, last winter we were not able to walk on the sea.

NEIL: That’s such a strange sentence to hear. This year we couldn’t even walk on the sea.

ULF: On the sea. Yeah.

NEIL: Most people in the world have never walked on the sea.

[Laughter]

ULF: Well, Jesus did.

[Laughter]

[Song playing]

ANDRÉS: Holy crap. So the sea freezes?

NEIL: For kilometers, you can walk onto the ocean and he said, it’s like you’re in Antarctica.

ANDRÉS: Man.

NEIL: Yeah. But it hasn’t been happening so much.

ANDRÉS: I wonder why

NEIL: This is it. The Finns are very upset that they’re losing the winters in the South.

ANDRÉS: I mean, it’s crazy. If your national character is defined by weather and then the weather actually changes, what happens to the country, right?

NEIL: The Australian bush fires or the bush fires in California, it’s, it’s this symbol of how fucked we could possibly be. The Finnish version of that is their ocean not freezing.

ANDRÉS: Yeah. It’s different. I mean, what’s nice about it is that you have a whole nation that lives in this kind of like death and rebirth cycle, you know, in the extreme.

NEIL: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: You go into this cocoon state and then you shine like a bright star.

[Laughter]

NEIL: For two months.

ANDRÉS: For two months.

NEIL: Yeah. They’ve got a very strange, intense connection to nature.

ANDRÉS: Sure.

NEIL: I think most Nordic countries do because it can kill you. And I’ve always been of the opinion that harsh places make good people.

ANDRÉS: Maybe it’s not that it makes necessarily good people, but definitely there’s a resilience or an appreciation for sunlight, that you get when it’s taken away from you every year.

NEIL: I think that’s why this idea of the underground doesn’t bother them so much.

ANDRÉS: It makes sense because it like, fits.

NEIL: Underground?

ANDRÉS: I think we can handle it.

NEIL: It’s warm down there.

ANDRÉS: It’s winter.

[Song playing]

[Audio of birds chirping]

NEIL: Finns are obsessed with the outdoors. They kind of have to be. Helsinki is small and it gives way pretty quickly to suburbs and then into dense wild forest, which covers almost 80% of the country. And lakes, so many lakes. 187,888 in fact.

The swing in sunlight hours in Finland between summer and winter is enormous. From four hours in the winter to 18 hours in the summer. In the north of the country, it runs from 24 hours of darkness to 24 hours of daylight, each for two months. Perhaps this is a reason why the happiness of the Nordic countries to outsiders seems so strange. The winter is so long and so dark, but the trusty sauna has become a way of life.

[Song playing]

NEIL: So much so that almost every apartment block and often every single apartment in Helsinki has its own. On Helsinki’s main street, there’s even a Burger King with a sauna. You can book it online, by the way.

Basically, it’s a national obsession. It’s easy to see why really. Saunas always make me happy.

ULF: I go to the sauna quite often, a few, few times per week, but when we go to the summer cottage in the archipelago, then I love to go to the sauna because that’s a different sauna. You heat it with wood and, and uh, you can enjoy like the sauna for hours and go swimming and go back to the sauna and do that. It’s not for, for cleaning and it’s not for sex.

[Laughter]

NEIL: Some of them are.

[Song playing]

To an outsider Ulf’s summer cottage may seem like an extravagance, but that’s honestly not the case. In a country of five and a half million people, they’re around 650,000 summer cottages.

ULF: I used to tell him the joke about the Finnish summer, that it’s, it’s a short, very hot, and if you are very lucky it coincides with the weekend.

NEIL:  But no matter how short the actual summers are, these cabins are the place to spend the long 18 hour summer days. The Nordics call the time spent at these retreats Nisken. Literally the art of doing nothing. Surely that sounds like another key factor of a nation’s happiness, by doing nothing.

Of course, Finland aren’t lazy. They’re incredibly active people. Hiking, biking, climbing, skiing, kayaking, anything you can do outside on a lake, they’re masters at it. They also love their design, sculpture, art, and metal music.

The Air Guitar World Championship is held in Finland every year. So is the Heavy Metal Knitting Festival, which combines dark rock with the other obsession of the nation. Wooly hats. But we’re not going to look at that, at least not today.

So this country that has built a bunker that can house the entire population of Helsinki, it’s the same country that holds the Air Guitar World Championships and spends the winter waiting for the moment they can walk on the ocean. It doesn’t seem to jive with what I knew about the Finns before this because, well, they are, shall we say, reserved?

[Song playing]

ULF: I would say that the Finns are known to be introvert. We are not very loud.

NEIL: In Helsinki, the street benches, they’re single seated, so you don’t have to worry about sharing with anybody else. Perhaps they’re legendary calmness and this idea of a national security doctrine comes from the land they live in.

Maybe it comes from its history. Here’s Petri again.

PETRI:  I think it has a lot to do about the land itself, where, I mean, most of the Finnish people have lived in this land for generations upon generations and thousands of years, and the land is beautiful, but also harsh. And in order to survive in Finland, let’s say a hundred years ago, you had to pull it together and be able to be logical and level headed or you die. That’s pretty much the, it’s a harsh environment to survive.

ANDRÉS: If you’re living in a place where half of the year you’re in darkness and you know, if you step outside, you might end up in a blizzard. It makes sense that you’d kind of be prepared for stuff.

NEIL: Is having a bunker any different to like stocking the log shed for the winter? Well, yes.

ANDRÉS: It is, but I know what you’re saying. It’s kind of like, if you’re going to be prepared for winter coming, why not be prepared for nuclear fallout? For Americans, maybe it was a bigger kind of social and cultural thing, what went on during the Cold War, but I don’t know what it was like to be Finland.

The wall where the West ended and the East began, you know, the, doorstop to the Iron Curtain.

NEIL: The doorstop of the Iron Curtain.

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: Talk about mixing my metaphors.

[Laughter]

NEIL: It’s the, the draw string of the Iron Curtain.

ANDRÉS: You know what I mean.

NEIL: I know exactly what you mean.

[Song playing]

NEIL: Obviously, in order to understand the Underground Master Plan, we need to know a little bit more about the history of Finland. How much did war shape this place or was it lack of war? Turns out it definitely was not a lack of war.

Finland’s warfare history is astounding. It’s almost impossible to go on with a story without a little bit of historical context. Hold on.

Helsinki itself was founded in 1550. Its people fought the Club War at the end of that century, literally with clubs. Peasants fighting for better living conditions. They lost. Eventually, Finland became part of Sweden. The 17th and 18th centuries weren’t kind to the country. A famine wiped out a third of the population, and then in 1713 just as the plague reached Finland, Russia invaded too. The population was decimated once again.

The wealthy fled to Sweden while the poor fought in the Great Wrath War against the Russians. Finally, peace was made when the eastern part of Finland was given over to Russia. Russia invaded again in 1808 and this time they took the country. But Finland was given autonomy. The Finnish language finally flourished, taking over from Swedish.

In the early part of the 1900s, the Russian revolution gave Finland a bit of room to breathe, and it pushed through one of the most radical parliamentary reforms in Europe, including giving women the right to vote in 1906, the first country in Europe to do it. The first female members of parliament began serving one year later.

On December the sixth, 1917, Finland was approved independence from Russia. But a divide between the parties on the far left and the far right almost immediately led to the civil war between the communists and the anti-communists. Then in 1939 after Finland refused to allow the Soviet Union to build military bases along its border, they were attacked by Russia once more. The Winter War.

In 1941 to 1944 they fought the Continuation War with Germany against the Soviet Union. And I mentioned all this only because, well, you know, Russia.

You called it, motherfucker, with your little doorstop to the Iron Curtain.

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: I’m amazed you resisted using electronic music for the Club War.

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: Wow. But that was good, that was a nice little montage. That was almost like a Paolo Sorrentino style montage through the history of Finland.

[Song playing]

PETRI: A very large part of the independent Finland’s history is entwined with wars and fighting. That’s what defines the nation pretty much. And that’s kind of the background on why being prepared is something that’s easily sold to Finnish people.

NEIL: And yet this nation that has been defined by wars with its neighbor has managed to become the happiest place on earth?

Of course, while still building a giant underground bunker of sorts, but I don’t know. I feel like there’s something important about the Finns that I’m still missing. Is this hope for peace and prepare for war mentality really the defining idea of the nation and of the underground?

PETRI: In Finland there are people like me who obsess about military stuff and Russia and all that, but it’s not about that. You need to do your homework and do the ground work in order to be able to live free and not be afraid.

NEIL: National security, the defense of a nation and its people is just another thing you shouldn’t have to worry about in your day to day life and the Finns really don’t.

[Song playing]

ANU: In the Nordics, people don’t really talk about freedom much, or they didn’t, maybe now they talk about it a little bit more. So when I moved to the United States, it was striking to me how much Americans talk about freedom.

NEIL: This is Anu Partanen. She’s a Finnish journalist who lived in New York for 10 years.

She just recently moved back to Helsinki with her American husband, Trevor and their child. Her book, The Nordic Theory of Everything, asks an American audience to draw on elements of the Nordic way of life to nurture a fairer, happier, more secure, and less stressful society for themselves and their children.

The book’s subtitle, In Search of a Better Life, will tell you exactly where Anu was coming from. I needed Anu to fill me in on the real Finnish way of life, the real way of being happy. But first, I asked her about the Wall Street Journal article, which labeled Finns as a nation of preppers.

ANU: Yeah, I don’t remember the article that well, but I do remember that, that it seemed odd that they had taken that angle where, as far as I know, the underground spaces have been built for many purposes and not just because we’re preparing for war, but I think it’s an example maybe of how, how difficult it is to communicate between countries and nations.

And if you try to understand why people in another country do something, you might, you might get it completely wrong if you’re interpreting it from your own background or thinking of why you would reason something and if you don’t quite understand that they might come at it from a totally different perspective.

Like here, their interpretation of our tunnels is that, oh, Finland’s like preparing for the end of the world and Russian invasion or whatnot. Whereas we don’t think that that’s what we’re doing at all. But it’s just really interesting and I think really difficult. I mean, if you’re a foreign correspondent or whatnot, or you doing this podcast, I think it’s actually a big responsibility to try to, um, really dig in and understand what you’re reporting on because otherwise you just might interpret it completely wrong.

NEIL: Well, I hope I’m not going to do that. I don’t want any Finnish enemies.

ANU: Yeah.

NEIL: I did dig deep, I think. I’m pretty sure that the happiness of Helsinki in Finland in general is not just down to security. In talking to the Finnish people about the underground, it seemed to me like they just felt that it was just totally normal and it was for everyone.

ANU:  For example, my building that we lived in that was an apartment building, had underground spaces where children would play. They were bomb shelters. I remember when children were playing in them and then people were drying their laundry there and, and it was used for other things.

NEIL: It didn’t come across as hidden or ominous or even darkly spoken about.

ANU: That’s just public knowledge. It’s not like it’s secret, you know, military network that is built for Russia. Like it’s not, it’s not secret to anyone and not to Russia, what’s going on underground. I mean, there probably are secret spaces somewhere for sure. But like most of it, of course, it’s just public space.

NEIL: It’s also warm down there.

ANU: You know, Finland’s a cold, dark country, and you go outside with the kids and they’re sledding and ice skating. But not every year, like this year has been rather sad. It’s kind of cold and wet. So then there’s all these underground big areas where they’ve got like colors and pillows and climbing and stuff, and it’s wonderful to take your kid there.

NEIL: What I was hearing again and again was that this space wasn’t a fear mongering doomsday bunker. It was a physical representation of a social responsibility of a history plus engineering and exceptional usage of very limited space. I got in touch with Annika Niskanen, an artist and a performer in Helsinki who uses the underground spaces daily and has made much of a work about the happiness and the psychology of the people in the underground, how they act in it and how they relate to it.

ANNIKA: You basically meet everybody there. Uh, you meet the kids and the elderly people and the people with like special needs. Um, everybody’s there. It’s not only for you and your friends who are all similar.

NEIL: Of course, she also sees the worst-case scenario too, but she kind of understands where it comes from.

ANNIKA: This kind of attitude that we are small, but we really need to be really prepared. When it happens, it’s happening, we are ready, like somehow and we keep our own people safe, whatever happens.

NEIL: So basically it’s, it’s better to have a bunker and not use one than to need a bunker and not have one.

ANNIKA: Yeah. Yeah.

[Laughter]

ANNIKA: All the tunnels, everything is connected and you live your life there, basically.

NEIL: And that is perhaps one of the most surprising things about the underground. If you had trouble picturing how big it was before, think about this. It has been constructed to house slightly more people than the entire population of Helsinki. 750,000 people can fit down there if necessary, of course.

ANDRÉS: I didn’t expect this to be a story about public space.

NEIL: Yeah and it is.

ANDRÉS: It’s not what you think and that’s the other thing that is interesting is that all the headlines and all the stories that you’ll find online are about the bunkers or the underground or all these things that you have in your head.

But in reality, it’s not. I mean, it is, that’s one part of it, but that’s not it.

NEIL: Maybe it was the inception point of like, let’s have a little dig to see if we can make some space. You know, maybe, maybe it played into it,

ANDRÉS: But then it turned into, oh, we got, we have space down here. It’s not so bad down here actually.

NEIL: We can do this.

This immense space, like using it for

ANDRÉS: Day to day

NEIL: Gyms and football fields and running tracks, and what I found out was that they’re using it for incredible, weird engineering and climate change solutions.

ANDRÉS: Okay.

NEIL: Listen to this.

[Song playing]

NEIL: There’s a lot of surprises down there. Things I couldn’t believe. And a lot more are coming. The city has started a recycling service, which is going to grow in future plans, which has deposit stations on the surface that take your recycling away on conveyor belts underground at 70 kilometers an hour to waste collection stations.

Why? Well less garbage trucks means less pollution. 100 kilometer underground pipe brings fresh water directly from a lake north of the city to the residents of Helsinki. Ulf tells me it’s the best tap water you’ll ever taste. It also has an ingenious heating and cooling system, which pipes hot water from factories and industry to heat the buildings downtown.

Data centers, huge banks of computers and digital storage. There are so many data centers in the world just to help keep us online, keep our information safe, that they use 2% of the entire world’s power usage, and 1% of that is cooling. Helsinki cools the machine rooms with seawater. Well, that’s not all, the water takes that heat away and 70 meters up on the surface it’s used to heat people’s houses.

Not only is the Underground Master Plan the ultimate in just in case national security, but the Finns are innovating to use it to make the planet happier and in that, themselves happier. The city is now on track to reach carbon neutral status by 2035.

ANU: That’s an ambitious target. I’m glad the government set it. I mean, even the country, I guess Helsinki has probably its own targets, but the new, the current government has set a target and we’ll see if it’s realistic, hopefully it is, but yeah.

Like, I don’t want to sound pompous or nationalistic, but I think they have very good society, they’re like, there are a lot of educated people who are interested and passionate, a lot of engineers. Finns always called their country a land, country of engineers in a negative way. But, but I actually think in many ways it’s a positive thing.

[Song playing]

NEIL: So in a city which has one of the highest standards of living, the Helsinki underground has certainly helped in boosting it.

So can the rest of the world follow the lead? I mean with the much publicized perks of Helsinki and Finland aside; The small size, the convenient city, the ties with nature, the free education and free health care, the almost nonexistent crime rate and the ecofriendly and inclusive thinking… let’s even put national security aside for a second.

Let’s just look at it in simple terms. Finland’s history was surely the talking point and the inception of the idea of the underground, but now it’s become so much more. It’s part of their philosophy, it’s part of their city and it’s part of their life. It’s a city of engineer’s sure, but it’s a city that has engineered a kind of happiness.

[Song playing]

ANDRÉS: I’ll tell you what, I definitely want to visit the underground of Helsinki.

NEIL: Yeah, me too. We’re going to go walk on the sea.

ANDRÉS: It’s a nice red herring, the whole thing. From the beginning, from the moment I knew what the premise was of this episode that we’re going to go into the underground of Helsinki, I thought we were going to be talking about lunatic doomsday prepping.

You know, it’s something that can only happen there in a way, but there are these lessons to be taken from it somehow. About community, about being in contact with nature wherever you are, and knowing how to use that in the best way possible somehow.

NEIL: Being an incredible outdoorsman or an incredible outdoors person, it’s bringing that mentality and just putting in the city.

ANDRÉS: We have this problem in cities where we don’t see this stuff happen. We’re only like, oh, it’s hot.

NEIL: Ew, I’m icky.

ANDRÉS: I’m icky right now.

NEIL: A place like Helsinki whose marker for climate change is the fact that the sea doesn’t freeze. I mean, I think that gives them, it gives you free rein to build a bunker if you want to.

ANDRÉS: Yeah. It makes so much sense there. In a place that’s freezing and dark six months a year. It makes perfect sense.

NEIL: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: A place where you have this kind of cathedral like spaces underground, makes sense.

NEIL: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: Is it translatable to the whole world? I don’t think so, but I don’t think that’s a problem.

What’s translatable from what they did is that they paid attention to what was around them immediately and that there was a relationship to the place they live.

NEIL: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: The conclusion or the realization of what could be done underground was a natural extension of that. It seems freaky to us. Living underground is not like, that doesn’t sound like we’re going in a good way.

NEIL: It’s not at the forefront.

ANDRÉS: Yeah, it’s not where we would like to head, but there’s a connection to reclaiming space.

NEIL: That’s an interesting point.

ANDRÉS: It’s inventive and it’s a way to solve problems, it’s a way to reimagine space. All that’s exciting.

[Song playing]

NEIL: So each week on Passport, we tell you a new amazing story from a different country in a different city with a different perspective.

ANDRÉS: The places we discover on each trip often help shape our stories. So if you love this week’s episode, here are our saved pins.

NEIL: These are the places which stuck in our mind after the trip, the best recommendations from the locals and from our story.

ANDRÉS: So these are our top five saved pins from Helsinki with us destroying the Finnish language.

NEIL: And if you miss any of them, don’t worry. We’ll have all the links in our show notes.

[Song playing]

ANDRÉS: Our first saved pin is a piece of Finnish warfare history and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Suomenlinna is a star shaped fortress built in the mid-1700s on a cluster of islands southeast of Helsinki. It’s a beautiful place to learn more about Finland and it’s preparedness for trouble.

NEIL: Our second pin, god fearing or not, Temppeliaukio Church is a pretty astounding building.

This Lutheran church opened in 1969 but with a difference, like a lot of the things we discovered in this story, this beautiful building is built right into the bedrock of the city. That’s right. An underground church.

ANDRÉS: Fanciest swim underground. That’s not a sentence you hear every day, but you do in Helsinki. The Itakeskus Swimming Center has two waterslides, an Olympic size pool, diving boards, six saunas, a jacuzzi, Turkish bath, and massage all for about $5.

NEIL: Our fourth pin is a gem. Everyone we talked to in the story mentioned this as one of their favorite places in Helsinki. Weirdly or not, it’s the Central Library, but what a library. It’s an incredible wooden glass structure that’s more than just a place for reading. In fact, Annika Niskanen, who we talked to in this episode called it her favorite living room in the city, a place for everybody and a very smart place to hang out.

ANDRÉS: Our final saved pin is just pure fun. Go kart racing through Helsinki’s underground tunnels at the Formula Center. A neon lit cave racing circuit, which looks like something straight out of a computer game.

I would like to try that. I would also like the massage and the saunas and swimming pool as soon as possible.

NEIL: That’s it for this week, guys. We’ll see you next time in Iceland. Yeah, myself and Andrés will be asking an unsuspecting local what the world thinks it knows and gets right or wrong about the land of ice and fire. On Tuesday a new MisInfoNation.

In the meantime, you can contact us all over social media at Passport Podcast on Instagram, and you should sign up for our newsletter, which has amazing side stories into every single place we visit.

You can read more or subscribe at frequencymachine.com/passport. Much love. We’ll see you in a week.

[Song playing]

This episode of Passport was written, produced, and edited by me, Neil Innes. Huge thanks to Ulf Manson, Petri Makela, Anu Partanen and Annika Niskanen for talking with us. We’ll put some links to these wonderful people and their work in the show notes.

All of our amazing music on this episode was created by our good friend and musical chameleon, Nick Turner.

The show is mixed and mastered by Julian Kwasneski. Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari and  Avi Glijansky are probably digging holes somewhere in the woods. They also executive produced this show, which is hosted by myself and the worldly Andrés Bartos.

We’ll see you in the next place.

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© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.