Helsinki’s Central Park is really central forest

Helsinki’s Central Park is such a happy combination of recreational and nature values that it is enjoyed by joggers, bikers and flying squirrels alike.

There is a central park in many a capital, but Central Park in Helsinki is unique in Europe. Instead of a closely manicured park with benches and rose bushes, it is actually a forest.

Around two million visits are made annually in the thousand-hectare Central Park. People visit it to jog, cycle, ride horses, roller ski, mountain bike, and pick mushrooms and berries. Inside the park there are allotment gardens and an archery range and during the winter, ski tracks.

Despite this flurry of human activity, foxes, hawks, owls, brown and white hares, badgers, woodpeckers and other species typical of Northern boreal forests live in Helsinki’s Central Park. And this summer, flying squirrel (Pteromys volans) was spotted in the park for the first time.

That Central Park, which celebrates its centennial this year, is still a forest despite being so heavily used is due to careful and well-planned forest management.

The goal is a multilayered forest

”The goal of the management is that the forests in Central Park are beautiful, attractive, safe, diverse and healthy, so that the forest’s ability to renew itself is not threatened,” says Ms. Tiina Saukkonen, Urban Forester with the City of Helsinki. She is responsible for planning the nature maintenance in Helsinki, which includes city’s forests.

All these goals are met by managing the forests as uneven-aged forest stands. They are regenerated by making small-scale fellings of no more than 0.3 hectares. Sometimes there is not enough light for seedlings to grow naturally, and they have to be planted.

Central Park has some areas with even-aged forest, but in the future, these will also be regenerated with small-scale fellings or otherwise by stages. The forest in Central Park has been managed as uneven-aged forest stands for about two decades.

“Everywhere in Central Park we aim at a multilayered forest and a wide variety of tree species,” Saukkonen says.

Biodiversity is safeguarded by leaving thickets and decayed wood for animals. Also, the most valuable forest sites are excluded from forestry operations.

Trail verges are kept safe

The most common action taken is felling a few trees, or even just a single one. Trees are felled for various reasons: to make more room for trees designed to be spared, to open up a view into the forest or for safety.

Upright dead or decayed trees are removed if they could fall across a trail. To increase biodiversity, the felled trunk is often left on site to continue decaying on the ground. If a dying tree could not fall across a trail it is sometimes allowed to fall down naturally.

Two people are known to have died under a falling tree in Helsinki. No one wants that to happen ever again.

Saukkonen says that single trees blown down by the wind are left lying if they pose no hazard. Only those that have fallen across trails are moved to the side.

The exceptions to this are areas with the risk that trees could die due to Ips typographus infection. In those areas the windfalls are removed more carefully.

No changes wanted in Central Park

According to surveys among Central Park users, people want the park to stay unchanged. If the park is to remain as it is, the management should continue along the same lines, too, Saukkonen says.

”But people don’t understand that for a forest to remain ‘the same’, it has to be managed. If we stop managing it, the forest will change; there will be more thickets and walking about will become more difficult,” Saukkonen says.

The management plan of Helsinki’s Central Park spans ten years at a time. Currently, a new management plan with new goals is being prepared. The aim is to send it out for comments from residents and NGOs during the coming winter.

No thickets or bushes, please

Saukkonen says that in general, Helsinki residents and ENGOs have conflicting wishes regarding forest management.

Environmental organizations say that only dangerous trees should be removed in Central Park. The residents want management to make it easy to move in the forests and to open up nice, long vistas into the forest from paths and trails.

There is a comprehensive network of managed trails in Central Park. There are also many unofficial paths, and the terrain shows signs of wear.

Saukkonen does not consider this to be dangerous. The trails are allowed and even encouraged to “move about”. “The park is maintained for people,” Saukkonen says.

Forests do not have to bring in money

The kind of forest management carried out in Central Park is more expensive than clear fellings and plantings would be, since actions are carried out more often in one place and little by little.

The City of Helsinki has made a political decision that no financial rate of return is expected of its forests. They are managed for the residents to have places of recreation.

The management of Central Park’s forests is funded from the city budget, not by selling timber. “My job is to produce recreational services,” says Forester Saukkonen.

More information:

The Central Park of Helsinki

Nature maintenance in Helsinki

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