22 Jun 2022

Destination: NIB in Helsinki

Ever wondered what kinds of projects the Nordic Investment Bank (NIB) is financing in the Helsinki region? To find out, take a trip from the Helsinki Airport along the many transportation links and urban projects to the Bank’s headquarters in the city centre.

As the plane approaches the runway at Helsinki Airport, I am greeted by a lush greenery of pine forests among a multidue of lakes—a sign that this is indeed Finland. As the plane taxis to the gate amid iconic Airbus planes in blue on white livery, the captain informs us of cool temperatures and wishes us all a good stay.

The passengers disembark the plane efficiently via two bridges—suitable for a range of different plane sizes—and thus keeping the need for bus rides to a minimum. This is part of Helsinki Airport being carbon neutral since 2017. I also see other elements contributing to this as I walk through the recently expanded non-Schengen gate area at the airport, which incidentally is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year.

In cities such as New York, Singapore, and Hong Kong, passengers are used to vast and enervating airports with facilities and connections dispersed throughout various terminals. Not so at Helsinki Airport. This airport offers easy access and a calming atmosphere with an abundance of natural light through its nature-themed terminal. All flights, including baggage claim and security control are now centralised to one terminal. As part of the Helsinki Airport development programme, the airport company Finavia will increase terminal floor space by 45%, baggage handling capacity by 50%, and expand the apron by a size of 90 football fields.

Passengers making their way to the arrival area are greeted by the majestic nature diorama “Luoto”, as an ode to Finnish nature. I am impressed by the details.

As I head over to the food hall, I start to chat with one of the gate service agents at Finnair, Pinja Ylä-Kotola. The talk is about the new airport expansion. She says the new terminal is “Very fresh, very Nordic, so I think it represents Finnish culture very well. It is very open with a lot of light.” I ask her if she feels there has been a change in terms of passengers, and she replies that “I think I have seen a change, there’s a lot more passengers every day now.”

Pinja Ylä-Kotola, Gate Service Agent at Finnair. Photo: Robert Staa.

Before jumping on the train to Helsinki, I meet with Henri Hansson, Senior Vice President for airport sustainability, safety, and security at Finavia, to hear about the latest developments at the airport. NIB has recently given a ten-year EUR 25 million loan for the last phase of the development, which is the second loan after financing the initial expansion in December 2015 with a loan of EUR 150 million.

Hansson says the airport expansion encompasses everything from premises to processes and passenger services. He elaborates further that “Premises focuses on the new terminal that will enhance the ambience, processes focus on new technology for baggage handling, check-in systems and new security infrastructures, and passenger services are represented by the new F&B services to enhance the customer experience at the airport”.

The investment by NIB seems to be bearing fruit as the expansion has improved efficiency and productivity through the introduction of new technologies that require less resources. Hansson gives some examples such as the new security checkpoint and the solar panels on the parking facilities for charging electric cars. Sustainability is taken to the next level by utilising recycled building materials and not-before-used ways of collecting and reusing de-icing materials during the winter season.

Jump on the train!

Now it’s time for me to head towards Helsinki city centre. As I step into the Ring Rail Line train, I notice that despite the large number of people arriving with me, I still manage to get a window seat.

The train is clearly designed for both productivity and convenience and co-financed by NIB with a EUR 52 million loan in 2015. Each group of seats has a small coffee table with electrical outlets on both sides of the table, while below the table is a subtly designed bin that passengers can pull out to throw in their litter.

Across the aisle I see two young passengers sitting comfortably with their large suitcases parked in the ample legroom space in front of their seats. Given the size of their luggage, I imagine they had arrived from the other side of the globe. I approach them, and indeed it turns out they are from Taiwan. One of them is Liu-Fan Wang, a student who is in Helsinki for a layover before heading to Kuopio for a conference. It is his first time taking the train, and he says “The train is pretty smooth, not really shaky and the seats are pretty convenient for someone with a lot of stuff”.

Liu-Fan likes how the train’s accessibility and space can comfortably accommodate disabled passengers. He also comments, “The train is safer because you need to press the button on the door to get on the train”, which reminds me of the times I tried not to get myself caught in between the train door during my usual rush hour long distance commute when I lived in Asia. There is also a sustainability aspect to the door button. Opening doors unnecessarily during winter makes passengers cold and more energy is needed to restore the indoor temperature.

Liu-Fan Wang, a student from Taiwan attending a conference in Kuopio. Photo: Robert Staa.

A second city centre in sight

Before reaching the city centre, I stop at Pasila Railway Station and the Mall of Tripla, the last stop before the Helsinki Central Station. The Mall of Tripla is an alternate point of departure and arrival in Helsinki, designed to alleviate congestion from the central railway station for people travelling to various suburbs and cities in the Uusimaa region and elsewhere in Finland.

I look around at the various cafés and find a bubble tea shop. While sipping my tea I glance at the sheer size of the mall connected to the station, which reminds me of the times I spent in different cities in Asia, and how large malls have become the centrepieces of society.

It is easy to see why office towers, hotels, and residential buildings are being developed around the station and Tripla. I believe NIB saw the importance of Pasila as a productivity driver and has therefore helped the development of the mall and its surrounding areas to create this “second city centre” by financing the project to the tune of EUR 100 million back in 2016.

From here, I quickly spot the next train to Helsinki Central Station from the various screens above the station waiting area, which is designed in the shape of mushrooms, an ode to the Finnish pastime of foraging. I board the next train to the city centre at Pasila and, within a few minutes, can already see the skyline of Helsinki city centre gleaming across Töölö bay as the train approaches Helsinki Central Railway Station. As the train comes to a halt, passengers disembark and I follow the flow of the platform, which leads me to several large doors below a large screen that depicts the schedule of the departing trains, and above the door sits the iconic ‘M’ symbol that marks the entrance to the Metro.

Inside the door and past the cafés and shops, I pause below the atrium of the railway station to admire its Art Nouveau architecture by the famed Eliel Saarinen—the station has been named one of the ten most beautiful in the world by the BBC in 2014—and slightly reminiscent of New York Grand Central Station. Right below that atrium are two escalators with another ‘M’ symbol that quickly takes me down to the platform of the Helsinki Metro.

Helsinki Metro: Connecting east and west

One cannot not miss the bright orange colours of the metro train as it swiftly fills the platform. I see the metro just leaving the platform but am not worried since the next train will come in two minutes. This is yet another project that NIB has supported with two loans, totalling EUR 270 million, to allow for an extension of the Metro’s two lines to the city of Espoo in the west.

The metro is an important part of the city’s transportation system as it now links Espoo to the easternmost part of Helsinki just before the border of the City of Vantaa. If the airport serves to give a great first impression of Finland, the metro takes it further by opening the gateways of places around Helsinki for visitors from left to right, allowing them to explore the city beyond just the city centre.

The metro appears in the blink of an eye and I quickly check from the map that my destination is just one station away. Here I am, stepping out onto the platform at the University of Helsinki stop to make my way to the NIB office. A pro tip for you: there is a shortcut from the Metro station exit on Kaisaniemenkatu through the Kaisa-talo building of the Helsinki University Library. I check the time and it looks like I am early, so I decide to take a peek at the Helsinki University Library.

Inspired at the Helsinki University Library

The library, co-financed by NIB with a EUR 27 million loan, is part of the University of Helsinki’s ambitious strategic goal of becoming one of the top 50 universities in the world.

I look up from the main lobby and through the curvaceous hoops and the oval hole towards the top of the structure to absorb the natural light coming in thanks to the open architecture; it brings to my mind the Guggenheim in New York, but is still quite different.

I pick a book on 1960s design in Tapiola, where I lived when I first moved to Finland. Behind the shelves is a reading corner where I recognize the Karuselli armchairs by Finnish designer Yrjö Kukkapuro, especially after a recent visit to his studio in Kauniainen. Oh, now I recall where I have seen this place: it’s apparently one of the most Instagrammable spots in Helsinki.

Up on the seventh-floor terrace is a young lady typing away on her laptop enjoying a punnet of raspberries. Anna Hasselblatt, who studies at Arcada to become a paramedic, is a frequent user of the library. She comes a few times a week as it is easier to concentrate here than at home alone.

“The library is very beautiful, modern, and open. I like being here on the top floor, the view is amazing. You can take a break from studying and you can come out here and look at the view,” Hasselblatt says.

Indeed, the library’s open layout allows for everyone to visit and plenty of natural light to come in. The energy savings created by the building housing library are estimated to reduce annual CO2 emissions by 2,000 tonnes per year. Furthermore, the University of Helsinki has attained the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold certification for new constructions—the first of its kind in Finland.

Destination reached

I realize my time is up, so I head to my destination next door at the headquarters of NIB. As I arrive at my desk, I start to recollect the impressions of my trip from the airport to the NIB office. For me, it is an eye-opening experience to witness first-hand the various NIB-financed projects and the impact they are having on the Helsinki region. Speaking with the people enjoying the infrastructure made my experience very vivid. Although I have just started working at NIB, I believe the journey will not stop here.

The writer, Robert Staa, is a communications trainee at NIB who documented his journey while offering perspectives from him having lived in Asia and America before moving to Finland.

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