The block courtyard is more

In the Finnish housing company culture, residents are accustomed to having their own yard area which is strictly limited for their own use. In the early 1900s, fences were even built between the courtyards of housing companies in Helsinki to prevent people from moving from one yard to another. The justification for this was fire safety.

Published: 7 March 2023, edited: 26 June 2023

It is difficult to get rid of the concept of borders. In Helsinki, there is a group called Korttelipihat takaisin (‘bring back the courtyards’) whose members have a goal to add more communal courtyards in the city for residents to enjoy.

Some encouraging new examples of a new kind of courtyard culture are already emerging. For example, in Finland in Leinelä, Vantaa and in Turku, a courtyard shared by several housing companies has been designed and implemented without any visible border fences. Whereas previously each housing company implemented its own playgrounds, its own waste collection points and shared living areas, the block courtyard enables a single but larger concept with higher quality.

In the Turku and Leinelä sites, the special feature of the courtyards is a paved running track around the entire courtyard. Centralization also resulted in communal spaces that may not have been realised without the joint effort. In the case of Turku, a building was created in the middle of the courtyard, and the residents themselves are able to make the decisions regarding the use of the building. Next to it is a communal summer kitchen, as well as raised garden beds. There are separate play areas for children and an outdoor activity area for more senior residents.

Leinelänkaari housing association garden, Finland

Leinelänkaari housing association garden in Vantaa, Finland

A shared courtyard is cost-effective

A courtyard increases a sense of community, and provides the opportunity to invest in better quality and more varied content of the courtyard design. Jointly managed solutions for snow removal and waste management also bring definite financial savings. At best, communal courtyards provide opportunities for alternating joint activities, such as supervising children’s play.

In a large yard, the atmosphere can be enhanced by planting diverse vegetation. Different types of plants offer a habitat for many different species from birds to insects. A rich variety in insects and other species brings more life into the yard.

A courtyard can be functionally divided into different spaces and areas that fulfil the needs of different user groups. There can be quieter nooks for the elderly and those in need of some peace and quiet, open spaces for social people, equipment storage areas for sports enthusiasts and play areas for children.

People are looking for more ways to use their courtyards. It is possible to build spaces with canopies in the courtyards for allowing people to gather also when it rains. A summer kitchen or fire pits provide an opportunity for arranging shared events.

Harppuuna housing association yard in Turku, Finland

Harppuuna courtyard in Turku, Finland. Photo: Seppo Närhi.

Help from professionals

When housing companies become interested in taking down the fences dividing the yards, it is worth hiring a professional designer to design the courtyard. A professional knows how to listen to the residents and make various solution proposals.

A modern version of a courtyard is a green roof built on the deck of a car port. Such solutions have been chosen for areas in city centres and for cities that are becoming more and more concentrated; and this trend seems to be continuing.

New and renovated yard areas can take into account more recent solutions, such as the utilisation of stormwater, permeable surfaces, diverse vegetation that favours different species, communality, the cultivation of locally sourced food, common meeting spaces and facilities for different user groups.

At its best, the renovation planning of a courtyard creates genuine co-operation between residents, resulting in the creation of new immediate surroundings. When a resident is involved in the design of their own courtyard, the resident also commits to the development of the yard and feels that it is their own.

The article was published in Finnish in RIA magazine 4/2022.

Writer: Seppo Närhi

Garden Consultant

The author produced, together with his wife Paula Ritanen-Närhi "The paradise in the backyard" television show on the Finnish AlfaTV channel. He retired in 2020 from The Finnish Association of Landscape Industries as being the General Secretary and the Editor-in-chief of the Association's magazine Viherympäristö.