Studying the everyday – and many, many metro coffees

From the beginning of our research project, us field researchers met monthly to discuss current research issues. What is special about our meetings is, that we never go to the same place twice. In fact, we have met at each and every metro station in Helsinki, one after another for “metro coffees”. This blog text discusses questions of researching the everyday and illustrates our metro coffee meetings as being in the field, part of the lived urban space. We also share our first observations of the western metro extension (hereafter “länsimetro”). 

The western extension crossed city borders. Picture: Länsimetro. 

The idea of our metro coffees is to observe and get familiar with the “old” and “new” metro environments all the way from eastern Helsinki to western Espoo. Sometimes we would find a shopping mall café near the metro station (Vuosaari, Kontula, Itäkeskus, Lauttasaari), on other times we would grab coffees from a tiny kiosk and go explore a park and gardens nearby (Kulosaari), drink coffee at a gas station (Siilitie), a pub (Herttoniemi, Puotila) or a trendy café (Hakaniemi). Our metro meetings took a halt in Ruoholahti for a long time to wait for the extension to finally finish!

Metro coffees in Herttoniemi: local suburban pub Siilinpesä and charming allotment garden. Photos: Annaliina Niitamo

Our metro coffee meetings are fruitful not only because we get to see very different urban surroundings of Helsinki, but also to meet each other. We are a group of researchers and a photographer from various different institutions, so information exchange needs to be programmed. We discussed issues relating to our fieldwork and analysis, contemplating methods and preparing for seminars and conferences.


Metro coffees in Kontula with professor Ann Phoenix to admire the Brand New Helsinki photos taken by local young people. Photos: Annaliina Niitamo

Studying the everyday

Our metro coffee excursions have also had a methodological purpose. Since the very beginning of our research project, we have been interested in the everyday experiences of commuting in the metro and spending time in different urban spaces – and the possibilities “to see the self and the others as part of the urban story”, as Myria Georgiou (2013, 2) has put it. However, reaching these mundane experiences, feelings and knowledge is not a simple task.

For example, different power relations that become manifested, redone and, also, challenged in the metro space are mostly silent knowledge that becomes visible only if social norms are somehow broken. This is something we quite concretely noticed when interviewing young people on themes such as pleasant and unwanted encounters with adults. In group interviews, many informants discussed these encounters and voiced surprisement when talking about their shared digital and spatial strategies, such as choosing a specific seat in the metro.

Thus, we feel that methodologically reaching the everyday means, firstly, to allow sufficient time on the field, in this case the metro and the metro stations. In this sense, our metro coffees have been an inspiring methodological experiment. Secondly, we would like to foreground the importance of doing ethnographic research together, as a collective and dialogic process – not only between the researchers but also between researchers and young people. For example, Lotta Palmgren (2017; see also Pyyry 2015) has studied young people’s routes and hanging out in the mall by walking together – or standing still – with them. Palmgren has also pointed out to the complex power relations between researcher and co-researchers. Co-travelling in the metro together with young people is a method we will also apply next year in the new länsimetro.

Observations from the new western extension, länsimetro

Our excitement was palpable as we finally got to step on the first platform on Espoo’s side. After many long months of waiting and delays in construction and safety testing of the new metro line, at last our researchers’ gaze could wander around the newly designed and softly illuminated platforms. We were struck by how visual the new platforms were. Soft white LED lights, 3-dimensional shapes and art pieces were camera worthy as well as visually pleasing for the passenger. They were practically made for Instagram for the amateur photographer.

The old part of the metro and central stations are usually overcrowded during the morning rush hours. However, we were met with a tranquil atmosphere in the morning hours of the new stations of länsimetro. Either the rush hour was already over or the residents in nearby areas had not yet discovered the metro. Between 8:30 and 9:00 on a working day, the stations were almost deserted with only a few people, mostly young people.


Photos:  Annaliina Niitamo

One of the first things we noted was the vast amount of safety guards patrolling on nearly every station. Hille Koskela (2000) theorizes the change of urban space brought on by increasing video-surveillance. The metro stations in Helsinki are heavily surveilled through video cameras and the physical presence of safety guards. To us, the presence of the guards felt mainly performative, as if to assure the new users of the metro that it is a safe space and under control.

The presence of security guards could be explained by the fact that both the transport company and the passengers are learning the new places of länsimetro. Becoming a user of länsimetro is not a simple task. We noticed that navigating along endless corridors in Tapiola can be difficult. Some doors and  passages are closed, the directions written on walls and boards weren’t always clear. Perhaps, at this early stage of taking the länsimetro in use the role of guards was much bigger, and their understanding of security was much broader. It was not only about monitoring space and preventing disturbances, but also in checking that passengers don’t get lost in the new metro stations, that all doors and safety equipment work properly.  

According to earlier research accounts in Finland, public transport is a somewhat ambiguous space for young people. Their experiences of threatening situations in public transport are rather common in bigger cities (Kivivuori et al., 2014), and they regard the metro as the least safe place compared to other forms of public transport in Helsinki (Tuominen et al., 2014, 36–38).  


You can spot guards almost at every station. First photo from Tapiola, second photo from Lauttasaari. Photos: Arseniy Svynarenko, Annaliina Niitamo 

The era of the shopping centre?

Another observation we made was how similar the shopping centers were that were built around the metro stations. We discussed the role a shopping centre plays in a neighbourhood. Without questioning the everyday convenience of buying your groceries on the way home from work via public transport, we couldn’t help but to feel a bit uneasy of what it may do to small-scale, local entrepreneurship and the surrounding streetscape as services are all gathered indoors. The potential homogenizing effect is daunting. Or “Manhattanization” as Sharon Zukin (2010) calls the event of places losing their authenticity. We started feeling nostalgic towards the outdoor malls from the 1970’s, so typical of Helsinki’s and Espoo’s suburbs.

“This shining city is so rich it stirs our unease”, says Zukin.


Shining new shopping center “Lauttis” in Lauttasaari, along the länsimetro. Upscale apartment buildings are built above the shopping center, portraying “mixed-use development” that blends residential, commercial, cultural, institutional, or entertainment uses and where those functions are physically and functionally integrated. Photos: Annaliina Niitamo. 


A new shopping mall and apartments being built above the Lauttasaari Metro station (left), Kontula shopping mall (right). Photos: Arseniy Svynarenko, August-June 2016.

“Enriching urban crosspoints” is the sales slogan of Citycon, the biggest shopping center owner in Finland that has now expanded to Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Estonia. Citycon has assets worth 5 billion euros and with market capitalisation of close to 2 billion euros. Along the metro line, Citycon owns Heikintori in Tapiola, Iso Omena in Matinkylä, Columbus in Vuosaari and soon Lippulaiva in Espoonlahti.

“Located in the heart of urban areas, our multifunctional shopping centers serve as true community hubs where people come for everyday shopping, services, recreation and fun. Linked to public transportation, our modern, well-designed shopping centres are easy to visit, lovely to stay”, the marketing slur continues.  Using the term community hub is hardly what urban activist Jane Jacobs and activist-researcher Sharon Zukin see that shopping malls contribute to urban space. 

American environmental psychologist Paco Underhill (2004) states that the shopping mall is a monument to the moment that Americans turned their backs on the city. Many European countries have limited building new shopping centers in order to protect lively street life and small businesses. (Evers 2009; Zukin 2010.) Shopping centers are controversial concentrations of commercial space in cities because they often privatize space that may have been or could have been public space. Many researchers say that they eat away the humanity and vitality of the city and rank the visitor (consumer) by their potential to buy and use questionable forms of surveillance and control in space (Evers, 2008; Zukin 2010).

Especially young people face difficulties in relation to consumption-driven shopping centres.  According to Matthews et al (2000) the mall or shopping center can provide a safe and “bright” environment as a place to hang out in young people’s lives. However, there is commonly a problematic relationship between young people and adults, who perceive the public and visible presence of young people as a nuisance and problematic. The shopping centre represents spatial hegemony of adulthood. (Matthews et al, 2000.)

PhD researcher Sara Peltonen says that a recurring theme in her research on young people’s wishes from the urban environment is the need for places “to just hang out”. Her research found that young people spend time in shopping centres, not shopping but just being with their friends.

“Young people face problems when they have to define their existence in commercial terms”, Peltonen says.

To sum up our initial experiences from the länsimetro, we must say that we were impressed by the soft visuality and tranquility of the platforms and stations. A certain feeling of uneasiness was present through visible surveillance and commerciality in the use of public space. Time will tell and as our research progresses on the meanings and uses young people give to this peculiar urban environment.

Authors: Annaliina Niitamo, Heta Mulari, Arseniy Svynarenko


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