The origins of water protection in Helsinki in 1878-1928

Simo Laakkonen


An environmental success story

During recent decades the sea area in and near Helsinki has recovered significantly and may be regarded today to be clean enough to permit their recreational use. The recovery of urban water bodies and surface watercourses in general may be said to be one of the major positive changes in the environment of Finland and in general of Europe. The main factor behind this improvement has been efficient wastewater purification.

Helsinki is situated on the coast of the Gulf of Finland, which is a part of the Baltic Sea. Until the First World War Helsinki was the capital of the semi-autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland, which was under the rule of Imperial Russia. During this era, in 1910, Helsinki built its first biological wastewater treatment plant (WWTP), which was also the first municipal WWTP in Finland. For the city of Helsinki this proved to be the first step on a long voyage through the 20th century towards protecting its urban sea area, which refers to all brackish water bodies near the city. The city built two wastewater treatment plants in 1910s, in 1930s two large plants using activated sludge process were completed. The construction of a third one was started but the Winter War aborted the works in 1939. The work to develop wastewater treatment continued in the late 1950s and rapidly in 1960s by construction of new activated sludge plants. As a result in 1971 all the wastewater from the city of Helsinki was treated biologically. Since removal of phosphorus and nitrogen has been developed. Therefore it may be said that water protection is a never-ending story. Yet, the development of wastewater treatment has proved to be an environmental success story.

This study examines the origins of municipal water protection in Helsinki. Why the city built the first wastewater treatment plant in the given year and in a given form? What consequences building of the first plant had in environment and society? These questions have also a broader meaning for the study of environmental protection because early water protection initiated in the first decades of the 20th century does not seem to fit into the prevailing picture of the development of environmental protection.

According to the most commonly presented model environmental protection has developed in three different stages. Protection of natural environment is said to have started in the end of the 19th century. Environmental protection in the sense of reduction of polluting loads is claimed to have started mainly in the 1970s. Today ecological modernisation aims to reduce the energy and material flows by making structural changes in the society. How does the case of Helsinki differ of this model of three successive stages of protection? In the following some features of the study are described mainly from the point of view of politics.

Unexplored elements of water protection

The previously dominating concept of a society as a set of relations between different human beings and groups of people is not a particularly fruitful starting point for examination of environmental history, because it neglects environment as an influential actor in history. In this study society is understood as an interactive system consisting of environment, built up environment and society. Normally these elements have been studied separately. In this study the different elements are connected with political and material metabolism. The metabolism of wastewater and connected perceptions and decisions link the human society to the built up environment and to environment. Water protection is understood here as conscious prevention or reduction of harmful flows of material entering the water bodies. Hence the study of the metabolism of material and connected ideas is regarded to be the organisational principle for the new urban environmental history.

In terms of a historical study of the history of water protection the three dimensional concept of the society signifies studying the history of water protection politics (society), of waste water treatment technology (built-up environment), and of observations of the state of water bodies (environment). These three themes are regarded in this study to be fundamental parts of water protection and hence they should be studied in order to understand historical changes in our aquatic environment. The ideas and inventions used in Helsinki were developed in foreign countries. This study concentrates on the local adoption of these ideas.

There is an obvious need for historical examination of environmental protection. Urban environmental history in general and the aforementioned three themes in particular are very little studied in the international community of historians and experts. The history of environmental technology requires a new focus, Instead of water pipes, filters and sedimentation tanks one should emphasis the study of sewers, sedimentation wells and above all the origins of wastewater purification processes.

Science has an important role in the history of observations of the state of environment. History of natural sciences also has been extensively studied. But the history of environmental sciences, that is, conscious studies of the man made disturbances different elements of environment, has been grossly neglected. The origin of hydrobiological studies of the pollution of the sea area is of particular interest.

Water protection requires high investments but in history it has not provided any returns. Hence water protection has been a public good. This means that it belongs to the sphere of the public administration. In practice the municipalities have been up today responsible for developing water protection. Hence, the city council has been the highest authority of environmental policy. But water pollution and protection is also a concern for most people in the cities, for the laymen. Hence water protection should be examined also in terms of urban governance. In addition to the public administration the civil society has been active in the water pollution abatement.

Environmental history requires expansion of the themes of interest in terms of time, space and contents. Previous studies on water pollution and protection have focused mainly on the drinking water supply, epidemics and 19th century. But how the hygienic problems of the 19th century were transformed into environmental problems in the 20th century? This theme was studied in Helsinki starting in 1878 when the plan for a municipal sewer system was accepted and ending in 1928 when the city hall accepted a plan to build a complete waste water purification system treating 100% of the municipal waste water.

Helsinki in 1878-1900: challenging the traditional system

The first section aims to explore the challenges posed by the emergence of the industrialising city for urban waste and waste water management. Helsinki utilised until the last quarter of the 19th century a traditional system to take care of water and wastewater. The townspeople obtained water from private and public wells. Wastewater and other household waste was carried in buckets to the backyard and thrown to the middens. Human waste was collected in privies, which were emptied occasionally by farmers living nearby. This system had been used for centuries in Helsinki and other towns and cities. The introduction of municipal water pipes and sewer system opened, however, completely new alternatives.

The main alternatives to the traditional system were water closet and bucket system. The challenger was the water closet system. Its supporters represented a new international urban elite consisting of businessmen, liberal arts, experts and private townspeople. They lobbied to adopt water closet in their own residential areas and in the new commercial centre of the town, which consisted of high stone buildings. These people emphasised the hygienic advantages of the new system for households. They regarded the protection of the urban sea area unnecessary.

The authorities of the City of Helsinki had another perspective for the issue. They had to consider the public good, both townspeople in general and the urban environment. These people did not believe in the self purification capacity of the urban sea area. Rather they emphasised its vulnerability demanding that all unnecessary load to the sea was to be avoided by all means. Therefore the City of Helsinki chose in the sewer plan of the year 878 a double strategy. First, the municipal sewers were built for wastewater only, not for solid waste. Secondly, the purity of the sea area of the city was to be considered in advance by transporting solid human waste in buckets for agriculture.

The supporters of the bucket system consisted of the board of health, political decision-makers of the city and of and of national key figures of the public health movement. The supporters of the bucket had politically stronger position and they won all the abatements between water closet and bucket system in the end of the19th century. Since 1878 they succeeded to stop the introduction of the water closet system for about 25 years and after the turn of the century they limited its expansion for another 25 years i.e. altogether half a century.

In the end of the 19th century mainly townspeople took the responsibility of observing the purity of the shore waters. No large-scale scientific studies were made. Only few complainants were made of the pollution of the urban shore waters. Local problems existed but solid human waste was not mentioned as a pollutant. From this point of view the chosen protection policy proved to be successful: unnecessary load was prevented from entering the urban sea area.

Helsinki in 1900-1909: decision to build wastewater treatment plants

The second section aims to examine the direct reasons for the decision made in 1909 to build a WWTP in Helsinki. The water closets started to be adopted rapidly after 1904-1905. In 1910 already one household in three had water closets. The diffusion of water pipes and sewers enabled the general adoption of the water closet. The historical low wooden town was gradually replaced with higher buildings in the centre. Hence, the amount of waste generated by each lot increased but possibilities to store them somewhere in backyard decreased. The new urban elite alienated from agriculture and recycling of human solid waste from cities to countryside was not regarded to be of importance. Due to the inventions of microbiology the causes for epidemics were uncovered. The fear connected to excrements started to fade and it became gradually acceptable to direct human waste to the sea area. Due to these changes also the attitudes of members of the board of health, in particular, started to change. The water closet system was accepted because it finally won the political controversy with the supporters of the bucket system.

Parallel to the increase of urban population and water closets also industrial production increased. Hence the load especially to sea area grew considerably. As a consequence the state of the almost closed bays in the very centre of Helsinki in particular started to detoriate notably. Municipal authorities initiated scientific studies of the urban sea area to trace the impact of the water closets. The laboratory of the board of health made the first study of the hygienic state of the bay areas in 1904. These examinations were continued. A few years later a chemist from the same laboratory made an extensive study, which covered nearly the whole sea area of the city. Hygienic, physical, chemical and biological methods were used. In the central bay area, which suffered of massive blooms of blue-green algae, plankton species were used to indicate pollution. The scientist found out that a zone of wastewater surrounded the city. The results of this study were widely published in the press of the city.

The heavy pollution of the most inner bay of the city started a heated public debate in press and in municipal administration. The following alternatives were presented to solve the pollution problem: filling up the bay, dredging of the bottom sediments, [adding] clean sea water to the bay in new channels and directing the load outside of the catchment area of the bay in new collector sewer. Also a new suggestion was presented: building of wastewater treatment plans. In 1909 the city council chose the last alternative because it was the cheapest solution.

The first wastewater treatment plant started operation in 1910 because municipal and industrial waste water had badly polluted the inner bays of Helsinki. Behind this decision was, however, the controversy of about three decades whether Helsinki was to adopt a water closet system or bucket system. When the water closet system started to diffuse, the board of health started the scientific studies to prove the changes. In addition the board of health built its own pilot wastewater treatment plant to test the new system. Hence the opponents of the water closet system struggled to limit its impact in the sea area with a new hydrobiological policy consisting of water protection politics in the public administration, of scientific studies of pollution and of developing waste water purification processes.

Helsinki in 1910-1928: towards complete purification system

The third section studies the consequences of building a WWTP in society and water courses. The load to the urban sea area continued to grow in 1910-1928. In the end of the period nearly 2/3 of the households had water closets. Hence most of the waste and wastewater from the urban population was directed to the shoreline of the city. The municipal sewer system expanded to new areas and hence the wastewater diffused to larger area than ever before.

The municipal studies of the state of the urban sea area consolidated. The examination of the hygienic state of the water bodies became in practise monitoring, continuous observing of the trends in pollution. In 1915-1921 the city organised the significant study of marine pollution. The city realised the research programme in cooperation with researchers from the Finnish Institute of Marine Research, from the Department of Zoology of the University of Helsinki and from the Unit of Biological Water Studies of the Finnish Society of Sciences. The researchers tried to classify the state of the seawater according to a number of parameters. According to the results the polluted area had expanded considerably. The first study on industrial pollution also was carried out.

The civil society participated in 1910s the debate with a new vigour. Four distinctly different groups were particularly active: the Russian Fleet in Helsinki, the press, the association of swimmers and the associations of women. This time the protests against pollution were not any more individual or occasional but they were presented by notable organisations in a systematic way. All the organisations demanded reduction of pollution. Some demanded improved treatment of wastewater.

Due to these protests the city published in 1915 its first white paper which was devoted to the water pollution problem. A committee made two significant decisions. First, it rejected water closet system in its pure form, which turned a blind eye on water pollution. Secondly, the committee rejected bucket system as a possible future solution for preventing marine pollution. These decisions meant that the committee chose the third way: the water closet system was accepted as a dominating system on the condition that the city took care of building of new wastewater treatment plants.

In 1927 the Department of Public Works of the City of Helsinki presented its master plan. The aim was somewhat extraordinary: purification of 100 % of the wastewater of the city by building large activated sludge plants around the city. As a consequence of these plans the city of Helsinki started to construct in the 1930s the most ambitious water protection system in the Nordic Countries.


The first waste water treatment plant built in Helsinki in and in Finland in 1910 was the beginning for a long and successful work to protect the sea area of Helsinki from pollution. Consequently the townspeople can today enjoy of a relatively pure sea water in front of the capital.

The persons who worked for water protection in the early 20th century, the first waste wastewater treatment plant was not a success story. Rather it was the opposite. The first waste water purification signified the failure of the preventive protection policy that was adopted in 1878. At that time the authorities of the city of Helsinki decided to direct human waste to the countryside instead of the seaside in order to prevent pollution of the urban sea area. They chose a system which was to utilise urban human waste in a morally and economically sensible way. Waste was not to be regarded as a worthless nuisance but as a valuable input for the wellbeing of the society in general.

Water closet system represented another way of thinking. It was both right and just to direct waste to the sea. The water closet system removed unpleasant and potentially dangerous human waste from the city and households instantly. The spokesmen of the water closet system did not, however, care for water protection. Hence the authorities of the City of Helsinki had to step in. The only way to reduce load in a water closet system was the end of pipe technology, that is, waste water treatment plant. The authorities chose end of pipe -technology reluctantly because it was against their main principles: preventive water protection policy and economic utilisation of waste.

The case study of Helsinki supports the argument that environmental protection was not started in the 1970s by governmental environmental agencies and grass root movements. It is claimed that the origins of environmental protection are not found in the

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