Capital of Northern Finland - European City of Culture 2026

J. Boström - Litography from "Finland framställdt i teckningar" 1845–52

A brief history of Oulu

In 1605 Charles IX, the King of Sweden, founded the Town of Oulu (from the word oula, which in Sami language meant 'floodwater' and in the ancient Finnish 'sludge on the ice'), giving it town privileges five years later. The earliest city maps around 1651 count ca. 400 inhabitants.

During the 1700’s the trade in Oulu slowly developed and the importance, as well as the population of the town, grew. The real success of the town started in 1765 when Oulu was given the rights to deal in foreign trade: the most important export goods were tar, timber, salmon and butter. while local merchants imported salt, tobacco, alcoholic drinks, sugar and colonial produce (fruits, coffee, tea, cocoa).

By the end of the 18th century, Oulu had become the second largest town in Finland (population 3400) after the capital Turku. In the 19th century, the town was Finland’s leading exporter of tar. Timber is still a prominent industry due to the expansion of the printing industry during the 20th century, making cellulose a valuable commodity even today.

In recent years attention has been focusing on other derivatives made from sustainably farmed wood, including ligniin and nanocellulose - one potential wonder-materials of the 21st century, helping to drive 5G and 6G communication systems, make clothes and for its use as a building material

Now, partly because of the presence of Nokia (who opened their first divisions in 1973) , Oulu is a major high tech centre counting more than 200.000 locals and pioneering game companies. It also holds several of Finland’s largest music festivals and art events annually, which punctuate the cultural life of the city.

It has become one of Europe’s foremost 'living labs' and was nominated European City of Culture 2026.

The Gulf of Bothnia: environmental issues

From the commercial outposts created by the Vikings to the core part it played during World War I and II, the relatively young (10,000 years old) brackish body of water known as the Baltic Sea (called Mare Suebicum or Mare Sarmaticum during the Roman Empire) has always played a central role in the history of Northern Europe.

Aerial photo of the Toppila Ltd Factory in 1985 © Kaleva archives

Due to its low salinity, it is home to both marine and freshwater species. With the change in salinity, there is a transition from saltwater species in the strait of Skagerrak to a predominance of freshwater species in the Gulf of Bothnia.

Its drainage basin is roughly four times the surface area of the sea itself and is forested for roughly half of its surface, especially around the Gulfs of Bothnia and Finland. The abundance of trees contributed to the pine tar (and later cellulose) industry that made Oulu a centre of relevance throughout history.

The abundance of industries along the edges of the Baltic Sea is also the main reason for the environmental issues that, since the 1974 International Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area, have become worrying for all the countries involved. For the first time ever, all the sources of pollution around an entire sea were made subject to a single convention, signed in 1974 by the then seven Baltic coastal states. The 1974 Convention entered into force on 3 May 1980. Political changes and developments in environmental and maritime law caused a new convention to be signed in 1992. The Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area, 1992, entered into force on 17 January 2000.

Due to the low exchange with fresh salt water from the Atlantic (it takes approximately four years for the water in the gulf to be exchanged) and the conformation of its inner currents, the area around the Gulf of Bothnia is among the most polluted in the Baltic. High levels of heavy metals (primarily lead, cadmium, mercury, and organic tin compounds) are contained within the sediment and have contaminated marine life. Environmental toxins such as PCB and DDT were also found.

European Capital of Culture for 2026

The city of Oulu included the AALTOSIILO as part of their bid to become the European Capital of Culture 2026. The Silo offers an iconic space where Aalto’s legacy as the human face of modernism can be explored and seen in a new light - where sustainability, climate change and the mix between science and art have a role to play.

The Silo is an anchor for the local community, it will also be the only Aalto building in Oulu that the public will have access to. There is a very strong emotional attachment to rapidly disappearing industrial heritage, of which Aalto’s Silo is a supreme example. The digital and technological skills that will be transferred locally through the Research Centre will give a sense of local ownership.

The area surrounding the Silo will also be subject to a profound renovation and redevelopment for the Finnish Housing Fair in 2025. Hartaanselänranta, which covers both the continental facing Hartaanranta in the west and Vaakunakylä at Toppilansaari in the east with its surrounding green belts, will transform into a diverse housing-oriented area, connected with nature.