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The Mayor of Lahti believes in the many possibilities the proud city has to offer

The new mayor of Lahti has his roots deep in the city he's leading, and he is committed to developing it into a modern city supported by its great history. Niko Kyynäräinen is fond of the unique roughness of Lahti.
The mayor Niko Kyynäräinen's grandfather was involved in building Lahti landmark, the ski hill jumping tower, back in the day. Kyynäräinen is wearing his grandfather's 1978 Lahti Ski Games jacket.

It’s time to extend a warm welcome to our new mayor. Picking out a welcome gift is easy; Niko Kyynäräinen is particularly fond of salmiakki liquorice candy. A few confectionery companies manufacture the delicacy, and Kyynäräinen has also suggested to Fazer, which is planning a confectionery plant in Lahti, that they should add it to their range of products as well. 

– At least they’ve heard me out, Kyynäräinen says with a smile and opens the bag of candy.

In addition to his taste in candy, the mayor revealed his openness and warmth during the background interviews. He demonstrated these qualities already in the very first meeting of the city executive by hugging the participants instead of shaking their hands.

– Making contact with people comes naturally to me. It’s something I picked up during my time as an exchange student in Germany. I encountered different cultures and became familiar with the various types of greetings and air kisses.

With the start of his new job in Lahti, Kyynäräinen needs to familiarise himself once again with new cultures, people, and customs. He sees his mayorship as a natural continuation of his previous job. 

– For 15 years, I was close to the top executive branch of the City of Turku. Now, having the opportunity to lead a city myself feels like a natural next step. And Lahti does hold a special place in my heart.

Kyynäräinen was born in Hyvinkää, but his roots are deep in the blocks of Laune: his parents and grandparents have all lived in Lahti.

– As a child, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ houses in Lahti. Grandparents’ houses are those special places that make a city significant to you.

Kyynäräinen’s grandfather worked his entire career in city maintenance, and his philosophy guides Kyynäräinen to this day: let’s take good care of what we have, but also be bold enough to create and build something new.

The pulse of a university city

But what does Kyynäräinen want to bring with him from Turku to Lahti? The pulse of a university city and collaboration skills between local actors, he says.

– We have many good companies, operators and actors in Lahti, and they all bake the same cake together, so to speak.

Another thing that Kyynäräinen wants to bring with him from Turku is the pulse of an internationalising city, which Kyynäräinen sees as a success factor for Lahti as well.

Kyynäräinen has already made being a Lahtian a natural part of his manner of speaking. He does not talk about Lahti as if from the outside; instead, he talks about us: what we have and need to do. 

Public officials and politicians typically refuse to compare themselves to their predecessors, but let’s ask: will Kyynäräinen’s policies somehow differ from those of our previous mayor, Pekka Timonen?

– A city is a continuum. Pekka has taken Lahti to an all-new level in image creation and brand work, and I will continue to build on that. 

Lahti is unique. Here, the Karelian-Tavastian history becomes visible in a good way. This is a city built on entrepreneurship where we are determined to keep things in good working order, all the way from the school network. And we have a certain roughness that also appeals to newcomers,

Niko Kyynäräinen

Lahti has undergoneseveral image campaigns over the years, with varying levels of success. But the city has a certain authenticity that appeals to Kyynäräinen.

– Lahti is unique. Here, the Karelian-Tavastian history becomes visible in a good way. This is a city built on entrepreneurship where we are determined to keep things in good working order, all the way from the school network. And we have a certain roughness that also appeals to newcomers, Kyynäräinen thinks.

Of the newcomers, the mayor welcomes students in particular. He doesn’t want them to be only commuters but to become citizens for whom the city provides a unique student atmosphere. But he remarks that the city cannot create that atmosphere; it is the students who make it. 

Because of his strong background in social politics, student issues and problems of the young are close to the new mayor’s heart.

– I don’t want to contrast young people with older people, but young people help make the city more dynamic.

In addition tobeing warm and open, Niko Kyynäräinen has been described as a bridge-builder who gets along with everyone. He does seem friendly, but can a jovial man like him manage at the helm of a big and, at times, quarrelsome city?

– Yes I can. And I know how to be tough when I need to, Kyynäräinen declares. 

He also lists the art of listening as one of his strengths. 

– I’m not trying to be a leader who knows everything. I have a vast number of awesome people and great ideas around me. Everyone’s work is valued, and it is my job to keep an eye on the big picture.

Kyynäräinen is also a demanding supervisor. He wants to lead and motivate the city’s many thousand staff by example. This includes creating an open atmosphere where everyone greets and speaks with each other.

– No one is more important than the other; we’re all part of the same whole. While I admit that my calendar is quite full, I still encourage employees to reach out.

The mayor’s office is located in the magnificent corner room of the newly renovated city hall. Behind those doors, it could be easy to become immersed in work, but Kyynäräinen promises to stay in touch with the citizens.

– I will try to take the time to attend schools, civic events, and theatre and sporting events. I need to be where the people are.

An excellent chance to succeed

Sparks sometimes flyin Lahti’s local politics. Kyynäräinen says this is not unique to Lahti; similar quarrelling also occurs elsewhere. He promises to unite decision-makers by increasing transparency in decision-making and giving enough time to prepare the matters.

– We have had to address complex issues, and I’m not trying to say that the disputes have gone unnoticed. But despite all that, good decisions have been made, most recently with this year’s budget. 

The population of Lahti is around 120,000, and the number has not started to grow in the same way as the other Finnish control cities. According to Kyynäräinen, as a university city, Lahti is still young.

This is a demanding position. Compared to the operations of many companies, city leadership as a whole and the related processes are more complex.

Niko Kyynäräinen

– We don’t yet have graduates who would stay here to build their careers and develop the city, so we fall slightly behind. However, we are moving forward, and in addition to the university, the development is supported by our modern business environment. Lahti is set to succeed in the inter-city competition.

Lahti’s competitive factors include affordable living costs, a compact city structure, and the proximity of sports facilities. Kyynäräinen points out that migration to cities is strong, and cities compete for people. 

– During the coronavirus pandemic, there was talk about people moving to the countryside, but this idea was based on individual cases. In the big picture, young, working-aged, and older people are all migrating to places that provide good services. 

Trust must be earned

Mayorship is a public position, and the terms of employment are public as well. The frontman of Lahti is paid a ministerial-level salary of €13,000 per month, topped with benefits. The sum might seem extravagant to the average Lahtian, but according to Kyynäräinen, it matches the workload.

– This is a demanding position. Compared to the operations of many companies, city leadership as a whole and the related processes are more complex.

Kyynäräinen has just completed a training programme on city leadership organised by Harvard University (for those wishing to criticise, Turku paid for the training). The man behind the training programme is former New York mayor billionaire Michael Bloomberg.

– In his opening remarks, Bloomberg said that creating property was easier than being a giant city’s mayor. 

Even though the job might seem grand from the outside, the mayor’s position hangs by a thread: its continuity is based on trust from the local council. If there’s no trust, there’s no job.

Regular employees are increasingly affected by employment uncertainty – how will the mayor ensure that his job will continue after the six-month probationary period?

– I need to succeed every day. I need to rely on my own expertise, and I can’t be too afraid to make mistakes.

Many have their roots somewhere else

Early in the application process, Kyynäräinen said that mayorship would not be a position he would retire from but a fixed-term process. Could it be healthy for other politicians and public officials to regularly seek out new challenges as well?

– Everyone considers this from their own perspective. Personally, I think that not a lot can be achieved in a single council term. Still, two or three terms are usually enough to establish a certain natural continuity, he reflects.

Kyynäräinen leads a city where many citizens have their roots somewhere else: Lahti is a city where evacuees were once settled, and as a junction between several essential roads, it is a place where it’s easy to stay. However, Kyynäräinen says that the citizens all share the unique Lahtian character – after all, the city itself is unique. 

– Lahtians are proud of their city. This pride can be seen in everything and may also be one of the reasons sparks sometimes fly. Being a Lahtian means being passionate about your own city. 

Original text Sami Turunen
Photos Lassi Häkkinen

Niko Kyynäräinen

  • Born in 1978
  • Has previously worked as, e.g. the Director Of Business and Economic Development of the City of Turku and CEO of Turku Science Park
  • Social democratic background
  • The blended family consists of a common-law wife, former National Coalition Party politician Laura Räty, three teenage children and golden retriever Seppo
  • Plays ice hockey and describes himself as “somewhat of a triathlete, although hopelessly bad at swimming.”