Permafrost Urbanists

The Arctic could be the next hot place to live.

By Jessica Bridger

Svalbard is an important location for research and satellite communications. Photo by Jessica Bridger.

The dock screeches and groans, the noises of cold metal in cold air. It is dawn as 14 students, two instructors, and one journalist board the Langøsund. The boat sits in the Adventfjord in the High Arctic. Barren gray slopes, crusted with snow on their peaks, rise from the glassy surface of the sea. The sky’s colors are reflected in the fjord, a mirror of this strange, cold place.

The mission is an experiment in design education: an expedition for serious research about the human settlement potential of Arctic places. We motor out into the water, leaving Longyearbyen (population 2,144), bound for Barentsburg (population 471). Both towns lie on Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole. Longyearbyen is said to be the northernmost town with a permanent population in the world.

Leena Cho double-checks the zipper on her poppy-red jacket as the boat makes headway. She grins at the students; they are all jet lagged but facing icy winds with palpable excitement. Cho is intense, with a seriousness she often undercuts with a wicked dark humor. Along with her husband, the architect Matthew Jull, she founded the Arctic Design Group (ADG) in 2013, to examine how landscape architecture and architecture can contribute to places like Svalbard or settlements in the Russian and Canadian Arctic. Cho is an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia (UVA), where Jull is an assistant professor of architecture. Cho is American, born in Korea. Jull is Canadian and, besides being an architect, holds a PhD from Cambridge in geophysics. Jull is contemplative and direct, with a focus on working; throughout the Svalbard trip he was often the first up and last to bed, his stamina exceeding that of students some 20 years younger. Both Cho and Jull are fond of heavy metal, and their garage in Charlottesville, Virginia, is home to a classic 1980s Mercedes and Jull’s beloved vintage BMW motorcycle.

ADG has been the vehicle for Cho and Jull’s north-focused work over the past four years. They have organized symposiums that brought together scientists, anthropologists, and designers to discuss Arctic settlement. As professors at UVA they have published papers and led studios and seminars, all with a focus on the Arctic. They have been researching and visiting the Arctic for about a decade, starting with a 2008 trip to Barrow, Alaska. Some of their work is comparative, looking at various Arctic settlement models. All of it considers the role and value of design in environments where construction is often led only by engineering.

Arctic settlement is circumscribed by climate, motivated and mediated by the deep pragmatism of economic and political forces. It plays out in a centuries-old struggle for resources on the scale of the individual and the nation. Extreme circumstances north of the Arctic Circle mean that towns were and still are established only for extraordinary reasons. Towns are rarely accidental; above the 66th parallel, they never are.

With dire warnings of a warming climate, and as access to oil, minerals, and other natural resources opens up, there has been a political and economic turn of attention north. Cho and Jull see opportunity. They understand the processes of urbanization that have formed Arctic settlement in the past, and posit that it will be possible to imagine a resilient, positive—and urban—future for these places. For example, as shipping routes open and Arctic ice recedes, new logistics hubs can be established. New Arctic industries can diversify the economy of vulnerable communities and cultures that are currently dependent on single industries, or in some cases, on subsistence and social assistance.

Urban thinkers like Cho and Jull are positioning themselves as consultants, helping cities and towns to adapt outside of typical planning processes. Cho and Jull employ a comprehension at the landscape scale, variously speaking of “flows” or “ecologies,” disciplinary shorthand for complex natural and human systems and forces and their effects on the physical environment. Their mappings are particularly interesting, overlaying forces, systems, and processes that are rarely combined, plotting their interactions over varied timescales. The scope of their holistic understanding and representation is met by an ambition to go beyond the usual confines of practice.

Architecture has long been promoted as having the benefits of a generalist discipline, but with a specialized approach to the lives of people and the environments they inhabit. More recently, the role of landscape architects or architects is imagined by some as something like specialist consultants from McKinsey, able to use expert knowledge to address the problems of urbanization itself beyond the design and construction of discrete projects. In some cases, this new role for architects is fanciful or deluded by grandiose misunderstandings of a single project’s ability to change an entire paradigm. But there is also inherent potential.

The Arctic attention of Cho and Jull is backed in part by the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) grant program. ADG is part of a research team of five institutions, led by the George Washington University (GWU), which was awarded a PIRE grant to study urban sustainability in the Arctic. The research has the goal of assisting policy makers in promoting sustainable life, and therefore settlement, in the changing Arctic region. The team’s approach aims to provide tools and benchmarks for measurement, to identify best practices and urgent needs, along with “determining where external actors can have the greatest impact,” Cho says. Determining which external actors might shape the built environment in the Arctic is clearly also part of ADG’s purview.

This multidisciplinary collaboration for policy research in the Arctic is unusual in its inclusion of designers. “There was a recognition that a contribution from the designers of built environments would be critical to addressing urban sustainability as well as to devising and executing policy framework,” Cho says. Scant involvement by the design disciplines in earlier stages of urbanization has had negative consequences in the neglect of heritage and public space, and in the disconnect between various human and natural systems. “In short, it is about understanding the linkage between extreme and rapidly changing environment and modes of urbanization,” Cho says. Explaining, even justifying, involvement by designers in the Arctic is a part of what ADG does. “Once we had a long phone conversation with John Farrell, executive director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, on what architects and landscape architects do,” Cho recalls.

Back on the Langøsund, reviewing design proposals with students in the warm ship’s cabin over hot chocolate, Cho and Jull are very sure of the potential offered by their Arctic research. Many settlements need help reorganizing day-to-day life as industry and interests shift. Most of them are important beyond their simple status as inhabited places, with both cultural and geopolitical significance. Svalbard is an anchor for Norway’s sovereignty in the region, as one of the eight nations with Arctic territory.

Sovereignty, important in the Arctic, is rooted by settlement. One of the surest ways to stake a claim is to sustain settlement, and develop it with an eye toward the future in the quickly changing region. Ongoing disagreements over exact boundaries, and therefore resource rights, between many Arctic claimants remain. Tensions flare periodically, though Svalbard is undisputedly Norwegian in a sea of sometimes troubled waters. The 1925 Svalbard Treaty provides the current legal framework for Norway’s stable yet unique geopolitical hold. The treaty has 43 signatory nations, and their citizens have a right to residency and work on Svalbard. Svalbard has been occupied and sequentially claimed for centuries since its discovery by the Dutchman William Barentsz in 1596.

Attention around the 78th parallel is not new, but it is certainly growing as global interest in the Arctic increases. Svalbard is one of the most established places for international collaboration in the Arctic, and an exemplary use of Norwegian soft power. Military uses of Svalbard are explicitly forbidden under the Svalbard Treaty. So, for NATO member Norway, soft power and sovereignty are expressed through settlement and ecological preservation—more than 65 percent of the archipelago is monitored and protected.

Stylish wood homes in Longyearbyen. Photo by Jessica Bridger.

The current challenge is to keep Longyearbyen, Norway’s administrative hub, viable and sustainable as a settlement while Svalbard’s primary industry, coal mining, declines, hastened by coal’s slump in price by two-thirds over the past decade. The reinvention of Svalbard presents many examples and lessons for other places, in its relative (and sometimes outward) sophistication. In light of this dynamic, many towns formerly on society’s margins might find themselves the beneficiaries of new kinds of attention.

In as difficult a place as the Arctic, sustainable settlement has specific parameters for urbanism. In 2013, Cho and Jull wrote that Arctic settlements need “ordering mechanisms” that are “beyond the forms of administrative centers and single-industry cities—toward a creative production of socially dynamic, ecologically symbiotic, and aesthetically diverse live–work environments.” Svalbard has a neat trifecta of political, environmental, and economic forces that Cho and Jull see as offering an opportunity for the designers of human environments.

Changes in industry on Svalbard require changes to infrastructure, architecture, and the very justifications for the existence of Longyearbyen and Barentsburg. This transition began in the 1980s. Coal mining on Svalbard is unsustainable environmentally and (perhaps more pressingly) economically. Residents of Svalbard, most living in Longyearbyen, must support themselves independently or leave: There is no social assistance. Instead of abandoning the ostensibly obsolete settlement, the geopolitical context requires an ongoing rethinking of its focus and function.

Svalbard’s location is prime for tourism, Arctic research, satellite communications, and transport and logistics, with Longyearbyen as its nexus. Svalbard is home to a lot of environmental study; University Centre in Svalbard, known as UNIS, is one of the world’s leading institutions for cold climate research. UNIS started in 1993 with 23 students; it now has 690. UNIS accounts for a quarter of Longyearbyen’s population. Industry is also looking at Longyearbyen for new reasons. Fabled shipping routes like the Northeast Passage might open. New resources will be brought to the surface. Logistics companies are interested in places like Svalbard as way stations, and as bases for search, rescue, and support for Arctic newcomers.

At the start of the Svalbard research trip, the ADG group listened to a lecture from a Svalbard historian, Per Kyrre Reymert, while sitting on the floor of Gjasthuset 102, a former Longyearbyen miner’s dormitory turned hostel. Reymert said, “Longyearbyen is not a normal community. It is a tool, first for coal mining, and now for Norwegian politics.” The students, cozy in socks and slippers, nodded in understanding. Double-glazed windows kept out winds that blew falling snow sideways against and under the wooden building, built on piles above the permafrost terrain.

Svalbard is an Arctic desert, with dark-gray rock coated in snow and ice. No trees grow, and it is home to more polar bears (and snowmobiles) than people. The expanses of white and dark seas have a timeless, otherworldly feeling. In winter, temperatures average a regionally balmy -14 degrees Celsius (6 degrees Fahrenheit), warmed by the North Atlantic Current. From late October to February, polar night descends. Longyearbyen has mostly wooden buildings, sitting on piles, simply and soundly built. Large open spaces lie between, crosscut by roads. Fat black pipes are suspended above the permafrost ground, carrying essential services. Nothing can be properly buried on Svalbard—including the remains of residents—and building on its shifting land is more like making piers in water.

It is, by any consideration, an odd place to have a town, let alone one with a stylish cultural hall or an ongoing competition among cafés claiming the best gourmet burger and ample duty-free shopping. The archipelago is easy to visit, with regular scheduled service on SAS and Norwegian Airlines Boeing 737s to Longyearbyen Airport. Direct flights from Oslo are a mere three hours. Ease of access to such an exotic place makes it a rising tourist destination. Tourism was the first stroke in changing the economic engine of Svalbard, starting in 1988 with the Spitzbergen Travel company. Some 100,000 people visited Svalbard in 2014, arriving by plane and boat. “Our goal is to double this in the coming years,” said Ronny Brunvoll, head of Visit Svalbard. There is no value-added tax on Svalbard; on mainland Norway, it tops out at 25 percent. Outerwear clothing shops, with the latest in fashionable adventure gear, are numerous—a chilly duty-free paradise. The rock and ice surroundings are pleasantly alien, with familiar cosmopolitan trappings.

The not-quite-remote archipelago town is “probably the most sophisticated Arctic settlement that we’ve visited,” Cho says, over perfectly cooked reindeer at a high-end restaurant, Kroa. The town appears to be about living well, not surviving at the margin. Cho continues, “It is an interesting contrast to a place like Resolute Bay, Canada, or Barrow, Alaska, where many people live on welfare and struggle to subsist.” Most buildings in Svalbard have generous entry halls, where visitors remove boots and swap for slippers. The Svalbard Science Centre, designed by JVA architects, is angular and copper-clad. Postcard-ready painted wooden houses have a bold, earthy color scheme designed at the Bergen Academy of Art and Design. Longyearbyen would be impressive anywhere, let alone the 78th parallel.

Up a winding road from the town and past security checkpoints is the Norwegian satellite company KSAT’s Svalsat station. Svalsat is part of Svalbard’s research activity, but also provides commercial services, as the archipelago is ideally positioned for polar orbit satellites; McMurdo Station in the Antarctic is its southern counterpoint. Svalsat’s director, Ole Petter Storstad, said, “Our first antenna was in 1997, and we’ve grown continuously since then.” In the middle of whiteout snow, the antennas, housed in domed protective covers, appear out of the blur like so many snowmen on a vast field. When UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Svalbard in July 2015, Svalsat was a stop; it is a hub for climate monitoring. The information and research side of Longyearbyen’s reinvention is robust.

While Svalbard might be the most sophisticated example, the Arctic is urbanized—and increasingly urbanizing. As the Arctic Ocean opens up as a result of climate change and natural resource interests, many settlements in the Arctic are forecast to grow. Many will transition from backwaters and industrial company towns (some are less charitably thought of as “hell frozen over”) to more complex urban areas. The high north towns are marginalized places, yet can be understood like other small towns and cities; they have inherent capacity for development.

The problems of these settlements are diverse, yet all suffer from a lack of holistic approaches to creating better human environments. “What architects and landscape architects bring is a synthetic approach, to connect the dots,” Jull says, pointing to the need for better-integrated understandings of life and settlement in the Arctic. Cho adds: “Understanding landscape is key to understanding urbanism in the north, and, for that matter, everything that occurs in the Arctic, from rhythms of economy to geopolitically contested locations.”

Climbing the steps from the dock in Barentsburg. Photo by Jessica Bridger.

Living in the Arctic regions is unsurprisingly difficult, from the everyday details to the airports. “We have some of the world’s most expensive infrastructure,” said Christin Kristoffersen, then the outgoing mayor of Longyearbyen, in 2015, “and across Arctic communities we see high competencies in settlement—and innovation.” One of her notable achievements as mayor was to move forward plans for a significant port expansion. Even economically less-advantaged towns, subject to a fuller range of social challenges, achieve a lot just by existing in such an extreme environment. “Ultimately what we’re going for is not an economic- or engineering-optimized approach,” Jull says, explaining part of ADG’s methodology, “but one that is culturally optimized, provocative, and that provides new opportunities for towns that often have very little.”

Back on the Langøsund, we are approaching Barentsburg as the dawn mist lifts from the water. A rather downtrodden collection of buildings comes into sight, standing in partial disrepair. Debris lines the shore. The Russian state mining company Arktikugol controls Barentsburg, a company town on Norwegian territory. It suffers the same decline in primary industry as Longyearbyen. For obvious reasons there is unmistakable interest in keeping the settlement active and vibrant. Recent efforts to spruce up the town are clear, though the result is a bit of a dystopian hodgepodge. Brightly colored panels cover some buildings, a gift shop sells souvenirs, and a new long wooden stairway allows maritime passengers improved access to the town.

ADG’s research about Svalbard relies upon complex mappings of relationships. Image courtesy of Isabel Argoti and Chunyao Xu.

The visible remains of Barentsburg’s heritage reveal something much more utopian, with a level of autonomy and a vision for a socialist model of living in the High Arctic. The distinct culture of this Russian settlement is evident even in disrepair. The outline of an outdoor square, with old decorative streetlamps, lies in the center of the town. A community center is home to a lecture hall, dining area, and recreation facilities, still used. A humid and warm derelict pool area, swimming tanks full of murky water, and tropical plants running amok in planters spoke to a golden age in the not-too-distant past.

Satisfying bowls of bright red borscht in the town’s best hotel (one of two total) followed an impromptu early morning tour of the aging coal power station, which powers Longyearbyen as well. Cho and Jull have a focus on understanding the culture of the built environment specific to each place. Cho says, “We need to expand and renew notions of cultural identity via the lens of the built environment, something missing in current Arctic discourse.”

Up in Svalbard, the use of settlement as a tool is inextricable from its form and processes. The complexities of building in permafrost, understanding resource landscapes, and environmental pressures are balanced with the need for high-quality human environments, amid geopolitical realities and economic interests. Designers can bring “a rich palette of design principles, guidelines, and detailed design strategies,” Cho says. She and Jull have the goal of “an expanded capacity to closely work with policy makers who could bring forth a framework fit for design innovations in the Arctic cities.” On the return boat trip from Barentsburg to Longyearbyen, the two sit together in the bow, closing their eyes in the sun, as we speed back along the Isfjord.

Jessica Bridger is a journalist based in berlin.


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