Permafrost Frontier

Around a school in an arctic town, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander made a landscape to withstand the prospect of a warming world.

By Anne Raver / Photography by Ihor Pona

Simon Taylor designed playground equipment made out of logs and driftwood from the area. Photo by Ihor Pona.

The permafrost is melting in Inuvik, a flat delta town in the Northwest Territories, 2 degrees north of the Arctic Circle. You can see the drunken trees, leaning this way and that along the banks of the Mackenzie River. The Gwich’in and Inuvialuit—native people who make up 40 percent of the some 3,500 residents here—have to go farther out to hunt seals, because of the melting ice.

The caribou get stuck in the mud, instead of running across snow, as they migrate to their calving grounds north of Tuktoyaktuk, or Tuk, as people here say, on the coast of the Beaufort Sea. The lichen that has sustained them for millennia is getting crowded out by species that thrive in warmer temperatures.

Local people tell of landslides and collapsing banks along the Mackenzie River, or slumping—where the land simply caves in—on a road or in the forest. The pingos, or subterranean ice houses, may be melting up in Tuk, but most people have freezers anyway.

“Come, I want to show you where I sank into the permafrost that was melted,” Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, FASLA, the Canadian landscape architect, said one unseasonably cold day in July. (It was 2 degrees Celsius, or 36 degrees Fahrenheit, when summer temperatures are normally around 20 degrees C, or 68 degrees F. Snow was predicted the next day.) Oberlander, who retains a bit of the cadences of her native tongue—she escaped from Hitler’s Germany with her mother and sister in 1939—walked with a briskness that belied her 92 years to the edge of the boreal forest behind the new East Three School.

The 128,000-square-foot, crescent-shaped building, designed by Pin/Taylor Architects, hovers like a great gray bird on 16 acres in the middle of Inuvik. The two-story school was finished in 2012, for 750 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. It sits on steel friction piles that extend 50 to 75 feet down, anchoring it in the permafrost.

Oberlander, a recipient of a closetful of awards, including the Order of Canada and the ASLA Medal, for her 60 years of sustainable landscapes and environmental activism, joined the design team in 2006. Snug in her fleece jacket, scarf, and hat—“My youngest, Wendy, knit this for me when she was 10,” she said, as she jammed the wool cap over her gray curls after breakfast—Oberlander pointed into the thicket of larch, birch, spruce, and alder on the northern slope behind the school.

“Just in here, in September 2006, I sank up to my knees,” she said, throwing me her sharp look, which means, as I’d already learned, “Are you getting this?” I had flown into Vancouver, Oberlander’s home base, a few days before, and trotted after her to some of her renowned landscapes: the native plantings on top of Robson Square; the roofs of the Vancouver Public Library and, more recently, the Visitor Centre at the VanDusen Botanical Garden; the mounded hills, planted with native grasses, and the pools with their shingle and shell beach at the Museum of Anthropology, to evoke the land of the Haida, of the Queen Charlotte Islands.

A view south toward the town and the Mackenzie River, across Oberlander’s sculpted mounds and circular play area. Photo by Ihor Pona.

Oberlander, a Smith College graduate who earned her degree in landscape architecture from Harvard University in 1947, where she studied with Walter Gropius, is a modernist at heart. Her first years in Philadelphia were with Louis Kahn and Oscar Stonorov, who sent her to work with Dan Kiley in Vermont. She came to Vancouver in 1953, with her husband, Peter Oberlander, the architect and urban planner, and designed a few playgrounds with hills and trees, not jungle gyms, before she began collaborating with Arthur Erickson. Her work, 500 projects or so, was green long before the word itself was. But like many great landscapes, they have been eroded by popular tastes.

At Robson Square, red and white petunias, bright marigolds, and multicolored impatiens have replaced Oberlander’s mats of bearberry—kinnikinnick to the Inuvialuit—beneath the native pines and viburnums. The roofs to both the Vancouver Public Library and the VanDusen Botanical Garden are inaccessible, owing not just to tight money but also liability concerns. (And librarians were convinced people would just throw the books off the roof.) Never mind that Oberlander collaborated on a graywater system at VanDusen to water the native plants. “We can’t use it, because they think it’s poison and somebody might drink from the head of a sprinkler,” she said in her clipped dry voice.

We had flown on to Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and walked around the native landscape Oberlander developed for the Legislative Assembly Building, designed by Gino Pin, then of Pin/Matthews Architects, and Matsuzaki/Wright Architects and completed in 1993. The low building is round, to embody the ancient council circles of the First Nations as well as the modern-day consensus form of government. Oberlander designed a green roof for part of the building, which nestles into the rocks of the Precambrian shield, surrounded by the spruce forest that hugs the northern shore of Great Slave Lake.

As the access road was being built through the forest, Oberlander had mats of cloudberries scooped up with a front-end loader and placed on the nearby peat bog, which had been depleted by years of recreational vehicles as well as pilfering for peat. “I call it invisible mending,” she told me, explaining how the seedlings of these mats quickly knit together to heal the landscape. “In the cloudberry mats are seeds of birches and all these things that regenerated the bog. It’s magical, my dear.”

It’s the philosophy of least intervention. Birches and little pines had colonized on the green roof here, which Oberlander first planted with saxifrages cloned from plants she gathered from a nearby ridge. But someone had been pulling out a lot of the trees, because they were dry and scruffy from the hot summer. “Just leave it alone!” she said. “It will generate itself when the rain comes.” And in the parking area, Oberlander’s swaths of wild roses (Rosa woodsii) had been replaced by planters of petunias. “They plucked them out when Prince William came with Catherine,” she said with a shrug. “You can’t win everything. I think my ideas will be liked in about 20, 30 years.”

But here was the worst: Trees alongside the building were flagged with orange streamers—to be pruned or even removed. Oberlander suddenly found herself no longer a consultant on the job. A local landscape architect is now in charge, because hiring local people is part of devolution, the ongoing handing over of power from the federal government to the Northwest Territories.

So it goes, even for a landscape architect with the Order of Canada’s tiny snowflake—each one is slightly different, and there is a maple leaf inside Oberlander’s—pinned to her sweater.

The broad walkways are important for snow clearance and as gathering spaces in the summer. Photo by Ihor Pona.

It was her happy collaboration with Gino Pin on the Legislative Assembly project that brought Oberlander to Inuvik to make a landscape around the new school, with a palette of plants sourced from the local forest and riverbanks, and true to the hearts of the local people. She learned from the elders which plants were most important for food and medicine, pored over the books they recommended—Inuvialuit Nautchiangit: Relationships Between People and Plants, by Inuvialuit Elders with Robert W. Bandringa, and Barrenland Beauties: Showy Plants of the Canadian Arctic, by Page Burt, to name a couple—and built a landscape on kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, bearberry), kakillarnat (Rosa acicularis, the wild arctic rose), aqpiit (Rubus chamaemorus, yellowberry), and many others that flourish in the delta and forest. The trees she chose included naunrug (Salix arbusculoides, shrubby willow), enjoyed in spring for its edible leaves; avaalaqiat (Betula glandulosa, dwarf birch), long used for fuel, because its resinous branches burn so well; and tsi’iivii (spruce), whose cones are used for a restorative tea, the tips to relieve itchy throats, the bark to use as shingles and siding for smokehouses. This list goes on and on, and, for Oberlander, these plants are the materials of cultural reawakening—as well as food security.

“In the next 20 to 30 years, for all of us living in cities or up north, food security is the most important thing,” she said. “And books like the one written by the Inuvialuit are of utmost importance.”

During the summer of 2010, Oberlander sent professional seed collectors to Inuvik to gather seeds of shrubs and ground covers, with the help of the Aurora Research Institute. Because there are no facilities here, the seeds were propagated at N.A.T.S. Nursery, a native plant nursery in Langley, British Columbia.

Trees—primarily birch, spruce, and larch—were tagged in the forest surrounding Inuvik and root pruned a year before being moved to the school site. The bearberry, arctic roses, cranberry, and thousands of other sturdy seedlings in six-inch pots were trucked up to Inuvik and planted in the summer of 2012 by North by Northwest Ventures, a landscape contractor in Surrey, British Columbia. Oberlander flew up to help, with her grandchildren. “They were hired by North by Northwest,” she said. “They earned enough money to go to Paris.”

So now she stood, that morning in July, looking at her latest creation with a mixture of delight and irritation. “Look at the roses. They’re fantastic!” she said, leaning over some vigorous plant with deep green leaves. The trees were thriving as well, except for a few damaged by wet snow or kids. “The kids don’t have trees to climb, so when there’s a little one that they can try to shuffle up, that tree doesn’t stand a chance,” said Camilla Verbonac, who works at the school. Yet even these were sending out new growth at the base of their slender trunks. And despite the weeds, the plants beneath them were flourishing, which bears out Oberlander’s conviction that not just native plants, but those genetically true to the area that have evolved to meet the conditions of their local climate and soil, are most able to stand up to the vagaries of climate change.

She and Pin had walked the site seven years earlier, considering the possibility of nestling the building into the woods, as they had done for their earlier collaboration for the Legislative Assembly building. “But I wanted this woodland to remain as a shelterbelt, and for sledding and cultural activities,” Oberlander said. Pin and his partner, Simon Taylor, had worked with engineers in Guelph, Ontario, who were using water to simulate wind and silica sand to mimic snow, to build models of how wind and snow patterns changed with various sizes and locations for the proposed school. “Anything that we put in the way actually causes wind turbulence, so as the wind circulates, it creates the drifting,” Pin had explained the day before in Yellowknife. “On the lee side, as the wind dies down, it creates a turbulence that actually causes drifting. So there is lesser drifting on the windward side and major drifting on the leeward side.” A building on pilings, with three feet of air space beneath it to keep the radiant heat of the building from melting the permafrost, offers the wind a place to go. “The wind goes both under and over,” Pin said. “And the wind that goes under scours itself; it takes the snow further away.”

So Oberlander designed a shelterbelt of native trees, both evergreen and deciduous, with a ground cover of native plants, most of them edible, to slow down the wind without blocking it entirely. The trees are planted in a pattern, “like a Buckminster Fuller dome,” said Oberlander. “If you have trees in rows, the wind will go straight through. But if they are in patterns, the wind is stopped by the trees.”

Images courtesy Cornelia Hahn Oberlander Landscape Architect.

The building, on its pilings, is encircled by a wide swale, about 20 feet from its gleaming walls and windows, that slopes gently up to the shelterbelt of trees.

The swale, planted with moisture-loving species such as cranberry and bog blueberry, willow and birch, not only slows and absorbs stormwater but also serves as a deterrent to kids’ throwing rocks. “The district was spending $400,000 a year on window replacement for two schools,” Taylor told me, when I later called the firm’s office in Yellowknife. And warming seems to bring more vandalism. “Kids used to go inside when it got cold and dark, but now it’s warmer for longer when the sun goes down, and the police have noticed a bit more of that behavior,” Verbonac said.

The East Three School, which opened in September 2012, is kind of a field of dreams for the people of Inuvik. The town itself was created by the federal government in the 1950s to replace Aklavik, a hamlet on the west side of the Mackenzie River Delta, which was constantly flooding. But like the people who rebuild in San Francisco after the latest earthquake, or in New Orleans even after the levee breaks, many in Aklavik just stayed put.

There’s a frontier feeling to Inuvik, where pickup trucks line Mackenzie Road, the wide main street, and a church shaped like an igloo, Our Lady of Victory Church, embodies the blending of native and Roman Catholic traditions. The road out of town turns into a path going into the boreal forest. The gravel Dempster Highway, which connects Inuvik to the south, stops here. The only way north, to Tuk, is across an ice road when the Mackenzie River Delta freezes in winter, or by boat in summer. So everyone here wants the road—even though it will cut through precious forest, which sequesters carbon.

The East Three School is named, rather lamely, after the site that was finally chosen for the town. The community’s earlier two schools—Samuel Hearne Elementary and Alexander Mackenzie High—had been named after the English and Scottish explorers who had helped open up trade to Europe, bringing disease and displacement on their heels. Children were taken as youngsters from their parents’ arms and sent to residential schools. They were ridiculed if they spoke their own language.

“From the perspective of the Inuvialuit, the two schools were named after a couple of murderers, so they didn’t think either was an appropriate name for the school,” Taylor had said, the night before, over bison burgers at the Wildcat Café in Yellowknife. “But no one could agree, so they ended up with East Three, which was the technical name for the site of this community.”

The deterioration of the old schools, which had been built on wooden pilings, with very little insulation, presented an opportunity for a design that could deal with melting permafrost and higher winds. It also gave the community a chance to say what it did not want.

Cornelia Oberlander, FASLA, with one of her favorite wildflowers, Parnassia palustris. Photo by Anne Raver.

People were tired of walking up great flights of stairs to get into schools set on pilings. “The community insisted that the school not appear to be raised 15 feet above the ground,” said Taylor. “They wanted it to be ground level.” So Oberlander worked with the architects to design a landscape that is essentially raised by mounding soil on the site, with gabion baskets, rather than retaining walls, for support. “Retaining walls need a footing, and gabions don’t,” said Oberlander, pointing to the ones beneath a concrete walkway that slopes to the school door. “The contractor hates them because they cost a fortune to put in. I like them. I put something of earth in there, and a fern pops up.”

Oberlander mounded the land into hillocks and valleys for sledding and games like King of the Hill, with an eye to sun and wind exposure. She designed a wide circular area with a six-inch curb to encourage free play, and traditional games like blanket toss, where people are pitched into the air, and knuckle hop, where they hop along the ground on their knuckles and toes.

The school itself maximizes light in winter, with light lanterns on the roof and light wells throughout the building to bring sun to the first floor. Glazing allows light to pass from one room to another, with views through the building. Rooms are open to the outside, through many doorways. A gym big enough for four basketball games going on at once, a stage that rolls in and out, a real springboard floor—we would see jigging by the Gwich’in people that night—is widely used by the community as well as students and teachers. And wide concrete walkways and playing courts provide gathering spaces for everyone when snow covers the ground.

The school is fully equipped with computer labs, as well as computers in every classroom, and electronic smartboards that can bring the Internet to a giant screen at the head of the class and every student’s screen. Even the smallest town, like Sachs Harbour, with 100 people, has a smartboard. “We had to find the right kind of plane to fit it in because it’s a fly-in-only village,” said Paul Arthorne, the school district’s technology whiz.

But at the same time, there has been a growing awareness of what was lost. Now elders regularly help with Gwich’in and Inuvialuit language classes, which begin in kindergarten and continue through ninth grade. And there has been a conscious effort to get students away from their smartphones and out on the land. “We had third graders harvest a moose,” said Arthorne. “Somebody else shot it, but the kids dressed it and ground it up. It was incredible.”

So it was especially odd that no one seemed to know there were native plants, with ancient edible and medicinal uses, growing outside the school windows. And fast being overtaken by weeds.

“This is shameful!” Oberlander said, pointing an accusing finger at one of the mysterious two-foot weeds that appeared to be taking over the entire site. “There is no maintenance!”

The school was virtually empty of teachers and students because it was summer vacation. And whoever could afford fuel for their boat was out at a hunting camp, fishing or gathering berries. In late June and July, the sun hardly sets. Kids want to stay up all night. Pebbles cast shadows at midnight.

Darren Karst, the project manager for Dowland Contracting Ltd., which won the building contract for the school and grounds and went bankrupt just after completing the job, had gamely showed up to answer Oberlander’s questions.

“I knew this was going to happen,” he said. “Public Works doesn’t maintain any of its properties. They do snow clearing and maintenance of the buildings, and maybe cut the grass on the playing fields.”

The weeds, he said, had germinated on the same soil they had trucked off the site, to be stockpiled during construction, and then trucked back in for planting. They were later identified as northern tansy mustard (Descurainia sophioides) by a botanist at the University of British Columbia. That morning, Oberlander pulled a choice specimen to tuck into her suitcase. The biennial, which can reach four feet in its second year, is supposed to be cut down, not pulled, she learned. Pulling it up just encourages more seeds to germinate. But just who will cut down the weeds, and prune broken branches from the trees, nobody knows.

A few teens were sitting around on the log playground equipment, made of driftwood and other local materials—metal equipment just freezes to the hand out here in winter—but the children in the day care program weren’t allowed to climb a little mountain of logs that Taylor had designed on the elementary side.

“That little toots wants to climb!” said Oberlander, pointing at a two-year-old looking longingly at the log structure.

Oberlander’s mother, Beate Hahn, was an early pioneer in the adventure playground movement, and her books inspired M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA, and Richard Dattner. Oberlander’s own design for Expo 67 launched a movement in Canada.

“The principal and the health inspector said they couldn’t climb it,” a woman said. “They say it’s dangerous, just because I guess it’s made out of natural logs and stuff.”

“That’s silly,” Oberlander said. “The little tootses just go as far as they can, and then they come down.” It’s not just imagined danger. Everybody wants what the rest of the world has: fancy metal stuff in bright colors, like you see in magazines.

What hit Oberlander the hardest that day were the blank looks that she got from Judy Harder, the chair of the Inuvik District Education Authority, who arrived after Karst had put in a few calls, and from Harder’s assistant, Verbonac, who runs the administrative office at the school.

“I didn’t know there was a landscape,” Harder said, when Oberlander showed her a plan, complete with a key for every tree and bearberry planted on the site. “We had meetings about the building, but nobody mentioned the plants.”

Oberlander herded us outside and pointed out the cranberry, the black currants. “Each plant can be found and identified on the plan,” she explained.

Verbonac was amazed.

“So within a year or two, they will be bearing fruit,” Verbonac said. “Thank goodness we had no funding, because people were saying, ‘We need to cut down all these weeds.’”

“Oh, god,” muttered Oberlander.

She said she would send the school copies of the plan, “to show you exactly what grows where.” Meanwhile, Verbonac was looking about with new eyes. “And the kids can go out and harvest,” she said.

When the new school opened in the fall of 2012, teachers had told the kids to stay off the newly planted grass.

“But I used a grass the kids can run on!” Oberlander said.

Verbonac shrugged.

“For them, it’s something like the Holy Grail; you can’t go near it, or it’s a deterrent for them having fun.”

As Oberlander pointed out bearberry, cloudberry, wild rose, and cranberry, both women, who have children or grandchildren at the school, began to see what treasures were growing beneath the weeds.

“Before, I saw this as a maintenance problem,” said Harder. “Now I see it’s an opportunity.”

It gradually became clear that a recent change of administrations—from the local school authority and school superintendent to a new principal at the high school—had wiped out any memory of community meetings about the learning opportunities of a native landscape surrounding the school. And there never were any funds for maintenance. “We had to pay for snow removal out of our education budget,” said Harder, noting the particularly long and hard winter. “It started snowing in September, and the ice didn’t melt until June.” And there had never been any discussion of incorporating the native plants and their uses into the curriculum. But, as Harder said, “They send them out on the land, but they don’t even know the plants are right here.”

It was Taylor who shed a little light on the lack of maintenance of the native landscape, and also the community’s lack of awareness of its existence.

For one thing, nobody in the Northwest Territories has ever had a school like this. Other schools just have a roadway that goes up to the door, and a parking area. “Now, we have this school set within a landscaped area with walkways,” said Taylor. “But public works is not responsible, in their minds, for plowing walkways. They say that’s the responsibility of education. Education says that’s the responsibility of the school. The school says we have no money to do that. And the issue never got resolved.”

Oberlander wrote a yearlong maintenance contract into her specs, but Dowland Contracting never even saw the specs. “Darren [Karst] got the contract at the design development stage,” Taylor said. “It didn’t include landscape at all. And the government was not interested in paying for trees and plants and playground equipment because the project was over budget.” The original estimate in 2005 was $40 million; the project was finished at $93 million, he said.

Taylor negotiated only $75,000 for plants, so Oberlander’s dream list was slashed. And the last phase of the project, with hundreds of plants on hold at N.A.T.S. Nursery, was seeded in grass.

Oberlander designed the circular area for free play and traditional games. Photo by Ihor Pona.

Taylor looks at the big picture. “The community itself is going through a terrible hardship,” he said. “It had built its hopes on the Mackenzie pipeline project, but now, natural gas is dead cheap and plentiful, so there’s no reason the pipeline will happen.” Ironically, natural gas wells discovered 20 years ago in Inuvik spurred the town to install gas lines to all the houses. Now, the wells have dried up, but it’s up to residents to convert to oil and propane. “It’s an issue of priorities,” said Taylor. “In their minds, the school is quite grand. Half the kids come to school without breakfast or lunch, and the teachers make it for them. Whether we’ve missed 200 trees and some plants in the minds of the general populace is no big deal.”

On the other hand, the school and its landscape have become a source of pride.

“People from other parts of the territories are starting to say, ‘My school should have this,’” he said. “The weeds are inconsequential. It’s better than a building on stilts in the middle of a gravel field.”

Oberlander, since her return to Vancouver, has been busy with what she wryly calls “unpaid hours,” sending plasticized plans to the East Three School and urging the administration to set up a committee of teachers, elders, and community volunteers to tend the plantings and explore their uses. A few weeds aren’t about to get this woman down.

“The good news is that out of 248 transplanted trees from around Inuvik, only 20 are damaged,” Oberlander recently wrote to Pin and Taylor. Out of 4,411 native plants raised from seed, only three bearberry plants were dead, “obviously damaged by trampling of little feet. All the edible plants are thriving and the roses are blooming.”

Anne Raver writes about the environment, including gardening and farming, wildlife habitats, and landscape design.

Project Credits

Landscape Architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander Landscape Architect, Vancouver, British Columbia (Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, FASLA; Elizabeth Whitelaw; Beryl Allen, ASLA). Architect Pin/Taylor Architects, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories (Gino Pin, Simon Taylor). General Contractor Dowland Contracting Ltd., Inuvik, Northwest Territories (Darren Karst, project manager). Landscape Contractor North by Northwest Ventures Inc., Surrey, British Columbia (Ansley Evans, project manager). Plant Propagation N.A.T.S. Nursery, Langley, British Columbia (Haley Argen, Angela Anderson). Ecologist Annika Trimble, Inuvik, Northwest Territories. Consulting Engineers Ferguson Simek Clark, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Climate Modeling Theakston Environmental, Fergus, Ontario.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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