Next North

Posted by InfraNet Lab on July 1, 2010 | PERMALINK


The myth of Canada is often preceded by the unique geography of the Canadian North—a vast, sparsely populated, fragile, and sublime territory. Yet with one of the most dramatically changing climates on Earth and an estimated quarter of 
the planet’s undiscovered energy resources, this Arctic region has emerged as a site of significant economic and developmental speculation. It is a frontier again. The balance in which ecologies and people coexist in this region, and the complexity of the interaction between national politics and local cultures, cannot be overstated. The region’s unique combination of climate, culture, and geography produces complicated infrastructures, settlements, and sociopolitical negotiations. The melting of polar ice has given rise to territorial land claims, threatened ecosystems, uncovered new resources, and an intensified interest in the northern frontier.

Nations with territorial adjacencies to the Arctic Ocean are rushing to lay claim to its resource- rich waters and to define their sovereign rights. Northern Canadian settlements have traditionally expanded under the pressure of previous diamond and gold rushes, and along with the emerging oil and gas rushes, the federal government anticipates the creation of deep-sea ports and military bases. However, with this urgency to expand, there is little vision of development beyond economic expediency and efficiency.

Throughout the twentieth century, the Canadian North had a sordid and unfortunate history 
of colonial enterprises, political maneuverings 
and non-integrated development proposals that perpetuated sovereign control and economic development. Northern developments are intimately tied to the construction of infrastructure, though these projects are rarely conceived with a long-term, holistic vision. How might future infrastructures participate in cultivating 
and perpetuating ecosystems and local cultures, rather than threatening them? How might Arctic settlements respond more directly to the exigencies of this transforming climate and geography, and its ever-increasing pressures from the South? What is next for the North?

As the effects of global warming take their full impact, polar regions could see the greatest change in human migration patterns. In Canada, more than 100,000 people are living north of 60° latitude
 for the first time in history, and more than 18,500 people are living above the Arctic Circle in 24 settlements. Furthermore, populations in the North are remarkably young. For example, in the town of Iqaluit, Nunavut, 60 percent of the population 
is under twenty-five years old, ensuring rapid population growth for the next several decades.

While territorial claims of this “New Cold War” are being negotiated, they offer a unique chance to question how development should occur. Infrastructure in the Canadian North has often been based on systems used in the south of the country, which are permanent and independent structures that are difficult to upgrade or alter.

A wider understanding of an environment that unpredictably oscillates between freeze and thaw, dark and light, accessible and inaccessible, tradition and technology would allow for infrastructural opportunities that maintain soft, multivalent, and malleable characteristics. A characteristic of ecosystems—as complex systems that are able
to negotiate hierarchies and scales—provides a dynamic precedent for infrastructure in the Arctic. How might infrastructure be adaptable, responsive, and temporal? Soft infrastructure offers the possibility of fusing existing systems with emergent ones to catalyze a network of ecologies and economies for a new public realm in the Arctic.

Recognizing that the challenges for Arctic inhabitation extend beyond merely designing better homes or new technologies, Next North looks at the roles and challenges of the public realm, civic space, landscape, and infrastructure. While infrastructure in the Canadian North has often consisted of single-use, large-scale regional networks or small-scale products, the following projects remain more interested in geographic scalability, environmental adaptability, and multiuse programmability. Next North charts this 3.5-million-square-kilometer context through six themes: transport, ecologies, settlements, research, culture, and resources. Potential crossovers are sought to leverage and test dormant or overlooked opportunities. The three representative projects selected here address issues of transportation, ecologies, and education, and utilize soft systems that respond to climatic variation, programmatic needs, and cultural diversity.