Making the Arctic City by Peter Hemmersam, reviewed

Reviewed by Kirstie Affleck, who is a Sheep farmer, based in West Cork, Ireland. See more about Making the Arctic City here.

I will preface this review by saying that I have always had an interest in extreme cold weather living in the far north and as such this book appealed to me on my quest to learn more about it. As cities in the far north are comparatively small, all towns with an urban population have been classified as a city for the purpose of this book. 

Making the Arctic City by Peter Hemmersam, published by Bloomsbury, reviewed

This book gives an in-depth overview of what the Arctic is and what it stands for in terms of environmental protection, resource extraction, indigenous home and hunting grounds. It gives a historical account of the planning policies involved in the building of Arctic cities and digs deeper still into Russian, Canadian and Greenlandic urban planning.

Hemmersam explains how there has been colonisation of the Arctic since the middle ages, some from within the same country, and some from outside such as Denmark’s colonisation of Iceland and Greenland.  Resources included whale hunting, fur, iron and gold mining. Indigenous populations were sometimes relocated, and forced Gulag labour camps in Russia provided a large work force for building and mining between the 1920s and 1950s.

After WWII, assimilation of Indigenous people became the status quo, and a huge amount of southern workers were imported. Arctic lands were then subjected to the introduction of resource extraction, city-building and housing schemes for existing populations and newcomers from the South. In the early 20th century the Arctic started to be seen from an imperialistic viewpoint and economic resource extraction.

In Russia (then the Soviet Union) and Canada it started to become seen as integral to their national identities. Russian concrete modular block buildings were designed to last just 25 years. The designs of the buildings went hand in hand with communism and were designed for family living with a shop, school, crèche, park, and communal kitchen all within a short walking distance. There was a massive increase in property stock within a short period of time.  Some have fallen in to anti-social behaviour and dereliction now that communism has broken down and the population in some regions has declined. 

 Ralph Erskine proposed urban plans and buildings designed with climate at the forefront of the plan including a ‘climate wall’ which housed public and commercial spaces protected from the weather outside and providing shelter akin to the walls of a courtyard. Architects and planners looked to each other’s countries for inspiration, especially after WWII, and collaborated in part. Modernism of the 1950s – 1970s was a boom time for Arctic building. Compact towns with an urban nucleus were designed to cut down on energy consumption and reliance on transport, and allow easy access to hunting grounds. 

Indigenous populations rights were mostly disregarded until the 1970s. The complexities of managing and planning in the arctic are clearly seen in Canada where Indigenous rights, climate change, resource extraction and jobs, and environmental protection are all under consideration whilst the devolution of colonial power to territories and indigenous self-government takes place.  

I enjoyed comparisons of arctic cities such as Fermont, High Leaf, and Radisson in Canada. I would have liked much more visual representation in the book. I spent almost as much time researching places and buildings online and looking up maps as I did reading. As a student of Architecture doing a module on Northern Cities this would be absolutely fine, but as a standalone book I feel the lack of visual aids reduces its value a little. 

I believe this book would appeal to travellers as well as architects, especially those looking to travel to the far north where tourism is becoming of larger importance to the economy. The Russian ghost town of Pyramiden on Svalbard, Norway, has a recently renovated hotel. The Svalbard Science Centre in Longyearbyen uses knowledge of wind and snow dynamics to prevent snow accumulation and would be worth a visit.

From reading this book I will now look at buildings on my travels with a better appreciation and consideration of their location and build structure, and try to figure out which policies factored in their design and was it governmental or local planning that was the overriding factor.

Kirstie Affleck is a Sheep farmer, based in West Cork, Ireland. She is passionate about wool crafts especially knitting and spinning, and sells handcrafted products locally. BSc Biological and Medicinal Chemistry, Exeter, UK.  Instagram: @capeclearsheep Twitter: @CapeClearSheep. See her website here.

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