Buildings and Places, Cities, Design

Mining opportunities have always led people to work and live in some of the most remote locations and harshest climates in the world. During the last century, as the scale of mining operations grew in complexity, the image of the lone prospector’s cabin gave way to one of large company towns that house thousands of workers and require immense infrastructure and logistics.

We now apply the same principles of planning to these communities as to their urban counterparts to help create livable places. The question of livability takes on a whole different meaning if the location is in a harsh climate. Fermont, Quebec, a 2,800-person mining town, is an interesting example of cold weather planning innovation.

The town was recently featured on an episode of CBC Radio’s Ideas. Examining Fermont’s most prominent feature — a 1.3-kilometre-long complex that houses residents and the town’s social, recreational and commercial amenities, built in the 1970s — the documentary presents how this planning solution continues to shape the experiences of residents today.

This solution to help make Fermont a more livable community was based on a similar concept developed by Ralph Erskine in 1962 for Svappavaara, Sweden, another remote mining town. In Erskine’s vision, a superstructure provides shelter and connects the community by literally bringing everything together under one roof. The building also serves a secondary function, its size allowing it to act as a windscreen to help moderate temperature around its immediate exterior. In this sense, the harsh climate is not only avoided but also subject to control, or at least attempted.

Today we might judge this approach “interventionist” and more broadly reflecting the period’s prevailing attitudes in planning, but more importantly, it contains an important lesson for planners. One basic mark of a successful community is how well it encourages people to interact within a larger and more connected social body, particularly in promoting walkability. In a sub-arctic region like northern Quebec, this goal must be integrated with the equally important goal of climate comfort.

Listening to the documentary, I was struck by a small but recurring sense of disconnection and fragmentation between different groups of residents. One aspect was the feeling of difference between workers who lived there permanently and those who fly in for shift work. I think this is a common social dynamic for any remote industry community, another aspect was perhaps more unique. Some residents who were interviewed identified themselves as different because they live “beyond the windscreen,” as opposed to those who live within it.

The windscreen structure was highly innovative for its time. It provided climate comfort through the introduction of a large element of infrastructure that was utilized to accommodate the various community facilities and living quarters for many of the town’s residents. The priority, however, of planning first for climate comfort seems to have misunderstood or miscalculated the needs and experience of residents, particularly the needs for public interaction and access to shared public space, diversity and variety of housing types, a mix of uses, and street and block patterns that facilitate interaction and access rather than separation and potentially exclusion.

As planners, we address the need to balance a performance-based outcome with one that enhances the experience of people. We challenge ourselves to better understand and work within the natural, social and cultural characteristics of the place. Harsh conditions are often a significant factor in planning resource towns, but we cannot let them solely define the planning solution.

Michael White (michael.white3@aecom.com) is a principal with AECOM’s Design + Planning practice in Burnaby, Canada.

Image Caption: Fermont, Quebec, Canada ©CSMO Mines.

Originally published 06.20.2013

Author: Michael White