By Elaina Keppler and Charlotte Lin Pedersen
How could a hybrid design framework that integrates infrastructure, landscape and social practices together offer an alternative response to planning for Greenland’s uncertain future in the face of accelerated climate change in the Arctic?
Infrastructure in Greenland is a complex and multiscalar topic, inherently linked to issues of ecology, economy and inequality. The Greenlandic cultural and natural landscape is changing rapidly due to the acceleration of climate change in the Arctic, which in turn is affecting global geopolitics. Despite the massive challenges that climate change brings, the melting sea ice is also opening up access to new opportunities in the tourism, mining, energy, and shipping sectors – attracting the interest of foreign nations. Suddenly, Greenland is finding itself in a prominent position on an emergent new world map, defined by the dynamic effects of climate change.
Climate as cultural infrastructure
Orthographic projection of Greenland
One could argue that Greenland is geographically remote; located seemingly on the edge of the world. Yet in many ways, Greenland is in the centre of it, coupled to a greater global machinery through shipping routes, resource chains and geopolitical relationships. The island is a vastly expansive yet sparsely populated area. Due to the formidable landscape, geography, and climate, Greenland has few road-based transport infrastructures – the majority of transportation between the different settlements are by plane, helicopter, boat, or dog sled. The small towns are separated by hundreds of kilometers of uninterrupted terrain in what could be called a scattered urbanism. Historically, the ocean has provided the Greenlandic people with the most vital forms of both infrastructure and sustenance. This fluid infrastructure deeply affects the daily way of life in Greenland, simultaneously creating connections and divisions that determine how the island is inhabited. The current fragmentation combined with the coming climate challenges arguably call for a strengthening of infrastructural connections.
In the Greenlandic context, climate change is not an abstract future scenario but a phenomena experienced daily by the Greenlandic people. As countries struggle to limit future risks and overall warming to 1.5C, many Greenlandic residents are experiencing climates that have already warmed by more than this in their lifetime. The first national survey examining the human impact of climate change in Greenland (Greenlandic Perspectives, 2019), demonstrates that more than 90% of islanders acknowledge that the climate crisis is happening and the majority of local residents believe it will harm its people, sled dogs, flora and fauna. In Ilulissat in Western Greenland, the authors spoke to fisherman Lars Noahsen, who had been hunting since the time he was twelve and borrowed his father’s boat without his permission, returning triumphantly with his initial seal catch. He has now given up hunting and his sled dogs, focusing instead on the booming tourism industry in the town by offering his services as a boat tour guide to the increasing numbers of “last chance” tourists coming to see the melting glaciers. This type of flexibility, while representative of the Greenlandic capacity for adaptability and resilience, also indicates a change in lifestyle that threatens the long standing traditions and cultural identity that is embedded in the thawing sea ice.
Despite being one of the areas of the world hardest hit by climate change, Greenland could not afford to submit to the 2015 Paris Agreement to cut emissions. Emissions restrictions on Greenland would be next to impossible for them to honour, given Greenland’s precarious and vulnerable economic situation. Unfortunately, Greenland could be on the path to dramatically increase its contribution to global warming, if they choose to exploit their oil, gas and mineral reserves in a bid for economic independence from Denmark – a topic high on the political agenda. In their 2017 report, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) substantiates that the world’s poorest countries have contributed the least to climate change and also possess the fewest resources for resilient infrastructure and adaptation. The example of Greenland’s predicament with the Paris Agreement gives a clear signal to more prosperous nations that it is imperative to help less resourceful countries bear their inequitable burden if we are to reach our collective climate goals. Policies that mandate cooperatively funded climate adaptation could play a critical role in forming a framework for sustainable infrastructural development in Greenland and other Arctic regions.
Material practices as design toolkit
In order to ensure Greenland’s sustainability, equity has to be a main focus. In consideration of this, the authors developed a design toolkit that focuses on local material practices, or everyday actions. As another local Ilulissat fisherman told the authors, “We end up doing things our own way anyway, because help from Denmark takes so long and they often don’t get it right.” Taking inspiration from S.J. Carruth’s doctoral dissertation, ‘Infrastructural Urbanism That Learns From Place,’ this research offers a methodological approach for integrating socio-cultural traditions into infrastructural design by linking human-scale practices with larger processes and systems. As a starting point, actions observed and experienced firsthand in Greenland were synthesized into three practices that could form a foundation for an informed spatial response.
The first practice, adjustability, connotes a response to emergent, unexpected, and temporal conditions as a measure of resilience. As observed in Greenland, people use what is at hand, giving degrees of flexibility over longer or shorter periods of time. Adjustable, modular components can be used to react to changing conditions as well as encourage individual agency and awareness. Materials that naturally patinate over time instead of requiring extensive maintenance can also be used to an advantage.
The second practice, polysyntheticity, relates to how infrastructure in Greenland is often bundled together and visible. Exposed infrastructure lends a greater degree of transparency of function, increasing knowledge of energy and ecology systems as a whole. There is also a multiplicity of usage in the Greenlandic experience. In a place traditionally scarce in resources, everything must fulfill more than one function working in a networked system rather than as individual elements. This can be interpreted as hybrid usage and multiple modes of circulation.
The third practice, commoning, is the social act of establishing and maintaining common resources, which refers back to a long-standing practice of collectivity in Greenland. Could making the landscape more accessible to the community allow for a strengthening of commoning practices? This practice could be reflected in larger regional policies such as pan-Arctic collaborations, Indigenous-led land management and conservation strategies or, as more locally-based initiatives which foster necessary social resilience, such as shared community cold storage freezers.
Despite the inherent complexities, planning and building infrastructure in the Arctic is an urgent issue. Given the low population base in the region, it has been historically difficult to justify signiﬁcant infrastructure development despite an increasing need. Adaptations in the landscape due to climatic changes, such as the rising water levels and thawing of permafrost, renders infrastructure development and implementation extremely challenging and yet even more pertinent. Taking these diverse issues into account, a holistic, hybrid approach that integrates infrastructure, landscape and social practices together could offer an alternative response to planning for Greenland’s uncertain future.
Illustration and photos by authors
 Polysyntheticity is a linguistic term describing languages which consist of long words created by stringing together many shorter words. The Greenlandic language is polysynthetic, as are many indigenous languages, and exemplifies how putting multiple parts together can create a new meaning.
Elaina Keppler (Cand. Arch MAA) holds degrees from the University of Victoria, Canada and from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture in Copenhagen where she specialized in sustainability and strategic urban planning.
CHARLOTTE LIN PEDERSEN
Charlotte Lin Pedersen (Cand. Arch MAA) holds a master’s degree in Housing and Urbanism from the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London and a master’s degree in architecture from the Urbanism & Societal Change program at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture.