Is Greenland the Next Dubai?

Despite the fact that everyone knows where it is on a map, Greenland has spent much of modern history as an unimposing world destination dotted with sparse habitation amidst hundreds of thousands of square miles of ice. Mining, fishing and hunting have comprised most of the large island’s small economy for centuries. Only recently has the image of Greenland’s future started to change as hopes of increased natural resource extraction made possible by a warming climate lend the possibility of a new importance in the global marketplace. Will a rush of business ultimately create a flourishing ice kingdom to the Northern Hemisphere or merely another example of corporate tenacity shoehorning industry into an environment that is among the planet’s least hospitable for human civilization?

When the world map was pulled down over the chalkboard in class you really couldn’t miss Greenland. It is big…very big. Handily holding the title of the world’s largest island, Greenland is now actually the 12th largest country in the world (technically in the final stages of realizing its independence from Danish rule). However, for all its size it’s relatively vacant having under 57,000 residents. The neighboring island nation of Iceland is 1/20th the size yet holds over five times more people. With ice covering over 80% of its surface, Greenland will have the lowest population density of any country on the planet.

The country is not often on the jetsetter’s path of hot travel destinations. The country is truly an arctic climate with mean temperatures normally not breaking 50 degrees Farenheit even in the depths of summer. Aside from adventure seeking travelers interested in dog sled rides, the cold and barren climate has helped keep the population relatively stable over time. So why would people suddenly flock to Greenland? Well, it’s not as cold as it used to be. A warmer globe is continually wearing down the icy expanses covering the country as well as the Arctic Circle. This summer brought a rash of warm temperatures to Greenland in late May as the latest in a trend of abnormal climate effects. If the pattern continues some are forecasting that an industrial boom could bring companies flooding in to tap the country’s natural resource reserves.

Harbor Summer Market

An upcoming symposium of Greenlandic and Danish architects called “Possible Greenland” will center around the idea of how to accommodate an influx of people creating new types of urban settlement in the arctic. The exploration takes a positive spin on climate change as an opportunity to examine the growth of new regions breaking the environmental restraints of extreme cold and prospering from the chance to help the rest of the world sustain our consumption for a little longer.  Minik Rosing, head curator of the symposium, seems to hold a decidedly optimistic view:

“As technological innovations emerge and, particularly, as the Arctic sea ice dwindles, Greenland is changing its geographical and geopolitical status from a remote and inaccessible corner of the world to a centre of world trade. In this way, Greenland is imperceptibly moving from the periphery of world economic vision to the very centre of attention.”

AIR + PORT: Courtesy of DAC

As an architect, the pre-released imagery of Possible Greenland is evocative and exciting. The teams of designers clearly considered the integration of industry and public space while coming to terms with a demanding climate. I was particularly drawn to the “AIR+PORT” concept that features a shipping port with an runway situated on top and rotated 90 degrees to create a cross shaped pattern in plan. The pairing of two transit methods is a great solution highlighting the remoteness of the region while creating ways to bring more methods of connection to critical nodes. The design is elegant in its utilitarian efficiency. In a way, this is part of what architects do really well–make the best with what they have to work with. At the same time, I think there are a number of other important questions that take precedence over feasibility.

While not the epitome of a luxury human climate, there are a number of species that call Greenland home. The island nation carries over 20 endangered species including the Polar Bear, Beluga Whale and the North Atlantic Right Whale. While the tundra can easily be described as desolate, its ecology can still be very fragile. With fewer species and extreme weather conditions the individual ecosystems are prone to disruption from human activity. How can new global operations take place in deference to native species? How are things like emissions, power production and human waste streams all created without decimating the surrounding habitat? While the effort was gilded in good intentions it is part of a narrative that seems a little familiar.

In the 1960’s a group of tribal sheikhdoms under British rule on the southern coast of the Persian Gulf were the latest in the region to discover oil. In 1963, the population of the combined desert regions amounted to 95,000. Faced with rising costs, the British government decided to sever its protection agreements with the sheikhdoms by the end of the decade.  Their treaty formally expired in 1971 and by the end of 1972 the seven sheikhdoms banded together to pool their resources and ensure their mutual protection. Four decades and tens of millions of gallons of oil later, the country hosted a population of over 8.2 million. We know this place now as the United Arab Emirates.

From the explosive growth of the UAE came cities like Dubai. Aside from the fact that the city as a whole was seemingly built without any concern or reaction for the surrounding environment and consumes vast amounts of energy to sustain itself, its rapid expansion resulted in an urban center that is infrastructurally inept. Granted, the mantra of vapid excess that molded Dubai into the nemesis to sustainability is not present in the images from Possible Greenland, but the entire premise of the exercise still seems to dodge the underlying issue of a rapid urban growth in an environment that fights back against human living. Rather than (or at least “in addition to”) asking how can we populate such a place, perhaps we can ask whether or not we should be there in the first place. Is a place with such a delicate ecosystem that serves as a key element to the planet’s hydrological cycle ever meant to be a center of world trade?

Air + Port: Courtesy of DAC

Greenland finds itself in a strange position as stewards of the largest glacial ice sheets in the world outside of Antarctica. The small size of their local economy makes them hardly a contributor to carbon emissions, but their success hinges on their acceptance of the consumption of the first world.  It seems odd that Greenland could be promoting the demise of its own cultural heritage–even one as stark as wastelands of tundra–but not all natives hold the same view of the future. In his visit to Greenland, scholar Stephen Pax Leonard came away with a bold message of reflection:

“There are people in the Thule region that believe the industrialized, polluting nations are living in a state of disharmony with nature, gambling with the world’s future by seeking nothing but material gain for themselves in the short term.

The ice is melting. The melting ice will presumably wipe out the traditional culture of the few remaining Arctic hunters in my lifetime, but ultimately, if not stopped, it will threaten the lives of millions around the world. The politicians keep talking, but the ice just keeps melting and the inescapable conclusion will not go away. The hunters look at the thinning sea ice and their message is simple: the clock is ticking.”

One of the questions that the Possible Greenland website asks is “How can architects contribute?” Is the answer ever that the best way we can contribute is by voicing our objections against contribution? When is a new building too much of a mistake to justify not taking part? Thus far the answer seems to be never, but perhaps that can still change.

Image Credit: Danish Architecture Centre