Proprietary Communities

Private Pop-Up Towns in the Far North and in Space

A proprietary community in Quebec

|

Writing in New Scientist, Geoff Manaugh describes the mining settlements of the Arctic and sub-Arctic north. Three things make these places particularly interesting.

First: They're technical marvels. The Quebec town of Fermont is

Fermont: the plan
Norbert Schoenauer and Maurice Desnoyers

home to an extraordinary architectural feature: a residential megastructure whose explicit purpose is to redirect the local weather. Known as the Mur-écran or "windscreen", this structure is an astonishing 1.3 kilometres in length, shaped roughly like a horizontal V or chevron. Think of it as a climatological Maginot Line, built to resist the howling, near-constant northern winds.

Extreme environments such as those found in the far north are laboratories of architectural innovation, genuinely requiring the invention of new building types. In any other context, a weather-controlling super-wall would sound like pure science fiction. But, in Fermont, urban climate control is built into the very fabric of the city—and has been since the 1970s.

Second: They're built, owned, and operated privately. Now, of the various models floating around for a social order outside the state, the company town has got to be one of the least appealing choices on the table. (I guess I rank it higher than the vision where we're supposed to turn into hunter-gatherers. But it's below virtually all the others.) Still, if you're interested in what can be accomplished in this fashion—and if you want to look at a contemporary example instead of reading Price Fishback's historical studies—Fermont beckons:

Full-service urbanism
Civeo

Fermont comes complete with streets, a hotel, a hospital, a small Metro supermarket and even a tourism bureau. For all that, however, it is still run by the firm ArcelorMittal, which also owns the nearby iron mine. This means there are no police, who would be funded by the state; instead, Fermont is patrolled by its own private security force….

[I]ndustrial settlements such as these are not run by mayors or other elected officials, but by extraction firms or subsidiary services corporations, such as Baker Hughes, Target Logistics, or the aptly named Civeo. The last of these—whose very name implies civics reduced to the catchiness of an IPO—actually lists villages as one of its prime spatial products. These are sold as "integrated accommodation solutions" that you can order wholesale, like a piece of furniture, a small city given its own tracking number and delivery time.

City Hall, or what passes for it, has been outsourced.

Just add water!
Archigram

Manaugh notes that "such instant prefab cities dropped into the middle of nowhere are a perennial fantasy of architectural futurists. One need look no further than British avant-pop provocateurs Archigram, with their candy-coloured comic book drawings of 'plug-in cities' sprouting amidst remote landscapes like ready-made utopias." But I don't think the Archigram crowd expected that the communities coming closest to realizing their visions would be run by multinational corporations.

Third: These towns could be a partial model for colonies in space. I'm deeply skeptical about all space colonization schemes, so I take this idea with a jumbo-size box of salt. But I also take Manaugh's point:

In a sense, we are already experimenting with off-world colonisation—only we are doing it in the windswept villages and extraction sites of the Canadian north.

No matter where they crop up, the first rule of remote industrial activities is that they require housing and administrative structures—not parks and museums. These roughshod "man camps", as they are commonly known, are "cobbled together in a hurry", in the words of energy reporter Russell Gold.

In the unlikely event that human beings build settlements on Mars in my lifetime, they may well be extraterrestial Fermonts.

Bonus link: A more detailed look at Fermont life.

NEXT: 5 Things to Know About Ted Cruz's Run for President

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

    1. I make up to $90 an hour working from my home. My story is that I quit working at Walmart to work online and with a little effort I easily bring in around $40h to $86h? Someone was good to me by sharing this link with me, so now i am hoping i could help someone else out there by sharing this link… Try it, you won’t regret it!……
      http://www.work-cash.com

  1. Oh noes!!

    How will the town ever survive without state run police or a mayor!?!?!?!

  2. John Carpenter approves.

    1. +! Wilford Brimley

  3. Oh, and this is obligatory:

    My tiger friend has got the sled,
    And I have packed a snack.
    We’re all set for the trip ahead.
    We’re never coming back!

    We’re abandoning this life we’ve led!
    So long, Mom and Pop!
    We’re sick of doing what you’ve said,
    And now it’s going to stop!

    We’re going where it snows all year,
    Where life can have real meaning.
    A place where we won’t have to hear,
    “Your room could stand some cleaning.”

    The Yukon is the place for us!
    That’s where we want to live.
    Up there we’ll get to yell and cuss,
    And act real primitive.

    We’ll never have to go to school,
    Forced into submission,
    By monstrous crabby teachers who’ll
    Make us learn addition.

    We’ll never have to clean a plate
    Of veggie glops and goos.
    Messily we’ll masticate
    Using any fork we choose!

    The timber wolves will be our friends.
    We’ll stay up late and howl,
    At the moon, till nighttime ends,
    Before going on the prowl.

    Oh, what a life! We cannot wait,
    To be in that arctic land,
    Where we’ll be masters of our fate,
    And lead a life that’s grand!

    No more of parental rules!
    We’re heading for some snow!
    Good riddance to those grown-up ghouls!
    We’re leaving! Yukon Ho!

    1. Do you have enough tuna sandwiches?

  4. Canada is a Harsh Mistress.

  5. Architecture FTW!

  6. “Known as the Mur-?cran or “windscreen”,”

    Is this French for ‘keeping those damn ‘Murikans out?’

  7. Now, of the various models floating around for a social order outside the state, the company town has got to be one of the least appealing choices on the table. (I guess I rank it higher than the vision where we’re supposed to turn into hunter-gatherers. But it’s below virtually all the others.)

    Hopefully the melanin-challenged primitive is gamboling, and so won’t notice the summons.

    1. Meh. Historically ignorant use the term “company town”, which means housing, etc. for a specific company’s workers who are working at a nearby facility (mine, factory, whatev).

      The abuse was that you (often) had to agree to live in the company town if you had the job, and the company extracted all sorts of above market rents, etc. from your paycheck.

      I saw nothing that made me think these towns are “company” towns.

      1. Historically ignorant use the term “company town”, which means housing, etc. for a specific company’s workers who are working at a nearby facility (mine, factory, whatev).

        From the article: “For all that, however, it is still run by the firm ArcelorMittal, which also owns the nearby iron mine.”

        The abuse was that you (often) had to agree to live in the company town if you had the job, and the company extracted all sorts of above market rents, etc. from your paycheck.

        You should read Fishback, who pushes back against a lot of the conventional narratives about company towns.

        1. Good point on ArcelorMittal, Jesse. I missed that.

          Got a link to a Fishback article, etc.?

          I hate it when I can’t go off half-cocked in a comment thread, dammit.

          1. Got a link to a Fishback article, etc.?

            This book is the main place to go.

            1. Do you owe your soul to the Company Store?

      2. Historically ignorant does describe White Indian.

      3. The abuse was that you (often) had to agree to live in the company town if you had the job, and the company extracted all sorts of above market rents, etc. from your paycheck.

        And paid you in ‘scrip’, only usable at the company store.

  8. I like that someone named Gold is writing about extraction sites.

    1. A shame this is not in Asbestos, Quebec.

  9. Think of it as a climatological Maginot Line, built to resist the howling, near-constant northern winds.

    Why doesn’t the wind just go around it?

    1. I’m having a hard time deciding whether to say “I see what you did there” or asking if you know who else went around lines.

      1. Belgium hates this idea too.

  10. Irvine, California is privately owned. Runs pretty well.

  11. “This means there are no police, who would be funded by the state; instead, Fermont is patrolled by its own private security force.”

    Hmm, which is better to live under, and publicly owned police-state or a privately owned one?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.