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

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!

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.