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The Empty Spaces of Future Thinking

Thinking strategically about the future of cities in the Arctic entails a positioning towards regional and global strategic opportunities but also involve recognising the opportunities emerging in the urban space.  

The Norwegian town of Kirkenes and its suburban additions is home to some 8000 people. Across the border – a 40-minute drive (and a border crossing) away – we find the Russian town of Nikel with about 12000 inhabitants. Both towns are industrial: In Kirkenes the iron mine gave impetus to the towns establishment and growth, and in Nikel the ore smelter for the nearby mines was constructed in the inter-war period – at a time when the territory was actually Finnish. In both towns, the industrial plants loom over the towns. Despite similarities similarities, they could not look more different.

In Kirkenes, painted wooden houses were constructed in a modest style were constructed as part of the government’s effort to quickly rebuild after the ravages of the Second World War. These are perceived by the inhabitants to be an important identity marker of the town. The houses in Kola from the same period are almost entirely built in concrete and brick, and the few wooden houses remaining from the town’s early history are mostly abandoned and falling apart.

Wintertime, the preferred mode of transport in Kirkenes, after the car, is the kicksled. All families appear to have at least one, and the packed snow on roads and sidewalks provide the ideal terrain for this activity. No such vehicles are evident in Nikel, whose compact urban form, by contrast, facilitate lively urban spaces.

KKN3The metallurgical plant looms over Nikel (photo: P. Hemmersam).

The future of Nikel seems tightly bound to the fate of the metallurgical plant, world market mineral prices and strategic decisions in company boards far away, while Kirkenes has already proved that despite two shut downs of the mine (with subsequent re-openings), the impact on the local economy and unemployment rate has been limited. Here, the Norwegian welfare state and generous subsidies for small communities and local culture has led to optimism and hopes for an ‘industrial boomerang’ connected to the petrochemical exploration and exploitation in the Barents Sea.

PhD researcher Morgan Ip’s participatory online mapping tool MyBarents shows that the visually menacing smelter in Nikel, along with its toxic emissions, feature prominently in the inhabitants’ current concerns and hopes for the future.

In Kirkenes, ethnographic studies by students from the Urban Design: Arctic City studio at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design reveal that the ore processing and shipping facility that dominates the skyline of the town is largely absent in local people’s ideas about the town’s urban future. Along with many other things: new housing areas, the hospital, a school as well as most of the retail and the new harbour, the spaces of future thinking in Kirkenes are no longer found in the town. Thy are found outside the traditional central district, dispersed over a wider territory, and – for the prospected petrochemical industry – out to sea.

Empty spaces are left behind: the empty hospital, abandoned shops but also an absence of ideas. This is reflected as a feeling of loss among town’s otherwise optimistic inhabitants. As the harbour moves out, heavy traffic through the city centre will also disappear. This new emptiness brings new possibilities for rethinking the town – it is a space for future thinking. This potential for adopting entirely new roles is yet to be grasped, conceptualised and exploited by politicians, administrators and citizens of the town.

A promise of a bright regional future for Kirkenes (Spareland) (Photo: P. Hemmersam).

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