Fairbanks North Star Borough in Alaska Establishes Sustainability Commission

By Claire Franco

The Fairbanks North Star Borough is establishing a new Sustainability Commission to meet the needs of its current and future citizens. Research analyzing similar bodies in other communities has demonstrated that such programs can reduce municipal operating expenses, stimulate business, improve human welfare, enhance food security, and promote ecological responsibility.

Fairbanks North Star Borough in AK [Credit: Google Maps]
The Fairbanks North Star Borough is considering an ordinance that would convert the territory’s existing Recycling Commission into the broader Sustainability Commission. Many of the duties which necessitated the authorization of the Recycling Commission with large public support in 2009 have been handed off to the Central Recycling Facility as of September 1, 2017.

The ordinance establishes a body of seven members appointed by the mayor who will meet at least quarterly to discuss and update policies and projects under their responsibility. The authoring Assembly cites precedents from “communities around the world” which have already begun similar sustainability initiatives and achieved excellent results.

The territory included in this administrative unit is slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey and hosts a population of approximately 98,000 Alaskans. The committee will work to reduce individual and collective ecological impacts while improving the economic, security, and sustainability targets of the borough.

The Sustainability Commission will also inherit and fulfill the duties of the Agricultural Commission. New emphasis on policies relevant to local agriculture will target the issue of food security. Exploring avenues of local, renewable energy will help to reduce supply volatility and emissions contributing to climate change, while diversifying the regional economy. In practice, the committee will be tasked with setting sustainability goals and making long range recommendations, policies, and budgets to realize them. Members will award public purpose grants that promote these goals and design monitoring matrices which measure their effectiveness.

The reorientation of the former Recycling Commission to one with broader goals demonstrates the adaptability of the Fairbanks North Star Borough to meet the relevant demands of the local environment and the community it hosts. The integration of the former Agricultural Commission in this restructuring recognizes the critical component of responsible food provision in the long term implementation of any municipal planning. The ordinance acknowledges the larger global drive toward sustainability while focusing attention on the details of the region’s own population and stretch of practicality.



The ordinance has been approved and will be put into action.

Yakutsk and Mirnyi Fieldwork Report

July 18-August 1, 2017

Marlene Laruelle (GWU) and Sophie Hohmann (INALCO, Paris)

This PIRE fieldwork was devoted to the study of social urban sustainability in two cities of Sakha Republic (Yakutia): the capital city Yakutsk and the “diamond capital” Mirnyi. Our research focused on demographic, social and cultural changes in Russia’s Far North cities. We collected local statistical data and organized interviews with local diasporas and migrant communities. We also met with officials from the republican-level Ministry of External Affairs, Center for Strategic Studies, House of Friendship, and several scholars from different research centers at the North-Eastern Federal University and curators from local museums.

The “Yakutization” of Yakutsk

Yakutsk is a unique case in the Russian Arctic because it is a city which has been able to avoid massive depopulation. If the republic lost some of its population during the depressed 1990s, the city itself has continued to show a rare dynamism, growing from 196,600 inhabitants in 1989 to 303,800 in 2016. This dynamism is fed by the massive arrival of the titular rural population to the capital city. Such a movement of people is a unique phenomenon: no other city in the republic of Sakha receives a similar influx of rural residents.

Yakutsk is attractive because it is seen as part of a process of climbing the social ladder by the rural population, especially young generations. Several overlapping phenomena explain this attraction:

  • the departure of Russians for European Russia (about 200,000 have left since the collapse of the Soviet Union, or 35% of the Russian population of the city);
  • the promotion of the titular nationality in the republican administration;
  • being the main higher education center in the republic; the local universities and institutes, especially North-Eastern Federal University, the Medical Academy and the State Agricultural Academy, attract mostly young members of the titular nationality.

As Figure 1 shows the number of Russians steadily collapsed after 1989, while the number of Yakuts grew without disruption since the 1950s.

Figure 1. Ethnic distribution of Russian and Yakut population in Yakutia by censuses

Our research also focused on the niches occupied by a third category of the population, that of labor migrants, coming from the South Caucasus and Central Asia. The two main ethnic groups are Armenians and Kyrgyz, representing two different patterns of migration. Armenians benefit from a “pull” factor, that of a small diaspora already present in the city in the 1970s-1980s, while numerous Kyrgyz arrived only in the 2000s. It is difficult to obtain statistics from the Federal Migration Service at the municipal level, and many migrants remain undocumented. However, we know that the city of Yakutsk hosted 2,200 Armenians and 2,900 Kyrgyz with Russian citizenship during the 2010 census.

These diaspora and migrant communities occupy specific economic niches: mostly the construction sector—a booming sector given Yakutsk’s demographic growth—followed by the car repair business, and the shoes repair sector for Armenians. Some other groups such as Uzbeks—mostly from Southern Kyrgyzstan, therefore Kyrgyz citizens—dominate the fruit and vegetable import market, especially wholesale bazaars. Many migrants come only for the summer months (from 2 to 5 months) to make money and spend the winter in their home country.

Diaspora and migrant cultural life is organized around two main institutions: the ethnic associations represented at the House of Friendship (Dom druzhby), in charge of folkloric activities (celebration of national holidays, traditional dances and songs), and the religious buildings. The Armenian community built a church in 2014, thanks to a group of generous Armenian businessmen, and is waiting for a permanent priest. The mosque has existed longer: it was erected in 1997 by some members of the Ingush diaspora, and was totally rebuilt in 2014, to receive a growing number of Muslims, including some Yakuts and Russians converted to Islam. The mosque is multinational, with Ingush, Tajiks and Uzbeks being the most numerous attendees to religious services.

The Armenian Church and the Mosque


Mirnyi offers a totally different outlook of urban development. The diamond capital is a monotown entirely dominated by Alrosa, Russia’s partially state-owned diamond company. Like all other cities of the republic with the exception of Yakutsk, the city is not facing a Yakutization process: Russians remain largely dominant, comprising 24,000 people of 37,000 total inhabitants. There are only 3,600 Yakuts (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Ethnic distribution in Yakutsk and Mirnyi, 2010 census

A large part of the population works for Alrosa and its subsidiaries: over the whole Mirnyi district, Alrosa employs about 40,000 people from a total of 96,000. As the city’s main mine stopped working in 2001, diamond extraction increasingly takes place in other small towns of the district, such as Aykhal and Udachnyi, by long-distance commuting workers based in Mirnyi. There too, migrants are present, with Kyrgyz being the first diasporic ethnic group, working in the construction sector and trading clothes and everyday items, while Uzbeks control the fruit and vegetable kiosks. The city hosts a mosque and veiled women are visible in the streets of the city. A similar trend is noticeable in other industrial cities: in Nenyungri for instance, the second city of the republic with 60,00 inhabitants, between 10,000 and 15,000 residents are Muslim, though there are only 1,800 Yakuts.

The city and the mine of Mirnyi seen from the sky

Housing for long-distance commuting workers in Aykhal

Sakha-Yakutia therefore displays a dual urban development pattern: the capital city of Yakutsk displays rapid demographic growth and indigenization, thanks to a diversified economy and its status as a republican administrative center, while all the other cities (Mirnyi, Nenyungri, Lensk, Aldan), centered on extraction industries, remain demographically stable and dominated by Russians.


What Does a Sustainable City Look Like?

Over the past year, as Arctic PIRE researchers worked to develop an appropriate set of indicators by which to measure urban sustainability in Arctic cities, the team wrestled with notions of “Arctic,” “urban,” and “sustainability,” for none of which is there a single, universally accepted definition. “Arctic” was settled on as being the region above 60˚ North, as a sort of average of the many geographical and geopolitical parameters that are used to define the Arctic. “Urban” is defined functionally as a densely populated area that serves diverse social, cultural, economic, and political functions, and has a minimum population size of 12,000 people. “Sustainability” is perhaps the most difficult to pin down, as noted by the volumes of research grappling with the concept. How should sustainability be defined, particularly as it relates to Arctic cities?

The 1987 Brundtland Commission definition of sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” has guided research and served as a driver for countless initiatives, though the definition is incredibly broad, and plenty of other definitions have been proposed. In the urban context, the UN Sustainable City Program defined the sustainable city as one that is able to retain the supply of natural resources while achieving economic, physical, and social progress, and remain safe against environmental risks that could undermine development. For Arctic cities, along with others, climate change presents a significant environmental risk to both development and the preservation of natural resources. As the Arctic faces these unfolding environmental changes, Arctic cities are facing similar challenges to other global cities in achieving economic, physical, and social progress. A sustainable Arctic city will be one that can meet its social, cultural, environmental, and political needs, alongside economic and physical objectives, while ensuring equitable access to all services by residents, without draining the city’s resources (Rogers 1997).

Brent Toderian, an urban planner and urban sustainability expert, proposed eight pillars of a sustainable city that represent some of the broader sustainability ideas but also outline concrete representations of sustainability in an urban environment, applicable to all cities, including those in the Arctic.


  1. A Complete walkable community in which mixed use facilities and mixed housing meet the varied needs of residents and various price points to ensure affordability, and the community is designed to protect the natural features.


  1. A low-impact transportation system that prioritizes cycling and walking, and incorporates many alternatives to single-person automobile use.


  1. Green buildings that use green design such as LEED, and include many multi-family dwellings.


  1. Flexible open space that accommodate both community and ecological needs including natural habitat, recreation, and space for growing food.


  1. Green infrastructure that addresses the supply and management of energy, water and waste, and includes innovative and financially viable heating and cooling options.


  1. A healthy food system that includes community garden space and food outlets, as well as preserving social and cultural food celebration, and incorporates other creative food-producing outlets.


  1. Community facilities and programs that support a healthy lifestyle for community members of all ages, that promote safety and well-being, and that foster community connection.


  1. Economic development including opportunities for business, investment, and employment, and includes a range of commercial facilities.


These pillars help to envision what a sustainable Arctic city would look like, and to begin to measure cities’ progress towards these ideals.

The Link Between Urban Density and Sustainability

The city center in Luleå, Sweden, is a tree-lined pedestrian- and bicycle-only thoroughfare lined with shops and restaurants. The city buildings are, with few exceptions, only a few stories tall. At the periphery stand a few apartment buildings, each four to five stories tall, and most in the same iconic colorful batten on board construction as the houses in the surrounding neighborhood. On a weekday, the city hums with life: commuters headed to work on city buses, shoppers with their pull-behind wheeled carts, young parents following toddlers on stride bikes, and a gaggle of middle-school-aged girls headed to the beach. Gingerbread rooflines and lush green spaces throughout and surrounding the city lend a quiet storybook charm to the city.

Luleå is a low-density city, and many of the city’s residents live in neighborhoods well beyond the city center. The sprawl of Luleå is partly due to the topography—the coastal city encompasses a number of islands and peninsulas and has developed around the numerous inlets and lakes, but increasing the density of the city center would decrease the breadth of sprawl and concentrate a greater percentage of the population in the city. Would increasing the density of Luleå’s city center, however, decrease the quality of life for the city’s residents? Does an increase in density necessarily decrease green space, community space, or other spaces that contribute to the well-being of a city’s residents? These are important questions to consider, as density is a key quality for sustainability in terms of resource use in urban centers, but excessively high density or poorly managed density can negatively impact the health and social sustainability of a city.

Satellite image of Luleå, Sweden

Poorly managed density leads to overcrowding. There may be a minimum threshold of square footage of dwelling space per person required to not be considered overcrowded, but generally overcrowding is linked to management and perception. Population density in a stadium is not perceived as problematic, but a much lower level of density feels intolerable in highway traffic. The perception and tolerance for density or overcrowding is informed in part by cultural factors: levels of acceptable density are perceived differently in Kolkata and Stockholm. Overcrowding can be thought of as the stress experienced because of too high a population density in a given set of circumstances (Kutner 2016). Overcrowding, rather than population density, can lead to increased tension between residents and sometimes result in violence. From a management perspective, overcrowding is the result of inadequate management and provision of resources such as water, electricity, and housing.

In Jakarta, Indonesia, high population density has led to overcrowding because of inadequate infrastructure (IRIN 2010; Hamer 2014). Without sufficient clean water sources, adequate roads and transportation networks, or sewage treatment, the quality of life for residents is extremely low, and the city has been ranked as one of the worst in Asia for ease of doing business. Recent efforts to improve transportation through increased rail transit has thus far been stymied by lack of funding and poor coordination between levels of government (Hamer 2014).

High-density, low-rise development is the ideal for urban layouts, striking a balance between efficiency and quality of life, but small dwelling units are required to adequately increase urban density (Patel 2011). High-density development increases the efficiency with which municipal services can be provided, creates economies of scale, and preserves the surrounding natural environment. High-density urban development is also a prerequisite for effective public transportation networks, an important component for achieving urban sustainability. A 1977 study by Boris S. Pushkarev and Jeffery M. Zupan shows that public transit works best where residential density exceeds 4200 persons per square mile.

High-rise buildings and vertical cities (high-rise buildings with other self-contained municipal functions such as water treatment and power generation) offer one potential solution to increase density in cities and maximize efficiency in transportation, infrastructure, and service provision. But high-rise living is not without its drawbacks. First, not everyone is interested in this type of lifestyle- young, single men are generally the most amenable to the idea. Second, high-rise living can present some health challenges: children’s physical development may be stifled by the constraints of available play facilities; respiratory infections are more prevalent among women and children living in high-rise buildings; and high density developments can have a negative influence on mental health by reducing community interaction and increasing tensions (Wong 1998; Young 1976).

Population growth, migration, and urbanization in Arctic cities mimics global urbanization trends. With two-thirds of the world’s population predicted to live in cities by the year 2050 (UN 2014), it’s important to consider urban density and management to increase sustainability, improve quality of life, and decrease the negative effects of overcrowding.

A Visit to the Alaska Native Heritage Center

On the far east side of Anchorage down a long and windy drive sits the Alaska Native Heritage Center. The large wooden structure is built on Dena’ina land, and has a low profile, the roofline sweeping from a shallow peak in the center nearly to the earth on either end, and blends in well with the natural surroundings. When we arrived, four youth were performing story songs and dances on a stage in the center of the building for a small but captive audience. We were given a private tour of the center by Yaari Walker, a St Lawrence Island (SLI) Yupik and Cultural Program Specialist who had been working at the center for nearly two decades. Behind the center is a tiny placid pond, reflecting the distant mountains and surrounded by several traditional structures representing the homes traditionally built and occupied by Alaskan Natives. In each, Yaari shared the cultural heritage of Alaskan Natives, as well as her own personal experience. She described the importance of family, community, and subsistence. The structures illustrate a rural, traditional lifestyle that is hard to find in modern times, but also cultures that are thriving and well.

Yaari Walker speaking with members of Arctic PIRE at the Alaska Native Heritage Center (photo credit: Carly Giddings)


Looking over the bucolic scene, it seemed an unlikely place to learn much about urban sustainability in Alaska. But 50% of Alaskan Natives live in the city of Anchorage, where they make up 14% of the urban population. Understanding urban communities therefore requires understanding the culture and experience of indigenous peoples, and understanding the importance of history and cultural heritage.


In Alaska, like many places in the lower 48, throughout the first half of the 20th century, indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and communities and sent to boarding schools run by missionaries where they were barred from speaking their native languages, banned from any other form of cultural expression including traditional dress and other customs, and in many cases experienced horrendous physical, sexual, and emotional violence. This was but one example of the systematic attempt to extinguish the culture of Native Alaskans. Fortunately, many Alaskan Native groups survived this trauma and actively engage in ongoing expression and preservation of their traditional cultures and languages, but the violent interruption impacted families and communities, and created a legacy of generational trauma. Children who spent their formative years in abusive boarding schools without the opportunity to bond with their parents and families became adults who were deeply scarred, often unable to form healthy bonds with their own children, and in many cases turned to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms. The era of boarding schools in Alaska led to the loss of languages, and the destruction of childhoods and created conflict for children who were taught to be ashamed of their culture and identity. The damage done by this and other anti-indigenous policies and practices continues to impact Native Alaskan communities who experience significantly higher rates of poverty, addiction, depression, and suicide than non-native Alaskans, both in urban and rural areas.


Subsistence activities continue to be an important part of both livelihoods and culture for native Alaskans, even those who live in Anchorage and other urban areas, something that was demonstrated by both Yaari Walker at the Alaska Native Heritage Center and by Dawn Biddison of the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center at the Anchorage museum. Native peoples still identify with their ancestral home villages and regions even if they have never lived there themselves, and when possible, will return home during harvest seasons. Whaling continues to be an important part of life for northern coastal communities such as Nuiqsut and Kaktovik. Whales provide food, clothing, oil, and tools. But just like traditional practices in the past, whaling has come under attack by those who fail to understand either the cultural history and importance, or the sustainability of this type of whaling.


In cities throughout the circumpolar region, ethnic identity and the expression of that identity is important to both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. Though difficult to quantify, cultural history and identity are important pieces to consider in measuring the social component of urban sustainability.

Kayaks built as part of a summer youth program at the Alaska Native Heritage Center (photo credit: Carly Giddings)

Meeting with Community Stakeholders in Anchorage, Alaska

Last week, the Arctic PIRE team gathered in Anchorage, Alaska, to share ongoing research, to continue developing the Arctic Urban Sustainability Index (AUSI), and to meet with community stakeholders to gain a better understanding of what is important to consider when evaluating urban sustainability in the Arctic, and also to understand what the most important information or metrics that researchers can provide to policymakers and community leaders. Below are some of the highlights of meetings with stakeholders in Anchorage.

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz (second from right) speaking with members of Arctic PIRE (photo credit: Carly Giddings)

Mayor of Anchorage Ethan Berkowitz defined sustainability for Anchorage as a city that is ready, connected, and inclusive, but also as an ancient idea that has long been practiced by Alaska Natives. For Alaskans, both native and non-native, self-sufficiency is an important aspect of sustainability and a point of pride, but also a real challenge- Alaska relies on a colonial model of exporting its raw materials and importing much of its work force. Mayor Berkowitz emphasized the need to invest in human capital, to increase local (renewable) energy as an opportunity to create self-sufficiency and also create local jobs. Finally, Mayor Berkowitz highlighted the need for more data, and more metrics, saying that there is a dearth of good city-level data that can inform good policy and practice.

Dr. Mara Kimmel, the First Lady of Anchorage, shared her aspirations and ongoing work in building resilience in Anchorage. Dr. Kimmel talked about creating a resilient city, but also one that is welcoming and inclusive for both indigenous peoples and immigrants. Dr. Kimmel suggested that policymakers and planners must work more directly with scientists who can provide the data for better decision-making, and that research questions should come from the communities that need the data.

Andy Baker, engineer and owner of Your Clean Energy, shared his experience working on renewable energy projects in the Anchorage area over the last ten years. Baker talked about the importance of the 2010 net metering policy in spurring renewable energy development in Alaska. Baker also highlighted his work on the Alaska SeaLife Center heat pump system that uses Resurrection Bay to heat both the aquariums and the space at the Center. Baker echoed others when he highlighted the importance of investing in education in Anchorage and beyond, particularly at a university level,

Steve Colt, a professor of economics at Alaska Pacific University, has a background in electric utilities and working on renewable energy and distributed energy systems in Alaska. He talked about some of the challenges of renewable energy in Alaska related to policy, infrastructure, and implementation, including multiple energy players in Anchorage and Fairbanks and the resultant fractured system that requires coordination. Colt also emphasized the need to expand the energy discussion beyond electricity generation to include heat and transportation, and suggested that the transportation sector may present the best opportunities for gains in sustainable energy.

Kirk Rose, Executive Director of the Anchorage Community Land Trust, talked about working on revitalization, particularly in the Mountain View neighborhood of Anchorage, where homes were built originally to accommodate temporary pipeline workers, and are now home to many of the city’s low-income residents. Rose emphasized the important role of the private sector in sustainable community development in Mountain View and beyond. The Anchorage Community Land Trust has worked with the local community on planning and development, and has also worked to purchase some of the most blighted properties to redevelop for businesses and enterprises that benefit the community. Rose emphasized that this is not charity work, but rather illustrates the opportunities for the private sector, which to date includes a credit union, health clinic, and office space for NGOs and community groups.

Yaari Walker, Cultural Program Specialist at the Alaska Native Heritage Center led a tour of some of the traditional structures used by Alaska Natives, while sharing some of the cultural history and her own personal SLI Yupik heritage. Walker leant important perspective to the culture and identity of Alaska Natives, and the importance of considering the way culture impacts Alaska Natives living in urban areas such as Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Dawn Biddison, Museum Specialist at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center gave a brief history of the experience of Alaska Natives under colonialism first by the Russians and later by the Americans. Biddison particularly highlighted subsistence as both a practical way of life and an expression of culture and history, and a thriving practice even among urban Alaska. She then led us through the new Arctic Studies hall which displays cultural objects that were carefully curated and informed by Alaska Native elders. The Center also allows primary research by Alaska Natives, has several interactive video displays to explain objects in the exhibit, and has created a series of instructional videos demonstrating traditional method for things like basket-weaving and sewing with sinew.

Debating the Future Development of Arctic Resources

Robert Orttung, Tromsø, Norway

Should Norway continue to develop its Arctic oil and natural gas resources or would Arctic communities be better off focusing on renewable energy? This was the hot topic of debate at the opening session of the 2017 Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, Norway in January.

Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs made the case for leaving resources in the ground. He praised Norway for its green domestic policies, which are a model of sustainability that he frequently holds up to countries around the world. However, he warned that continuing to extract oil and gas from the Arctic for export markets would ultimately tip the planet into irrevocable climate change.

Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg (Figure 1) defended the ongoing drilling for oil and gas. She noted that Norwegians have used ocean resources sustainably for 10,000 years and emphasized the on-going cooperation with neighboring Russia on managing fish stocks in the Barents Sea. Solberg highlighted a difference between CO2 emissions and fisheries in explaining why it was hard to solve the energy problem even as the country was able to address the fish issues. The emissions are a global problem while the fisheries are a regional problem. She stressed the need to place a global price on carbon that would make it possible for the best producers to survive and eliminate less efficient ones.

Figure 1: Norwegian PM Erna Solberg

Russia is also committed to developing its Arctic resources since exploiting these hydrocarbons is necessary for Russia’s development. Ambassador Vladimir Barbin, Russia’s Senior Arctic Official, noted that the Arctic provides 10 percent of Russia’s GDP and 20 percent of its exports, and these figures are only likely to grow. Russia intends to use the Arctic as a resource base, developing its fossil fuel reserves and the Northern Sea Route. Russia’s environmental initiatives focus on preventing the pollution of Arctic shipping waters and introducing nuclear ice breakers, which have zero emissions.

Nevertheless, Sachs stressed that the science is clear – we need to dramatically reduce emissions of CO2. He stressed that it is not realistic to think that the US can continue fracking oil and gas while drilling continues in other countries without severe consequences. Even as Norway focuses on decarbonizing domestic policies, it is expanding fossil fuel exports to the rest of the world. Canada has the same problem. World leaders have adopted goals to reduce carbon and these countries are serious about their domestic situation. But they continue to sell to the world market. If all countries do this, climate change might be irreversible. Sachs stressed that “I am not a pessimist.” Science shows us that it is possible to replace fossil fuels and that we must do it.

Sachs stressed that the world’s low-cost supplier of hydrocarbons is Saudi Arabia and that the Middle East and Russia should run down their low-cost reserves before extraction begins in more remote areas. We should not invest billions in new developments, he said. Investing in hydrocarbons means that either you wreck the Earth or waste money since there is not a case for additional investment now. The problem is to figure out how to work with Middle Eastern producers like Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is geopolitically complicated. Sachs advocated turning Norway’s StatOil, which bills itself as the world’s largest off-shore operator, into StatWind.

Prime Minister Solberg responded that in terms of per barrel emissions, Norway outperforms oil production in Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries. She also warned that the security problems associated with the Middle East were significant, which is why the US is now heading toward energy independence. Approximately 80 percent of energy consumed in the world is fossil fuels and Norway feels that it can make a contribution to addressing this demand.

Sachs noted that if climate change goes past certain thresholds it is irreversible and could leave to global disaster. At the same time, the Norwegian leader pointed out that we can’t make the Arctic a museum. Similarly, Alaskans often feel like sustainability policies are put in place to create a “snow globe,” a beautiful bauble, but one with little practical value. People live in the Arctic and they have to have jobs.

This debate is unlikely to be resolved any time soon given the various interests involved. However, at least one of the young people at the conference pointed the way forward. Ingrid Skjoldvaer, Head of Nature and Youth, Norway, which is the country’s largest youth environmental organization, noted that there was a test drilling rig in the Tromso harbor during the conference and it was destined for farther north. She stressed that it was necessary to ask those currently in a position to make decisions: What kind of development do you want for your children? Will you build Arctic communities that are based on renewable fuels or continue to invest in polluting fossil fuels which are depleting? In her opinion, it was necessary to say no to fossil fuels and yes to renewable resources in the Arctic. She noted that Norway’s politicians needed to think beyond the four years of the parliamentary term. She also stressed that usually when the Arctic is discussed, it is without young people. “Today I speak to you, two years ago I was outside the conference doors with a banner.”

Besides young people, pressure is likely to come from another source as well – China. The country has realized the advantages of alternative energy and is rapidly making strides in an effort to end its reliance on fossil fuels.

Tundra to Table: Vertical Farming in the Arctic

The vast Arctic territory is rich in resources including minerals, hydrocarbons, and wildlife. However, high latitudinal regions receive little sunlight for several months each year, which severely limits the region’s ability to grow fresh produce. Many Arctic urban centers rely on long, complex supply chains to receive shipments of fresh fruits and vegetables from their southerly neighbors.

Alaska imports about 95% of its fresh produce, moving about $2 billion per year of grocery spending out-of-state. Produce destined for the Arctic has to be picked early and ripened in-transit to minimize rot during the long journey from farm to table. Such practices affect the quality of produce polar consumers can buy and drive up prices. Arctic residents often pay exorbitant prices for items as simple as a head of lettuce.

Figure 1: Lettuce and herbs being grown under strings of LED lights Source: Vertical Harvest Hydroponics
Figure 1: Lettuce and herbs being grown under strings of LED lights
Source: Vertical Harvest Hydroponics

These problems have spurred interest in alternative farming methods in the Arctic, such as indoor farming using hydroponics and artificial lighting systems, sometimes called vertical farming (Figure 1).

In recent years, the use of vertical farming has grown in many urban areas, where land is scarce and people have become more aware of the environmental impact of long-supply chains. Urban indoor farms, or ‘plant factories with artificial light’ (PFAL) are expected to play a large role in agriculture during the coming decades, garnering interest from countries around the world. Recently a team of Japanese and American researchers published a comprehensive 400-page volume on the benefits and limitations of indoor farms in different climatic and economic environments.

The ability of PFALs to produce quality produce has been proven in a low cost and resource effective manner. For example, low-heat light emitting diode (LED) fixtures have been around since the 1980s, but recent studies have shown that advances in this technology have enhanced their brightness and energy-efficiency to the point where they are viable in commercial crop agriculture. As these global investments in urban farming continue, the resulting technological innovations could have a revolutionary effect on how Arctic communities source their fresh produce.

The unique environmental and economic conditions of the Arctic make it an attractive region to develop PFALs. Prices for imported fresh produce are high, while environmental conditions for local farming are poor. Moreover, communities in the Arctic are usually isolated, and their inhabitants tend to welcome innovations that increase self-subsistence and decrease reliance on imports.

Figure 2: One of Vertical Harvest Hydroponic's Arctic-ready containerized growing systems being loaded onto a truck for delivery. Source: Vertical Harvest Hydroponics
Figure 2: One of Vertical Harvest Hydroponic’s Arctic-ready containerized growing systems being loaded onto a truck for delivery.
Source: Vertical Harvest Hydroponics

Several start-ups have begun to fill this niche in the North American Arctic, among them Vertical Harvest Hydroponics. This company, founded in 2011 and based in Anchorage, Alaska, has designed and developed a “Containerized Growing System” in repurposed shipping containers using cutting edge technology (Figure 2). These containerized systems cost about $110,000 each to build and deploy. They are designed to withstand the harsh Arctic conditions, and are mobile—giving Arctic communities the ability to grow produce anywhere with potable water and power. Each unit can produce about 23,000 to 39,000 heads of lettuce per year.

Another Alaskan company, Alaska Natural Organics,has retrofitted an old dairy in Anchorage to house an indoor farm, which can produce up to 20,000 plants per month. The potential for expansion seems strong, as these companies are still young and operate on a relatively small scale compared to the mega-PFALs running in Japan, which can produce up to 10,000 plants a day (Figure 3).

Figure 3: An employee tending plants at Japan's mega-PFAL, capable of producing 10,000 heads of lettuce per day. Source: National Geographic Magazine
Figure 3: An employee tending plants at Japan’s mega-PFAL, capable of producing 10,000 heads of lettuce per day.
Source: National Geographic Magazine

Vertical farming in the Arctic has gained recent media attention due to its success. In 2016 several mainstream media outlets, including the New York Times, local CBS news stations, and farming magazines featured articles on indoor farming in the Arctic. Unfortunately, there is a lack of academic literature analyzing the practicality of PFAL systems and vertical farming in an Arctic-specific context, a subject which should be explored given the massive potential applicability of this technology in the region.

Interest in biological preservation and the development of agriculture in the Arctic is nothing new. In Svalbard, the Global Seed Vault is safeguarding a repository of all global plant seeds in an attempt to secure the genetic diversity of flora on this planet in case of a devastating disaster. The Norwegian government, which runs and administers the storehouse, has also taken steps toward increasing the study of sustainable agriculture in the region through the year 2021 with the BIONAER program. In Kirovsk, Russia, the Polar-Alpine Botanical Garden has been active since 1931, as a nursery, biological research institute, and tourist attraction. Interest in these new techniques is growing, with representatives of the city of Murmansk, Russia citing a planned project to convert abandoned industrial buildings into hydroponic farms during an interview. The Russian Arctic has many relatively isolated industrial and post-industrial urban centers, where the development of efficient PFAL systems could usher in a new era of sustainable agriculture. In all of these Arctic regions, the interest in using PFALs to increase the local quality of life is high, however there has been a lack of project feasibility studies and academic literature which could validate increased policy support for PFAL and urban indoor farming methods.

An employee waits outside an indoor vertical farm in Kotzebue, Alaska. The unit provides kale, various lettuces, basil and other greens for the community of nearly 3,300. Source: Will Anderson via AP
An employee stands outside an indoor vertical farm in Kotzebue, Alaska. The unit provides fresh kale, various lettuces, basil and other greens to a community of nearly 3,300.
Source: Will Anderson via AP

Given the interest in indoor-farming across the circumpolar region, PFAL systems could play an important role in the future life of Arctic communities. The success of the Alaskan start-ups shows the potential for the organic growth of the industry. These systems have the potential to benefit Arctic communities by cutting out expensive and unreliable supply-chains and increasing self-reliance. Indoor farming greatly improves the quality of life for Arctic residents by giving them a realistic path towards regular access to fresh high quality produce. Additionally, localized food production and research in PFAL technology has the added benefit of creating jobs and opportunities for innovation in the region. Nevertheless, the PFAL industry faces significant challenges, including high initial investment costs, which could hamper growth in the coming decades. Hopefully, this hurdle will not be insurmountable.




Inaugural Arctic PIRE Meeting is a Resounding Success

screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-12-27-32-pmThis past weekend, we were delighted to host the inaugural annual meeting of the Arctic PIRE: Promoting Urban Sustainability in the Arctic project. Roughly 30 members of our international research network were in attendance, discussing issues including the framework for our Arctic Urban Sustainability Index, the selection appropriate sustainability indicators, and strategies for strengthening the outreach of our important research. We also discussed future research trips to the Arctic, cooperation with media organizations, such as Planet Forward to increase our accessibility to new audiences, and the creation of an educational resource database for Arctic Sustainability issues.

screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-12-31-32-pm screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-12-31-00-pm

The conference culminated with a Public Panel discussion on Friday, October 21st, where over 50 members of the public visited The George Washington University to attend the event. Attendees included professors and students, as well as representatives of the National Science Foundation, embassies, and think-tanks based here in Washington DC. As our project builds momentum we will continue to look for more opportunities in research cooperation and outreach, in order to maximize the outreach and accessibility of our project. A full meeting report including notes and results will be published soon!


Shaky Foundations: Urban Areas built on Disappearing Permafrost

Last week, three of our distinguished researchers, Dmitry Streletskiy of The George Washington University, Valery Grebenets of Moscow State University, and Oleg Anisomov of Russia’s State Hydrological Institute, were featured in a Guardian article on the effects of thawing permafrost on Arctic cities. The Russian city of Norilsk, discussed a few weeks ago in this blog, stood at the center of attention. This time the focus was on the condition of buildings and the housing stock, which is suffering as a result of thawing permafrost. This issue is well known within Russia with Valery Tereshkov, the deputy head of the emergencies ministry in the Krasnoyarsk region, writing an article a few weeks ago stating that nearly 60% of all buildings in Norilsk have been deformed in some way. Problems caused by climate change and thawing permafrost have also been on the radar of global media, but mostly through the traditional Arctic lens of remote islands and coastal settlements being eroded, or indigenous communities having to move from their ancestral homes. The Guardian article was one of the first times that the global media examined the effects of climate change and thawing permafrost on the scale of a major Arctic city.

Figure 1: Location of Norilsk Photo Credit: BBC
Figure 1: Location of Norilsk
Photo Credit: BBC

Both in terms of population and economic output, Norilsk is one of the most important Arctic urban centers. With local engineers estimating that more than 100 residential buildings, about one-tenth of the housing stock, “have been vacated here due to damage from thawing permafrost,” this city is facing an existential crisis. Thawing permafrost under vital infrastructure is not a new problem for Arctic engineers, who have been building in the Arctic for many centuries with the largest development happening in Russia. Arctic PIRE member Valery Grebenets of Moscow State University regularly lectures his students on these issues, which include buckling roads, soil runoff killing flora and fauna, and the release of toxic substances trapped in the ice. These experts are also familiar with impact of urban areas on permafrost, such as the heat given off by buildings through their foundations. For many decades, engineers have been finding creative solutions to offset these “technogenic factors,” such as placing buildings on stilts to lessen their transfer of heat into the ground. However, none of these engineering plans took into account the effect of global warming, which has deepened the yearly permafrost thaw and significantly increased the speed of natural degradation. With the Arctic experiencing annual temperature increases that far exceed those recorded in the rest of the world, this ongoing crisis looks set to increase in scale and severity.

Figure 2: An example of the effects of thawing permafrost on a news-stand in Norilsk
Figure 2: An example of the effects of thawing permafrost on a news-stand in Norilsk

Unfortunately, when infrastructure and buildings were planned, climate change was not taken seriously enough by city planners and government officials. As Arctic PIRE member Dmitry Streletskiy of The George Washington University told the Guardian, “In most cases the effect of climate change was not accounted for properly or at all, so the story is not about one building falling, even though there are examples of that, but about thousands of people living in buildings which have the potential to fall.” This is a clear example of the unfortunate lack of input that the scientific community often has in terms of planning for sustainable urban development. This issue compounded in the Arctic region due to the high cost of adapting cities to change. Our colleague Oleg Anisomov, Arctic expert and Nobel Prize holder, laments that the high north will suffer from lack of strong support in terms of government funding and strategic investment in adaptive engineering solutions. Our project aims to Promote Urban Sustainability in the Arctic hope to alter this trend and increase the voice of the scientific community in the Arctic through our upcoming Arctic Urban Sustainability Index and by increasing global attention on these important issues. Through continuous engagement and communication with policy makers, urban planners, and Arctic development planners, our scientific network will advise on the effects of climate and socio-economic changes to Arctic cities and help these important communities adapt to their rapidly changing surroundings.

Figure 3: A building is temporarily braced against collapse.
Figure 3: A building is temporarily braced against collapse.