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Opposites Attract: what Norilsk and Ushuaia reveal about urban development

Updated: Feb 5, 2022

Cities allow people to cluster and thrive within a small footprint. To continue delivering on the benefits of density, urban growth strategies must account for resource availability and grapple with sustainability challenges. However, attempts at realism are easily undermined by a depressing form of geographic determinism. Cities in the 'developing' world are assumed to be at the same starting point. They are then prescribed strategies to 'catch up' with those clustered in rich, wet corners of the global North. Such models struggle to keep pace with a more interesting reality: all cities are, in their own way, developing. This article is an attempt to learn from other places, real cities found at polar extremes. Norilsk and Ushuaia are extremely different from each other. However, both offer insight into how resource availibility and the challenges of density can shape the urban future.

Dirty Money in Norilsk (69°N)

Modern Norilsk is one of only 44 closed cities in modern Russia: nobody arrives there by accident, or without permission. As the world's largest source of nickel, copper and palladium, it is the first link in the global supply chains underpinning modern life. This city, and its 800 kilometres of tunnels cut into the permafrost below, is where the digital, cloud-based economy connects back to the earth.

Extraction is normally a rural activity, penetrating mineral deposits and oceans far away from the cities where consumption occurs. This separation collapses in Norilsk, created when the USSR established a forced labour camp to exploit an enormous nickel deposit. By 1975, the metallurgical and mines complex had 250,000 inhabitants. When the USSR collapsed, thousands of prisoners were freed and and ownership was transferred to Norilsk Nickel, now a private company.

This growth has come at a cost. In 2016, refineries released 380,000 tonnes of SO2 - more than the total output of France. Urban air is a key point of contact between humans and the environment. A sustainable urban development strategy must account for the environment and how it changes with over time. In Norilsk, acidic fumes have destroyed local vegetation and dramatically increased the incidence of lung disease. This is occuring in a context where temperatures frequently drop to -30°C and life largely happens under polar darkness. Nonetheless, new residents continue to arrive, attracted by the economic opportunity and affordable housing subsidised by the mine.

Industrial pollution can be a rallying point for social movements, which are more likely to thrive in the dense social environment of a city. In Norilsk, the link between citizens and their environment is mediated by private capital and its structural relationship to state power. In 2016, under pressure from locals and Russian authorities, Norilsk agreed to phase out the use of its largest refinery. In return, the state cancelled export customs on nickel. Therefore, profit was ensured whilst making concessions to the environmental demands of residents.

This is a potential harbinger of future conflicts elsewhere, when urban infrastructures such as coal power plants come under pressure from climate policy. Stranded assets i.e. those rendered obselete or less profitable by environmental regulation, will impose costs on powerful economic actors. Where incumbants have close links with the state, they can use tax revenues and employment as bargaining chips in a contest over sustainability.

In the far North, Norilsk Nickel is able to leverage its economic importance, to secure favourable state decisions. At the municipal level, it wields power as the primary employer and economic actor. Therefore, any development plan which conflicts with the goals of the company, is dismissed as unrealistic. Even when environmental demands do emerge, these are managed within a framework that ensures continued profitable extraction of metals. Undermined by insatiable demand for the resources lying under the city, urban sustainability goals are countered and subsumed by the goals of private capital.

Highest and Best Use in Uishua (55°S)

Ushuaia is the world’s most southern city, sitting on the former indigenous homelands of Tierra del Fuego. The arrival of European missionaries in 1870, combining violent land seizures with foreign diseases, sparked a rapid population decline. By 1902, very few non-Europeans were left alive, and the British state established a naval base. Now, following sustained investment in the port, Ushuaia provide a logistical support centre for Antarctic expeditions. In a typical year, 90% of polar tourism passes through its port.

Latitude is not a sufficient condition to attract visitors: locational advantage is only realised through a complex assemblage of agents, contingencies and technologies. Tax incentives, combined with the growth of polar tourism, created an economic boom. The vision of Ushuaia as a prosperous ‘gateway city’ is articulated, sustained and defended by private capital. Financial resources flow from Antarctic expeditions, primarily delivered via cruise ships. These journeys use climate-ravaging quantities of fossil fuels to offer tourist experiences in a rapidly melting environment.

The powerful tourist industry strives to keep the gaze of affluent visitors pointing towards the South Pole, rather than the contested development within the city. 14% of Uishua lives in illegal settlements, clustered in the mountainous landscape above. The same terrain would offer pristine views to tourists, if existing housing was replaced by luxury hotels. Therefore, developers have suggested settlements are ‘visual pollution’, endangering the continued ability of Ushuaia to attract tourists. They also allege environmental damage, criticising the deforestation linked to housing construction and the disposal of sewage. Activists from the communities highlight their proactive efforts build in an environmentally sustainable way, despite the refusal of the state to support construction, legalise land claims or extend infrastructure to their neighbourhoods.

Residents have created their own plans, demanding an opportunity to bring the land they live on under community ownership. However, the developer's vision of Ushuaia is contingent on making room for future unsustainable development. On the periphery of the land market, potential exchange value represents vulnerability. As this conflict plays out, mountainous neighbourhoods above the 'gateway city', continue to welcome newcomers to create lives outside the tourist industry and formal housing market.

If planning is limited to being a process by which cities seek capital, and capital seeks land, Ushuaia will remain dependent on carbon intensive travel modalities. The alternative, whilst offering less immediate financial return, would represent a new way of thinking about how land can be used to create 'World-Class' cities at the end of the world.

Polarised Lessons

In order to achieve sustainable urbanism, city leaders must ensure that resource flows benefit the public. This approach is harder than simply creating the ideal conditions for investment. For decades, local authorities at polar extremes have maximised the exploitation of natural resources, and allowed the consilidation of industries with a high social and environmental cost. The result have been dire. In the North, a poisoned city-factory has grown despite residents having a life expectancy is 10 years shorter than the rest of Russia. In the South, locals battle to stay in a city, whilst it launches wealthy outsiders to a melting icecap.

In Norilsk, a mining company enjoys significant political power in a city created ex nihilo to extract metals. It exemplifies how dominant industrial actors can also shape development trajectories, fusing the cities goals with its business ambitions. Private capital expands by keeping extractive facilities open, feeding into lucrative global supply chains. It also profits when the state responds to public health concerns, securing reduced taxation in return for reduced pollution. When the overarching purpose of the city is to extract resources, there is little discursive space left for projects that advance genuine sustainability.

Ushuaia’s journey, from indigenous land to tourist hub, charts the power of investors to frame certain economic activities as unassailable public goods. The political influence of developers ensures that plans must be congruent with attracting large numbers of tourists, if they are to be taken seriously. Local elites claim short-term accommodation is the highest and best use of elevated terrain. Meanwhile, existing communities seek to articulate the use value of their homes. Entrepreneurs have capitalised on the mobility of affluent tourists, shaping narratives about Ushuaia being a world-class ‘gateway city’. This desired future does not include the less mobile locals, fighting to stay put in their informal neighbourhoods. Both polar extremes highlight how private capital can shape the terms of debate, defining what sustainability issues are addressed, and limiting ‘solutions’ to those which guarantee continued growth. This attracts more private capital, accelerating the exploitation of natural assets. By optimising for investment, rather than the goals of a sustainable urbanism, cities allow their development trajectories to be overdetermined by the anxieties of investors. Norilsk and Ushuaia are small and unusual cities, but they are not irreducable special cases. The patterns emerging at opposite ends of the earth are worth examining, for any city seeking a practical pathway to a sustainable future.

Book Recommendations

Planet of Slums by Mike Davis (2007)

Probably overdramatic, very readable, rightly famous.

Extreme Cities by Ashley Dawson (2017)

Everyone agrees that climate change is Bad Thing, but it can feel distant. Setting out the feedback loops built into urban development, this book makes it very clear that climate change is also a Close Thing.

Mobility Justice by Mimi Sheller (2018)

Dizzying, in a good way. When movement comes into the foreground, cities look very different. Questions who can move and who is stuck, along with the speed of materials from the cellular level to space travel.

Climate Leviathan by Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright (2018)

A challenging but arresting political theory from a Marxist perspective. They sketch out a few bleak pictures of the future (Climate Leviathan, Climate Mao, Climate Behemoth, and Climate X) and leave very little room for optimism. You could also read this essay and get the gist.


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