How does the built environment affect our experience of the climate crisis – and vice-versa?
Artica Svalbard is NAARCA’s Norwegian partner. It’s located on the Svalbard archipelago, in Longyearbyen – one of the world’s most northerly towns. Here, the climate crisis is impossible to ignore.
In this episode, Charlotte Hetherington, director of Artica Svalbard, introduces us to Longyearbyen, and to our two contributors: architect Ingvild Sæbu Vatn and anthropologist Alexandra Meyer. They explore how climate change is affecting people’s relationship to the place, why we need new approaches to "waste" buildings, and the value of engaging local people with planning the future of our towns.
Find out more:
Svalbard Social Science Initiative
Svea | post | Mine (article about LPO’s work to close down the Svea mine)
Rett Plass – Rett Form (“Right Place – Right Shape” project – in Norwegian)
Charlotte Hetherington, Director, Artica Svalbard
Ingvild Sæbu Vatn, architect, LPO arkitekter
Alexandra Meyer, anthropologist, University of Vienna
Credits: Testing Grounds is produced and edited by Katie Revell and includes original music by Loris S. Sarid and artwork by Jagoda Sadowska. With thanks to Alex Marrs and the rest of the NAARCA team.
Contact us: naarca.art/contact-us
Who we are: Art Hub Copenhagen (Denmark), Artica Svalbard (Norway), Baltic Art Center (Sweden), Cove Park (Scotland), Saari Residence (Finland), Skaftfell Art Center (Iceland) and Narsaq International Research Station (Greenland).
Thanks for listening!
00:02 Katie: I was gonna ask you what can you see out of your window? But I'm wondering if that's a good question at this point, given that...
00:10 Charlotte: Yeah. It's dark. But no, it is, because that, that shows you actually what it is really like here. So it's the 17th of November today, and we are now in full dark season. So it's just nighttime, all the time.
00:32 Various speakers: Velkommen. Tervetuloa. Välkommen. Fàilte. Bures. Velkommen.
00:38 Narration: Welcome to Testing Grounds, from the Nordic Alliance of Artists' Residencies on Climate Action. Episode 2: Artica Svalbard – climate change and the built environment.
00:58 The Nordic Alliance of Artists' Residencies on Climate Action, or NAARCA, is a network of seven artists’ residencies across the Nordic region and Scotland. They’ve come together to explore what potential artists’ residencies have to be testing grounds – testing grounds for new ways of living and working that are ecologically, socially, mentally and financially sustainable.
01:25 As we heard in episode one, artists’ residencies are uniquely suited to this task – they’re really unusual places where private life, professional life and public life are all intertwined.
01:38 I’m Katie Revell. In this series, I’m talking to people in and around the NAARCA residencies about the themes, the challenges and the questions they’re grappling with – that we’re all grappling with – in the context of the climate crisis. In this episode, we’re visiting NAARCA’s Norwegian partner, Artica Svalbard.
01:59 Charlotte: My name is Charlotte Hetherington, and I'm the director of Arctica Svalbard, which is based in Longyearbyen.
02:11 Narration: Longyearbyen is one of the world's most northerly towns. We're deep in the Arctic Circle, and around us is a dramatic landscape of mountains, a and fjords…
02:22 Charlotte: We had a powercut recently. They happen every now and again here, and the whole city was out. That's when you really, really notice how dark it is. It's completely pitch black. You can't see your hand in front of your face, and it's fascinating.
02:48 Narration: Longyearbyen started life in the early 20th century, as a small coal mining town. It’s now home to around 2,400 people, making it by far the biggest settlement on the Svalbard Archipelago.
Svalbard is part of Norway, but the Svalbard Treaty means that anyone from one of the 46 signatory countries can live and work here without a visa. In short, Longyearbyen is a pretty unusual place, for all sorts of reasons – not least, it experiences 24-hour light in summer and 24-hour darkness in winter.
03:23 Charlotte: I actually really enjoy the dark season. We have maybe three months, really, of, of dark, but then the, the light starts to come back in February and it's just the most incredible time to be here, 'cause that light is very, very hard to describe, it's so unusual. Whereas the, the summer, the light is just constant and it goes on for months, and there's no shadow. There's just nothing. It is quite disorienting.
03:54 Narration: Artica is a residency for visual artists, writers, and researchers. It was established in 2016 to bring both Norwegian and international artists to Svalbard.
04:05 Charlotte: And the idea was to bring in these different perspectives, to challenge the community, to challenge the perspective of the Arctic. So this is something that we still do today, and we work with what we call key partners to nominate the residents that come to stay with us. So we're slightly different to some of the other residencies, where we have this nomination process.
It's just myself and my colleague Lisa, who's the Residency and Studio Coordinator. We can host up to 13 people a year. And it means that we really get to spend a lot of time with the residents when they're here.
04:50 Katie: What would you say is the role that Artica plays in the community in Longyearbyen, and I guess maybe more broadly also on Svalbard?
04:58 Charlotte: I think that's something that, that drew me to the role, was thinking about the challenges of how do you engage with this remote community through culture? I think that they are one of the core pillars of our foundation, and we work very closely with the residents to discuss what they might like to do when they're here.
05:26 So it might just be something as simple as an artist talk or a film screening, it might be a workshop, it might be a walk that we host, but that's something that I find is vital, because it's about building that relationship between Artica and our community. And that's when you start to sort of drop those preconceived thoughts of what Longyearbyen is going to be.
06:01 Narration: Something else that makes Svalbard noteworthy: it's the fastest-warming place on the planet. According to some projections, by the end of this century, mid-winter temperatures will have increased by ten degrees Celsius.
06:15 Charlotte: Svalbard quite often gets used as this example of climate change. The melting glaciers is always this kind of picture that is shown when people talk about climate, and that's definitely what the artists and residents have in their minds as well, when they come here.
06:33 But then they realise very quickly that this is also just a normal place, and you start to just have a really amazing conversation with somebody and you find out about the politics here, you find out about what the climate is really like and how it's affecting us. So those engagements are very vital, and I think that's Artica's role.
06:56 This is the first time that I've ever lived outside of the UK, so it's really kind of helped me to also look at my country in a very different way. It helps you see that, that it's not just the Arctic that's being affected by this – it is global. And I think that's kind of what I hope the residents are able to see a little bit of as well when they come here is, that they're not only looking at the Arctic and understanding the perspectives that are happening here in, in the high North, but they're also then able to look back on their own home and their own community in a different way, as well.
07:42 Narration: Every other year, Artica organises an event called "Artica Listens". It’s a chance to highlight and discuss one of the key issues affecting the Arctic. In 2022, the event was hosted by the Arctic University of Norway, and the theme was Return to Nature? The Transformation of a Post-Coal Mining Landscape.
08:02 Two of the people involved in the event were Ingvild Sæbu Vatn, an architect, and Alexandra Meyer, who’s an anthropologist. They've been working together to explore the interplay between climate change, people, industrial heritage, and the built environment here in Longyearbyen. It’s a subject that many of the artists-in-residence at Artica are also drawn to. Charlotte suggested that I talk to Alex and Ingvild for this episode…
08:28 Katie: Why do you think it'll be interesting for me to talk to, to Alex and Ingvild?
08:33 Charlotte: So, Lisa and I, we sat down and we kind of had a big mood board of just all of the different key topics that we feel are discussed a lot by the residents and by the community and ourselves as well – the conversations that we have at the studio. And this kind of idea of change kept coming up, and not only the change in nature, but the changes in the community, the changes in the industry. I think that they will offer you a very unique and personal, but also professional perspective.
09:25 Alexandra: So my name is Alex or Alexandra, Alexandra Meyer. I am originally from Norway, uh, but I've been living in Austria the past, yeah, many, many years! Uh, and I'm a social anthropologist.
09:39 Narration: Alex's PhD is exploring the societal impacts of, and responses to climate change and permafrost thaw in Longyearbyen.
09:47 Alexandra: So I came up there the first time in 2018 and wasn't supposed to stay for that long, and then the pandemic happened and then I got attached personally to the place and yeah, so I've been living there more or less half of the year, for the past three years. Um, yeah, so I also consider it not only as my research case, but also as home.
10:14 Katie: And why were you personally drawn to that as your focus?
10:19 Alexandra: It's a very big hype, like, uh, climate change in general, and the Arctic is always portrayed as the hotspot. And then Longyearbyen is kind of the showcase of Arctic climate change. And then my research interests in the field have developed into encompassing also urban development and the broader socioeconomic changes that are taking place in Longyearbyen, and now recently also cultural heritage research.
10:47 Narration: As part of her research, Alex has been working with Ingvild.
10:50 Ingvild: Yeah. So my name is Ingvild Sæbu Vatn. I'm Norwegian and I'm an architect.
10:57 Narration: Together with her three colleagues, Ingvild runs the Longyearbyen office of an architectural firm called LPO. It's the world's most northerly architectural practice.
11:07 Ingvild: I came up first time to Svalbard in 2005 as a student. I kind of fell in love with the place and I had to leave my heart up here for three years before returning back up in 2011 or 2010.
11:22 Narration: Longyearbyen is a place of contradictions, or at least contrasts.
11:27 Alexandra: To me it is a place that is extremely remote in many senses. Like if you look at the map, just like from the bird eye's perspective, it's very far away, but it's also extremely well-connected to the world. Like you can hop on a plane from Oslo or from Tromsø and be there. So it's very far north, but also very close.
Then I would say it's both a small village, but it's also very urban, uh, in many ways. So it has many traits of a, of a town. There are bars and restaurants, but also the demographics – it's a very young and international population, so many traits of a city.
12:05 Ingvild: So it's a quite urban, but, but very small community in the middle of a enormous wilderness. So in a very big, huge landscape. And that's what I really love about it – it's both, yeah, of course, as an architect working in a place that has some urban qualities and that has a need of, of planners and architects, it's, it's a good thing. But I really enjoy to be this close to a wild and, and very big nature.
12:33 Alexandra: And then, uh, it's an extremely fast-changing place in many ways, both in the environment and also the social structure and the dynamics of the population and the economy, of course. Yeah, so, uh, a very dynamic place.
12:50 Narration: Longyearbyen's population has an unusually high turnover – around 25% every year. There's no welfare system, so to live here, you have to be able to support yourself. People are constantly arriving and leaving - "moving down" to the mainland.
13:07 Katie: And I'm curious to know what you think is the impact of that transience on people's relationship with the place, with the way that they interact with the town?
13:18 Alexandra: Yeah. Uh, that's a super interesting question and there's no clear-cut answer to it. I think like on a general level that the high transience, of course, impedes for many people that they get really attached to the place. So the people that are there only for a very short time, they have a different investment in the place than people who have stayed there for a long time.
13:38 And a lot of the people that I've been talking to also in the course of my research who are like in this, yeah, transience scene, often say that this transience is a super attractive aspect of the town because it's easy to make new friends and everybody is kind of new.
13:53 But then of course the downside is then, for the people that have been staying there for a long time and that see all of their social network kind of breaking apart, little after little, and that there's little continuity in the social networks. Yeah. So it has both, I think, negative and positive, uh, impact.
14:11 Katie: Mm-hmm. What would you say, Invgild, being someone who's made your home there? How would you describe your relationship to the place?
14:18 Ingvild: I don't know who I am without Svalbard now, I think. 'Cause I tried to move down after living here for a little while, and then I didn't really understand who I were. So I think part of my identity is quite linked to this place.
14:34 Of course I know that I'm going to move down at some point, but I'm taking one year at a time, as many people up here do – “I'll take another year”. And of course I've lived through some of the sorrows when my best friends and people I kind of defined this place together with – when all of us were new here, then you kind of define what kind of place Longyearbyen is – very many of them are not here anymore.
15:01 So, and I'm also kind of experiencing that people coming here now have a different view of Longyearbyen, which is kind of special. But then you’re kind of always the one who's been here for a long time and, "Oh, how many polar bears have you met?" And it's kind of hard actually to, to find a good way of getting new friends and like getting a, a community feeling after you've been here for quite a long while.
15:31 Narration: When I was looking into Alex's work, I came across something she'd said that I found really intriguing: "the built environment is the interface between environmental changes and local communities".
15:44 Katie: Can you just start by explaining what do you mean by that?
15:48 Alexandra: Yeah, so I think maybe if I could rephrase it, I would say it's one of the interfaces or one important interface, because I would argue that there are definitely others. But I think, yeah, when it comes to, to, for example, climate change in Longyearbyen, it's very visible when you look at the, at the built environment, the urban environment.
16:07 Those were the questions I went to the field with in the beginning, like asking people to what extent they see the environment changing and where they see these changes impacting. And the first and foremost thing that people were talking about that is very visible is how it impacts the built environment, and both in terms of permafrost thaw, that it impacts the foundations of the buildings, but also more these kind of dramatic natural hazards, so for example, the avalanches.
16:35 Narration: With warming temperatures and more extreme storms, the snow pack is becoming increasingly unstable. In 2015, a storm set off an avalanche that destroyed 11 houses and killed two people.
16:48 Alexandra: So I think that's kind of a one aspect where, where these changes are, yeah, very visible. And also in, like, when people talk about climate change adaptation, it's often in terms of how can we adapt the buildings and the infrastructure to the changes.
17:03 Katie: And Ingvild, could you maybe talk a bit about how climate change is manifesting in the built environment in Longyearbyen? What are some of the changes that are happening?
17:15 Ingvild: So Longyearbyen in itself is a very strange place to put a settlement. It's a very steep valley and it's opening towards the north. The whole valley was filled up with a river from two big glaciers laying just south of us.
17:31 To keep the river in place, we are going there with machines every year to make the river go in one place so that we can build on the side. So quite a lot of the centre part of town is staying on top of a river and it's actually water running through the soil underneath the buildings. And then also now with it getting warmer, we also have the very steep mountain sides.
17:55 They're starting to move because all of these are sediment soils, so it's very prone to erosion. So we get a lot of stones coming down, little by little. And of course we have the permafrost keeping it kind of in shape. But the permafrost is getting weaker and, and things are starting to move. So lots of houses in Longyearbyen had to be teared down because there were, had to give the place up for avalanche protection. Many of the areas in town, they're not safe anymore for housing. And also, of course, we know that we're not going to grow more. We'll try to transform the buildings or the, the settlement in the areas that are already built on. And we also have to make our infrastructure work better.
18:41 So then we would want to spread it as little as possible. So keep things together and keep it quite, uh, dense and that's quite a lot of work, and we know that most of our buildings, they're standing on short wooden piles that were going down into the permafrost some years ago, but within a couple of decades, there will be no permafrost where they are standing, and also the wooden piles, they're rottening. So a lot of our houses, they will have to make new foundations, but also make them warmer, like more insulated and also better weatherproofing for the new, new climate that will come.
19:23 Alexandra: And it's maybe only in the past years I think it has become stronger, these voices of the town has to adapt to the climate crisis also in, in more transformative ways of out-phasing the coal power plant and using less cars and becoming more sustainable in other ways. And I think that's also part of adapting to a changing environment.
19:47 Narration: But Longyearbyen isn't just changing in these very tangible, practical, physical ways.
19:55 Alexandra: So I think one of the main things that I learnt in Longyearbyen is that there are other changes that are also taking place, and it's not always the climate changes that are most important to people when you talk to them.
20:06 Narration: These other changes are complex, and they're profound. They speak to Longyearbyen's whole identity as a place, its understanding of itself. They're practical, but they're also cultural, mental, emotional, economic. They're changes that we're all going to experience, one way or another. But for Longyearbyen, they're particularly existential.
20:28 Ingvild: There is only one reason for a settlement to be here, and that's all the coal that we have in all the mountains around Longyearbyen. And now when the coal is about to end, like now we will probably have coal extraction in mine seven until 2025. But it was decided today that the coal plant will, uh, end, uh, its, uh, time in ‘23.
20:52 Narration: For over a hundred years, coal mining has been Svalbard's main industry, and Store Norske, a state-owned mining company, has been the main employer. Now, the last of Svalbard's coal mines is set to close, and its coal-fired power plant is also being shut down.
21:07 Ingvild: And that is a huge change for Longyearbyen, because that's our soul. And as I said, that's why the town is here really at all. So I think we really need to get a new, meaningful reason to be here.
21:24 Narration: Could that new reason – or one reason at least – could that be to act as a test bed, a proof of concept for new ways of living, of working and of designing places?
21:36 Ingvild: It would be really interesting if we could look at Longyearbyen as a place where we can try out how societies and settlements should be more sustainable in the future. If you get solutions that works here, then it could probably works in many other places. So I think that would be a very meaningful way of, of using this place in the future.
22:00 Katie: Can you maybe talk a bit about how your work ties into that, into this idea of experimenting with new ways of doing things, new ways of approaching design?
22:11 Ingvild: We started by, uh, doing the "avslutningsplan". It's a close-up plan for the Svea mine.
22:18 Narration: The Svea mine is around 60 kilometres south of Longyearbyen. It was the biggest mine operated by Store Norsk. It closed in 2015, and there's now a huge project underway to remove all traces of it – structures, equipment, roads, a power station, an airfield. The goal is for the area to eventually appear untouched. Ingvild's company, LPO, was tasked with working out how to do this.
22:46 Ingvild: So we had to make a plan for how to take the area back into nature state. And of course a part of that was tearing down over hundred buildings and installations. And they were just seen as, like, rubbish. You just have to tear them down, like crunch them and put them into big bags and ship them to the mainland.
23:10 Narration: But as well as practical and environmental concerns, it also raised question about how to deal with the meaning of these structures – meaning that extends far beyond their physical fabric.
23:21 Ingvild: Because there are so many people who have been having long periods of their lives in Svea, and some people even like grew up walking there as a child. And of course as architects we could like feel this really, sadness about that.
23:37 Alexandra: A lot of the identity of the town is still there in terms of remnants from the mining industry. So there's a lot of cultural, industrial heritage, like old mining structures, cable car towers, or ropeway towers, and the buildings that kind of distribute the coal, the ones that put them down to the harbour.
23:56 So there's a lot of these remnants of past activities kind of left in the town. And that seems to be extremely important for the town's identity. When I've asked people about what kind of town it is, like a lot of people still say that it is a mining town. And just as Ingvild said, that's the reason why Longyearbyen exists at all. And I think if we take away all of the remnants of that now when Longyearbyen has to become something else, then it loses an extremely important core of the town.
24:28 Narration: As we transition to different ways of living, and making a living, there are difficult conversations to be had about how we deal with these remnants of the past, these pieces of cultural heritage.
24:40 Alexandra: I've been talking to a lot of people about cultural heritage and if it's important and there's very broad consensus that at least part of these remnants, they should be conserved and that it is important to maintain this identity.
24:55 Ingvild: So to us, the identity that lays in that material, in those buildings, they have a different kind of value. And of course, also it has a big impact to just send all those buildings and materials down to the mainland and then produce new materials and take them up for developing town.
25:16 Narration: Ingvild and her colleagues put together an exhibition. They proposed that the buildings at Svea, instead of being seen as a problem – as waste to be disposed of – that they could, in fact, be seen as a bank of materials for new buildings.
25:30 Ingvild: So we did this project that's called, uh, Right Place, Right Shape, and that's because garbage is a resource in the wrong place and wrong shape. So we wanted to find the right place and right shape for those buildings that were actually going to be teared down. And then also we had the big project in Lia, where they were also tearing down 30 housing buildings because of building the avalanche protection. So there was a lot of houses.
25:55 And we started with trying to get action, do things very quickly and see if we could get people engaged in it and see if we could get cooperations going and, and just like do it. And of course there's a lot of things that are difficult about reuse of buildings that we have met along the way, but we're still working a lot with reuse of buildings and doing bigger and bigger projects. And now people come to us and ask us to help them with projects. That's very nice. And I actually think this is the future and I think it makes a lot of sense on Svalbard.
26:36 Narration: And not just for environmental reasons.
26:38 Alexandra: I think it is especially important in a place in Longyearbyen where the transience is so high and the place is changing so fast, it is then even more important to see, OK, what are the continuities, what are the objects that connect us to the past?
26:53 What makes it kind of meaningful for this place to be here? And in that regard, I think the material cultural heritage is extremely important. Yeah, and I was kind of surprised talking to the people how much it actually means to people. And a lot of people have opinions about this, what should be taken care of and what not, and what is OK in terms of modifications.
27:14 But also one, another thing that a lot of people agreed upon is that it shouldn't only be conserved in the kind of “museumification” way. But that wherever it's possible, like it should be put to use, and that if it's possible to kind of integrate these structures into the daily workings of the town, that it kind of makes even more sense to take care of them and maintain them.
27:38 Narration: But how should we decide what to do with these obsolete structures? And who should get a say in those decisions? As part of the Right Place, Right Shape project, Ingvild decided to carry out a needs assessment with the local community.
27:53 Ingvild: And as architects, we have done that kind of work before, but we are very good at asking questions and getting the answers that we, that we like to get, and kind of putting answers into people's mouths. So we thought that it would be interesting to see if we could do it in a, in a better way, and that was also the time when we had gotten to known SSSI.
28:17 Narration: SSSI is the Svalbard Social Science Initiative. It's a network of researchers who are studying the human dimensions of the changes happening in Svalbard. Alex is part of SSSI.
28:29 Ingvild: So we talked to them and asked them if they could help us with making the questions and then they actually got quite interested in the project and thought that maybe we could do this as a cooperation.
28:41 Alexandra: And I think you had already identified some actors that you would think would be interested in talking to. And then it became kind of clear, OK, we could also take it like one step further and not only ask people that we know have a kind of a stake in using used buildings, to make it kind of a more broader segment of the town. And then we also opened the questions to be not just about which spaces do people need and how could that be matched to, to maybe, uh, buildings that can be reused to, yeah, bit broader questions like how do people use the town? What would they like to see develop? So it kind of started, I think from a very concrete task and then it became a much broader project. And yeah, it was very much fun to work on that.
29:31 Ingvild: And so in the focus groups, we were both working with very like practical things like maps, where they could draw which part of town they liked, and where they saw problematic places and where they saw a potential. And also ask these a bit bigger questions. And it was very interesting, because we could see a very clear link between the physical shape of town and buildings, and of course also outdoor spaces and which areas people thought were nice and how they felt about town.
30:05 Alexandra: And I think also for us social scientists, it was very interesting because we also started out, yeah, as Ingvild’s just said, like with these very concrete questions, and then without us really asking about it, often the conversations developed into being about the social structure of town and questions about, uh, social inequality, participation, integration, diversity, transience, so all these very like social science topics kind of came up in talking about the physical structure and I think that that was super interesting. So this also kind of, once again, made clear that there is a clear link between these two aspects.
30:44 Katie: And why do you guys feel that that sort of process is important? Why does it matter that the people living in Longyearbyen are involved with planning what happens to the town and the region? And I guess especially in the context of the climate crisis, why, why does that matter?
31:05 Alexandra: I think it matters on many levels. Like on a, just a very principle level, I think it's a democratic right that people are allowed to have a say in the environments they inhabit. The towns and the spaces that we inhabit define our lives in so many ways. So it's only fair that people should have a say in this. And also what was very clear in the focus groups is that the wellbeing in a place like Longyearbyen is extremely dependent on the built environment.
31:34 And I think, like I wasn't so aware of that before, but like in this extreme climate where it's very cold and people are locked inside, small things, like for example building a shelter against the wind can have so much to say for, for people's wellbeing and, and wanting to stay in the town and use the town. So I think if you want to have a kind of a livable city where people have a good life, then you need to think about how to design that city or that town. And then you also need to incorporate the voices of the people that are living there.
32:05 Katie: Absolutely. I can relate that to somewhere like Glasgow, where it rains most of the time and just having more covered outdoor space would make a huge difference. Just not having to rely on the couple of hours of dry weather that you might get in a day. So I think those kind of lessons, again, are applicable in lots of different contexts.
32:40 Ingvild: Sometimes it feels like the people who live here doesn't have much to say, really. That kind of the most important thing for Norway and also like on an international level, is to do the bigger decisions, and they're done over our heads and without us being able to say anything.
33:00 So I think that it's, uh, very important, the focus groups that we did, and that you actually, when you do all these big changes in town, maybe it's just sometimes small things that you can do that can really make it so much better for the people who actually work here. And I think those kind of things, they will come out from a dialogue and from recognition of the people who are actually living in the landscape.
33:26 Alexandra: And I think this ties back to what we were talking about earlier, like when you were talking about the impact of the transience. And it seems like with all these uh, yeah, policy changes that are coming now and also how the Norwegian state is kind of, which direction it is leading Longyearbyen in, that, uh, there's no political will to foster place attachment. But when you talk to people, that is something a lot of people actually want. And I think that's a big problem in how Longyearbyen is governed.
33:56 Ingvild: And right now, I feel they're like looking at us that live in Longyearbyen as visitors. I feel like we're not given the right of connection with the landscape and with the nature that we live in. We are something alien to the landscape – which is, uh, which is, uh, quite upsetting.
34:16 Alexandra: Hmm. I mean, this project is just a small drop in the sea, but I think what made it also for people so engaging to participate was that they felt, OK, this is maybe a channel where you can have a little bit of say in how to shape the place that you live in.
34:31 Katie: Is the Right Place, Right Shape project ongoing?
34:34 Ingvild: The meaning of it and the vision of the Right Place, Right Shape is living on. And we're also trying to take the knowledge that we got in the focus groups and from like seeing the different views of the city into what we are working with every day. So one project that we are working on now that I think that the focus groups people would be happy about is the old garbage facility.
35:02 We have a big old building where we'll, uh, now turn it into workshops and creative workplaces so that we can have this new place where you can repair your equipments or your clothes and you can use the workshop for, for making things out of reuse and try and make this new place where you don't have to be a member, you don't have to pay a lot. You can come there and meet people or just hang there inside in a warm space. So I think that's a good result out of what we did.
35:48 Katie: What lessons do you guys think Longyearbyen, and maybe Svalbard more generally, has for the rest of us in the context of the climate crisis? And maybe particularly with regard to the kinds of things you've been talking about – so, relationship between people and place, design of the built environment?
36:10 Alexandra: Do you wanna start, or?
36:13 Ingvild: Ah, it's a difficult question. I'm not quite sure that it's, uh, so much yet, but I think maybe it's, it's the potential of using it as a place where we can learn is much bigger than what, what we can refer to today.
36:30 Alexandra: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I agree. And I think it's often that the politicians like to talk about this, like Longyearbyen as a showcase for the world, but it's often like these big words. And then when you look at it, there's not so much happening, as you say yet, and I think Longyearbyen often tries to kind of sell itself as this. But if you look behind the big words, there's not much being done yet. And I think like these recycling projects are kind of pulling in that direction.
36:55 But it's not so much like these bigger strategies from the state. And I mean, now with the energy transition, I think this will be an interesting case to see what actually comes out of it. Because like if they really manage to transition over to really sustainable source of energy use, I think then it would truly become a showcase.
37:15 Uh, but as it looks now, like it's, it's a bit uncertain if that will actually happen. And, and locally it's often actually seen more as a, as a challenge or as something that is maybe unnecessary to close down the coal power plant before actually having a good solution. So that's also something that I think is often sold as something else than it is when you look at it locally.
37:38 Katie: Is there anything you have learnt that you think might be relevant to other places in terms of involving local people with decisions about what happens in a place – again, specifically in the context of the response to climate change? The resistance to the changes that are happening would seem, as I think you're saying, to suggest that the consultation or the, the dialogue hasn't happened.
38:05 Alexandra: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. And I think that's maybe also one of the reasons why it was quite easy to get people involved. People often feel that they don't really have much to say in these decisions. And when there are channels that are being offered where people can have a say, then, uh, I think that's what people want.
38:22 But I, I mean, maybe the, the challenge with our project was that it was, uh, kind of a bottom-up initiative. So we couldn't guarantee our participants that, uh, what they were suggesting would affect decision-making in any way. And I think that's a bit like what we are kind of interested in seeing now. We made this project and we presented it and we kind of gave it out freely for people to use.
38:45 But then what people are actually picking up and what is being done with this is a different question. And if it's being implemented in concrete projects like the Phoenix project that, um, Ingvild was talking about with the waste facility, then that's great. And I think that's like a more direct way of making these findings kind of influence the processes that are shaping the town.
39:07 We did our best to inform the politicians and also the planners about the, the findings, and they have showed great interest in it, but to what extent they then actually use the findings when they are sitting down and making the plans, that kind of remains to be seen.
39:20 Ingvild: I think what's kind of happening now that I don't like, really, is that everybody wants to do the right thing now, and everybody wants to say that they're actually having a lot of participation in their processes, but it's, it's more talk about participation than actually doing it and actually like making it change the projects or the, the way of working.
39:43 Alexandra: Mm. Yeah. And I think also the, the project really showed that people are interested in talking about these things, and if you give them a channel, they will participate. Creating these channels for more direct participation is extremely important.
39:57 Ingvild: Yeah, and I think maybe also the Phoenix project actually, even though you, of course you want like change to policies or the politics, but just to have a possibility of going somewhere and make a change or make something – even just like repair your own clothes – at least like being able to do something that you really feel is meaningful, at least that we can do locally.
40:20 Katie: And I think that can be really powerful. And I think also, you know, it's about making participation appealing as well – finding ways to do it creatively, which it sounds like is something you did with the way you went about the mapping process, that it was actually something people felt excited about being involved with. So, yeah. More creativity and more collaboration I think as well.
40:48 Alexandra: Yeah, and I think what we also saw in this project, it's kind of, you don't need like these big town hall meetings where everything is streamed and you have a stage – like that, that way you kind of scare away people and then you will get the same voices over and over again. So to kind of do it very low key, over a coffee in a small room, face-to-face, then you reach a much broader segment of the population.
41:22 Katie: Another question I was gonna ask, and it is a big question, is how do you see the future of Longyearbyen? And we can maybe break that down into two questions, one of which would be: if you think about your hopes and your dreams for the place, what are those? What are you excited about? And then the second bit is maybe what are your fears? What are your anxieties?
41:49 Alexandra: I can maybe start out with, not like my personal opinion, but a bit what came out in the focus groups, and there I think it was quite interesting that, I mean, there's like this clear kind of narrative about Longyearbyen becoming like this showcase for, for sustainability and uh, for green solutions and for climate adaptation and that a lot of people are kind of clinging to this hope that this is a place where this is possible and this is often also portrayed in the policies about Longyearbyen.
42:20 But then, like in the focus groups, it was quite interesting that especially the veterans or people that have been living there for a long time, that they had a bit more gloomy kind of view on not just the future of Longyearbyen, but also like the development that has taken place until now.
42:36 And I think maybe that's true in any place where you go and ask people that have been there for a long time, like everything was better before. But I think in these focus groups, it was quite interesting to see that there was much more, um, pessimistic, uh, pictures drawn in from the people that had been there for a long time.
42:55 Katie: And what sorts of things were people afraid of?
42:58 Alexandra: So there was a lot of talk about like growing inequalities, because those people have been living, like through the time when Longyearbyen was a more like tight-knit community, where there was one stable industry, there was an employer that was guaranteeing that people would have work, and uh, there was no closing down of the industry in the foreseeable future.
43:22 People were more stable. There was less transience. And also the community was more homogenic, so it was more Norwegian. Now it's kind of gone through this transition where everything becomes uncertain and the industry is closing down. What, what is gonna be the, the core of the community or the reason to be there in the future is very unclear now.
43:45 And on top of that, like just in the last years, it's become also very, I think, very visible that big politics are kind of overruling everything. So it's more about what the state wants with Longyearbyen than what the people living there actually want. So it's, it's kind of disintegrating on many levels and that doesn't make it very, uh, easy to think optimistically about the future, I think.
44:11 Katie: Yeah. Ingvild, what would you say?
44:14 Ingvild: Yeah, I'm kind of, yeah, I'm mixed too between, uh, dreams and the feeling of some things that are going better, and then also maybe fears and things that I see maybe can only get a bit worse. For the good things, I think the local tourism is doing a really important job to see how they can be better and more sustainable and have better life for their guides. So I think there is a lot of good things that are happening both within tourism, but also within science and education, they're trying to look more into how they are working, to see how they can do it in a more sustainable way and in a good way. So I think that's a good thing.
44:54 On the negative side, I see that people who have been here for a quite long time, longer than me, many of them have now moved down to the mainland again. That's, uh, kind of scary, of course. It will change the culture and the, the place much more than I think we are aware of.
45:18 Right now, I feel like everything is kind of boiling here. But maybe in a while it will cool down and we can be here a bit more calm and by ourselves and try and do things just a bit better and, and live in this special place. That's, that's maybe my hope.
45:45 Alexandra: I was maybe very pessimistic in what I said, but I think there's a lot of good forces in Longyearbyen. Like there are a lot of also often like small initiatives, like the projects from LPO, or people running like a bike workshop or, or communal cleanups of the beach. Like there's a lot of good things happening on a very small scale and, yeah, it's important not to overlook those as well because that's what actually makes up the life locally.
46:14 Ingvild: There are a lot of people coming from all over the world with these new thoughts in their head, new visions of how they can interact with this nature or in this place, or with the people who are already here. So there are so many, yeah, as Alex said, good initiatives that I think if we can let them grow and not only push them down because they're not Norwegian or because they're not the right people or they're not working at the right place or something like that, then I think that it could grow into a really nice place.
46:52 Katie: If you imagine that you're walking around Longyearbyen in 30 years' time, what do you see around you?
47:02 Alexandra: I think like the physical landscape will definitely have changed. Glaciers that I see at the end of the valley will be smaller, if not gone. The hillsides will look different. Probably a lot of what is now defining the town like in terms of cultural heritage, like old mining structures, I think a lot of those that are now in the hillside will be fallen down or just not there anymore at all. And then maybe down in the valley, some of them will have been maintained, but certainly much less than, than what we see today. The big cruise ships will probably not be at the harbour, but there will maybe be smaller ships.
47:43 Yeah. And then I, like if we think about climate change, then I think, uh, if you look under the houses, they will have gotten new foundations and will look different from below. And then, uh, um, I think like even if the Norwegian government is now making quite explicit efforts of reducing the share of non-Norwegian inhabitants in Longyearbyen, I think, uh, because of the Svalbard Treaty that grants people access without a visa, I think walking around in Longyearbyen, you will probably still hear a lot of different languages, and not only Norwegian.
48:20 Ingvild: Yeah. I also think many of the stayers will be the international citizens that we have. I think many of the people who move here will also want to stay for a longer time in the future. As long as we don't make rules for them not being able to stay for a longer time, I think that some people will just, yeah, end up leaving their heart here as I did and, and come back up.
48:49 Narration: To find out more about Artica Svalbard, visit articasvalbard.no. And take a look at the episode notes for more information about Alex’s and Ingvild’s work. In the next episode, join me for a visit to NAARCA’s Icelandic partner, Skaftfell Art Center, where I’ll be meeting artist Jessica Auer and Pari Stave, the director of Skaftfell. We’ll be exploring ways that arts organisations and artists can be more environmentally and culturally sustainable – for example, when it comes to commissioning, creating and exhibiting art, hosting artists, and being hosted as an artist.
49:30 Thank you for listening to this episode of Testing Grounds, from the Nordic Alliance of Artists' Residencies on Climate Action. Subscribe to hear the rest of the series, and find out more about the project at naarca.art. If you enjoy the podcast, please tell your colleagues and friends, and leave us a review – it really does help us to reach new people.
49:51 Alexandra: Just one thing, maybe to add, uh, maybe you can just say that we say thank you to all the people who did participate in the project because that's really important for these projects that people actually want to participate and talk. So a huge shout out to everyone who did participate in this focus group project and for sharing, yeah, your perspectives and voices and opinions, and we really hope that that will live long and have some impacts on the community.
50:21 Narration: This episode featured Charlotte Hetherington, Alexandra Meyer, and Invgild Sæbu Vatn. It was produced by me, Katie Revell. Our series music is by Loris S Sarid, and our artwork is by Jagoda Sadowska. Thanks also to Alex Marrs, Alexia Holt, Leena Kela, Jacob Fabricius, Rose Tytgat, Helena Selder, Lise Autogena, Iben Mosbæk and Julia Martin.
50:48 The members of NAARCA are Cove Park in Scotland, Saari Residence in Finland, Skaftfell Art Center in Iceland, Art Hub Copenhagen in Denmark, Baltic Art Center in Sweden, Narsaq International Research Station in Greenland, and Artica Svalbard, in Norway. NAARCA’s initial three-year programme is generously supported by Kone Foundation and Nordic Culture Fund.