INTRODUCTION TO NORTHERN EXPERIMENTS

From company towns to fishing towns, international cities to closed cities, military towns to sami settlements, confined border towns and merging towns, historical cities and commissioned cities, from infrastructure nodes to deserted towns, Soviet cities to reconstructed cities, the Barents Region’s urban portfolio is as complex and filled with contrasts as it is geographically dispersed. Add arctic climate, tough winters, and seasonal darkness, and you have a region of extreme urbanity.

The increased activity in the region has already begun to change the content and fabric of this urban catalogue. New maps of the region are drawn where places emerge as key points, and new networks both physical and non-physical crystallize in the landscape. Being a political construct, the region has till now been dominated by nations co-existing with few and inadequate connections between them. Now, regional projects surface. International solutions and increased co-operation are intensified. This makes it, in spite of internal differences, material to investigate this common regional space and how the cities and towns in it function, and understand the driving forces of these places and the key issues of the urban development in the region.

Regional key issues of urbanity
Natural resources have been the foundation for the Barents region and will continue to be, increasingly and in new forms as the global energy companies look north for new sources. Consequently the Barents region will continue to balance between industry and post industry. And since so much is based on the notion that the world will continue to need oil and gas in the future, the fundament of much of the regional development will be questioned, and increasingly so as global crisis create fundamental discussions on our world systems. The danger of being out dated glooms over much of the region, but the Barents resource pool is more than fossil fuel.

At the same time an urban experiment is unfolding in the Russian cities. Russia, the dominant state in the region, both in terms of population and land area, has in the recent 15 years undergone dramatic changes as it has acquired concepts of private property, capitalism and democracy. This grand modernization occurs in a post soviet urban landscape, breeding new and unique urban phenomena and challenges.

The interests of the Barents states, Norway, Russia, Sweden and Finland are beginning to overlap, and the physical impacts of these geopolitical meetings will find their shape in the region. New international treaties open for interaction between states on a local level and new spatial systems are deriving from regional readings across borders. A transnational region? Maybe not yet, but with new transnational infrastructure, a cross border job market, and open borders a region in the full meaning of the word can materialize.

Even if some cities in the Barents region functions as regional centres, some with more than 300 thousand inhabitants, what they all share is a peripheral location in regards to their respective national centres. This relationship, however with exceptions, is dominated by a constant flux of people going south, taking a toll on the already sparse northern population. At the same time the periphery is possibly a major asset, a space outside the centres and outside the rules. Such a no consensus driven space can incubate new endeavours in many areas of society. And that could very well be what the world also needs of the Barents region.

Space for unprecedented experiments

The continued regional development involves meetings and fusions amongst an array of cultures and styles, between history and modernization, between civilization and nature, between east and west, between nations looking for resources and towns and cities hoping to get a share, all staged in a vast landscape with widespread urban nodes. The question is how these encounters will play out.

Historically the region has been a space for experiments. Great acts of society, ideology and industry, some more successful than others, have made the North what it is today. The energy unleashed and the attention the Barents region now receives, can either go down as a wasted opportunity, as reflexes of the establishment, or it can be transformed into a new regional model. Then the North will not only continue to be a place for unprecedented experiments, but find a contemporary, responsible and intelligent role in the world. We hope Northern Experiments – The Barents Urban Survey 2009 can be contribution to start finding that role.