The Alberta government has announced that it needs a new town, 100 km north of Fort MacMurray, closer to the oil sands. We expect that this will be the occasion for a giant, limited competition some time in the future, however, we want to outline the background and all the players in the oil sands to consider what it means to live near an enormous, toxic, industrial site that is so controversial that not only can it be seen from space, but it can be seen from both Europe and Washington.
In Canada, primary resource extraction tends to be remote, and accommodation is in camps. Memorably, on one of the camp websites it says that few amenities are provided because it means less absenteeism. If there is nothing to do at 'home' you might as well go into work.
Meanwhile, there are grave ecosystem problems: migrating ducks in the tailings ponds, an over-representation of obscure cancers in Fort Chipeweyan downstream from the tar sands.
Adjacent First Nations are in control of land that could be developed as oil extraction sites, so their interest in their own health has to be put beside their interest in revenue. Given that many northern First Nation reserves might be called Canada's extremely impoverished third world, this is an issue.
On one hand the US government finds the oil sands environmentally abhorrent, on the other, it is a source of safe energy without the complications of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela or the complicated energy politics of OPEC.
We can foresee many solutions that drop a little new urbanism new town into the spruce tree blanket of northern Alberta, but remember, the fellows who will be living in it left their hearts and their families in Newfoundland, or in Venezuela, or in Churchill. Fort MacMurray has a small permanent population, mostly engaged in administration or the service industry, and which boosts Fort Mac as a great place to live, raise a family, etc, etc. however the hostels and the camps are little different in theory than the hostels and camps of South African or Chinese mines. Drug trafficking and all that attends it is a major problem. Mining is a desperate venture, whether surface or underground.
What kind of town do we need to support such industrial ventures?
We want to flood Alberta with ideas: new ideas, challenging ideas, intelligent ideas. We sense that there is a paucity of urban thinking about topics which are socially, economically, infrastructurally and environmentally problematic. Whatever one thinks about the oil sands, they are not going to go away. We want to turn our intelligence, as designers, to this vastly complex project. And, to disseminate our ideas so widely that they become part of the working vocabulary of oil sands urban development.
Three immediate solutions propose themselves
1 Dubai will be built in northern Alberta, we should sign up Zaha now.
2 the status quo will be maintained: work camps and a transient workforce.
3 some kind of 21st century ecology will develop. What will this be?
for additional commentary, see comments to this post.