When I tell people in Alaska I want to work in urban design, I sometimes get a funny look that says — if it’s not spoken out loud — “What are you doing here, then?”
That’s the question I’m here to answer for you today.
First, a quick explanation. Urban design is the process of shaping the physical form of cities and towns. I like to describe it as a middle ground between architecture (at the scale of individual buildings) and urban planning (at the scale of the entire city): urban design considers how buildings, streets and public spaces work together in 3-D space to create urban environments. In particular, I’m interested in how the form of a city, town or village nourishes community.
And in fact, working in radio in rural Alaska has taught me a great deal about what might seem like a discipline exclusive to cities.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned or come to appreciate more fully:
- “Urban” doesn’t just mean “in a city.” In several regards, Nome is actually pretty urban. Its center is compact and walkable, with the post office, court, city and state offices, movie theater, grocery store, coffee shop, restaurants and bars within a five-to-ten-minute walking radius. That’s stellar by the standards of American sprawl, in which the vast majority of the “urban” landscape requires a car to get anywhere. (It’s also interesting to look at Nome’s grid plan in contrast to other rural hubs like Bethel, which has an organic, sinuous street network; Nome was not a settlement in the exact place it is now before gold miners came bringing the Anglo-American street grid.)
- Nome also has a pleasant main street (Front Street) and square that are both well-defined by the enfronting buildings, creating the feeling of an “outdoor room” that’s critical to pedestrian comfort and active street life. Nome isn’t “bustling,” but it’s certainly not dead. Kids play football on the square in the summer, and Front Street offers some good people-watching and -encountering even on a 20-below January afternoon.
- The fairly sharp border between town and tundra in Nome makes for exceptional natural and civic beauty. There’s not a dribble of fast-food-and-big-box-store-splattered sprawl muddying the distinction between built and natural environments, so it’s possible to whip out the cross-country skis and be flying across open tundra in ten minutes. The clear demarcation also gives the town itself a sense of centeredness — rugged buildings gathered around the prominent steeple of Old St. Joe’s — and gives its inhabitants a more tangible feeling of dwelling within the wider landscape.
- The lack of roads in rural Alaska, and the pinprick character of rural communities dotting the vast landscape, actually makes the connection between them stronger. There is a hierarchy of hubs and spokes that gives centripetal force to the social and economic bonds within and between them. Nome is the hub of some twenty Seward Peninsula, Norton Sound, and St. Lawrence Island communities, while Anchorage is the hub of the half-dozen or so rural hubs. It’s so common to fly to Anchorage for medical care, groceries, high-school sports, etc. that the rural hubs feel closer to the big(-ish) city than their thousand-mile-or-more separation might indicate.
- In conjunction with the small population of Alaska (less than half the population of Manhattan) and its remoteness from the rest of the U.S., that centripetal force means there’s a strong sense of community across the state. It’s rare not to see someone you know when passing through Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. And wherever in the 663,300 square miles of the Great Land you’re from, everyone is doing this Alaska thing together.
- Snow adds much to the urban experience. Especially in a place with few trees, the ubiquitous natural blanket of snow softens the human-made environment, as water does in the hard urban landscape of Venice. The berms that build up also narrow the streets, defining them, making them more human-scaled for the pedestrian. And the white snow reflects sunlight — very helpful in polar latitudes!
- I really miss trees. And will never take their presence on a good city street for granted again.
- Sound also has a profound effect on the urban experience. Working in an audio-centric job has made me more sensitive to that. The noise of car traffic can undermine even the most visually stunning urban space. Likewise, the chirp of a bird as you walk down the street — rare in an Alaskan winter — can make your day.
- The prevalence of subsistence activity and the high cost of shipping fuel, building materials, etc. in rural Alaska has expanded my perspective on the systems of resources and energy that support human settlements. The effects of climate change on marine and land ecosystems that Alaska Native peoples depend on for sustenance are of utmost concern in rural Alaska. It’s a clear example of the fragile global ecosystem we all depend on, from the smallest Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages to the metropolitan centers of the East Coast, however separate from nature cities may seem. Western culture and city-building, so concerned with “growth” and “efficiency,” has much to learn from indigenous life ways, which discourage wastefulness and encourage a deep spiritual connection with the land.
- Ours is a stunningly beautiful world. The best urban design is attentive to that, taking cues from the geology, topography and ecology of a place, not bulldozing over it with a one-size-fits-all model.
- The “Alaska as untouched wilderness” cliché is simply false, a stubborn holdover from the Romantic 19th-century perspective of white imperialists, who saw nature as a commodity from which to turn a profit. No, this land has been touched for thousands of years, by a strong, vibrant people — but it’s been a light touch.
- The sharp, oblique winter sunlight on buildings, and the warm glow of windows in the blue light of dusk, are lovely wherever in the world you go.
So despite being counter-intuitive at first glance, living in rural Alaska has been an exceptional and, I think, essential part of my urban design education.
My advice: When you think you want to learn about A, go try living in/doing/enjoying Z for a while. As a refrain in a particular KNOM spot series goes, “You never know what you can do until you try.”
Image at top: Nome’s compact urban design sets it apart from the surrounding landscape in a much clearer way than the suburban sprawl of many American cities. (Photo: Laura Davis Collins, KNOM.)