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Community Development and Design in the North

Technical Series 94-213

Key Messages

  • Siting of new communities must take into account the effects of wind (both winter and summer), blowing and drifting snow, access to sunlight and the effect of topography.
  • A variety of building form is recommended: some multi-residential units, some clustered housing and some dispersed single units.
  • Traditionally, community services such as retail stores and schools have been located at the centre. Some now suggest that the workplace should form the focal point of the community.
  • The community layout should allow space for infill with other uses at a later date, rather than dispersal of uses to the periphery of the community.
  • Transition zones between public and private realms, such as porches, doorsteps and courtyards, are important.
  • Plans should accommodate all types of transportation: by foot, snowshoe, ski, snowmobile, vehicle and aircraft.


Siting, design, and planning of northern and remote communities must take into consideration the climate and landscape, the requirements for buildings and spaces, and the often unique requirements for spaces and pathways between structures. The quality of life in a community depends especially on the quality of housing and of community facilities and services provided.

Siting and Design

Siting of a community and its structures is a major factor in contributing to its economic and social well-being. Good siting can reduce costs of construction for buildings and roads, reduce costs of installation and maintenance of utilities and services, and reduce the amount of energy consumed. Proper grouping of buildings can create a protected microclimate within the community by buffering dwellings from winds and controlling snow accumulation.


Wind has both desirable and undesirable characteristics. It can clear snow in winter and provide cooling in the summer; it can also cause snow drifting and chilling drafts. High winds can cause damage to structures and facilities at any time of year. Site location and community design should try to incorporate the advantageous aspects while reducing the negative influences of the wind. The control of airflow can be manipulated through wind barriers, building shape, building layout, and the landscape and vegetation surrounding the community.


Like wind, snow has its advantages and disadvantages. It can provide an insulating cover for earth or buildings, or it can penetrate building envelopes where it can melt and cause damage. Snow drifting is the major concern in the North as precipitation levels are usually quite low. Snow drifts are formed by wind patterns and are affected by building shape, height, and orientation. Snow drifting can be reduced by using surrounding landscape and vegetation to help control wind direction and patterns. Windscoops can be used to keep snow away from large objects. Fences can be used to control snow drifting. The basic principle is either to channel or deflect the wind, or to create a wind barrier that will cause snow to deposit at the fence line or obstruction line.


To optimize solar gain, buildings should be sited on south-facing slopes with windows located on the south facade. Because the sun is at a low angle for much of the year, buildings should be sited to take advantage of the sunlight and to avoid undesirable shading from adjacent structures. Overheating in the long summer days can be a problem that needs consideration.


Valleys should be avoided since the cold night air accumulates in low places. Slope stabilization, to reduce erosion and possible undermining of foundations, is hindered in the North by the slow growth of vegetation. A blanket of granular, free-draining material, such as gravel, can be used to stabilize a slope. Because of potentially large quantities of surface and subsurface runoff, natural drainage channels and subsurface flow should be carefully considered during siting. Drainage systems may be complicated by ice formation in the drainage channels, causing the channel to shift downhill to undesirable locations.

Town Layouts

Towns in northern areas can be classified according to layout. The buildings are planned in one of the following ways:

  • contained, climate-controlled structures;
  • dispersed structures; or
  • both dispersed and contained structures.

A single structure which contains all the town's activities can produce the highest density. However, complete containment can present difficult or impossible design problems. The distinction between the private, public and transition zones is hard to maintain. Also, complete separation from the outdoor environment is not recommended. Although the weather can be harsh, the environment can also be beautiful and is one of the reasons that northerners choose to live there. A complete break between indoor daily activities and the wilderness outside can be physically unhealthy as well as psychologically debilitating.

In southern communities, where the structures are dispersed, the open spaces between houses were originally provided to reduce disturbance from sound transmission, prevent spread of fire, and provide greater privacy. Today, however, lower density means higher land and servicing costs per dwelling. Privacy, noise, insulation and fire safety can be ensured by the use of appropriate materials and construction techniques.

Combined containment and dispersal is one way of satisfying all of the design requirements of a community. Some dwellings are located in the same structure, some are tightly grouped nearby, others are dispersed but are still within the protection of the community facilities structure, which may be designed to act as a wind and snow screen. Another way to combine containment with dispersal is by clustering parts of the community in tight, clearly defined groups, then dispersing these groups within the natural setting. For example, in the development for Pickel Lake, a mining town in northern Ontario, the firm of Diamond & Myers proposed that to expand the town, housing be clustered in tight groups. This was intended to preserve the existing character and amenities of the town and surrounding land, to create useful space between the clusters and to give character and identity to the housing groups. A comparison of a standard suburban layout and a clustered scheme containing the same number of dwellings and community facilities is from the Pickel Lake plan (Figure 1).

Comparison of Standard Suburban and Cluster Layout with Same Number of Dwellings
FIGURE 1. Comparison of Standard Suburban and Cluster Layout with Same Number of Dwellings Enlarged Image

Function of the Centre

Common practice in traditional community planning is to put activities such as shopping, institutions, entertainment, services and administration at the centre of the community, then dwellings, then industry. According to Ralph Erskine, an architect involved in many town planning and design projects in northern Sweden and Canada, the workplace in northern communities should be at centre stage, the lights of industry having a cheering effect in the darkness of the Arctic winter. However, if the workplace is too noisy or space consuming, then school, church, shops and community centre should form the central focus.

The centre is the place of exchange. It is most vital and effective when it is easily accessible from where people live. The centre should be a place for gathering, social exchange, and enjoyment, and should be easily accessible from all buildings.

According to Erskine, a northern town should contain a completely protected winter area, sheltered outdoor places for spring and fall and, close by, the undisturbed natural landscape for year-round enjoyment. These functions can be provided by courtyards enclosed by the buildings, open arcades to protect walks between buildings from rain, snow, and wind, and public squares for gatherings in the sun. The centre of a community also serves an important educational and informational function; here people can each become aware of what the other is doing and what the continuing and changing opportunities in the community are.

Use of Community Space

The use of space is an important consideration in the planning and operation of northern and remote communities, in most cases even more important than in southern communities.

There are logical reasons why activities become grouped at a crossroad or central focal point in any community, and why they generally tend to be denser, and thus space more valuable, near the core.

In the North, and other remote communities, this sort of clustering occurs for a variety of reasons, such as to help reduce the cost of servicing the community, as well as to reduce the exposure of residents to extreme weather conditions in winter.

Certain activities should be clustered because they serve the same group of people, can share amenities and services, and have similar requirements with regard to access and use of space. Combining facilities into a service core also offers the users a place and opportunity for socializing. However, if similar businesses or activities are clustered too closely, other new activities are unable to find space and have to locate on the periphery or outside the main core, thus dispersing rather than enriching the amenities and services. Servicing becomes more extensive and expensive, and reduces the convenience for the users. The advantage of the small community, which has services and activities conveniently located close to each other, becomes diminished.

Public, Private and Transition Zones

A major consideration affecting the layout of communities is the need for privacy around and within the dwelling. In the North the problems are compounded. On the one hand, the need for privacy is all the more important because of the limited diversions outside the community. On the other hand, the costs of heating, the costs of providing services, the costs of protecting the land from disturbance, and the difficulty of walking any distance in severe weather, demand that dispersal, the usual means of achieving privacy in small communities, be carefully evaluated.

For dwellings to have privacy and at the same time offer the advantages of community life (i.e. proximity to services and amenities and shared activities), it is necessary to consciously design private, public, and transition zones. Privacy is not necessarily a function of distance from one's neighbours. Dwellings should be insulated from street noise while allowing some acoustical contact with the surroundings to prevent a feeling of isolation. They should provide visual privacy while allowing views of the surroundings.

The transition zone can be a porch, doorstep, or courtyard; a place where relations commence between neighbours, where the child learns about the outside world, and where informal unplanned encounters occur. The transition zone is where many important service functions take place such as parking of vehicles, reception and delivery of services, control of utilities, and so on.


Paths and routes are required in any community to allow proper interaction of activities. Paths can encourage relationships between activities, and are essential for the transportation of goods, materials and people. The key is to achieve these roles in the most aesthetically pleasing, safe and efficient way.

If paths are not designed with the needs of the whole community in mind they can destroy it. The noise, dust, vibration and danger of vehicles can make dwellings unpleasant, though the vehicles may be travelling over a direct and efficient route. Similarly, it can be time-consuming and annoying to have to travel by vehicle from one's home to shopping or place of work when one lives in a small community. In the North, these and other problems of getting from one place to another are greatly accentuated because of the harsh weather conditions.

In the North, different modes of transportation are used and these must be taken into consideration in the community design. In the winter, snowmobiles, sleds, skiers and snowshoers do not travel well on cleared roads, while wheeled vehicles need cleared roads. With little or no extra expense special unploughed paths can be defined.

In the isolation of the North, the relationship of the community to other communities and activities is very important. Communities are generally far apart and travel is often by air. Airports should be located such that flight paths do not interfere with the community, though in some remote communities the arrival of an aircraft is a welcome and festive occasion and an important link with the outside world.


Building in the North - Responding to the Environment, Volume 1, prepared by Van Ginkel Associates Ltd., prepared for Canadian Arctic Gas Study Limited, Gulf Oil Canada Limited, Imperial Oil Limited and Shell Canada Limited, March, 1976.

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