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Planning for People, Permafrost and Pipes in Inuvik, NWT

Ken R. Johnson, ACP, MCIP

The Town of Inuvik is Canada’s largest community north of the Arctic Circle, and has a unique history as the first “planned” northern community. According to some, there has never been a Canadian town so “pondered, proposed, projected, planned, prepared and plotted” as East-3, which was its original site identification back in the 1950’s. Inuvik was planned by the Canadian government in the late 1950’s to replace the flood-prone Aklavik, 50 kilometres to the west, as the region’s administrative centre. Canadian Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker dedicated Inuvik as “The first community north of the Arctic Circle built to provide the facilities of a southern Canadian town. It was designed not only as a base for development and administration, but as a centre to bring education, medical care and new opportunity to the people of the western Arctic.”

Inuvik (an Inuvialuktun word meaning “the place of Man”) is also a unique community in the Mackenzie Delta/Beaufort region. The residents of Inuvik come from the region’s two major aboriginal groups, the Gwich’in and the Inuvialuit, but they also include a very sizeable non-aboriginal population drawn from around the world. The site for Inuvik was chosen for its elevation above the Mackenzie River flood zone, abundant gravel deposits, ample space for an airport, freshwater lakes and navigable waters. The community sits on a broad terrace between East Channel of the Mackenzie River, and the upland that forms the present-day Mackenzie Delta’s eastern boundary. The Mackenzie Delta is the largest delta in Canada; it is 210 kilometres long and an average width of 62 kilometres, occupying 13,000 square kilometres.

the new “utilidor” system in Inuvik uses separate pipes for water and sewer; houses connect to the utilidor at the back of each lot

Planning for People, Permafrost and Pipes in Inuvik, NWT some new housing development in Inuvik are very unique and reflect the northern frontier

Other notable aspects of Inuvik’s townsite include long, very cold winters, permafrost, and great distance from sources of supply. Inuvik depends on southern sources for virtually all consumables and materials of all sorts, with the exception drinking water. The built environment of Inuvik must cope with the permafrost, and extreme cold for buildings, water, sewer, roads and drainage; each of these elements requires unique design and construction considerations.

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The problem with permafrost is that it never completely melts; however in the summer the top metre may melt with the warm temperatures. The permafrost ground below Inuvik also contains a lot of ice, which means that when it partially melts, the ground may settle by hundreds of millimetres to fill the voids left by the melting ice. This magnitude of settlement can cause major structural damage to buildings and pipes. The heat from houses, and water and sewer pipes may also melt permafrost, therefore all of the buildings pipes in Inuvik are built on piles to provide a “thermal break” between the building and the ground.

Inuvik’s methods of development access and site preparation have also adapted to the extreme conditions. Roads are built above the natural grade, with embankments thick enough to provide an insulating layer to minimize permafrost melting. Road grades and building lots are never excavated for pregrading purposes, to avoid the effects of continuing thaw settlement, which can continue for several years in the developed or disturbed areas. Building lots are often filled to provide grading for drainage and a drivable access to construction vehicles, as well as to reduce thaw settlement. Drainage runs on the surface, in ditches, except where it passes through culverts under roads. Inuvik was originally developed with a reasonably compact and efficient downtown business core just east of the East Channel. Primary and secondary schools were located on large blocks of land between the downtown core and surrounding residential areas. A large regional hospital was sited at the south end of the townsite. The residential areas radiate outward from the central core area, and there is a considerable amount of undeveloped space between the current margins of developed residential districts and the perimeter collector road.

The water and sewer mains and power poles that service each building run along a dedicated right-of-way along the back of each lot; the cost of these services is about $50,000 per lot. The service connections exit above ground from each building and resemble a large “metal centipede” as they connect to the water and sewer mains. Road crossings of the utilidor create another challenge because the road must literally bridge the utilidor, at a cost of nearly $50,000. new development areas in Inuvik are on the fringe of the natural northern forest

all houses in Inuvik are built on steel piles (bottom LH side of photo) extending well into the continuous permafrost - this creates a challenge for features such as an attached garage

Planning Digest 9 V.


Spring 05

the original water and sewer structure or “utilidor” was a single large box that ran between buildings

The dominant residential housing type initially built was a 512 square foot house that was nicknamed the “512”; the majority of the “512’s” are still in use today. New residential housing in Inuvik has taken on a southern look, but the odd new house maintains a very northern flair. Inuvik acts as its own developer of serviced land for townsite expansion, undertaking both financing and administrative work itself in order to supply serviced lots at the lowest cost reasonably achievable. Inuvik grew steadily in the period of 1961 to 1986, from 1200 people to 3570 people. The population increased significantly in the mid-seventies along with the gas and oil exploration at the time. When the exploration activity declined in the late seventies, the population also declined a bit from about 3100 people to 2900 people. In the period of 1986 to 2004, the population of Inuvik dipped to around 3400, with minor fluctuations until returning to the 1986 population of near 3600.

Planning for People, Permafrost and Pipes in Inuvik, NWT

The residents of Inuvik, and northern people in general, have a variety of lifestyles that usually revolve around a lot of outdoor activity; therefore quick and easy access to the natural environment is expected. Inuvik’s outdoor activities are maintained on many fronts, including a strong cross country ski club, which has produced athletes for the Canadian Olympic team in the 1970’s. Indoor recreation in Inuvik is also strong, and it is supported by a new multiplex facility. The Town of Inuvik experienced a severe housing shortage in 2002 because of the economic growth of the coming Mackenzie Gas Pipeline; since 2000 there has essentially been a zero percent vacancy rate. The pipeline has opened another chapter for the community, and presents some very interesting challenges for planners and engineers, who must try to anticipate the potential community growth associated with the pipeline, and design the community expansion for “people, permafrost and pipes.”

Bio Kenneth R. Johnson is a Senior Planner and Engineer with Earth Tech Canada in Edmonton. He has been working with northern Aboriginal communities since the early 1980’s on land use and infrastructure related problems. He is a nationally recognized expert in cold region community infrastructure, and he maintains an award winning website called Cryofront (

Planning Digest 9 V.


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Planning for People, Permafrost and Pipes in Inuvik, NWT  

The Town of Inuvik is Canada's largest community north of the Arctic Circle, and has a unique history as the first "planned northern Communi...

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