By Øystein Rø
Alta stands out in the Finnmark urban portfolio. In contrast to other places in the county, it claims to have no needs for “public jobs”, it never built a post war reconstruction plan and it has managed to establish Finnmark’s strongest financial milieu. The town portrays an image of being highly entrepreneurial and pro-active.
The survey team came to Alta wanting to understand why this place, as the only one in Finnmark, has experienced a population growth every year since the Second World War. The place now numbers 18.272, the biggest municipality in Finnmark. In second place come Hammerfest and Sør Varanger with less than 10.000 in population. We met with chief city planner Ommund Heggheim, chief of commerce Jørgen Kristoffersen and planner Ulla Sennesvik in the Town hall.
“Alta is not the “public regional centre” of Finnmark. We don’t have hospitals or major public institutions. It is the private sector that has grown, even though the college and the municipal administration count for some”, says Heggheim, who has lived in Alta since the 70s.
Before the Second World War, Alta was a mere village consisting of the areas Bossekop and Elvebakken. Bossekop was a small mining settlement of Norwegians from the southern inland. This was the administrative centre with police and a priest. Adjacent to it was Elvebakken, consisting of people with Finnish descent. Both placeswere established by long distance immigrants bringing with them a culture of entrepreneurship. But the bipolarity was dominating the life of the place, and continues to do so even today, according to Ulla Sennesvik. Immigrating Samis inhabited the surrounding landscape of Bossekop and Elvebakken, making the area a melting pot of cultures and languages. Like most of Finnmark, Alta was burned down at the end of World War II, and a new plan for the area was proposed by city planner Erik Lorang: a tri-centric plan along a connecting regional road. But because of bickering between Bossekop and Elvebakken his plan was not realized and Alta continued to develop within two
Three major incidents during the 60s changed Alta forever. The construction of the E6 road turned Alta into a trade centre, the building of an airport connected Alta to the world, and finally the establishment of Finnmark college brought with it new knowledge and competence. This availability of valuable educational experience paved the way for the establishment of several knowledge-based start-ups. These events led to increased activity and need for a new city centre became clear. Lorange’s plan was picked up from the drawer, and the concept of a third urban node between the old centres was given another chance.
Disagreements between the Bosekopp and Elvebakken “fractions”, however, further delayed realization of the plans. Both wanted to host the new centre functions. It was only in 1995, when a new regulation plan for a new area, named “City”, next to Loranges centre, was established, that things finally began to materialize.
Since then it has exploded, says Heggheim. Projects for almost 3 billion NOK have been initiated in the area in recent years. New hotel, shopping, housing and entertainment projects have sprung up. To top it all is the Northern Lights Cathedral, a new landmark embodying the brand of the city. Religion is also present in other shapes in the society. Alta is a hot spot in Norway for the Læstadians, a religious group known for banning curtains.
Most of the investments in the “City” come from local capital, capital that began to accumulate back in postwar Finnmark when local entrepreneurs received contracts from all over the county during the reconstruction period. Alta remains a centre for contractors and construction business, and start-ups in new businesses are adding to the list of actors in the private sector.
But are there any clouds in the sky? “Yes”, says Heggheim, and describes challenges that Alta will have to deal with in the future: recruiting new students and a need to find new jobs for local construction firms when the “City” projects come to an end.
The entrepreneurs of Alta seem to take these challenges seriously. In the new “Kunnskapsparken”, a private initiative, businesses in aqua culture, oil, research and tourism all coexist under the same roof. One of the residents, the newly established oil company North Energy, is a sign of local pro-activism in the oil and gas era. The company plays on local patriotism in its ads to recruit employees. As Heggheim says: “Alta needs to be a part of the big processes that are happening in the high north. We have a strategic goal of building contacts with Kirkenes and Russia. We need to be a part of the boom in Russia. There are forces at play that will again change the map of the region.
New places emerge as strategic points.” But Alta is obviously not waiting
around, and sees the whole region as its operative space.
Walking around in the “City” area, one is struck by the resemblance to American
suburbia. Due to its widespread outlay, Alta is based on the use of cars.
Its car friendly attitude makes it convenient for people from the surrounding
districts to do their shopping here. To add to the American ambience, Alta
even has the world’s northernmost Subway restaurant. Car-based, entrepreneurial, religious and a melting pot? Is Alta living the American way? All three in the planning office disapprove of this idea. “Alta cannot be designed from stencils of European cities”, they say. But adaptability, the number of start-ups and cultural diversity are assets most places in the region envy.
Øystein Rø is born in Trondheim, Norway. He is an architect and co-founder of 0047. He has been working on High North issues since he wrote the Transborder Kirkenes Strategy in 2005-06 with Hans Jørgen Wetlesen. Rø is director of 0047 and secretary of Europan Norway. He lives and works in Oslo, Norway.