Canada Program

Iceberg Alley: Outports in Transition

Panorama of Newfoundland

Iceberg Alley’s outports—the small, isolated communities situated along the remote, rugged coast of Canada’s Newfoundland and Labrador province—have subsisted on local and ocean-based economies. But these outports, and their dependence on traditional methods of fishing, storage, and shipping, now suffer under an advancing modernity. The collapse of cod stocks (and the ensuing early 1990s moratorium on fishing), competition from a global economy, and the trend of urbanization leading to depopulation coalesce to create a new struggle for community survival on Canada’s eastern edge.

According to Mason White, a visiting associate professor of architecture and design at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), design and architecture may play a role in addressing population concerns. Many outports are in poor condition as depopulation has threatened the area, and this poses an architectural challenge in developing the identity of fishery buildings, the saltbox, and the root cellar, among other traditional structures. White asks, “Can design bring a fresh perspective to this issue? Can those outports with a rich architectural heritage reinvent themselves and remain sustainable into the future?”

In October 2015, White traveled to Iceberg Alley with a studio class of graduate students of architectural and urban design to conduct site research for a course project. The project is supported in part by a grant from the Weatherhead Center’s Canada Program, and other sponsors include Heritage Newfoundland and Harbour Grace Ocean Enterprises.

“This project is about rural development,” says White, who is at Harvard from the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. And the approach of the class, he says, begins with “observing the place—what seems to be working, with architecture and heritage buildings, and enhancing without ruin.”

The students split into three groups, with each assigned to one of three Newfoundland outports, all formerly flourishing communities: Twillingate, Port Union, and Harbour Grace. The three outports now comprise a collective population of under 7,000 people across approximately fifty square miles. White and the GSD students studied the land and listened to local stakeholders—civic leaders, enterprising business owners, and economic boosters—who, White says, are eager to consider a reimagining and repurposing of their towns’ underused architecture and overlooked heritage as a vital part of the switch across economies from fishing to resources to tourism.

Maria Carriero, a GSD master of architecture student who was on the team assigned to Harbour Grace, describes the site visit as fruitful for her studio project. “Right now we’re processing all of the information that we learned—and we learned a lot,” she says. “We’re trying to come up with a way to balance Harbour Grace’s future with its past. We were impressed with the heritage that it has and all of these buildings that are important to the character of the place, so we’d like to celebrate the history of the place, while opening up opportunities for businesses to thrive there. In small towns, everyone has such a huge stake in the idea of the future.”

By the end of the studio, White’s students will produce a booklet describing local architecture and development challenges and opportunities; a series of fourteen student design proposals for three communities, envisioning a near-future (2020) vision for outports to address local economy, heritage, and tourism through sustainable development; and an exhibition and lecture to make the project findings public, currently scheduled for December 11 in Gund Hall at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

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Photo Caption

Graduate students visit three rugged outport communities in Newfoundland and Labrador’s “Iceberg Alley.” Photo credit: Mason White