Critical Eye: A Local’s Perspective

Last Friday Will and I met with Alicia Libel-Berg. She graduated with an M.Arch from the UofM in 2011, and she capped her education off with a project situated near her hometown of Watford City, North Dakota (see map below). Thus, Alicia had the unique challenge of embarking upon a design project while having deep roots that transcend the boundaries of the current situation in the Bakken. She spoke about the situation with bereavement. Home is something many hold sacred; Alicia and her family have painstakingly witnessed (more than once) the transformation that is eroding the foundation of their rural community.

Watford City

Alicia was 7 when the last boom went bust. Almost overnight the town went from 3,000 to 1,000 people. Bankruptcy replaced oil prosperity, the oil companies were gone in three weeks, and the longstanding community was left to clean up after the frantic occupation and exit that defines so many boomtown scenarios. All she can see now is the propensity of locals and oil companies to repeat the cycle of exploitation, intoxicated by the sweet crude and money. The boom undeniably brings new opportunity to the area, but she insists that most people ignore the painful residuals of growth.

Today, Watford City is close to its previous peak population from the 80’s. Her story was a painfully personal account of the boom; wanton development in a floodplain, new construction so poorly built, parents forced into early retirement from retail after four years of the hardest work in their lives. Nobody was ready for this transformation, but responses to the situation range from opportunistic to fatalistic. Landowners lease their mineral rights and concoct schemes to monopolize on their deep connection to the place. She noted an example of a wealthy businessman who is eager to explore his land for oil, even drilling illegal wells into the community’s depleted aquifer to supply water to the insatiable oil industry.

However, the scale of the problems, opportunities, uncertainties, and enigmas dwarf the weight of Watford City in its 1.4 square mile footprint. Although Alicia’s community is a small dot on the oil man’s scouting report, it lies at the nexus between policy, infrastructure and oil. The rugged terrain in the area dictates that nearly all overland transportation in Mackenzie county crosses through the town’s humble four-way. On any given day, a Watford City traffic query on your iPhone will be dark red in gridlock. A bypass is planned to alleviate the stress on the town’s transportation network, but will this relegate the town to a peripheral player in the oil game?

Our conversation was informative and intimidating. It was reassuring that many of our early observations were supported by Alicia’s insight: this is largely a logistical problem, embellished by profit, tainted by ignorance, and steeped in homegrown toughness.  As painful as it is to hear first-hand accounts of environmental, and social trauma, we are empowered by our distance (both literally and figuratively) from the Bakken. We can’t end drilling, and turn back time to the days of homesteaders and untouched prairie, but we can look opportunistically at our findings and use design skills to generate something positive for the common good.

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