Kiruna: The Swedish Town That Has to Pick Up and Move Two Miles East


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Kiruna, the northernmost town in Sweden, is dependent on the mine that employs most of its 18,200 residents. Because the iron ore is running out, the townspeople were forced to decide if they wanted to risk staying as the mine was dug deeper—likely leaving the ground too unstable to support buildings—or move. With huge fissures already appearing around the city, they decided to move, and earlier this year, the entire town launched the incredibly arduous process of moving two miles east.

But while uprooting an entire town is almost unfathomably complicated, this unprecedented move also serves as an opportunity to apply modern city planning to a site with a clean slate. White, a Swedish architecture firm, and Kjellander + Sjöberg, a Swedish design firm, are working to rectify many of the annoying quirks of the original Kiruna.

Despite its small size, the sprawling and unfocused city (which was founded in 1900) is difficult to get around on foot, but through careful planning, the new Kiruna will foster community and activity. Narrow streets designed to protect pedestrians from the wind will wrap around a centralized town square that will serve as the focal point for a biannual culture festival. Residential units will be concentrated in ultra-insulated apartments along streets situated on an east-west axis. Mostly, they want to inject a new sense of culture into what has long been a cold, desolate mining settlement that fails to attract tourists and suffers a grave gender imbalance as young women move away.

But while the layout will be brand new, not all the buildings will be. Many of the town's earliest structures—things like a clock tower and a 1912 church that are distinguished by durable, high-quality construction—will be making the move as well. Buildings that don't make the cut won't be wasted, however. These demolished buildings will be recycled via a depot called the Portal, where residents will be able to both deposit and pick up wood, metal, and glass for projects in the new Kiruna.

The process will not be a speedy one. The hope is to move most of the residents in two waves over the next 20 years. But the town has given itself a full 85 years to fully extract from the site of old Kiruna, with plans for the move covering steps from now until 2100.

In fact, the townspeople have known this was coming since 2004, when the state-owned mining company Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara AB (LKAB) first determined that they would need to drill deeper to mine and thus disrupt the foundation of the town. Many put their lives on hold, unsure of where and when their homes would be moving. But now, with the long process getting underway, that period of waiting is drawing (albeit slowly) to a close and the tiny, northernmost city in Sweden is ready to embark—with the help of thousands of city planners, architects, landscape designers, biologists, urban designers, civil engineers, demolition and construction experts, builders, and social anthropologists—on a two-mile journey.