Kiruna – how to move a whole town
It’s 1:20am and you can hear the underground rumbling in Kiruna. It’s a sound that can be heard here every night, all year round, year after year.
The blasting sound, deep beneath the town, is part of life for the residents here. No mine, no Kiruna. That’s the way it’s been for over a hundred years, ever since Hjalmar Lundbohm founded the town in the middle of nowhere, 145km north of the Arctic Circle.
“If you don’t work in the mine yourself, your wife or brother does,” says Kristina Zakrisson, Chair of Kiruna Municipal Council. “Or you have a company that is a supplier to the mine. Wherever you are in town, you can see the mine. It’s such a tangible part of us.”
Zakrisson is in her office in the Kiruna town hall. Designed by Artur von Schmalensee and built in the early 1960s, the town hall is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful public buildings in Sweden. It’s a local landmark and an unmistakable part of Kiruna’s history – it hosted the big meetings during the much-publicized miners’ strike in 1969 and 1970.
Dignitaries from all around the world have visited the Kiruna town hall on official business, including US Secretary of State John Kerry who attended an Arctic Council meeting here in 2013.
But above all, the town hall belongs to the people of Kiruna. For, unlike many other municipal buildings, the Kiruna town hall not only houses offices, it’s also a meeting place for the local community.
“It feels snug and intimate,” Zakrisson says. “People here call it the local living room. We have an open fire that is usually lit. Instead of being decorated, the walls are wood and brick, the way Kiruna buildings tend to be. The locals say it’s like coming home.”
But this epoch is now over. In two years, in summer 2018, the politicians andvcivil servants will vacate the building.
“In our innermost heart and soul, we hope there won’t be any problems before then,” Zakrisson says. “We don’t think the building will collapse, but there’s a lot of technology here and it’s this that risks being damaged first. If the computers and lights stop working, it’ll be difficult to keep going.”
Zakrisson can see the mine from her office window. Each year, the view gets a bit closer. The nightly blasting is slowly but surely hollowing out the bedrock on which the town rests. And what many Kiruna residents call “the pit” is growing bigger and bigger.
In late 2003, mining company LKAB announced that the cracks forming beneath the surface were growing faster than they had thought. The following year, the town released a historic press release.
“We’re moving a town” the headline read. A few years later, when LKAB decided to establish a new main level in the mine 1,365m beneath the town, there was no turning back. Kiruna had to move.
There’s now a sense of urgency at the construction site of the new town a couple of kilometers northeast of Kiruna’s current position. They’re trying to work as much as possible before the winter cold and snow really start to bite.
The shell of a round, five-storey building towers above the uninhabited area. The new town hall should be ready in less than two years. The building is called “Kristallen” (The Crystal) and the idea is that, like the current town hall, it should be a meeting place for the people of Kiruna.
At the time of writing in October, they’re laying the under-floor heating for the open plan area of the ground floor. Plasterboard walls will then be installed to create individual offices.
“After several years of planning, discussions and analysis, things are now starting to take shape in earnest,” says Erika Lindblad, the LKAB communications officer responsible for the urban transformation. “It’s only really now that you can start to appreciate that it’s actually happening.”
Around the town hall site, the embryonic new town center is starting to take shape. The pipes are being installed in the ground and from above, you can clearly see how the streets and new districts will be laid out.
Relocating a mining town is not actually a unique event. In Malmberget, some 100km from Kiruna, buildings have, for decades, been evacuated or relocated. What’s special about Kiruna, however, is the speed and scale. If it were only a case of residential areas, the relocation could have been done in stages. But it’s different when a whole town center must be moved.
The core of the new town, including the town hall and the nearby culture center and hotel on which construction is due to start next year, should be completed in three years.
“You can’t build a town center step by step,” says Göran Cars, Professor of Urban Planning at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. “All ten blocks must be completed at exactly the same time. We have preliminarily set a date in the first quarter of 2020.”
Cars has been commuting to Kiruna since 2013 to help the municipal executive with the move. As an urban planner, he describes being involved in building a town from the ground up as “an absolutely amazing dream come true.” It offers the opportunity to correct the mistakes Kiruna and many other towns made in the 1960s and 1970s.
“We have allowed cars to dominate and our cities to spread out,” Cars says. “We’ve separated our cities into housing in one place, jobs in another place and services in a third place. People don’t want to live like that today.”
The people of Kiruna were invited to submit their ideas on what the new town should be like.
“Kiruna residents want a concentrated town center,” Cars says. “The town should be a social and intellectual arena, a place to meet. Being able to create this is fantastic.”
The heart of the new town will be a square housing the town hall, cultural center and a new hotel. Streets will stretch out like fingers from this square towards the surrounding countryside.
“You should never be more than two blocks from a ski trail. They should be easy to access, simply with a pair of skis on your shoulder,” Zakrisson says.
However, a town center needs stores and restaurants to breathe life into it. This is where the need for speed comes in, as most of these kinds of services must relocate from the old town to the new center within a matter of months.
“No one wants to be the only store in an industrial zone or the last to leave the old town center,” Cars says.
Getting the enterprise sector onboard in the new center is one of the most important and toughest challenges for an urban transformation. There is a clear risk that some organizations would rather locate their business in a trading area on the edge of town rather than in the center.
“The buildings in Kiruna are relatively old which means rents are correspondingly relatively low,” Zakrisson says. “Many small stores have tight margins. We must package things in a way that stores can also survive in the new Kiruna.”
In many instances, new business premises will be smaller, which will keep rents down somewhat.
Another idea on the table is to get several stores to share lunch areas and bathrooms. To date, the majority of traders have a positive view of opportunities to join the move to the new Kiruna.
“Many of them are willing to take a chance, but there are no guarantees,” says Marie Wågberg of
Kiruna Town and Center Development. “So far, we don’t know how many traders will make the move. The most important thing for them is to be given a date in the near future so that they can make plans.”
The residents of Kiruna are renowned for having a pretty straightforward view of their town. No mine, no Kiruna, as it were. Or as Zakrisson says, “No one wants to leave their home, but we accept it. What’s more, we’ve no choice. But as the building work starts on the new town hall, the move is starting to feel more tangible. And that’s when the emotion comes.”
Author and journalist Ann-Helén Laestadius grew up in Kiruna and wrote a book, Bromsgatan, about a street in the Ullspiran district that residents were forced to abandon in 2015. Laestadius lived in the area between 1973 and 1990 and interviewed the affected residents before the district was evacuated.
“At first the people were pretty resigned, with an attitude of ‘whatever LKAB wants, LKAB gets.’ But once we got talking for a while, many of them became very emotional,” Laestadius explains.
It’s not just being forced to leave your home that leaves deep marks. Perhaps worst of all is that the places, the very ground you’ve been standing on, are disappearing.
“From a personal point of view, I found it very difficult to visit Ullspiran last summer as they had demolished two of the four plots by then,” Laestadius says. “It felt sad to see the houses were no longer there. And when there’s nothing left at all, just a pit, it’s hard to grasp.”
Zakrisson and Cars recognize the feelings the author describes and that grief and sorrow are emerging now that the move is really happening.
This is why the municipality and LKAB are trying to save as much as possible of old Kiruna. The mining company, which is paying for the move, has promised to relocate several classic Kiruna buildings. Although the town hall cannot be preserved, Kiruna’s magnificent wooden church is being relocated at the beginning of the 2020s. Cultural heritage buildings Hjalmar Lundbohmgården and Bolagshotellet are being moved to a new area close to Mount Loussavaara as early as next year.
Another aim is to relocate many small but important features from the Kiruna town cente, such as the town’s very first neon sign, some park benches and street light fittings. “Demolishing everything is a big intrusion into people’s privacy. But small things can help you retain part of your identity,” Cars says.
The move takes up virtually all of Zakrisson’s time. Every week, she receives delegations and media representatives who want to talk about the urban transformation. And new issues and problems constantly arise. Today, the town council has been holding a meeting about where the new swimming pool should be built.
“I took up my post in 2011 and I have spent 16 years in parliament, so I’m not exactly a rookie,” Zakrisson says. “But after a year, I thought to myself, what the heck have I let myself in for.”
The very scale of the change means the people involved sometimes have to remind themselves of the opportunities, including the benefits of having a whole new town paid for by LKAB.
“In terms of sheer economics alone, how many towns of our size have new water mains that you didn’t need to pump loads of money into to maintain?” Zakrisson asks.
Even though LKAB is picking up the tab, Zakrisson hopes that the move will make the town less dependent on the mining company. The Northern Lights, midnight sun and unspoiled nature here already attract visitors to Kiruna from all round the world.
“We aim to be a small and compact town in the middle of nowhere, an environmentally-smart town that will continue to attract tourists to experience the nearby wilderness,” Zakrisson says.
Text: Jens Kärrman
Published: December 15, 2016