The Billion-Dollar Plan to Relocate One City's Entire Downtown

Mining damage is forcing Kiruna, Sweden, to pick up and move — two miles east.

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Courtesy White arkitekter AB

At 90 miles above the Arctic Circle, the small outpost of Kiruna, Sweden, may seem like an odd choice for a new, billion-dollar model city. But Sweden's northernmost town, with a population today of just 18,000, is facing what planners from the Stockholm-based architecture firm White have obliquely called "unprecedented pressure for transformation."

That's a nice way of saying that the ground beneath Kiruna is collapsing, quickly. The city's current downtown was built during the mining boom of the post-war era, as the state-owned mining company, Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara AB, brought jobs and investment to the region. But in the past decade, LKAB — now the largest iron mine in the world — has begun to dig deeper, unsettling the ground beneath the current town center.

So the entire downtown is picking up and moving two miles east. This includes the city hall, several thousand residences, the train station and the century-old church, once voted Sweden's most beautiful public building.

But how do you go about moving a city's entire center of gravity? The answer, in short, is gradually, and expensively.

The process began in 2004, when the company first announced the likely effects of the expanded mining program. In March, the city chose a proposal for the new town center from White arkitekter, along with Ghilardi + Hellsten. At the end of last month, the old train station shut down. And last week, the city announced that Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects will design the sleek new town hall, the first building to make the move to the new downtown.

The maps below, from White's winning proposal for the downtown redevelopment, show the proposed reorientation of the city center eastward over the next several decades. A total of 2.2 million square feet of office and government space, several hotels, and 3,000 residential units will be moved over the next 20 years, according to the Wall Street Journal. LKAB is footing almost the entire bill, to the tune of 3.5 billion kronor ($532 million) so far, with at least twice as much still to come.

Courtesy of White arkitekter AB.

Plans for the new central plaza include the sleek town hall and several sustainable design initiatives, including a new cable car system. The architects see this as a chance to create a higher-density "Model City 2.0," anchored by the city hall, a train station, and a central plaza. Though most of the revamped downtown will consist largely of new construction, the plan also includes the physical relocation of about a dozen historic buildings. The move of the old wooden church will mark the final stage of the decades-long transformation. The current town center will eventually be turned into a nature park, which town leaders hope will help reinvigorate tourism.

The winning design for Kiruna's new town hall. Courtesy Henning Larsen Architects.

The new town hall is slated for completion by 2016, but stores currently located in the old downtown have been given a decade to complete the move. Already, the logistical problems of shifting an entire city's daily routine two miles away are becoming clear. Deciding how much to compensate owners for their property's value has left the final price tag up in the air. Shopkeepers don't want to make the mistake of leaving the current downtown too early, losing their loyal customer base. As Kiruna municipal commissioner Kristina Zakrisson told the Wall Street Journal earlier this month, "Ideally, we would close downtown on Friday and open in the new location on Monday. That may be unrealistic but our ambition is to make it as coherent as possible."

Kiruna's experience with man-made displacement can also be taken as a small warning of how expensive and extensive even the simplest reconstruction efforts will be. In the wake of disasters we often talk about the wisdom of rebuilding in places where human action has made living and investing unwise: in Fukushima after the Japanese earthquake, along the Jersey Shore after Hurricane Sandy, and even now in towns across the U.S., after fracking-related earthquakes have cracked foundations and devalued home prices. Kiruna's town leaders are planning ahead, but the cost, in both kronor and time, gives us a sense of the logistical headaches to come.

Top image: A rendering of the new town square in Kiruna, Sweden, courtesy of White arkitekter AB.

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