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Sweden's Radical Plan to Move an Entire City

Kiruna will be relocated two miles to the east in perhaps the most ambitious urban relocation project so far this century.

How do you go about moving an entire city? That was the question the remote Swedish mining town of Kiruna faced in 2004 when its 18,000 residents learned that the ground below it was growing increasingly unstable. The city center sat on top of the world’s largest iron mine, and high demand for the material had meant that the state-owned company Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara AB (LKAB) was digging deeper and deeper.

It’s been 12 years since this realization, and a new, state-sponsored video released this week provides a look into the solutions the town came up with. In it, two wide-eyed, spirited filmmakers take us through the city, talking to locals and architects involved in what my colleague Feargus O’Sullivan says is perhaps the most radical urban relocation project so far this century.

As Niklas Siren, the vice chairman of Kiruna’s executive committee, says in the video, the city exists because of the mine. Every night, explosions inside the mine go off, but the locals are so used to it that they barely take notice. LKAB brought employment opportunities to the city, but each time iron ore is extracted, waste rock from above falls and causes ground deformation. Eventually, this made the ground too unstable to support the city.

For the mining operation—and jobs—to continue, the city had to move. “It was never an option to close the mine,” Siren says in the film. As CityLab previously reported, the Kiruna government came up with billion-dollar plan to relocate the entire city two miles over to the east.

Kiruna is building a new, more compact city center designed by the Stockholm-based architecture firm White. This will be far away from the mining site, and residences, stores, and historic buildings will move over there. The old downtown and the areas closest to the mine will get knocked down and turned into a nature park. LKAB will compensate locals for their properties so they can buy new homes—though The Guardian has questioned whether homes will remain affordable. According to the state-sponsored video, the move will take at least 20 to 30 years to complete.

Part of the video follows a father-daughter duo who must move their 83-year-old store, Centrum House, to a new location, which has only been partially built. They plan to move sometime between 2020 and 2021, which highlights one of the challenges of such an ambitious plan. Shopkeepers have to decide when to leave their current stores. Move too soon, and they could lose their customer base.

Centrum House’s owner, Johanna Ringholt, says in the clip that bringing the store’s sign, which has become an iconic symbol in the community, is a must. And it has to be fitted to a new corner store. “[The people] may not know what we are, but they now what the Centrum House is,” she told the filmmakers. Without the Centrum House, she says, it won’t be the city center.

While some buildings are slated to be demolished, some will literally be lifted up from the ground and moved via trucks and cranes. That includes the city’s historic church, voted Sweden’s most beautiful building in 2001, according to the video.

“Our biggest challenge is not the design of the new city,” says leading architect Mark Szulgit in the video. “The biggest challenge is to move the minds of the people and the culture.”

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