KIRUNA, SWEDEN – Perched on a hill by the iron ore mine it was once built around, the sleepy northern Swedish town of Kiruna is in the process of reinventing itself. It has little choice: In four years, it will have been moved somewhere else.
At the turn of the 19th century, the area consisted of a handful of ramshackle buildings and traditional “lavoo” dwellings of the indigenous Sami population similar to the tepees used by Native Americans.
But with large-scale mining came wealth and the town prospered, climbing further up the slope as new workers arrived and older neighborhoods were abandoned when the mine began to encroach on them.
The fortunes of the town, population 23,000, and neighboring Malmberget are still tied to what is now the largest iron ore mine in the world, extracting enough materials in a day to build more than six Eiffel Towers.
The mine’s state-controlled owner, LKAB, employs some 2,100 people in Kiruna, and plans to grow production volumes 35 percent by 2015.
As LKAB’s extraction moves deeper — it’s now at a depth of 4 km — and closer to the town, cracks have begun to appear underground. In 2004, the company gave local politicians an ultimatum: move the parts of the city center that could collapse if the company’s underground expansion plans went ahead, or risk stifling Kiruna’s largest employer.
“There was an uproar when we found out,” said town spokeswoman Ulrika Isaksson. “A press release went out saying that the whole town had to move.”
It turned out that only buildings within a 1-km radius of the mine were affected, but that included most of the town center. “It’s only 35 percent of the town’s total area,” said Deputy Mayor Niklas Siren of the Left Party.
Most buildings will simply be torn down, forcing their inhabitants to relocate, but some of those considered Kiruna landmarks will be dismantled and reassembled in their entirety at new locations.
“The town center will shift around 3 km to the northeast,” Isaksson said. “In four years, things could become very sentimental” since that is when the move will become visible, she said, referring to the target date for tearing down the 1960s-era town hall and houses around it.
After that, it will be time for the train station and the main town square to be moved, and around 20 years from now the relocation of Kiruna’s church will mark the project’s final phase.
The imposing red, wooden building, whose exterior was designed to resemble a Sami lavoo, has become the pride of Kiruna’s inhabitants. It was a gift from LKAB in 1912, illustrating its central role in the town’s history.
“(Some) 2,500 apartments will have to move,” Isaksson said, not counting hotels and commercial properties.
For Siren, the deputy mayor, the move is not just about recreating Kiruna 3 km up the road, but also about reinventing the town.
“We are going to build the best possible town center — vibrant, sustainable and modern,” he said.
Although LKAB is paying for all the land it will use, the municipality is responsible for the new town’s urban planning. Next year it will select a firm of architects for the relocation.
No detailed timetable is available for the project at the moment, but one thing is certain: In 2018, the new town hall will be completed and the old one will have given way to a park.
Whereas the demolition of a single building can spark controversy in some towns, the inhabitants of Kiruna seem to be taking things in their stride. People still pull their sleds through the snow-covered streets and there is nothing yet to suggest that all of the buildings around them will be gone by 2035.
“We know too little,” said Anja Jakobsson, 51, without sounding bitter. “We are in favor of the transformation of the town. The development of the mine means that people in Kiruna will have jobs. But we’re worried about our personal finances.”
“People are afraid of not having the means (to relocate),” Martti Kivimaeki, an assistant deacon, said, noting dryly that even though the inhabitants are worried, they aren’t turning to the church.
LKAB has pledged to buy the affected buildings for 125 percent of their value, “but that’s not enough for a new-built house,” Jakobsson said. The company will also offer lower rents in the residential properties it owns for a limited period, but not indefinitely, according to its spokeswoman, Ylva Sievertsson.
“When you talk to people in Kiruna, you always hear, ‘No, but we need the mine.’ And with that, the discussion ends,” argued Timo Vilgats, a municipal politician for the Green Party, the only political group to question the need to move part of the town.
He points to new iron extraction technologies that would not impact what happens above ground. Sievertsson denied his claims, saying that either the mine will grow toward the town center, or it will shut down.