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Sweden’s Plan to Physically Move a City Before It Sinks into the Ground

How do you solve a problem like Kiruna?

The Kiruna Church—congregation and building alike—is getting ready to move. (Photo: Christoffer Sawicki/CC BY-SA-2.0)

Maybe you remember moving to a new town as a child; the uneasiness of your first day at a new school, the alien landscape of your new neighborhood. But what would it feel like if your entire town moved along with you? The citizens of Kiruna, Sweden are about to find out, as their entire town center prepares to move two miles east of its current location.

Why the mass relocation? Unlike the climate refugees of Oceania, Kiruna’s relocation hasn’t been necessitated by climate change, although the reason behind the move is man-made. As Francesca Perry explains in the Guardian, Kiruna was founded in 1900 after the Luossa-Kiirunavaara Aktiebolag (LKAB) mining company was established in 1890 to tap a vast reserve of iron ore. As the mine grew, so did the town, which is now home to around 20,000 people despite the usual Arctic Circle months of darkness and snow (Kiruna is Sweden’s northernmost city).

While the mine has greatly contributed to Kiruna’s economic vibrancy, it’s also the source of its troubles. According to the New York Times, the mine’s expansion over the past century has pushed its western border underneath the town itself, “literally undermining the ground it sits on.” The result is ground deformation, which leads to sinkholes, cracked building foundations, and collapsing structures.

Before Kiruna becomes another sinking ghost town, mine and city officials are working to relocate the city center and its residents via an elaborate 20-year plan. This week, Sweden released a 10-minute documentary to explain what will happen. The Kiruna Church and other historically significant will be physically moved to the new city center, but many others will be demolished, including the current Town Hall. Citizens whose homes are slated to be torn down will be offered 125 percent of the building’s market value or a free new home in the new city center; similarly, renters will be offered rent subsidies to help them find new apartments.

Housing costs are a central concern for those who aren’t fully sold on the project. Green Party member Timo Velgits explained to the Guardian that LKAB is not providing guarantees that the planned replacement homes will be completed in time, creating concerns that displaced citizens who accept the free-home offer may be left out in the cold. Similarly, many point out that rents are likely to be higher in the new city center, and the rent subsidies may not be sufficient to address the issue. Aside from the financial impact on individual citizens, there’s a general unease that the project’s one billion dollar price tag is being funded by the mine’s profits—iron ore prices have been on the decline in recent years, and just recently hit a two-month low. As a local teacher told The Guardian, “I’m concerned that the iron ore prices are going down, which implies LKAB are running out of money. I’m worried that they will destroy the buildings in the city and not have enough money to rebuild them.”

But for many, the cultural and social concerns outweigh potential administrative issues. The Guardian spoke with Lars Jarlemyr, the minister of Kiruna Church and described his concerns.  “What troubles Lars is not the buildings—they can easily move, he says. It is the social networks and relationships in the town that he hopes will not be affected by the city’s changes.”

Fortunately, these matters are heavily on the minds of those behind the project as well. Asa Bjerndell, an architect working on the project, told Gizmodo:

The systems of social and economic ties are what binds Kiruna, and if there is anything to be moved, it is these connections and relationships. If we are going to talk about successfully moving a city, we have to make sure that the move strengthens existing relations and helps create new ones in the process.

For many in Kiruna, the staging of the plan means their moves are some years away and the whole idea may still seem abstract. Hopefully when the time comes, the citizens will be eager to shape their new city center into the town they’ve always dreamed of.