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A Swedish City's Plan to Pick Up and Move to Avoid Disaster

Grant Whittington headshotWords by Grant Whittington
New Activism
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Have you ever just wanted to pick up and leave the foundation you call home? Kiruna knows the feeling.

Kiruna, a town in northern Sweden, built its riches upon the vast seam of iron ore, but the massive mine is now sinking the city of 23,000 residents. Now faced with a crisis, the town of Kiruna is moving to avoid catastrophe.

Northern Sweden is not the most welcoming place to build a city. With long, brutal winters and short, mild summers, Kiruna’s climate doesn’t exactly scream city material, but the iron resources that lie underneath it scream Mecca.

The Sweden-owned Luossavarra-Kiirrunavaara AB mining company (LKAB) founded Kiruna in 1900 and quickly turned it into the largest iron ore extraction site in the world, producing 90 percent of all the iron in Europe. The company’s iron supply on the outskirts of the town was diminishing, so in 2004, LKAB thought it best to dig its shafts toward the city’s heart, leaving the buildings vulnerable.

For more than 10 years, residents of Kiruna have wondered what the fate of their town would be. Residents have put their lives on hold, unwilling to make investments in a town that they know could up and vanish at any moment. They finally have an answer.

The town, thanks to visionary architects, is moving 1.86 miles east of its current location. A new town square is already under construction, and LKAB allocated more than $612 million for the project that’s expected to build a high school, fire station, community center, library and swimming hall. The mining companies will also compensate homeowners the value of their house plus 25 percent.

Kiruna is due for a major facelift: The city will be hardly recognizable once the construction is completed. The town’s suburban, traditional-housing style will be vetted to an apartmentalized and centralized neighborhood that is expected to encourage a younger atmosphere.

The new Kiruna will have narrower streets to protect pedestrians from the wind, making the harsh Scandinavian winters just a little more pleasant. The plan will turn the city into a more walkable district, but it won’t happen overnight. Officials have suggested that the city will take 85 years to fully escape the mine. The town isn’t as much moving as it is inching east with each new building sprouting up and each old one falling down.

Bits and pieces of old Kiruna will be preserved into the new city, which will keep the same name, including Sweden’s prettiest public building, Kiruna Church, as voted by the Swedish people in 2001.

Kiruna could see great success from this permanent solution to run from a disaster. Anthropologists hope women will be encouraged to stay in the male-dominated region and also hope tourism will increase once the city’s makeover is completed.

The city could also set the precedent and be a trailblazer for other areas facing either rough economic or climate issues.

Sea-level rise is likely to destroy high-density areas if there isn’t action taken to minimize the harm. Major moneymaking cities like Miami, New Orleans and Venice are all susceptible to annually-increasing sea-level rise due to a changing climate. Popular tourist countries like the Maldives and Bangladesh could also be washed away if left alone.

One thing's for sure as Kiruna moves: The Northern Lights will be just as beautiful 1.8 miles to the east.

Image credits: 1) KERENHAPPUCH C and 2) James Losey

 

Grant Whittington headshotGrant Whittington

Based in Washington, DC, Grant works as a program assistant at SEEP Network, an international development nonprofit. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. Grant is passionate about humanitarianism and finding sustainable approaches to international development. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.

Read more stories by Grant Whittington