Kiruna poster

Sign in window of a local architects office in Kiruna: Photo by Dominic Hinde

By Dominic Hinde

Follow the author on Twitter @DominicMHinde


Kiruna, Swedish Lapland – “If you want a cheap kitchen fan or some radiators get in there”, chuckles Kjell Törmä, editor of the local newspaper in the Swedish city of Kiruna.

Sat behind the wheel of his well-heated car, he points at the red brick apartment blocks on the edge of his hometown, high above the Arctic circle. The Ullspiran, a district of red brick municipal housing, is about to be pulled down to make way for one of the most ambitious projects in the Scandinavian nation’s history – the moving of the entire city.

This April marked a turning point for the residents of Sweden’s northern outpost, sitting at the same latitude as Siberia and Northern Alaska. With the melting of the heavy winter snows, Kiruna is finally on the move after almost a decade of careful planning. Last week the first apartments were bulldozed to make way for expansion of the city’s lifeblood; a huge iron ore mine that winds almost a mile underground on the other side of the valley.

House demolition in Kiruna

House demolition in Kiruna: Photo by Dominic Hinde

The Swedish state owned mining company LKAB dominates Kiruna. Last year it made a profit of 700 million dollars from its Arctic mines, though in reality the income is higher as the state effectively pays tax to itself. These huge profits keep Sweden’s schools and hospitals running and the north of the country alive. After more than a century of extraction, LKAB have now begun tunneling under the old city to reach more of the high grade mineral. Unfortunately this means it is no longer safe to live in.

“In 2004 LKAB produced their first estimations, and then a lot of people said ‘nothing is happening’. There’s been a lot of preparation, and then infrastructure work such as the new railway and power system. Now though you’ll begin to see it properly as they tear the old town down and they start building”, says Törmä over a cup of thick Swedish coffee at his office inside the Sami Parliament. The building is a focal point for the local indigenous community that herd reindeer in the surrounding mountains.

From the parking lot outside the mine is clearly visible, as is the crumbling empty ground above the current mineworkings. The rate of extraction is breathtaking. Around the clock the most powerful electric rail locomotives in the world pull trains of iron ore across the border to Norway and the Atlantic ocean for export to China, the Middle East and the US. It is the global demand for steel products that keeps Kiruna going.

Kiruna mine and rubbish dump

Kiruna mine and rubbish dump: Photo by Dominic Hinde

Eventually Törmä’s office and every other building in central Kiruna will vanish into an expanding sinkhole that is already biting at the city limits. As the mine digs deeper into one of the world’s largest iron ore seams, cracks are beginning to work their way towards downtown.

On the other side of the city though the first signs of the new Kiruna are emerging. A few miles east and out of the bite of the cold Arctic wind, a large sign stands by the roadside proclaiming the construction of the new settlement.

Over the next decade the empty woodland around the sign will be transformed into a model community of the future, all designed by the world-renowned White Architects from Stockholm, the Swedish capital fourteen hours south.

Last spring the municipality signed a deal with LKAB for 3,74 billion Swedish crowns, around 375 million dollars, to build much of what will replace the current downtown area.

“Most people I spoke to thought they had got a good deal there”, says Törmä.

“The following summer is when it really kicks off – that’s when they will build the entire new centre”, he adds, pointing out the window.

New Kiruna with Cable Car by White Architects

New Kiruna with Cable Car by White Architects

Elements of the architects’ vision for a new Kiruna are straight from a science fiction novel, including a seven-mile long cable car that will lift passengers above the trees and winter snows, transporting them from the airport to the local railway station and the huge ore mine. Temperatures in the winter can regularly dip below minus 30 centigrade, and the new city will be triple glazed and ‘climate smart’. In the Arctic it stays completely dark for a few weeks each year as the sun never rises, so the new town is also intended to be a light and sociable place.

At the centre of this modern marvel will be the new city hall, The Crystal, with public rooms and bright white lights to beat the winter blues. It will make Kiruna into one of the most efficient, modern and environmentally friendly cities in Europe.

Another key element of the masterplan is that no home should be more than three blocks from the city centre or three blocks from the Arctic woodland surrounding it on all sides.

Half a mile underground, Britt Olofsson is enthusiastic about the new city. Dressed in a hard hat and the branded LKAB overalls, she leads visitors along abandoned mineshafts on a tour of the huge facility. In her fifties, she moved back to Kiruna from Stockholm with her family, attracted by a better quality of life.

‘The mine is the most important thing in Kiruna”, she says. “Without the mine there would be no city, almost everyone has some kind of connection to it.”

“I’m born in Kiruna and there’s always been talk of moving the city. I think it’s a fairly natural thing for us so we don’t see it in such dramatic terms as people from outside do. My hometown is vanishing and my memories will go with it, but it will be a better city environment.”

Olofsson’s mixed emotions are at the heart of the trade off the town is making with its own history. The new city will try and preserve some of the past by moving a few signature buildings, including the old wooden church dating from when Kiruna was an inhospitable frontier outpost.

“They’re going to take care of some of the older stuff and try and mix it. I think most people are positive to it and think it is going to be a big improvement. I’m happy that LKAB exists and that they are here to stay”, she says optimistically.

Job security is good in Kiruna and wages are high, even by Swedish standards. Mineworkers can earn around 3,600 dollars a month working shifts and there is at least a hundred years worth of ore left. In contrast a privately run mine in Pajala, a few hundred miles to the east, recently closed when the company that owned it collapsed.

Not everyone is happy about the way the mining company dictate the city’s future. Henry Emmeroth, a local councilman and environmental campaigner says that the state-owned mining company expects the city to simply do as it is told.

Kiruna Mine with city and wildnerness: Photo by Dominic Hinde

Kiruna Mine with city and wildnerness: Photo by Dominic Hinde

“The Swedish state is only interested in the huge profits LKAB has made for the national coffers for decades. They blast in the mine until two in the morning so you cannot sleep. They release heavy metals and other dangerous chemicals like mercury, meaning Kiruna has the most polluted lake in Sweden, a stone’s throw from the city centre. Our cultural inheritance, our history and our pride is being torn apart. Traders in the centre of town, homeowners and people renting have no idea what their future is.”

“Older people cannot afford to move into new homes with higher rents. They have to leave Kiruna, and these are the same people who helped build the city when times were hard. They are demolishing more than they can build.”

New Kiruna city centre by White architects

New Kiruna city centre by White architects

In Kirunas only bookshop, right in the the heart of the old city, 22-year old Jessica Wennberg sits behind the counter counting the receipts. Another Kiruna native, she came back to the city after attending music college further south.

“I like it here. There’s a lot to do and the nature is wonderful.’, She says . The low 1950s building housing the business will be another casualty of the move though. “We don’t know how long we’ll be here, but everyone will get a new premises.”

For the people who call Kiruna home, it is more than just a mining outpost. “Coming back was not a hard decision, and the business is doing alright”, smiles Wennberg.

The transplantation of Kiruna is not at an easy process. The planners have been tasked not just with building a new residential district but with recreating the old Kiruna in a new form. That means finding a corresponding place for everything the town currently has, including its identity. Alongside Wennberg’s bookshop there will be a new high street with all the familiar names and big Swedish brands like H&M as well as nods to the past.

Up the street in the window of a local architects office a sign boasts ‘Kiruna is like Detroit.’ Just as the troubled symbol of American industry has gone about reinventing itself, this Arctic outpost has realised that you have to change just to stay alive.


About the author:

Dominic Hinde’s research at The University of Edinburgh examines the environmental rhetoric of Scandinavian regions. Hinde writes and speaks about different aspects of the Scandinavian countries and their relationship with Britain, but particularly the environment, politics and popular culture.