Moving Kiruna

4 May 2015

Rebecca Martin

Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost city, located 145 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle, could have been just another sleepy northern town in the shadow of the Swedish iron ore industry. But today Kiruna is making headlines in broadsheets across the globe. Not every town has to pack their bags and move, houses and all. But that is exactly what Kiruna will be doing over several decades. The LINK spoke to Krister Lindstedt of White Arkitekter, the company in charge of doing just this – moving Kiruna.

Kiruna town was founded in 1900 by the Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara Aktiebolag (LKAB) to cater for the mining company’s employees. For a hundred years the city and the company coexisted, supporting each other with work force and job opportunities.  But in 2004, the local municipal government in Kiruna received a letter from LKAB engineers, informing them that the need to dig shafts ever closer to the city meant that subsidence would soon affect the buildings. And so the need for a move was unearthed. Quite literally.

The inhabitants of Kiruna lived with the knowledge that their town would have to move for almost a decade before the local municipality could unveil the plan for the move and the new town. It had been decided that LKAB, now the largest iron producer in Europe and the greatest energy consumer in Sweden, would fund the relocation of the city in order to sustain mining activity at Kirunavaara up until the year 2033.

To achieve this, an international competition for a 20-year plan of Kiruna’s relocation was launched and in 2013, Swedish architects White Arkitekter working with Norwegian firm Ghilardi + Hellsten Arkitekter were picked as the winners. Against the initial brief, White had chosen to take a much longer view and presented not only a 20-year perspective but a 100-year master plan with the aim to create a sustainable model city, a city with a diverse economy and less dependent on the world market for iron ore.

The jury chose the entry they felt best presented a design for the city that could provide good conditions for day-to-day life in Kiruna, with regards to the city’s geography and climate. Also, they wanted a proposal that had the potential to incorporate new ideas and experiences, and to take new directions as the city evolves.

Because the project to move Kiruna actually entails restructuring a whole living organism: to abandon one city while adding a new to the northeast of what is now the city centre. At the same time as recreating a city – they are creating a new one.

“People in the area love nature and the outdoors – that was one starting point. We also realized that people wanted places where they could naturally meet,” Krister Lindstedt from  White Arkitekter told The LINK.

In the planning of the new city centre, effort was made to create continuity; that all parts of the town would flow into each other naturally and be well connected. This is to be the case during the moving process as well, avoiding the feeling of moving from one city to another but letting the city  “crawl” along a new urban belt to its new home, approximately 3 kilometres to the northeast. This belt, focused around a central street Malmvägen, will also link central Kiruna to the nearby settlements of Lombolo, Tuolluvaara, the airport and the mine at Kirunavaara.

But moving a city is so much more than moving buildings, demolishing old structures and erecting new. Lindstedt differentiates between urbs and civitas, the actual physical city and the community that dwells within it.

“And one has to start with civitas; one has to speak to the people,” Lindstedt said.

White Arkitekter started with the latter; to connect with and get an understanding of the needs of the community. In order to do this, White brought in social anthropologists who spent significant time speaking to the Kiruna population, getting an idea of what their hopes and fears about the move were.

“We found that it was easy to connect to the locals and they were very happy to be given a chance to have their say,” said Lindstedt.

In the next step, according to Lindstedt, one has to create a city which supports city life by providing the inhabitants with places where they can meet naturally. Next, it is about what is inside the buildings. Planners must make sure the right establishments are in the right locations. To make sure there is trade in the buildings around the main square, but also that culture is represented and other services such as hotels, cafés and bars.

“There needs to be a good mix in public spaces,” says Lindstedt. “All areas need to be balanced; residential areas need good schools and day care centres, but also public spaces and parks,” Lindstedt said.

That this has to be achieved in stages doesn’t make the project less complicated but on the other hand, said Lindstedt, it also means plenty of opportunity to learn, correct mistakes and adapt the plans.

“As the city centre will be moved first, the initial stage will be one of the most complex. We have to move a large portion of the retailers at the same time. We can’t leave any shops behind as it would impact on their trade,” Lindstedt said.

The first phase of the plan is a new public square, which will be home to Kiruna’s historic clock tower and a new city hall, The Crystal, designed by Henning Larsen Architects . Phase 1 will also comprise a new library and swimming pool and soon after the Kiruna Church will be carefully demounted and reconstructed on the new site.

Extending out from the central square and the central axis of Malmvägen, neighbourhoods will form “urban fingers” into the surrounding arctic landscape making residents never more than three blocks away from nature.

Also, as the townspeople will start being relocated, their basic needs must be met in the new area with services such as health centres, schools and preschools already in situ. Public transport must also be good between the old area of town and the new parts. A new travel centre will be in place by 2018, facilitating connections between old and new.

The time plan for the move is realistic, according to Lindstedt, even considering the grand scale of the project. Despite conditions on the financial market always being an uncertain factor, there is big money in the mining industry and the favourable settlements between LKAB and Kiruna town make the plans realistic.

“But it will involve hard work; we still need to fix all that needs fixing and prove to the Kiruna inhabitants and all involved that it can be done,” said Lindstedt.

To be closer to the project, White Arkitekter is establishing a Kiruna branch. They are keeping up the ongoing dialogue with the Kiruna people in three different ways; through formal and informal discussions and feedback with the community, through a proposed Kiruna Biennale to exhibit the vision for the city and host events to share the story and through the Kiruna Portal, an extra-large communal shop and ‘build it yourself’ facility and construction recycling depot, where remnants of the old city can be reused, recycled and retrofitted into the new.

“We‘re hoping that many building companies as well as individuals will chose to purchase something from the old parts of the city. That each block of the new town will have parts of the old incorporated in it,” Lindstedt said.

To work on a project that won’t be finished in one’s own lifetime is something that Lindstedt is familiar with and natural for any architect working with city planning.

“No city is ever really finished, unlike when you work on individual structures. It would be great to see Kiruna when all goals have been accomplished, but this way all of us who are working on this project get to be part of an exciting era in the town’s history. To be able to say ‘I was part of developing Kiruna’ is a reward in itself,“ Lindstedt told The LINK.


Photo credit: White Arkitekter

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