Kiruna’s grand re-opening | Polarjournal
On our way home (Photo: Anders Sandberg)

Kiruna, Sweden, is perhaps the epitome of a company town. In 1899, a year before the mine that is today the world’s largest underground iron-ore mine opened near what is today Kiruna, it had a population of 18. Today, the town proper is home to 17,000, and another 10,000 or so live under the jurisdiction of Kiruna council. LKAB, the company that runs the mine, employs some 17,000 people, directly or indirectly.

Though Kiruna’s economy is no longer solely tied to the iron mine (there is now a spaceport nearby and the area attracts a growing number of visitors), it still determines the direction of the town, quite literally. When it was discovered, in 2004, that the mine was undermining the town, potentially causing its buildings to collapse, Kiruna council had two options: close the mine or move the town. It chose the latter. The jobs the mine creates, the council recognised, were the immovable object.

Physically, most of the new Kiruna will be new, and indeed improved, but the goal from the start was for it to retain the feel of the original Kiruna, in part, by relocating 21 of its most important buildings. (Thirty-nine were identified as worth keeping, but some, such as the city’s town hall, once named Sweden’s most beautiful, could not be saved.) But even this process strives towards improvement: they will be placed at locations where (planners reckon, at least) they will help cement a Kiruna identity.

More of this, please (Artist’s conception: White Arkitekter)

The physical process of moving is not expected to be complete until 2035 (and the city is looking even further ahead by creating an outline for urban and economic development that stretches to 2100). Town residents, though, will not have to wait until either date to celebrate the establishment of the new Kiruna. On Saturday, the city will hold the official grand opening of the town centre. This is not the first of the new Kiruna’s facilities to be taken into use. In 2018, for example, a sports complex opened. Making the process as gradual as it has been expensive (LKAB has spent an estimated 20 billion kroner, or €1.9 billion, on the project to date) gives people the chance to become familiar with their new surroundings as they become complete, according to White Arkitekter, which is mostly responsible for the plan.

Mentally, too, it will take time before people feel at home in the new Kiruna, and there will be plenty of details to sort out. It is said, for example, that internet speeds in the new town centre are unacceptably slow. Once people do settle in, they may find things more to their liking: by working with anthropologists, White Arkitekter and Kiruna town planners sought to give residents more of what they said they wanted, and less of what they didn’t. This has involved incorporating greenspaces into the town’s design, while also ensuring that it retained the urban elements — such as open-air meeting places and a street layout that shelters the the town’s core from the winds that whip off the surrounding open landscape — that made the original Kiruna liveable. Similarly, the area they are vacating will not lie disused: people may still move about freely there, and it will be converted to recreational space.

Being able to start over from scratch is a luxury. But the impacts of a changing climate may make the need to make these types of decisions more of a necessity in the years to come. Kiruna has been fortunate: it had ample time to come up with a plan and the resources to carry it out, and, pokey internet aside, the move appears relatively successful so far. That will be good news for anyone hoping to save their town by recreating it.

Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal

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