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Kiruna, Sweden, must move or be destroyed. The state-run LKAB iron ore mine that was the impetus for the town in 1900 has dug so far below its streets, often riddling them with ominous cracks, that in 2004 it informed residents they would have to move or risk plunging into the Earth. Last June, construction started on Kiruna’s slow crawl about two miles east, with a 100-year master plan.
Moving a City: A Cabinet of Curiosities from Kiruna opened last month at the Embassy of Sweden in Washington, DC, showcasing the renderings, plans, and models for the relocated town designed by White Arkitekter, working with Ghilardi + Hellsten. With a population of around 18,200, moving won’t be a quick process — the projected completion date is 2033. Architect Mikael Stenqvist of White Arkitekter described the city’s relocation as a “walking millepede.” New construction and local icons like a historic church and prominent clock tower will gradually be moved east while other pieces of the town are demolished and reused in the west.
As the city website optimistically states: “The iron ore deposit gave rise to the city of Kiruna, and now the mining activity is the reason for the city transformation.” It’s something of an ouroboros situation, wherein the mining that sustains, employs, and is the reason for the town is also its biggest danger. LKAB is putting forward an investment of €415.5 million (~$456 million) to support the development of a new town center, in which the planners intend to balance some of the old center’s original character with new design. Part of White Arkitekter’s plan also addresses making Kiruna more sustainable in the future and less reliant on the mine, encouraging the growth of small businesses and initiatives like a Kiruna Biennale that could celebrate the transformation on an international scale. Not a small part of the challenge is the fact that Kiruna is 87 miles north of the Arctic Circle, making it the northernmost town in Sweden. Both reindeer and snowmobiles must be considered for its roads (and once the move is complete, the plan calls for the old site to become a park for facilitating reindeer migration).
The damage to a town by its own industry is unfortunately not an unheard-of occurrence, whether it’s Picher, Oklahoma, abandoned due to the poison of lead and zinc mining, or Gilman, Colorado, similarly abandoned because of mining toxins. The success or failure of Kiruna is a long way off as it begins its trudge across Lapland. If it succeeds not just in relocating the town to more certain ground, but also guarding some of its over a century of character, it could be a valuable model for addressing communities in danger due to environmental collapse.
Moving a City: A Cabinet of Curiosities from Kiruna continues at the Embassy of Sweden (2900 K Street NW, Washington, DC) through September 13.