Moving earth, iron, ice and a community

Relocating an entire town in the Arctic Circle must rank as one of the most challenging projects to manage ever attempted


During our lifetime, many of us will move house at least once and maybe even move city. Properties, streets and neighbourhoods stay where they are, while we, the human inhabitants, relocate. This might seem a statement of the obvious, unless you are one of 6,000 residents of the northernmost town in Sweden, Kiruna. This is because the town of Kiruna itself is on the move.

Under snow for more than half the year, Kiruna sits 90 miles up beyond the Arctic Circle in Lapland. This is the land of midnight sun and polar night: summer months when the sun does not set, resulting in 24-hour daylight; as well as a few winter weeks of almost perpetual darkness, with no sunrise. The local climate is classed as subarctic, with temperatures as low as -43C.

The reason Kiruna was established in the first place is also now the reason it has to move 3km east – iron. Kiruna sits atop a vast body of iron ore and is being undermined, literally, with increasing risk of subsidence. This is no small extraction operation. State-owned mining company LKAB founded the town in 1900 and is now the largest iron-ore pellet producer in Europe, with a net value of SEK16.2 billion (£1.4 billion). LKAB is funding the relocation in order to sustain mining activity until 2033.

Kiruna sits atop a vast body of iron ore and is being undermined, literally, with increasing risk of subsidence

The decision to move a city is not to be taken lightly or implemented hastily. A decade of planning has passed since the Municipality of Kiruna first issued a press release in 2004 headed: “We are going to relocate a town”. Infrastructure work on high-voltage power and new sewage has been under way for years and the railway already rerouted. The final political green light was received in 2011.

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Putting people first

The urban transformation will happen in phases: first public spaces, then residential areas. Unprecedented in scale, the move will directly affect about one in three of the 18,200 population, who have understandably met this prospect with a mixture of enthusiasm and anxiety.

Project management priority number one has to be the people, insists Erika Lindblad, the project’s urban transformation communications officer for LKAB. “The biggest challenge is that we are moving a community, but we must address every individual person’s concerns in a way that makes them feel secure,” she says. “The complexity of urban transformation means it is often difficult to give a direct, simple answer. Transparency, accessibility and an ongoing dialogue are vital if we are to retain the trust of those around us.”

The second critical factor is time. Kiruna will be a long-running project to manage, but one of the first things the architects proposed was for the team to start thinking five times longer and envisioning a successful community for the next century.

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In 2013, White Arkitekter, working with Ghilardi + Hellsten Arkitekter, won the international competition for a 20-year phased relocation of Kiruna by 2033. Challenging the municipality’s brief, the winning proposal features a 100-year masterplan with the goal of not only relocating, but creating a sustainable model for the city.

Shifting to a longer-term mindset is critical for resilience planning, explains lead architect at White Arkitekter Krister Lindstedt. “Twenty years is a very short time for a city, even 116 years – the age of Kiruna – is quite short. When building a new town, it makes sense to stress-test the plan with different scenarios,” he says.

“Mining in the Kiruna region will most likely continue beyond the 20-year timeframe. However, mining is susceptible to the world market and global demand for minerals, a finite resource. To make Kiruna truly sustainable, we need to enable it to have a future beyond extraction.”

Ensuring an agile vision

The local demographic has evolved considerably since the town’s inception as a mining settlement. The aspiration today is for an increasingly diverse community and economy, favourable to other sectors such as tourism. There is a fresh dynamic afoot already, with Kiruna having the fastest-growing rate of small businesses in Sweden. Also, after years of population decline, a large demand is emerging now for housing, with new accommodation to be built in addition to 3,000 homes relocated.

From a planning and project management perspective, it is therefore essential to adopt a spatial framework with maximum flexibility built in, while still retaining a sense of design intent. The methodology must be exploratory and responsive.

According to Mr Lindstedt, ongoing public consultation is proving critical in informing an agile, intelligent vision. “The new city has a mix of uses and is much more compact. It will have high-quality meeting places offering a platform for broadening the economy. At the same time, the new urban fabric will create a closer relationship to nature and the outdoors. These features directly reflect the findings from the informal feedback by our in-house social anthropologist Viktoria Walldin and have given the consultation process credibility,” he says.

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Eventually, while planning might not stop, construction has to start. In 2014, LKAB and the municipality announced the first phase of the masterplan programme, with LKAB pledging investment of £328 million. Work began that summer.

Transformation will take place in phases. A series of projects will allow the city to “crawl” along an urban belt to its new home. Kiruna will have a new civic square, with historic clock tower, as well as a new travel centre, city hall, library and swimming pool.

Old Kiruna will gradually be phased out and once the new centre becomes alive, residents will relocate too. At present, there is agreement to carry across 21 of the most culturally characteristic buildings. Treasuring the community’s collective city memory is important to retaining the sense and love of place, says Ms Lindblad. “Some of the old buildings with high cultural value, such as the wooden church by architect Gustaf Wickman, will be moved to ensure Kiruna retains its memories, character and unique identity,” she says.

Looking to the future

Quite how many private homes can be moved and to what extent existing building parts get reused is an open and interesting question. White Arkitekter hopes to address this issue in part with its concept of The Portal: an extra-large communal shop and “build it yourself” facility. This construction recycling depot will have remnants of the old city which can be collected, reused, recycled and retrofitted into the new. This will put less strain on the production cycle and transport of materials.

Seizing the opportunity to embed sustainability, the new development is also designed to a carbon-neutral agenda, with the ambition to harness the enormous amounts of waste heat generated by the mining and industry, combined with wind turbines for clean, green power.

Moving Kiruna, physically and mentally, requires strategic planning and close consultation with the entire community. Yes, the location and the climate are a challenge. However, Kiruna is used to snow-handling and project management of delivery logistics. The scale of operation might be much grander than anything seen before, but the knowledge is already there.

For the city, the real measure of project management success will be in the people metrics, concludes Ms Lindblad: “Our greatest legacy we hope will be an open dialogue with residents and a transparent process to ensure that we achieve the best result for Kiruna.”