Sweden’s arctic ‘millipede town’ is slowly moving

Kiruna, a town in northern Sweden, is on the move. Located in Lapland, within the Arctic Circle, the town and many of its 18,000 residents are being relocated to New Kiruna, two miles (3.2 kilometers) to the east over the next 20 years.

During that period, a new town center, municipal buildings and some 3,000 new homes will be constructed. But not everything in the new town will be box fresh — 21 of the old town’s heritage buildings are being transferred.

This year, seven old buildings have been moved already.

While some are dismantled brick by brick, others are transported in their entirety, carefully loaded onto specially adapted vehicles and driven to their new locations.

The incremental nature of the move, with its buildings and people gradually crawling east, has led to Kiruna being dubbed the “millipede town.”

A town on the move

So why is this settlement upping sticks?

The upheaval began in 2004 when the residents faced a dilemma. The nearby iron ore mine — Europe’s largest, and the town’s main source of employment for over a century — had begun to pose a danger.

As LKAB dug for deposits, cracks started appearing in the ground in populated areas. The state-owned company that operates the mine predicts that fractures will only get worse as it attempts to access the more difficult-to-reach minerals.

One option was to simply close the 120-year-old mine, but the 4,000 townspeople who work there would lose their jobs.

Instead, LKAB reached an agreement with the municipality to relocate the 6,000 people who, according to its projections, live in areas that will be affected by cracks in the next two decades.

LKAB will purchase their properties in old Kiruna, and residents can then choose between buying a home in the new town or upping sticks for pastures new.

About 95 percent of those given the option have chosen to stay. Those who do fly the nest often cite personal reasons, such as the elderly couple who wanted to move closer to their grown-up children in southern Sweden.

The remaining 12,000 residents of Kiruna get to stay put — for the time being, says Josefine Ejemalm, LKAB’s communications officer.

But if mining continues after 2035, then “other parts of the town will most likely be affected” by further cracks, says Goran Cars, head of development at the Kiruna municipality.

Does that mean that one day the problems will spread further afield, and New Kiruna might have to be relocated?

Cars thinks not.

“If we continue mining for 100 more years,” he says, “we would be so deep in the ground that the cracks won’t affect the surface.”

Uprooting lives

Preparations for the $1 billion dollar move, paid for by LKAB, began in 2014.

Today, about 300 housing units have been constructed in New Kiruna and nearly 400 residents have moved in.

Those living nearest to areas most at risk were relocated first.

“Let’s say that your house … will be affected in 2019, that means we will come to you well in advance and say: ‘In 2019, we know that the cracks are coming,'” Cars explains. “We will say: ‘To be on the safe side, we would like you to move in 2018.’

“We always want to have a safety buffer of at least a year.”

That staggered approach eases the financial pressure on LKAB.

“The mining company, of course, doesn’t want to pay money in advance for something that won’t happen until 10, 20 years from now,” Cars adds.

“And if you live in a house, and that house would remain (safe) for the next 15 years, you don’t want to move now — you want to stay in your house.”

In the latter stages, however, residents in affected areas will be moved in bulk to prevent anyone feeling “left behind.”

“As some areas vacate it will become a bit depressing,” Cars concedes. “No one has to live in an area that is obviously about to be abandoned and demolished.”

Tale of two cities

In 2018, construction will begin on the new town center and infrastructure for shops and businesses there. That work is expected to take two years.

“The construction of the new town hall is already more or less complete,” says Cars.

So will there be two rival town centers just miles apart?

It is one of many puzzling logistical problems posed by incrementally moving part of a town.

“If you have workplaces and shops in two city centers, if you want to go shopping on a Saturday you would have to do it in two centers. That means a lot of a lot of commuting (back and forth),” says Cars.

The plan is to shut the old town center, and favor the new base — but a date has not been set for the switch.

“We move all important stuff — in terms of commercial services, public services — to the new city center,” Cars explains. “And then we will provide very good public transport connecting the old town with the new town.”

Building boom

Perhaps the most delicate challenge Kiruna officials face is the moving of the heritage buildings, which are interwoven with the history and identity of the town.

The first to relocate was Arbetarbostaden B5 — a former housing unit at the mine, which is more than 100 years old.

Cars remembers “the anxiety” he felt around that debut project.

It proved harder than anticipated, he says, to take this building, “lift it up, put it on a tray, drive it away, then put it down safely.”

“We realized … you have to move it extremely gently, and you have to keep it really level. The moment you lean it a little bit, things start cracking within the building — windows, walls etc.”

That first move was educational. The team has gradually perfected how to move heritage buildings “in such a way the building remains intact.”

Whether a building is dismantled prior to the move, or relocated intact, depends on its size — so far, in Kiruna only two have been broken apart into sections. The highway is closed down as these buildings make their voyage.

Länsmansbostaden, a historic property built in 1906 as a residence for the town’s first official policeman, is the most recent building to move. It was moved whole to the center of New Kiruna.

Others to have changed address this year include Kiruna’s police station; a clock tower that was previously attached to the old town hall, and is now a centerpiece in the new town square; the local church, voted the most beautiful building in Sweden in 2001; and Hjalmar Lundbohmsgården — home to LKAB’s first manager Hjalmar Lundbohm, who lived there in the early 20th century.

The cost of each move has not been disclosed, but Cars says it is “approximately the same cost as the construction of a similar building.”

A social vision

Architecture firm White Arkitekter AB has been tasked with designing the new Kiruna.

Co-lead architect Krister Lindstedt has envisioned a modern, people-friendly development that embellishes the spectacular landscape of the region.

“There will be more social meeting places, more cafes and more scope for cultural activities than are currently available,” he says.

The old town does not have a proper center, and very few areas for gathering or hosting events. It also has a problem retaining its female residents, many of whom move elsewhere for work. It is hoped that New Kiruna’s design will solve all these problems.

Yet officials have realized the importance of retaining the familiar, too.

A “Kiruna Portal” has allowed people to identify items they would like to see moved to the new town, ranging from a clock tower to a particular street name.

Ghost town

The construction of New Kiruna doesn’t mean that the old town will turn into an eerie, abandoned space.

“We don’t want a ghost town,” says Cars.

He adds that while underground structures, such as building foundations, are in danger of cracking, a park created on top of the mine would be safe.

Despite the effort involved in establishing New Kiruna, officials acknowledge that the mine might not keep the town economically afloat forever, as modern technology gradually replaces human miners.

“The number of employees today is half of what is used to be in the 1970s,” says Cars. “The real challenge is trying to develop other sectors of the economy.

“Right now, we are making huge efforts to improve the tourism industry.”

Kiruna is a vantage point for viewing the Aurora Borealis, and boasts glorious scenery and an ice hotel.

Still, it’s safe to say the relocation is foremost on most Kiruna residents’ minds, for now.

“We really tried to make a sort of holistic plan for everybody,” Cars says.

“(Moving buildings) is sensitive business — and you also need to make new constructions that are in harmony with the old building you move.

“Otherwise it could be a very strange city.”