How to Move a Town

Appropriately, it was the dog musher who broke trail.

Sune Stralberg, 66, is a national champion musher, a maker of dogsleds, and owner of Bjorkis Hundprodukter, a one-stop shop for organic kibble, spare sled parts, and dog leads and harnesses. All of this makes him a local celebrity in his hometown of Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost city. He has the white beard and jovial affect of a skinny Swedish Santa and speaks in lovely, lilting sentences, even when he’s recounting painful memories, such as one from three years ago, when he was forced to move his shop out of its longtime home and into a strip mall 2 miles down the road. He had little choice—the ground beneath the old shop was on the verge of collapse, like much of the rest of the town. “I already knew that I would move because of the iron,” Stralberg says with a shrug. “Everyone knew.”

Kiruna sits on top of Kirunavaara, the world’s largest underground iron-ore mine and the source of a rare, high-quality magnetite processed into blueberry-size pellets and used in BMWs and iPhones. The mine is the reason Kiruna exists, employing 12 percent of its 18,000 residents, including, at various times, Stralberg’s grandfather, father, and six uncles. Stralberg himself worked in the mine’s machine shop for 16 years before quitting, in 1985, to turn his dogsled-making hobby into a business.

 

Kiruna’s magnetite seam is “shaped like a piece of toast,” says Fredrik Bjorkenwall, spokesman for LKAB, a state-owned mining company founded in 1890 to harvest the rich iron deposits of Swedish Lapland. At nearly 2,000 feet wide, it’s the largest known iron-ore body in the world, descending at least 6,500 feet on a slant that begins outside the town and angles underneath. It may actually continue far deeper than that—perhaps up to a mile more, Bjorkenwall says. To find out, he’d have to keep digging.

When LKAB started the mine in the late 19th century, it was an open pit. Eventually, ore near the surface was exhausted, and the company shifted to underground mining. The longer it continues, the further down the miners must go. Every time LKAB cuts deeper, another section of Kiruna becomes unstable. Stralberg isn’t the last who’ll have to move.

For years the “deformation,” as it’s known, affected only LKAB territory. Vast tracts of the old mining camps are already gone. Kiruna’s Luossajarvi lake would be gone by now, too, if the company hadn’t built a dam and reduced its size many years ago to make room for the mine’s sprawling headquarters. From now on, though, when the mine grows, more of civilian Kiruna must vacate, or sink. A few blocks from downtown, the beautiful historic train station, which disgorged thousands of tourists a week during peak hiking season, has shut. It waits to be razed.

Every resident of Kiruna has been aware of the possibility that he or she might, at some point, have to move to accommodate the mine’s gradual expansion. But in 2004, LKAB told the municipal government that to reach the next level of the ore body, the mine would need to be dug a couple thousand feet deeper, rendering an enormous section of the town unstable, including the city center. Thus began an audacious, complicated, still very much in-progress attempt to move the heart of Kiruna, including 5,000 homes and a quarter-mile square of residential and commercial space, about 2 miles southeast. Most structures will be bulldozed and rebuilt, but in some cases—with the most historically significant homes, for instance, or the town’s famous wooden church, once voted Sweden’s most beautiful building—they’ll be taken apart and reassembled or trucked, whole, to Kiruna 2.0.

Stralberg has had to move because of the mine every so often throughout his life, including three times in his childhood. Having to relocate his shop, though, came as more of a shock. It had been the company store into the 1970s and was the only business in a residential area right on the edge of the deformation zone. As such, LKAB was also his landlord, and in 2011, the company wrote to tell him he had two years to leave. By then, the town was holding open meetings about the future relocation, so Stralberg stood up and faced the LKAB representative. “I’m the first store in history that has to move,” he said. Where should he go? What if he was alone in an area with no traffic? “I’ll be the only store. Who’s gonna come to me and buy something?”

LKAB had no answers at that point, so Stralberg, his wife, and two daughters were left to go their own way. They searched for more than a year. Kiruna has boomed over the past decade, thanks to the mine and adventure tourists seeking a gateway to Lapland’s national parks and ski slopes. There’s little commercial or residential space available, and growth is constrained by the peculiar laws of Lapland, which protect reindeer herding routes for the indigenous Sami people. Finally, Stralberg found a large space in a speculative new commercial park. His shop is now topped with the world’s largest dogsled, at roughly 43 feet long and 375 pounds, so as to be visible from the nearby E10 highway—at least until that road, too, is moved, routed around the area where the new Kiruna is finally beginning to rise.

Sune Stralberg’s dogsled shop was the first business to move.
Stralberg’s dogsled shop was the first business to move.
Photographer: Klaus Thymann for Bloomberg Businessweek

Stralberg almost went broke building out the space, for which he pays five times the monthly rent of the old one to his new landlord. After LKAB said it was unable to help him pay for finishing work or supplement the rent, he cashed in his pension. (The company eventually supplied some carpenters to build shelves and offered a truck and a local youth soccer team to help him move.) He’s the most publicly disgruntled person in all of Kiruna, a man who was featured on the front page of the local paper under a headline declaring LKAB “liars” in a giant red font. And yet, six years later, Stralberg is happy. The store is making money in a better space and a better location. “I know we have to move the town,” he says. “We need the mine. Without the mine, there is no Kiruna.”

Kiruna sprawls from northwest to southeast along the base of a mountain that was once another LKAB mine but is now a ski slope with three lifts. Its quaint center is home to City Hall, a culture and tourism center, a six-story Scandic hotel, and a winding commercial district, where shops that have been open since the early 20th century still occupy their original spaces. The highest point in town, visible from almost every home, is a pile of filtered soil from the early open-pit days.

Beneath that is an underground city with 260 miles of roads and the world’s deepest restaurant. Workers enter the mine in cars or buses and descend to the active level, more than three-quarters of a mile below the surface. It takes 20 minutes at “rush hour,” according to Bjorkenwall, and life at that depth is clean and comfortable. The main tunnel is so large, the company held a circus there when it opened.

Down in the mine.
In the Kirunavaara mine.
Photographer: Klaus Thymann for Bloomberg Businessweek

Other towns around the world have been relocated—including Hibbing, Minn., a small community that moved in 1919 to accommodate what was then the world’s largest open-pit iron mine. The alternative is to erase a place from the Earth, and that’s happened, too, of course—typically because of intentional floods to expand reservoirs. Iowa, Michigan, and New York all had communities that are now at the bottom of lakes. In 2008, China abandoned 150 cities and 1,300 villages, home to 1.3 million people, to make way for the Three Gorges Dam.

Hibbing’s move succeeded. The town is home to 16,000 people, many of whom still work in its iron mine. Tallangatta, Australia, survived, too, after moving 5 miles in the 1950s so that Lake Hume, a source of drinking water, could expand. Because of the menace of climate change and rising sea levels, the world is watching Kiruna closely. Already, several small Alaskan fishing villages endangered by sea-level rise have announced plans to relocate, and last year tinyIsle de Jean Charles, La., became the first American town to receive federal funding to move ($48 million, for a town of 40 residents). These are likely just the baby steps of urban relocation. A study published this year in the scientific journal Nature stated that, according to some projections, most of Miami could be underwater in the next century, turning 2.5 million residents into refugees. An average of 21.5 million people are displaced by weather-­related events each year, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This year, that number will include more than 72,000 people who fled Hurricane Harvey.

Kiruna’s move is unique in the short annals of city relocation. None have been attempted on this scale, at this pace, with this ambitious a vision. Part of this is because Swedish law in particular protects its citizens from man-made disruptions to their livelihood via the Swedish Minerals Act, which obliges mining companies to “pay for the effects and costs that arise when the company’s mining activities lead to urban transformations.”

In 2013, LKAB and Kiruna’s town government selected the Stockholm firm White Arkitekter AS to develop the “transformation” plans. White’s blueprint, titled “Kiruna 4-ever,” was more than a simple move from point A to point B. It was a reimagination of what the city could be, taking advantage of the opportunity to correct the mistakes of organic municipal growth. The new city would be more walkable, with better transportation and greater urban density. It would also have a more direct connection to the vast, unspoiled nature of Lapland, which attracts the tourists driving Kiruna’s second-largest industry. Residential blocks will be built as “fingers” divided by raw land, ensuring that every new home is within three blocks of a forest or trail.

 

LKAB now has 30 full-time employees devoted to the effort, including project managers, communications officers, economists, and real estate managers. So far, every step has taken more time and money than anticipated. The company has already spent $500 million of the $1.6 billion reserved for the move just to clear and lay out the town, and a company website set up to explain the work admits that “we can’t say how much the urban transformations will ultimately cost.” Dan Lundstrom, a former mine worker who now conducts guided tours of the area, says he’s heard informed estimates as high as $10 billion. LKAB declined to comment on projections.

Stralberg may have been a guinea pig—or “trial rabbit,” as he puts it—for the move, but he’s got company now. A multi­building apartment complex was demolished last fall, and residents were moved to new homes on the site of an old military base, leaving behind only foundations, which have been preserved as public art. In June contractors detached seven large wooden homes from the sites where they’ve sat since the early 1900s, and on July 31, a crew began the delicate process of cutting away the town’s iconic steel clock tower, in six segments, for relocation to the new city center. There it will stand in a huge square, next to a new City Hall being built from a spectacular design by Danish architect Henning Larsen. The town government expects to move in by May.

Last year, LKAB bought out all the real estate in the center of Kiruna to smooth the process of closing the old town. While a few people took the opportunity to retire, leaving vacant stores, most took the money and stayed. Now they await some official decision on when to relocate. That date was once 2020 but could now be as late as 2023—it will be a while before they know for sure. The uncertainty is hard on shops, says Johanna Ringholt, who with her father co-owns Centrum House, an 84-year-old clothing store in the current city center. Her grandfather founded Centrum, and she hopes her children will take it over someday.

For now, though, it’s hard to plan. While Ringholt and her father selected a prime corner in the new city, just a block from the square, there isn’t even a start date for construction on those blocks. Instead of waiting, a few business owners have packed up and left Kiruna altogether. By yearend, the grocery chain ICA AB plans to vacate a large parcel right across the street, leaving an ugly hole in the middle of town. “It’s a challenge to survive these years,” Ringholt says.

The former site of a building, now moved.
The site of a building that was relocated.
Photographer: Klaus Thymann for Bloomberg Businessweek

Considered all together, what’s happening in Kiruna is unprecedented. A railroad has moved. Next is the highway. The church will be photographed in great detail, disassembled, and then rebuilt, board by board. LKAB has agreed to pay for 20 structures to be relocated intact, but a U.S. contractor who visited recently told the town it may ultimately be cheaper for residents to move a house than let LKAB buy them out—at market rate plus 25 percent—and wait to pay retail price for newly built homes.

Another possibility is that private developers could see value in saving structures, buy them from LKAB, and carry out the moves. That’s something the architects would like to see, says Krister Lindstedt, the co-leader of the project for White Arkitekter, because a greater mix of old and new will create a more diverse city that doesn’t look like a sparkling new suburb. Figuring out how all this gets done takes both time and money, says Lars Backstrom, executive director of Kiruna’s department of society and environmental planning. “These organizations”—meaning the town government, the mining company, and the contractors—­“aren’t set up to move cities.”

 

About a third of a mile below Stralberg’s old shop, in the mine’s visitor center, there’s a diorama showing Kiruna and the mine with a bright red line encircling the areas that have to be cleared. “By 2035, we will reach that line,” says Lennart Stalnacke, Kiruna’s mining manager. Within the next 5 to 10 years, LKAB’s board will meet to decide if the company should move deeper into the Earth, to about a mile. (The mine is now on its fifth transportation level—each move takes 8 to 10 years to prepare and costs $1.5 billion.) That will push the red line even further, forcing the relocation of even more neighborhoods.

How safe is the new site then? Would Kiruna have to move again? Stalnacke stares at the map for a moment, then looks up, smiling ruefully. “If we’re still mining 100 years from now, maybe,” he says.

Everyone in Kiruna today will be dead and gone, and whoever is in charge will have had decades to plan for the change. By then, this type of epic scale urban transformation could well be standard practice. And going through another move would be better than the alternative—that is, if mining at depths below one-and-a-quarter miles becomes too expensive. In that scenario, the mine closes, and Kiruna would have to stand without it.

Lindstadt and the architects at White have considered this. A big focus of the Kiruna 4-ever plan was to make the new city efficient and attractive enough to draw other industries. It already benefits from being a tourism gateway to Sweden’s largest national park, which includes ski areas and its highest mountain. And one of the European Space Agency’s main launch sites is just 30 minutes away in a remote pine forest.

“It’s tricky to foresee how this will play in the future,” says Backstrom. “This transformation attracts so much attention to Kiruna. It’s important for us to figure out how we get this attention to stick to the ground. We want people and companies to invest here. We have an opportunity to get people to move here. That’s my hope.

“I’m sure there will be a Kiruna, but it will be a completely different Kiruna,” he continues. “It might be a Kiruna with fewer people and a lot of problems caused by too few people. On the other hand, people can be very innovative, so who knows?” He exhales a deep breath. “Of course, nobody wishes the company to shut down. It would be a disaster. I hope we can find ways to go deeper.”

 

 

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