How Sweden is Relocating an Entire City

By Alissa Walker on at

The northernmost city in Sweden is sinking. In fact, by 2050, most of Kiruna's structures will have collapsed into the iron mines below it. So engineers have embarked upon an ambitious project to move Kiruna — along with its 20,000 residents — two miles to the east. A new documentary explains exactly how they plan to do it.

Back in 2004, knowing the city was doomed to sink into the mines below (a process known as “deformation”), the state-owned mining company Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara AB held a splashy global design competition to find the best idea for moving Kiruna. Architects at White Arkitekter AB won the competition for their plan Kiruna 4 Ever and broke ground on the new city in 2014. All of the residents will be completely moved within two decades.

This Is Kiruna: How to Move a City is a delightful little film made by the Swedish government that focuses on the massive infrastructural effort required to relocate a city — and one above the Arctic Circle no less, where it’s very cold, covered in deep snow, and completely dark for some of the year.

Only three historical structures will actually be moved; the rest will be “recycled” with their materials reclaimed for use in new construction. There’s also an explanation for how everyone gets re-housed: Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara AB is giving the owners of sinking properties a choice. It will either buy these homes at market value plus 25 per cent or offer residents a brand-new home for free in a new part of town. (Renters will get subsidised rent to help them transition into what will likely be more expensive buildings.) Continuing to mine the valuable iron ore from below the old Kiruna will supposedly keep the city economically flush, although not everyone believes this will be the case.

What’s most amazing to see in this film is how casual the residents are about the prospect of uprooting their lives. But I think this is largely a credit to the great care that Sweden has taken to make sure that Kiruna’s citizens are upgrading to a better urban experience.

When I spoke with one of the firm’s principals two years ago, it was intriguing to hear how this was a chance to fix many of the existing city’s problems. Namely, it’s an opportunity to build a denser, more compact, centre but it’s also about proving to residents that an improved city design can better meet their daily needs, says architect Mark Szulgit. “The biggest challenge is to move the minds of the people.” [This Is Kiruna: How to Move a City]