How Engineers Are Moving An Entire Town Two Miles Away

The city of Kiruna, Sweden, is sinking—the iron mines beneath it are making the ground collapse. So, over the next two decades, its 20,000 residents will be relocated, along with their homes, offices, stores, and schools, to another, brand-new city about two miles to the east.

As Sweden's northernmost city, just inside the Arctic Circle, Kiruna is very much a company town: many of the city's residents are employed by the government-owned mining corporation Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara AB (LKAB). In 2004, LKAB announced that mining operations would cause damage to certain buildings on the edge of town, which would thus need to be relocated. Soon the mine's plan evolved so that the entire city would need to move. LKAB has committed over $600 million to the project already and will likely spend millions more than that.

Moving a city due to mining damage is sadly not a unique scenario. But in Kiruna's case, the city acted quickly, turning its situation into a global design competition which resulted in some extremely visionary ideas for its future. The winning proposal, called Kiruna 4 Ever, was created by White Arkitekter AB, and the groundbreaking for the new city center begins this month.

Gizmodo talked with Åsa Bjerndell, one of the firm's partners, about how they plan to not only move the city, but to build a more livable, sustainable one.

How Engineers Are Moving An Entire Town Two Miles Away

How Engineers Are Moving An Entire Town Two Miles Away

Kiruna in January 2014. Photo by beefortytwo; Kiruna's church, which was built in 1912 and is the largest wooden building in the country, is being moved piece by piece. Photo by Tim Rawle

How is the damage from the mines to the city seen in everyday life? Can you see sinkholes and buildings sagging?

Yes, you can definitely see sinkholes. There are also some homes that have been evacuated and more will have to leave soon. A big part of the existing city center will be gone in a couple of years. The train station is gone and a new temporary one has been installed. The city hall is next to be evacuated—a new one is planned as one part of the first step in the moving of the city center.

What are some of the biggest ways the new town will improve upon the old town?

The character of the new city will be a compact, urban structure in the vast arctic landscape. For many of its inhabitants this is one of the big attractions of Kiruna. You get the service and social and cultural offerings of a city combined with the recreational possibilities of the landscape.

The old town does not make the most of this duality. It is too spread out to deliver the required density and also isolates the city center from nature. This will be corrected by "fingers of nature" coming all the way into the heart of the new city.

How Engineers Are Moving An Entire Town Two Miles Away

How Engineers Are Moving An Entire Town Two Miles Away

"Fingers of nature" will allow the city to grow east to west while introducing these north-south areas which connect the city with the surrounding natural landscape. This will be done with a zoning strategy that includes preservation areas and outdoor recreation uses

Moving people's homes sounds like a huge emotional challenge. What was the most important thing you had to do to keep the city's culture and vibrancy intact?

You are right—it is most definitely an emotional challenge! "Kiruna 4 Ever," our motto for the competition entry, is all about that. If there is anything that defines a city, it's the people who live and work there. The systems of social and economic ties are what binds Kiruna, and if there is anything to be moved, it is these connections and relationships. If we are going to talk about successfully moving a city, we have to make sure that the move strengthens existing relations and helps create new ones in the process.

So your proposal actually goes beyond the physical design of buildings and streets.

It's all about regaining trust so that people dare to invest energy, time, and money in Kiruna. They need to trust to Kiruna will be a fantastic place to live in the future. "Kiruna 4 Ever" is about that feeling. Information and different levels of participation are crucial so Kiruna residents feel involved. In the completion entry we proposed three different types of arrangements to achieve this.

The Kiruna Dialogue is about the most basic ways to get information out to anyone and give them the opportunity to provide feedback and suggestions. We proposed to use the already existing formal and informal networks in Kiruna—sporting clubs, day-care centers, libraries, churches, and so on—so that the information will come to the inhabitants; they will not have to go looking for it.

How Engineers Are Moving An Entire Town Two Miles Away

How Engineers Are Moving An Entire Town Two Miles Away

The new city center will include the new city hall designed by Henning Larsen Architects and gathering places for residents; the Kiruna Portal will be a place to recycle and reclaim elements from the town's old structures

The Kiruna Portal is a physical and virtual meeting place for existing and new residents, the business community and property owners. Here, there will be an in-house factory that recycles the building materials from the demolition. The profit from this is also emotional—old memories can be preserved and become part of the new. The reuse of resources from the old town through the Kiruna Portal, holds new possibilities for the architecture as well as a sustainable way of handling accessible resources in an isolated region.

Finally, the Kiruna Biennale is an international biennial event where Kiruna will share their experiences and invite other cities in similar situations. We think that climate change and other challenges will force more communities to move in different ways, and that there will be a need to come together and learn from each other on a global scale. The Biennale will also be a city festival for the inhabitants and will be a way to establish new parts of the city as the town gradually morphs eastward, away from the mine.

All three of these events make the move become a collective experience—the whole town is involved, and they are still a very important part of the strategies now that the competition entry is been worked into official planning documents and timetables.

How Engineers Are Moving An Entire Town Two Miles Away

The city will shift along an east-west street in the center that builds upon the existing urban fabric, adding a cable car and freight railway connections

Not many cities get a chance to start over and correct what was wrong with their urban design. I can almost see Kiruna becoming a place for urban planners all over the world to visit and see what you've done. Are you thinking that other cities might be able to learn from you?

Sure! I think that what is important in our view is to understand the existing situation: the landscape, the climate, the culture, and also the political and social starting points. This is because the redesigning and relocation of a city center is a process and not a project. A city center has to exist and function from day one, and both the first step and the vision for the longtime result is important to build trust. The planning tools and strategies have be flexible to be able to adapt to unknown challenges and possibilities in the future.

How Engineers Are Moving An Entire Town Two Miles Away

How Engineers Are Moving An Entire Town Two Miles Away

A new transit station will have train connections to nearby communities as well as a gondola; a more dense, walkable urban center in the new Kiruna will include a busy shopping street

What is the feeling like for the residents who live there? Are they resigned to the fact that this is something that needs to happen, or is there still some controversy and protest?

What Kiruna residents now generally want is action. Uncertainty and certain insecurities exist, but the movement of the city is considered necessary. Discussions are mostly focused on is how it should be done. Not so much about how it will be, not after the competition. Maybe there will be more discussions now that the new development plan is being presented.

Maybe the most impressive part of this is not the engineering itself, but the way you've been able to convince 20,000 people to agree to it!

You need the inhabitants on board because they are the ones who are going to fill the new city center with life. If they do not believe in it and if they do not feel invited and empowered to take part in the change, it will not succeed. You can only plan so much after that. The life of the city has to take over to make the spaces thrive and develop—that is the only option for a sustainable development.

Check out more photos of Kiruna here