The town transformation in Kiruna has received attention in Sweden as well as internationally – never before has such a large community been transformed. The reason is that mining has caused subsidence which affects the town, and parts of Kiruna have to be rebuilt elsewhere, on new ground.
Kiruna was founded in the early 1900s when the mining industry began to grow in earnest. A few years later Lapland was spoken of as ‘the land of the future’. This was where the forest was, and where the ore was. Iron ore alone made up 10% of Swedish exports already in 1913. And people came, because there were jobs available. They came to Kiruna to work as lumberjacks, raftsmen, miners, or so-called navvies working for railway and water companies. Merchants, cooks and maids followed them. A new society began to form, not unlike the European conquest of North America. There was a reason why the ore fields were likened to a kind of Klondyke. Just like in North America the indigenous people had to give way to a more industrialised exploitation of nature.
The site chosen to establish a town, the low mountain Haukivaara, had a relatively favourable local climate and was strategically placed between the two mining mountains Luossavaara and Kiirunavaara. The housing back then needed to be close to the workplace because of poorly developed means of communication.
1948 Kiruna was granted city rights and during this period the town started to expand in earnest. Architects and city planners adopted new continental ideas and Kiruna became the first city of its kind in the entire Nordic region: the first town adapted to the terrain and its conditions, with an organically designed city plan instead of the grid that had been the norm. The idea was for the town and the mining industry to develop together.
So it was in the beginning, and so it is today, as the mining company LKAB with around 4,000 employees in some 15 countries keeps driving the business forward.
The town must be moved
Mining causes the rock to move and this affects the environment, above and below ground. As mining goes deeper and deeper, the land and the surrounding communities are affected. The shape and location of the ore bodies decide where the ground will move and how communities are affected. In Kiruna there’s just one single ore body and it leans in below the town itself. Strict regulations decide how much the ground is allowed to move if people live above and before such values are reached dwellings must be moved and the area converted into an industrial estate.
Already back in the 1970s there were indications that deformations caused by the mine meant certain parts of the town needed to be evacuated, but it wasn’t until 2004 that LKAB notified Kiruna Municipality that mining would greatly affect the urban area. A couple of years later it was finally decided where the new centre would be: three kilometres east of its current location. The town would be moved. Kiruna’s urban transformation prompted an international response, as well as a similar move of the area Malmberget in Gällivare municipality, where the situation was the same.
Two major architectural competitions were launched: one for the new town centre and one for a new city hall. Both attracted architects from all over the world and residents were also asked what was particularly important to them as the new town was taking shape.