The City That Is Moving Down the Road

How to Reassemble a Place In 100 Years or Less

Story by Feargus O’Sullivan

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Would you rather lose your home or your job? This is the question that the citizens of Kiruna, Sweden had thrust upon them.

This city of 23,000 was founded for one reason only: to mine an apparently bottomless seam of iron ore located in Sweden’s northern wilds. This resource made the town prosperous, but it also sounded the death knell of Kiruna as its citizens now know it. If extraction is to continue, the mine must burrow to a depth of 1.3 kilometers, so far beneath the earth on which Kiruna stands that the town’s very foundations are at risk. Kirunans faced a stark choice: Give up on the mine or move the city.

They chose the mine, for good reason. Today, 49 percent of Kiruna’s men are employed there, in skilled, well-paid work to boot. Located well within the Arctic Circle, the bleak, almost unpopulated region around Kiruna offers few other occupational choices. The vote to clear the city in order to keep the mine came out of a plain economic calculation.

Now Kiruna is about to begin one of the boldest, most radical urban projects of this century. Over the next 100 years, the city will gradually move en masse several kilometers eastward from the mine. It’s a dramatic, meticulously planned shift, one that could well become a blueprint for other settlements forced to consider moving for environmental or economic reasons.

White, the Swedish firm charged with moving Kiruna, is well aware of the unique and delicate situation Kirunans find themselves in.

“Kiruna is in an almost existential predicament right now,” says Krister Lindstedt, the architect and urban designer who is leading the project for the firm. “The city has a symbiotic relationship with the mine as its primary economic resource, but its extraction is digging ever deeper into the earth. The future has similarities with a dystopian science-fiction tale. The mine must either stop digging, causing mass unemployment, or the city must move and allow their homes to fall under a deformation zone.”

Kiruna’s predicament may sound like the plot of a sci-fi film, but even in Sweden, it’s a storyline most people haven’t heard. The far-flung city is a last stop on the way to nowhere. Beyond a trickle of through-traffic to Norway’s Arctic coast, few find themselves that far north, and in good weather, it takes nearly seven hours to reach the nearest city of more than 100,000, modestly sized Umeå.

Kiruna today. (Photo credit: Rob de Wit on Flickr)

Kiruna was born in 1900 out of a plan hatched by the eponymous mine’s owners, Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara Aktiebolag (LKAB). Early on, LKAB invested in the company town, developing the world’s most northerly heated tram to connect workers to the mines as early as 1907, and an elaborate wooden church that was voted Sweden’s most beautiful building in 2001. Its pretty church aside, the city has never been an easy place to live; temperatures dip to -40 degrees Fahrenheit, and only rise above freezing for five months a year; the sun disappears below the horizon entirely from early December into January, providing little more than brief, ethereal twilight in the months on either side.

While tourism has helped in recent years (the world’s original ice hotel lies in a village near Kiruna), the city’s overwhelming dependency on mining makes it especially vulnerable to market dips. During the 1970s iron price slump, the local employment bureau sent so many newly unemployed Kirunans south for work that it was dubbed the “travel agency.” Kiruna’s overwhelming focus on mining also means that it offers less skilled work for women. Younger women often leave, creating a gender imbalance that makes it harder for men who stay to start families.

The city’s current form also isn’t ideal. Kiruna’s city center is no longer, well, central. A small downtown is near the edge of the mine, while the town’s newer parts all sprawl out behind it to the east, chipping away at the Arctic wilderness that is the region’s most treasured resource — other than the iron. Getting around requires a car, as there is little public transit, and trekking along snowy, winding roads in sub-zero temperatures isn’t the most practical option. This car-centrism has sapped much of the historic downtown’s magnetism, and many stores are now located on Kiruna’s edge. Meanwhile, the imminent move offers people little incentive to refurbish their properties and as an inevitable result, the city has become rundown.

Perhaps the one advantage of such a brutal geography is that it has given locals a hardy pioneer mentality that probably makes them more willing to move on.

White’s new city is being designed with all these challenges in mind. The goal is not only to move the city onto more solid ground, but to create a more densely built, lively city that can exist independent of its namesake mine. The new Kiruna will be a place where the surrounding wilderness is more easily accessible, and where the economy is more diverse.

The new Kiruna will have a dense central core. (Rendering by White)

None of this, however, will happen quickly and that too is part of the plan, which was given the playful name Kiruna 4-Ever and shown at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale.

When trying to imagine how Kiruna’s move will work, it helps to think of a glacier edging slowly down a valley. The ground covered in a century will be remarkable, but the place won’t change that radically from day to day. The relocation and redevelopment will be a gradual process occurring over several generations. A central tenet of the plan is that all development will be contagious; the new will be built on the edge of the old to prevent the appearance of a break in the city’s whole.

“One key strategy is leaving no one behind,” Lindstedt says. “The city needs to connect all current residents during the whole relocation process, rather than creating a new satellite. New parts of the city are placed far enough away from the iron ore extraction to reassure residents long-term, but it has to be close enough to the existing parts to keep the community together.”

The most striking aspect of the Kiruna project is not that the idea of moving a city has no precedents. It’s that the project plots formally a process that has in the past often been only informal, haphazard and chaotic.

Cities have in fact been moved wholesale since at least 1000 B.C. Around that time, the water channels serving the 300,000-citizen Egyptian city of Pi-Ramesses dried up, prompting its rulers to dismantle most of the city’s buildings and reconstruct them at a new site. The city rose again at Tanis, some 60 miles away.

The early history of London suggests a smaller-scale, more gradual version of the same process, with Anglo-Saxon settlers setting up an entirely new town (Lundenwic) farther up the Thames from the then-abandoned Roman settlement of Londinium and proceeding to recycle its building materials. More recently, many gold rush towns have waxed and then waned, their shanties broken down and reused elsewhere.

Likewise, the makeshift towns, dubbed Hell on Wheels, that were swiftly assembled and disassembled around the construction sites of America’s First Transcontinental Railroad were also an inadvertent inspiration for future nomadic cities.

Kiruna’s carefully planned move may be new, but the process it attempts to tame is anything but.

“As functions and capital move on, old cities decay and contract [and] new cities explode,” says Kim West, associate director at engineering and design firm Arup. “Cities can be moved by design, but more often the function and the people move emergently. One might almost say, the challenge is to stop cities moving on a 100- to 200-year timescale.”

In Limbo

That a move this choreographed can even be possible is largely thanks to Kiruna’s unique conditions. Residents know that without the mine there would be no Kiruna. They’ve also already had 10 years to prepare themselves. The process began publicly in 2004, when the state-owned mining company sent a one-page letter to the municipality informing them that the next phase of their exploration required digging 1,350 meters below ground — a depth that would have a severe impact on the city’s stability.

“The mine said it would foot the bill for the move, so the municipality agreed,” says Lindstedt. “This highlights the awkward balance of power on the project. There is an enormously powerful state-owned mining company on the one hand and the small, poor community government, which nonetheless controls all planning decisions, on the other.”

Local elected representatives made the decision to move freely and democratically, but without a strong sense of any viable alternative. There was never a Plan B. To make sure that residents ended up actually wanting to live in the new city that necessity had thrust upon them, White employed a team of anthropologists to consult with them.

When they asked residents how they felt about the move, what they found was a community in limbo. People felt resigned to an uncertain future, yet there was latent frustration, anxiety, and a sense of excitement.

“For most people in Kiruna, the fact that they have to move is part of their lives. They’ve known about it forever,” says anthropologist Viktoria Walldin.

“Kiruna people had their lives on hold and faced difficulties making even basic decisions about life: where to move, whether to start a business, have a child, renovate their homes and so on. But they were ready to move.”

Walldin noticed that the move divided residents into different groups as much as it united them in a common process.

“When we arrived, the people who lived closest to the deformation zone had just received notice that they had to move within the next few years. These people were in total shock,” she says. “They would say, ‘is this really happening now? And where should I move when I can’t see anyone building right now? How can I move when I don’t know anything?’”

“Then there were people who had been told they needed to move 10 years ago, this process has been going on for a long time, their attitude was ‘Don’t talk about it, just do it. We’ve been ready for a while.’ Then there were people who were already living in the [currently lightly populated] zone where the city is supposed to move. They said, ‘I moved away from the city to get some peace and quiet. Now the whole city is coming after me!’”

Moving and accommodating all these different perspectives is arguably more complicated than moving structures, even the large ones, that make up a city. Ultimately, how Kirunans fare in the move will be the true test of the project’s success or failure.

Kiruna is surrounded by Arctic wilderness. (Lars Bergström on Flickr)

While Kiruna’s move will be gradual, the new city will still be a radical departure from the past. Instead of today’s sprawling neighborhoods, all development will orient around a compactly built central town hall square surrounded by narrow streets designed to protect pedestrians from wind and encourage walking. The city’s current shops, as well as new cafes, will be relocated to streets running directly off the square. The housing in new Kiruna will be apartments, rather than the single-family homes common in today’s city, and residential development will spread no farther than three blocks from a central axis. That central corridor will be the city’s green spine, with space for cross-country ski trails and tobogganing. The open space — a new addition to the city— will keep reminders of the surrounding wilderness within the city, a landscape that will never be more than 15 minutes walk from any built-up spot.

Stretching smart growth principles further, the city has plans to harness excess heat created by the mine to create power and heating for the town, pushing what might otherwise be a resource-guzzling city toward being carbon neutral.

“Mining is the most energy-consuming industry, and they have spillover heat that they are not really using,” says Lindstedt.

The old city’s evacuation will begin for real in 2018. If all goes as planned, within five years, the new nucleus will have been constructed just to the east of the current town, toward which people will be moved from the former central core.

By 2028, the streets around this new city center will be filled with apartment buildings, and by 2033, substantial parts of old Kiruna will have been cleared away, freeing up space for a new park. By 2050, the clearing will be done, and the shift of residents will have largely been completed.

A rendering of the edge of the relocated Kiruna. (Rendering by White)

For the following 50 years, work in Kiruna will be focused on the new city.

There will be echoes of the old city in the new. Many older buildings, including the church and the town hall’s clock tower, will be transplanted east. Materials from old Kiruna will be recycled as much as possible — even domestic interiors and trees. When they cannot be transplanted or reused directly, these materials will end up at a depot where residents will be able to take dismantled wood, iron and other paraphernalia for personal reuse.

City on Legs

The idea that cities could be picked up and reconstituted elsewhere has long fascinated the architectural avant-garde. Britain’s Archigram group, formed in 1964, anticipated today’s interest in lightweight, mobile and modular urbanism. It produced influential prototypes such as the Instant City — a vast airship cum arts center that could bring metropolitan culture to any part of the globe — and the Walking City, a project that Kiruna’s new architects name-check as a formative influence. A vast robotic leviathan on metal legs, the Walking City was a utopian mobile settlement designed to plug into and then disconnect from utilities and information networks as it roamed the landscape. Endowed with its own intelligence, this huge beetle-like structure was obviously a fantasy, but its suggestion of a mobile future city complete with its own modular utilities may well be a prediction of urban models to come.

The issues that the Walking City addressed become more pressing each year. The impacts of climate change have put the future sustainability of many cities at risk, forcing a conversation about adaptations and even relocations. The most pressure will be on coastal or low-lying cities beset with rising sea levels and ever more frequent high tides that threaten to make flood risk close to constant.

A plan of Kiruna in 2033. (White)

There is no consensus on how high seas could rise. In the 2012 book High Tide on Main Street, oceanographer John Englander notes that current estimates for water rise by 2100 fall anywhere from one foot to seven feet by 2100. Other impacts of climate change such as more frequent extreme weather events and warmer temperatures come with their own set of challenges.

In Alaska, rising temperatures mean that sea ice now forms later along the coast, leaving it more vulnerable to autumn storms that cause serious erosion. The cycle has already forced dramatic action in one village called Newtok. There, the shoreline eroded severely enough to turn the settlement into an island. At imminent risk of being washed away, Newtok’s residents are moving to a new, higher site nine miles down the coast before the inevitable happens.

While the conditions that might induce moves like this may already be with us, moves like Newtok’s remain rare. Even John Englander predicts that vulnerable coastal communities will do all they can to adapt, spending billions of dollars on new infrastructure such as sea walls before they consider uprooting and rebuilding, which would surely cost “trillions,” he says.

“Cities have a disincentive to relocate because that would effectively be end of the city,” Englander says. “Property values would drop to zero, unless someone is prepared to buy out every single person, and therefore the tax base would collapse. Such a move would be against our instincts.”

“When it comes to something incremental like sea level rise, because of this death by a thousand cuts, the cities never have an incentive. Solutions like building roads higher or installing another pump always come first.”

A good weather vane for current solutions can be found in the response to Hurricane Sandy, which devastated coastal cities across the East Coast of the United States in 2012. Within months of the storm, the Department of Housing and Urban Development began rethinking its traditional approach to disaster recovery through a coastal infrastructure design competition called Rebuild by Design. The competition’s guiding theory was that resilient infrastructure, if designed with climate change in mind, could protect these communities from future disasters. The competition’s six winners proposed measures such as new barrier island breakwaters off Staten Island, massive green protective berms in Lower Manhattan and wetlands that would absorb tidal surges in the New Jersey Meadowlands. Contingency infrastructure for emergencies was also a key feature. Among other suggested solutions for New York City were new piers to help with maritime emergency supply chains in the Bronx, and flood walls to be hung from the underside of the FDR East River Drive to offer protection from tidal surges.

There’s nothing particularly shortsighted about these plans. They could help to secure the region from sea rise and high tides for the next 50 to 100 years without displacing people from the coast.

Yet embedded in some of the Rebuild by Design proposals is the acknowledgment that tactical retreat from vulnerable coastal areas may ultimately become necessary. One Rebuild by Design finalist project put together by Sasaki Associates with Rutgers University and Arup looks discreetly at such a move. It concentrates on Long Beach Island, a barrier island protecting the coast from around 10 miles north of Atlantic City. The project notes that as rising sea levels and high tides become ever more frequent, the regular threat to property and life will make the island increasingly expensive to insure and thus harder to inhabit. Bearing this in mind, a move inland seems inevitable at some point.Spotting the ecotourism potential of the undeveloped mainland coastline that Long Beach Island shelters, the proposal suggests a future shift for development away from the barrier island and its beaches. As tourism facilities develop on the more sheltered mainland coast, the island itself could very gradually be turned into a state park that attracts daily beach visitors, with little or no settlement.

This sort of proposal could well be the shape of things to come. While there is no question that people will remain in dense, economically vital and uber-developed Manhattan, less populated, more vulnerable areas certainly could use a plan like that developed by Sasaki, Rutgers and Arup. When considered globally, this suggests that vulnerable settlements of the future may not be migrating cities, but rather, wandering cities, shifting slowly within their current territory. Just as the distance between Kiruna and its mine will gradually grow, strict planning restrictions could ease coastal settlements away from the shoreline into inland retreat behind higher levee walls. These settlements could adopt incremental plans of protection and abandonment as seas rise.

“I think a city like Miami Beach will definitely exist in 100 years, but it will be very different,” says Englander. “In most places where the water will continue intruding, they will elevate areas, building them up on a gradual basis. I think there will be a slow migration. They might say, we’ll either condemn or raise this district or this island by three meters. Some areas will adapt, and some of the population will not be able to afford to live there.”

The worry here is costs, which might prove astronomical. Wealthier residents might be able to afford to raise their properties, or be able to afford to live somewhere with very high insurance premiums. Poorer residents, however, would have fewer options; their homes could become worthless, or they could be forced to migrate without the resources to do so. Indeed, while the process of city migration described above is logistically feasible, it may not be so without creating further social inequality.

White’s plans for the new Kiruna include a large park at the city’s center. (Rendering by White.)

In Kiruna, residents will be given cash compensation for their properties by the mine, as well as funds to relocate with. They will then need to buy properties within the new city. Care is being taken to ensure that people are able to purchase a new home with the same amount of floor space as their old home, if not more. The cost will be enormous. Luckily for Kirunans, their move is being underwritten by a state-owned mineral behemoth.

The Geography of Memory

Fortunately, most coastal communities haven’t yet reached the point of necessary relocation, and probably won’t for a while, if ever. When and if that day comes, changes in the way we plan our cities may nonetheless make these transitions considerably easier. Infrastructure planning is taking cues from theories of resilience, with the emphasis less on massive, immovable engineering projects and more on decentralized, flexible systems. In theory, these should require less investment and be easier to pack up. This shift is already underway, says Andrew Peterman, a sustainability consultant at Arup.

“In China you already see building-level water treatment, because water is clean when it leaves a central plant but by the time it gets to the buildings it’s no longer potable,” he says. “With this form of decentralized treatment, picking up a building and moving it is a much easier prospect than replacing an entire network of pipes and a central plant.”

In the West, the greening of processes such as water use is also pushing some areas toward modular, decentralized systems.

“Every project Arup works on now has green infrastructure that manages or reduces waste at the point of use, meaning that the actual number of pipes beneath the ground are getting smaller and smaller,” says Arup’s Cameron Thomson.

As time goes on, these new systems may well make it easier and less costly to pick up and move a city, but there will always be complications that can’t be solved with smart infrastructure. Relocating a city is about much more than logistics, and history shows that even when there is impetus for change, the process is difficult. Economics and culture drive the existence of cities, and these foundations cannot simply be taken apart and reassembled. Residents must be trusting participants in the process for such relocation to succeed.

Take the small Central American nation of Belize as an example. In 1961, Hurricane Hattie almost totally destroyed the capital, Belize City. Its location on an exposed promontory has always made it vulnerable, so when the hurricane flattened 70 percent of the buildings, the government sought out a new, safer permanent home. In 1970, the capital moved en masse to Belmopan, 50 miles inland and 76 meters above sea level. Forty-four years after the move, Belmopan is considered a decent enough city, but it has resolutely failed to take over as the country’s real hub, and Belize City’s population remains well over three times larger. Even workers prefer to commute to their offices, rather than settle inland. The cultural pull of Belize City was stronger than the government command to resettle.

Even the threat of imminent natural disaster is often not enough to persuade people to move. In 2008, southern Chile’s Chaitén volcano erupted, causing a mudflow that engulfed the mining town of the same name built on its slope. The government refused to rebuild on the vulnerable site, instead pledging a new town 10 kilometers away from the existing settlement. Plans were commissioned reimagining a town with far better conditions than the one that had been destroyed. Officialdom moved so slowly, however, that miners lost patience. They had little option but to rebuild on the ruined town’s site, and eventually, all plans for a new Chaitén had to be scrapped.

Kiruna has managed to sidestep these problems so far. The future city will have no rival settlement to compete with for residents, while the absence of any pressing emergency gives them time to move as gradually as possible. Yet no matter how well thought out the plan, moving day will inevitably come with complicated social consequences. When White’s anthropologists talked to residents about the relocation, they found a clear gender divide in what residents most identified with and cared about. The mine and the work it provided were so central to the male Kirunan identity that most men viewed the move with optimistic detachment. Kiruna’s women, by contrast, were more anxious about leaving their homes.

Architecture will be preserved and relocated into the new Kiruna.

“There was a sentimental concern coming in particular from the younger female population,” says Walldin. “They were already assuming they would leave the city for at least a while, and wondered, ‘When I come back, to visit or to live at home again, will I recognize my city.’”

“The homemakers also had clear questions. ‘If I don’t see the everyday services in place, schools, daycare centers, I’m not going anywhere,’ they would insist. ‘Even if you build houses there, how am I going to have my kid in school?’ The mature women were broadly positive, but they sometimes teared up when I talked to them about the move. All of a sudden they started to remember various buildings that mining had already taken from them. One woman talked about the bench where she had her first kiss that is now gone.”

Some of Kiruna’s citizens actually have experience with this kind of displacement already. In the 1970s, the city had to evacuate a small area close to the mine called The Island. Old residents still reminisce about it today, and the area even has its own Facebook fan page gathering together people’s memories. As one local woman comments there: “You know I’m at that age when the memories come — the older you get the further back you remember. Think I can almost remember who lived in each house, the names of the tram conductors and so on.”

It seems that you can move people easily enough, but you can’t unhook their memories and identity from the places where they were forged. As Kiruna’s experience shows, even a modest shift of a few miles can risk disrupting people’s sense of self if it isn’t handled with great care. If even a groundbreaking, carefully planned move like Kiruna’s finds the transplantation of identity delicate, then more rapid, abrupt city moves might well see a sense of urban continuity die in transit.

This article has been updated to note that the city of Kiruna will move several kilometers eastward. The exact distance can be measured multiple ways, but several kilometers is an accurate description of the distance according to all measures.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Feargus O’Sullivan is a London-based writer on cities. He contributes regularly to Next City, CityLab and The Guardian.

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