KIRUNA, Sweden — To feed China’s growing appetite for raw materials, this venerable mining town 90 miles north of the Arctic Circle is poised to become a cutting-edge Tomorrowland as it prepares to move buildings, residents and even a century-old wooden church to a new location a few miles away.
“These will be the first to go,” said Kjell Torma, editor of KirunaTidningen, the local newspaper, pointing to a row of red brick apartment blocks surrounded by construction fences. “If you want a cheap kitchen fan or some radiators, get in there.”
Over the next 10 years, Kiruna officials plan to demolish the apartments and most other buildings in this town of 18,000 residents and then rebuild them as far as three miles away — all part of an ambitious $375 million project to make way for the expansion of a giant iron mine as demand from China has suddenly made extraction here worth the investment.
But officials aren’t constructing an exact duplicate of Kiruna, founded in 1900 as the most northerly town in Sweden. With funding from Sweden’s state-owned mining company — Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara AB, or LKAB — officials in Kiruna aim to create one of the most environmentally friendly cities in Europe.
Designed by Stockholm’s White Architects, the new Kiruna will feature a seven-mile-long cable car route to help pedestrians avoid deep snow, special illumination to compensate for the months of nighttime during Sweden’s dark winters and energy-efficient heating systems to combat temperatures that can plunge to below -22 degrees Fahrenheit.
The project has been in the works for years. But last month, around a year after local leaders finally sealed a deal with LKAB, bulldozers started work in Kiruna for the first time.
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“There’s been a lot of preparation and then infrastructure work such as the new railway and power system,” said Mr. Torma. “A lot of people said nothing was happening. Now, though, you’ll begin to see it properly as they tear the old town down and they start building. The following summer is when it really kicks off. That’s when they will build the entire new center.”
Driving the project has been China’s hunger for steel.
LKAB’s mile-deep mine produces ore from one of the biggest iron seams in the world. With an annual profit of $700 million last year, its revenues help fund Sweden’s free health care, education and other generous social welfare benefits.
Twenty-four hours a day, powerful electric rail locomotives pull containers of iron ore from Kiruna and across the border to Norway and on to the Atlantic Ocean for export to fast-growing Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere. The mine now needs to expand to access more ore at ever-deeper levels.
“The economic future of the city depends on us mining deeper,” said Kiruna Councilwoman Marianne Nordmark.
But mining destabilizes the ground, making it unsafe for surface dwellings. Cracks are already visible throughout Kiruna’s streets. Between the dangers already posed by the mine and LKAB’s need for expansion, officials opted to pull up stakes and relocate the town en masse to a nearby wooded area.
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Model city on the move
In the process, officials are hoping to create a model city that is cleaner, greener and more livable.
At the center of Kiruna will be a circular, glass city hall that’s been dubbed The Crystal. No building will be more than three blocks from The Crystal or the Arctic woodland surrounding the new town. A new main street will feature the same shops as the old one — from an independent bookstore to big Swedish brands like H&M. There will also be space for traditional indigenous outfitters and the city’s favorite local cafes and coffeehouses.
Half-a-mile underground, Britt Olofsson was enthusiastic about the new city.
Dressed in a hard hat and overalls, the LKAB employee leads visitors along abandoned mine shafts on tours of the facility’s 300 miles of tunnels, covering a surface area two miles wide.
Now in her fifties, Ms. Olofsson moved back to Kiruna from Stockholm with her family last year to get away from the hustle and bustle of the capital 14 hours to the south by car. Job security is good in Kiruna, with mineworkers earning $3,600 dollars a month, around the average per capita income in the country, according to LKAB figures. If the mine needs to expand, Kiruna needs to move, she said.
“The mine is the most important thing in Kiruna,” she said. “Without the mine there would be no city. Almost everyone has some kind of connection to it.”
The loss of her family and friends’ homes, her old school and other landmarks didn’t especially concern Ms. Olofsson. She noted that officials would move a spectacular wooden church dating from the early 1900s that is a popular tourist attraction to the new town, for example.
“My hometown is vanishing, and my memories will go with it, but it will be a better city environment,” she said. “Most people are positive about it and think it is going to be a big improvement.”
Not everyone is happy about the way the mine is dictating the town’s future. Henry Emmeroth, a local councilman, said LKAB executives behave as if they own Kiruna and treat it like a dumping ground.
“They blast in the mine until two in the morning so you cannot sleep,” said Mr. Emmeroth. “They release heavy metals and other dangerous chemicals like quicksilver, meaning Kiruna has the most polluted lake in Sweden, a stone’s throw from the city center. Our cultural inheritance, our history and our pride is being torn apart. Traders in the center of town, homeowners and people renting have no idea what their future is.”
Mr. Emmeroth was also skeptical of the promises of the new Kiruna.
“Older people cannot afford to move into new homes with higher rents,” he said. “They have to leave Kiruna, and these are the same people who helped build the city when times were hard. They are demolishing more than they can build.”
In Kiruna’s only bookshop, the Kiruna Bokhandel, 22-year-old Jessica Wennberg sat behind the counter counting receipts recently. Another Kiruna native, she returned to the town after attending college two years ago.
“I like it here — there’s a lot to do, and the nature is wonderful,” said Ms. Wennberg, adding that the bookshop was slated to be torn down soon. “We don’t know how long we’ll be here, but everyone will get new premises.”
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