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Case study

Kiruna - moving an ancient Arctic city somewhere else

31 August 2017

Picking and moving a chunk of a major city is one huge challenge but is about to happen in Sweden. A key component is getting cooperation and collaboration between municipalities, residents, landowners, authorities and other stakeholders - including reindeer herders.

Kiruna - moving an ancient Arctic city somewhere else
Urban transformation: what makes this project unique is the location, magnitude and timescales.

Kiruna in northern Sweden is the world's largest underground iron ore mine. The ore body in the Kiruna mine is a huge, inclined disc of magnetite that's approximately 80m wide, 4km long and at least 2km deep.

Since the mine operator LKAB was founded in 1890 more than 1.5bn tonnes of iron ore has been extracted from this mine. It produces high grade ore with an iron content of 60 to 70 per cent and that percentage increases with the depth of the ore body.

The city of Kiruna developed over the last century as mining grew. It extends over 20,000 km2 and has a population of 23,000. The financial wealth created by the ore fields benefits the immediate region with 60 per cent of the annual earnings returned to the Swedish citizens through dividends and tax returns to the company owner - the Swedish State. This is an industry that has a long future.

John Thomson, Vice-President of the International Federation of Municipal Engineering (IFME), ex Chair and current standing member of the ICE municipal engineering panel was one of the IFME board members who were given unique access to the mine in November 2016 to see the conditions and scale of work undertaken there.

The challenge: mining cracks moving towards the city

Surveys have discovered that the city's location is under threat from the mine itself. The extraction of the ore body is resulting in undermining the city and the resulting cracking of the rock overhang, manifesting as ground cracks, are progressing into the city creating an understandably major concern.

The proposal: relocate part of the city

This discovery resulted in a remarkable decision by the mine owners that at an estimated cost of 2bn euros they would relocate part of the city that was under risk from ground movement and transform the city overall. This operation involves relocating and replacing 5,000 housing units and 700,000m2 of residential and commercial premises.

Proposed city centre
The proposed city centre where buildings such as the town council clock, space station, church and fire station will be relocated

The area to be demolished. The City centre is to be relocated to available land to the east.

Urban transformation is not a unique situation around the globe. What makes this project unique is the magnitude and timescales.

Required outcomes of the project:

  • Create a new city centre
  • Build 3-4000 new housing units
  • Build a new commercial centre with 1,500 work places
  • Build new infrastructure (railroad and highway)
  • All to be built as a role model for urban development
  • Need new City Hall and 500 housing units by 2020

The challenge is to involve everybody in consultation with municipalities, residents, landowners, authorities, reindeer herders and other stakeholders all being involved to ensure a sense of security and confidence during the transformation process. A range of feelings, customs and traditions has to be balanced with innovative thinking and visions.

A key enabling aspect of this project is the Swedish Mineral Act which identifies LKAB as being responsible for providing compensation for impact and costs resulting from the mining operation.

The starting point in undertaking this project is that new housing, services and infrastructure should be complete and under construction before earlier developments are demolished to enable seamless transfer of the population.

The City of Kiruna, similar to many urban cities, evolved as it grew. The major benefit of this relocation operation is to revisit the overall urban plan and to consider it in a more cohesive manner and develop it accordingly. A new development plan was developed for the new Kiruna city layout following wide ranging consultation.

Relocating the central part of a city presents a range of engineering difficulties. Road and transport layouts have to be amended to reflect the new Kiruna plan. In addition underground services have to be re-planned to fit the plan also. The areas cleared of housing and buildings were considered and consultation indicated they were best replaced with park areas. the function of which are less susceptible to ground movements.

There are a number of historically valuable buildings included within the area at risk and to preserve their historic value they are to be moved to the new area. This is done using techniques, adopted internationally, whereby the building is removed entirely from its foundations and transported as a single entity to its new location with pre-prepared foundations using heavy transport methods.

Collaboration key to progress

Cooperation and collaboration between a range of bodies is required to allow the project to progress and meet the imposed timescales. The mining continues to be carried out and the resulting ground cracking progress is relentless so delayed decisions will impact adversely on everybody.

Kiruna is not exclusively limited to mining but it also has a space port where a range of technology is launched into orbit. This has a residential workforce that is understandably focused on their programmes of work and needs to have confidence in the timescales.

Also this part of Northern Sweden has an active tourist industry highlighting Lapland tours as well as the world famous Ice Hotel located just outside Kiruna.

The fire station and town council clock will be moved
The fire station and town council clock will be moved

To gain the most effective way forward collaboration has been a very important element. This includes:

  • Politicians
  • Residents
  • Interested organisations
  • Real estate owners and shop keepers
  • LKAB, space and tourism industry
  • Swedish transport administration
  • County administrative board
  • Investors and builders

Designing the new Kiruna

As a part of the public consultation process residents were asked what they want from the new Kiruna, how it would look and function and what their expectations were. They said:

  • a main square
  • shopping street/shared surface
  • meeting place
  • mixed function
  • mix of old and new: cultural landmarks

It is clear from the list that the residents had professional assistance in identifying what they wanted. One issue identified, shared surfaces, are normally considered a compromise between traditional streets and pedestrian zones, and are arrived at because existing street restrictions don't easily permit pedestrian zones. Therefore, preferring to do this option as opposed to a pedestrian area in a new build is not expected, especially since the streets have snow cover for much of the year.

The Kiruna city environment is challenging given its Arctic location.

The development plan is developed to meet the expectations of the community and effectively uses the street grid layout pattern to achieve this. This layout also enhances environmental benefits by restricting wind and taking advantage of any solar gain benefits as possible.

Construction schedule

The ongoing spread of ground cracks requires the relocation timescales to be short and as a result the work has to be undertaken in a rush....critical programme dates are:

  • 2018 City Hall will be closed and 200 housing units demolished
  • 2020 The new city centre must be in place
  • From 2020 and onwards the New Kiruna will gradually emerge

Conclusion: massive undertaking, urgent timescale, environment impact

Relocating an element of a city on this scale and to these timelines is indeed globally unique. The challenges are addressing the environment, agreeing with existing population and interest groups as to how to do this, preserve historical buildings, create a new city centre while maintaining infrastructure, services and business interests. This all requires a large range of processes and detailed procedures to be established as to how it can be done without adversely impacting the function of the city.

Much of this is achieved through political leadership, negotiations and agreements with developers and investors, a continuous dialogue with residents and a constructive collaboration with key stakeholders. Detailed engineering and architectural planning needs a high level of skill and precision to ensure success.

The environment needs to be considered in detail as this will impact on the construction schedule.

With construction of the new city hall and the new square underway it is clear that LKAB are taking the timescale seriously. With international challenges due to population growth and migration and the potential need to re-engineer existing cities to address these issues, this is a major project that is worthy of global attention.

IFME anticipate this is a project that will develop innovation due to the environmental and programme pressures. Therefore the IFME board will, through the Swedish Institution, monitor how the project develops and where innovation or learning points become apparent, will report back on the technical advice section. This will inform future learning projects.

  • Rabinder Phull, knowledge content producer at ICE