Arctic mining town’s move divides residents

Every time he brags about the colossal move of his city center to the Swedish Arctic, Kiruna Mayor Gunnar Selberg is belittled by a very dissatisfied resident: his wife.

“I’m like, ‘Can you imagine that? To be part of it! We’re building a new city while the old one is being destroyed,'” he tells AFP while showing a large model of the construction project in the lobby of the new city hall.

“She gets food from me. She is disappointed. She finds it sad. She doesn’t even want to see the old town. It makes her feel bad.”

The mining operation is progressing

The city of Kiruna, home to Europe’s largest underground mine, is slowly relocating its city center by three kilometers (1.8 miles) to accommodate the expansion of the iron ore mine.

As mining has digged deeper and deeper underground over the years, the stability of the ground beneath the Lapland city has decreased, increasing the risk of partial collapse.

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But just like the mayor and his wife, the move has divided the city’s 18,000 residents.

Kiruna was founded in the early 20th century when the mining company LKAB was formed to excavate a vast iron ore deposit some 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle.

Last week LKAB announced the discovery of Europe’s largest known deposit of rare earth elements north of the city.

– A Hard Sell –

The new city center was officially inaugurated in September 2022.

The relocation process began 15 years ago and is expected to continue for another 20 to 30 years – or maybe even double that if the mine expands even deeper in the future.

The bill for the move, estimated at around three billion euros ($3.2 billion), will be partially borne by LKAB.

The first building to open in 2018 was the new town hall, a magnificent round building designed by Danish architect Henning Larsen.

Relocation: The relocation of the arctic mining town divides the residents
The iron mine of Swedish state-owned mining company LKAB (Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara Aktiebolag) is pictured in Sweden’s northernmost city of Kiruna, in the northernmost province of Lapland, November 22, 2022. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

The impressive iron clock tower that once towered over the old town hall was symbolically placed at the entrance of the new town hall.

Across the street, a modern hotel tower soars into the sky, while nearby, cranes are busy constructing an indoor swimming pool.

But many, including the mayor, concede that some residents are struggling to accept the new city.

“Sometimes people tend to think, ‘It’s awesome! It’s such a huge project. The operator LKAB always promotes the image that it is a good thing that everyone is happy. But not everyone is,” says Selberg.

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According to the mayor, local residents often complain that they are “between two cities” or “still want to go to the old town restaurants”.

Entire buildings in the old town have been cleared and are now barricaded behind high blue fences until they are demolished.

About 6,000 people will be relocated to the new city center – a number that could rise if LKAB is allowed to dig even deeper.

– ghost town –

Time is of the essence at Kiruna.

The city’s largest school has cracked from the landslide and the new premises are not yet ready.

And there are growing concerns at City Hall that the current hospital will become unsafe for use before the new one is ready in a few years.

The historic houses of the city are currently being transported to the new city center in special convoys.

The iconic big red wooden church, considered one of Sweden’s most beautiful buildings, is set to make the big move in 2026.

But Mari-Louise Olsson, who sells souvenirs and local Sami handicrafts in the city’s oldest shop, which was founded in 1907, has no interest in moving at all.

LKAB, which owns the premises, gave her a few extra months to rent the premises in exchange for accepting a compensation check of around 65,000 euros ($70,000) and a modern boutique in the new city centre.

“I’m very sad and disappointed by all of this,” sighs the 63-year-old shopkeeper.

“The mine is important, but I wish they were more considerate of other companies. We can’t stay here for years because of me,” she says while her daughter tends to the shop’s customers.

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Olsson’s childhood home was demolished last year, and her shop is one of the last remaining open in the slowly ghost town.

“Who can put a price tag on an individual story? It can never be compensated with money.

“That’s also the feeling we have here, in this store. Nobody paid attention to this story, although it actually exists.”

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