Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Great North (1): the moving City

A few years ago, the company where I was working suffered the ravages of the economic crisis. Three years of suffering and sleepless nights until, at the end, the company had to close. During that period there were bad days and worse days. And in these disastrous days, I tried to relax thinking about running away from the problems and  sheltering in the solitude of arctic forests of northern Sweden. When I was driving, I had the desire to drive further north, not stopping until arriving to a city, remote, icy and with an evocative name.

Those hard days, when my wife saw me crestfallen, she always asked me, "Did you have a Kiruna day?".

Forests and snow. Snow and forests. And from time to time, some lake. In fact, if there weren't lakes to avoid, the E45 road that leads to Kiruna could be completely straight for tens of kilometers. The entire route is quite flat; only some small ripples break, punctually, the monotony of the road. Although we are more than 100km north of the Arctic Circle, we are in Sweden and, therefore, the road is in perfect condition. I don't want to deceive you, traveling by car to Kiruna has nothing adventurous, even in winter.

But it should be quite different when the city was founded. Since ancient times, Sami people (also nicknamed Lapps) already knew of the existence of iron deposits in the area. But the inaccessibility of the place meant that mining did not begin until the second half of the nineteenth century. At the time, there were only hundreds of kilometers of forest without any roads or similar.
Despite this remote location by the XIXth Century standards, as I said, the mining activity had already begun. The quantities of iron extracted were so huge that soon, the traditional system to transport the iron to civilization got obsolete. Until then, mining was done in summer and, during winter iron was loaded on reindeer-pulled sleighs, and transported to the south. Between 1899 and 1902 works of the railway line linking, Luleå (Gulf of Bothnia), Kiruna and Narvik (in the Atlantic Ocean, and on Norwegian territory) were finished. With the arrival of the train,
miners' shacks at the Kiirunavaara mine were cleant up, and it was decided to found a town. As town name they chose to shorten the Finnish name of the mountain where the mine was, Kiirunavaara, to simply "Kiruna". Swedes were able to pronounce it, while Samis and Finns (with languages sligthly kinship) could have a feeling of familiarity as, in Sami, "Giron" (or "Kiron") means "ptarmigan".

Those early years of the twentieth century, the population grew rapidly and mining production soared. In 1907, the city had already three tram lines (most northerly tram lines worldwide), but the living conditions were still very hard for the residents of Kiruna. Until 1926, the city was isolated by land. Yes, there was the train. But train could only reach Luleå and from there you had to take a boat to the south. So, during winter, as the Baltic Sea was frozen, it became an impossible route. The remaining option was the train to Narvik in Norway, but then an awesome trip surrounding Scandinavia was needed. Thus, in 1926, works for the road that connected Kiruna to the rest of Sweden were ended.

Malmbanan, the Iron railway

Worst times for the city, however, arrived during World War II. Sweden was a neutral country, but Nazi Germany depended on the iron from the mines in Kiruna. The Swedish government tried to avoid provoking either Nazis or allies in order to remain outside the conflict. However, the Swedish Army placed explosives and a detachment in each of the bridges that connected with Nazi-occupied Norway. If the Nazis had tried to invade Sweden, in order to secure iron supplies, all bridges should be blown. Would it had been useful? I sincerely doubt it but it it's better than doing nothing.

The stories of the places related to mining are usually always written in past; abandoned mines and ghost towns remind, in most cases, that mining past times were better. But Kiruna is an exception; and what an exception!

A beautiful "day" in Kiruna at 14:00h

A pleasant winter morning in Kiruna

The mine exploitation is in full blast. The deposits are of an exceptional profitability and each time a mine is exhausted, another is found nearby. In fact, production is assured for many years and, if wanted, the annual output could be increased much more. Nevertheless, the company, long ago, decided to move forward gradually.

The city is a real economic power. Norrbotten region is the second richest in Sweden, just behind Stockholm and everything is due, in large part, to the iron mines. In Kiruna there are only 18,000 inhabitants, spread over a large area. And despite its small population, the city has many good services. It is therefore an ideal place to disappear but in a controlled way: "I live in a remote place but if I run out of Nyponsoppa, the roseship delicious juice, I just have to go downstairs and buy it at the supermarket!". There is only one problem (if there weren't problems, there wouldn't be post!); here you have it:

Yes; the same mine that gave life to the city of Kiruna, now threatens to destroy it. The growth of the underground mine is reaching beneath the city and, of course, the buildings are at risk of sinking through the cracks and movements generated by iron galleries.

All historical center ("historical" for only 100 years, but historical, after all), the Town Hall, the famous wooden church of Kiruna, and lots of buildings will be devoured by the mine. But, you know, Swedish people are farsighted (sometimes even too, as you will see in the Visingsö post) and as the profitability of the mine really worths it, they decided to move the city ...!

Church of Kiruna

The Town Hall with its famous clock tower

Everything has been planned and, by 2040, all affected parts of the city (over 50%) should be moved to the new place, 3 km. far from nowadays location. The new Kiruna has been designed by two architecture firms that won the contest summoned by the city council: swedes White Arkitekter AB and norwegians Ghilardi + Hellsten Arkitekter. The projects match perfectly the Nordic urban planning and design concept: a dense city center, with preponderance of pedestrian-only streets, public transportation and everything sustainability focused. Only singular buildings of the city, including of course the wooden church, will be dismantled and moved piece by piece to its new location.

The rest, however, will be all new. And this was the most controversial point at the beginning of the process: Imagine that you are the proud owner of a house with garden in Kiruna and suddenly, in 2004, you are told that in a few years it will be demolished. Prices of housing, that due to the strong economy and the Kiruna mine, were always going up, remain stagnant at once. The mining company took the compromise to buy houses to be demolished at the market price of the evicting moment .... but knowing that a property is affected, then its value sinks! So, LKAB, the mining company, decided to increase the purchase price by 25% to allow people not to lose (too much) and keeping their capacity to buy a new house in the new Kiruna.

Future Kiruna
To finish things off, the transfer managers got the "IKEA virus", aka, "Build it yourself". Thus, the design of the new city, includes a building, the "Kiruna Portal" that will become a kind of communal shop where people will find materials from demolished houses to be re-used in the construction of new homes!

Kiruna Portal

The whole operation will cost about 3.740M SEK, some 400M, all undertaken by the company LKAB. Imagine then the huge business this iron mine is. But don't be surprised; Kiirunavaara mine and its attached mine, Luossavaara, produce 90% of iron in Europe. With the product obtained by LKAB in Kiruna, 6 Eiffel towers could be built ... every day!


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  2. To read of a Lapland town THAT rich......... wow.

    1. Sometimes money comes from strange places: iron mines, or..... you will have to read my new post. Coming soon ;-)
      By the way, if you liked the blog you can follow it on facebook

    2. I'll rather bookmark the blog.

      ............. to think one day people may read mine.......... oh yeah.