Every time he brags about the massive relocation of his town center in the Swedish Arctic, Kiruna Mayor Gunnar Silberg dresses from a deeply dissatisfied resident: his wife.
“I tell her, ‘Can you imagine?'” to be a part of it! “We’re building a new city while the old one is being destroyed,” he tells AFP, showing off a large model of the building project in the lobby of the new city hall.
“She gets mad at me. She’s frustrated. She thinks it’s sad. She doesn’t even want to see the old city. It makes her feel bad.”
And the town of Kiruna, home to Europe’s largest underground mine, is slowly moving the city center three kilometers (1.8 miles) away to allow the iron ore mine to expand.
As mining operations have progressed ever deeper underground over the years, the stability of the ground beneath Lapland has weakened, increasing the risk of collapse in some parts.
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But like the mayor and his wife, the move divided the city’s 18,000 residents.
Kiruna was founded at the beginning of the 20th century, when the mining company LKAB was set up to discover huge iron ore deposits, about 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle.
LKAB announced last week the discovery of the largest known deposit of rare earth elements in Europe, just north of the city.
– Tough sell –
The new city center officially opened in September 2022.
The relocation process first began 15 years ago, and is expected to continue for another 20 to 30 years – or perhaps even twice as long if the mine expands deeper in the future.
The move, estimated at three billion euros ($3.2 billion), is billed in part by LKAB.
The new City Hall, an impressive circular structure designed by Danish architect Henning Larsen, was the first to open in 2018.
The impressive iron clock tower that topped the old town hall was symbolically placed at the entrance to the new building.
Across the street, a modern hotel tower soars into the sky while nearby cranes are actively building an indoor pool.
But many, including the mayor, acknowledge that some residents are struggling to accept the new town.
“Sometimes people tend to think ‘That’s cool!'” It’s a huge project.” The operator, LKAB, always promotes the image that it’s a good thing, that everyone is happy. “But not everyone is like that,” says Silberg.
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According to the mayor, residents often complain that they are “stuck between two towns”, or that they “still want to go to restaurants in the old town”.
In the center of the old town, entire buildings were emptied and are now barricaded behind high blue walls awaiting demolition.
About 6,000 people are being moved to the new city center – a number that could rise if LKAB is allowed to mine deeper.
– ghost town –
Time is of the essence for Kiruna.
Cracks caused by the shifting land are starting to appear in the largest school in town, and its new buildings are not ready yet.
And in the town hall, fears are growing that the existing hospital will become unsafe to use before the new hospital is ready in a few years.
The city’s historic homes are in the process of being moved to the new city center in private caravans.
Its large red wooden church, considered one of the most beautiful buildings in Sweden, is expected to make a big move in 2026.
But Marie-Louise Olson, who sells souvenirs and authentic Sami crafts in the town’s oldest shop, founded in 1907, isn’t at all interested in moving elsewhere.
LKAB, which owns the building, gave her a few more months to rent the space in return for accepting a compensation check for around €65,000 ($70,000) and a modern boutique in the new city centre.
“I am so sad and disappointed with all this,” the 63-year-old shop owner sighs.
“Mine is important but I wish they would show more interest in other businesses. Because of mine we couldn’t stay here for years to come,” she says as her daughter looks after the shop’s customers.
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Olsson’s childhood neighborhood was demolished last year, and her store is one of the last still open in what is slowly becoming a ghost town.
Who can put a price tag on one’s date? It can never be compensated with money.
“It’s also the feeling we have here, in this store. No one cared about that date, even though it really was there.”