Historic Opening: An Arctic Community Moves to Make Room for Mining

Longread: A city in Northern Sweden must move for the billion-dollar mining industry to continue. Come with High North News to Kiruna for an historical event - when the industrial town in the middle of Swedish Lapland is opening up a brand new city center. 

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When High North News' journalist enters Kiruna in Northern Sweden, the air is cold, clear, and fresh. The Northern Swedish mining town appears on the E10 highway, in the middle of an autumn-colored Lapland. 

These are historical days for the Arctic city. A new Kiruna is ready to open. The mining company LKAB has moved the industrial city's center three kilometers to enable continued mining. It has taken almost 20 years of planning and work. 

Despite the bumps along the way, celebration and hope for the future characterize the atmosphere in the city this weekend. However, melancholy over what is lost can also be found. 

A modern city center

Kiruna's brand new center is located in a flat area a few kilometers east of the old one. It still bears the mark of being LKAB's construction site. The city transformation is a massive process and will continue until 2035. 

The buildings appear modern and stylish. On the town square stands a new, fascinating Scandic hotel and a new city hall with the name "Kristallen". The clock tower has been moved from the old center. 

The new and large shopping district is currently housing three different galleries where stores are massed. The architects of Wester+Elsner, who are behind the design, say that it is strongly influenced by the place's materials and cultural history:

"We have based a lot of it on what we consider Kiruna's DNA: nature, mountains, and stone. We have generous entryways for both light and darkness through lanterns," they say.

The stores in the old center were spread out in different streets. Now, most of the storefronts are empty and few people are walking the streets. Eventually, this part of Kiruna will be demolished.

Troubles with the city transformation

"It feels wonderful now. It has not been easy to get to where we are today," says Kiruna's Municipality Councilor Gunnar Selberg (Center Party) to High North News of the opening. The newspaper meets the mayor for a chat in Kiruna's new city center. 

"When we realized that the place had to be moved 18 years ago, we thought a lot about how it would turn out. It has always been almost unreal; that the town is to be opened in a new place," he adds. 

Selberg highlights that he is pleased with the result. But despite how well it turned out, he also points out that many people ended up in a predicament during the process. He refers to a number of problems and issues in connection with the city transformation, like smaller businesses having to close down.

It is a candid mayor we meet. As High North News has previously reported, there has been much conflict between the municipality and the mining giant during the process. 

"LKAB is used to calling the shots and getting their way. It is truly terrible that one has let LKAB call the shots on, for example, which terms people and businesses have had to move".

When Selberg was elected mayor, he made it very clear that this was not reasonable, he says.

"The politicians must be the ones in charge. We are here to look after the interests of the citizens and the city's businesses. Kiruna municipality wants to allow the mining operations to continue, but we must also be guaranteed good conditions for people and businesses when they relocate", he emphasizes. 

The mayor reveals that there are some businesses from the old Kiruna which have not been able to follow along. Conditions for businesses were not ready from the beginning, and the uncertainty that this entailed, lead to the closing down of some companies. 

Another case where issues should have been addressed earlier is the case of condominiums, Selberg adds. 

"Those who owned condos got well paid eventually [for selling the condo, journ. note], but they did not receive a new apartment. LKAB should have built condominiums here so that the people concerned could either receive money [for the old one] or a new apartment, as was done with the house owners. The prices in Kiruna have also risen. And many were paid many years ago. Now, the money is not enough for a new apartment," he says and adds:

"And old people were able to walk straight to the shop, for example. How are they to do that now? It is embarrassing."

A historical and unique event

Despite the troubles, Selberg is not mournful over the old center. He thinks the city transformation is exciting and extraordinary. 

According to surveys carried out by the municipality, most of Kiruna's 23 000 inhabitants accept the transformation, even though many feel sad and want it to be the way it was, says the mayor. 

During the official opening ceremony, Selberg expressed that it was a historical day for Kiruna. The mayor thanked the city's inhabitants who sacrificed their homes to enable the city's development, and also congratulated them on a great and stylish new center. 

At the same time, he congratulated the Swedish state, which can continue to extract billions from the industrial city north of the Arctic Circle.

An industrial company moves a city

The two mountains Luossavaarra and Kiirunavaarra, with their rich ore deposits, have given their name to the Swedish state-owned LKAB [Luossavarra-Kiirunavaarra Aktiebolag], which has been the cornerstone company of Kiruna for over 200 years. 

In 2004, the mining company presented plans to move the city center circa three kilometers to enable continued mining. 

In the company's search for more iron ore to keep operations going, it was revealed that it must be mined in deeper grounds, in ore veins that slope 1,3 kilometers inward towards the city's residential areas. 

Deformations, movements and the risk of the ground collapsing make it unsafe to live here in the future. 

The urban transformation entails that the old center will be demolished. Certain buildings and houses are to be moved to the new area, and are wheeled out in their entirety on large trucks. 6,000 people and 3,000 homes are affected. A new hospital, schools and a number of other facilities are being rebuilt. 

LKAB is responsible for large parts of the bill and has so far paid out over 18 billion SEK for the urban transformations in both Kiruna and Malmberget further south. The company, which had a turnover of almost 49 billion SEK in 2021 and a profit of close to 27 billion SEK, has set aside a further ten billion for the further social transformation. 

During the inauguration, CEO Jan Moström of LKAB also thanked Kiruna's residents, who have made this possible. He also highlighted the importance of the company being part of the green transition that is absolutely necessary going forward; there, mines and minerals will be central, he pointed out. 

LKABs main office in Kiruna
LKABs main office in Kiruna with the mountain Kiirunavaara in the background. The mountain has one of the world's largest concentrations of iron ore deposits. The company is the largest iron ore producer in Europe and accounts for approximately 80 percent of all iron ore production in the EU. (Photo: Hilde Bye).
What can you say? It had to be done. If they closed the mine, we would have to move anyway.
Peter "Ozzi" Uusiealo, former leader of the motorhead club Midnight Sun Cruisers Kiruna.

Flags at half-mast

The demolition of old Kiruna brings forth emotions. Melancholy over losing the old is often highlighted by those the newspaper talks to. 

Inside the new congress and culture center Aurora, we meet Lotta Lampa. She is an artist and designer and is working on the project HEJDÅ RAGGEN (Goodbye cruising stretch) for the association for the development of art in Norrbotten.

The art project involves a farewell ceremony for the motorheads, or "raggarne", in the city. That includes a parade street and a motorcade on the stretch where the motorheads have cruised throughout the years, in the old part of Kiruna which will now be demolished.

Pictures from the motorcade are at the bottom of the article.

Everyone connected to the community is invited to the motorcade through the old city center. Lampa has prepared large flags which will fly at half-mast; with flames, broken hearts, and other various symbols. 

The synthetic scent of pine needles in the room is unmistakable; hundreds of wunderbaums are distributed to Kiruna's inhabitants. 

Lotta Lampa has a personal interest in the motorhead community. She has "grown up in a garage" herself and as an artist, she finds the motorhead culture fascinating.

"It is a lovely community. There are many layers to the culture which I think is amazing. Wealthy people can have their style, but then there are more rusty wrecks as well. There are a lot of materials, shapes, varnishes, and colors," she says.

Many in the community find it sad that old roads are disappearing in connection to the city's transformation, says the artist.

"In the city, you often meet people who can tell you about old memories; from the streets they have used for so many years and that have almost been their second homes when they have cruised around at night.

In the new center, traffic will be reduced, and the question remains where the motorheads will now do their nightly cruises. 

Motorheads in the new city center
Motorheads in the new town. (Photo: Hilde Bye).

Midnight Sun Cruisers' thank you and goodbye

The local motorhead club in the city is called Midnight Sun Cruisers Kiruna. In the evenings and at night, they have often gathered at the parking lot in front of the People's House. 

At 12 o'clock on Saturday, the parking lot is completely full as the motorheads prepare to say thank you and goodbye to their streets.

In the line of many cars which have gathered, High North News' journalist talks to Magnus Gustavson. He has cruised in Kiruna since he got his driving license. With time, he bought an American car. 

"It is simply quite cooler to cruise around with. Cruising is a part of the nightlife here in Kiruna, even with regular cars."

What are your thoughts on the new city and the demolishing of the old?

"I think it is very exciting. It is cool and there is a lot of positivity which perhaps has been missing in Kiruna sometimes. Now, people have a bit of belief in the future and that something cool will happen. We want it to become as good as possible".

"However, "raggen" (cruising route) does not exist anymore. But that might be because all the streets have not been finished yet".

But you are positive in regards to the future of raggen?

"Yes, absolutely. I think we will find new streets. The stretch we have driven has been changed with time", he says.

What do you think of the ceremony?

"It was a nice and good initiative. You are able to say goodbye to the old".

"What can you say? It had to be done. If they closed the mine, we would have to move anyway", says Peter Uusiealo when High North News asks about the move of Kiruna.

People in the motorhead community just call him Ozzi. He has been a part of the Midnight Sun Cruisers Kiruna since the beginning in the 1980s and was the leader of the club from 1996 to 2022.

The group High North News meets outside the People's House agrees that the new Kiruna seems to be quite nice. 

"At the same time, it is sad that this will not exist anymore. We will have to find new roads", they say.

How do you see the future of the motorhead community after the closing of the old center?

"We will see how it turns out. The future is exciting. I think it will be good", Ozzi concludes.

LKAB's operations

  • LKAB is a Swedish state-owned mining company founded i 1890.
  • The company operates mining in Norrbotten, specifically in the ore mines in both Kiruna and Gällivare. The core product is highly refined iron ore products; iron ore pellets and fines. 
  • The iron ore which the company produces is used to make steel.
  • Steel is produced from pig iron which in turn is produced from iron ore. 
  • The largest part of the operation takes place several hundred meters below ground, in the mines Kiirunavaara (Kiruna) and Malmberget (Gällivare), which are two of the world's largest underground mines for iron ore extraction.
  • The iron ore and other products are shipped along the Iron Ore Line to the port of Luleå, as well as along the Ofot Line to the port of Narvik. 
  • According to the company, 6800 tons of iron ore products are exported per ore train. That involves 750-meter-long train sets which consist of 68 ore wagons.
  • The company is Europe's largest producer of iron ore.
  • LKAB is well advanced in the green transformation of the iron and steel industry. The company develops the production of carbon dioxide-free sponge iron [made from iron ore] and other carbon dioxide-free processes and products. 
  • LKAB has a strategy for zero emissions of carbon dioxide from its own processes and products within 2045. 
  • In 2021, they invested 3,4 billion SEK in carbon dioxide-free production.
  • The company has identified mineral resources that enable them to secure its mining operations beyond 2060. 
  • In 2021, LKAB had a turnover of almost 49 billion SEK.

Source: LKAB.com

This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Birgitte Annie Molid Martinussen.