Steve Vickers: freelance journalist and travel writer UK Sweden

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I'm a freelance journalist, travel writer and guidebook author based between the UK (cold) and Sweden (colder).

I've worked for The Independent, The Washington Post, The Observer, BBC Radio 4, Which? and Rough Guides, among many others, and grabbed front-page headlines with my investigative research. I also built this website. You won't find any adverts, sponsored blog posts or phoney travel recommendations here; just some of my work, plus stories from out on the road.

March 7, 2013

Kiruna: the city that’s being moved

Filed under: Sweden — stevenjvickers @ 12:33 pm

I’d heard rumours that somewhere in the far north of Sweden, a whole city was about to be knocked down and moved elsewhere. I wanted to find out more, so I took the night train from Gothenburg to the Arctic and spent a few days in Kiruna, meeting with local people.

That journey led to the following piece, which I recorded for BBC Radio 4′s From Our Own Correspondent. My report was first broadcast today (7th March), and is now available to listen to online. The full transcript is below.

Kiruna city moving Sweden

By midday, the Arctic sun had risen high enough to push long shadows into Agneta Andersson’s studio. She sighed, surveyed the frozen streets with artist’s eyes, then dropped a stack of pictures beside my steaming black coffee.

“This rose is like Kiruna,” she said, running a finger across the first image, a charcoal swirl of black-and-white petals. “In the middle, there’s a hole.”

Websites gleefully touting trips to the nearby Icehotel don’t like to mention it. But Kiruna, the northernmost city in Sweden, is about to change forever.

Kiruna city centre

Before this decade is out, flats will be flattened. Landmarks will be levelled. And the sleeper trains that make the 18-hour journey here from Stockholm, through pine forests buckled under the weight of too much snow, will soon be stopping somewhere new.

The world’s largest iron ore mine is expanding – must expand, says LKAB, the state-owned company running it – and deep cracks caused by decades of underground excavations are now spreading towards the city, threatening homes, offices, schools and medical centres.

Sweden, for all its social do-gooding, is reluctant to close a mine whose record-breaking productivity has spun it enormous profits. So instead, Kiruna’s city centre will be moved. Between now and 2035, large chunks of it – shops, roads and more – will be knocked down and rebuilt three kilometres to the east. At least 2,500 apartments will be rendered uninhabitable.

Kiruna with iron ore mine in background

Founded in 1900, Kiruna began life as a small mining outpost. The oblique seam of iron ore it was built beside just happened to be the world’s largest, extending for thousands of metres below ground. Even today, nobody’s sure how deep it runs.

With each dynamite-powered blast into the ore, Kiruna’s population exploded, peaking at more than 24,000 in the late nineteen seventies. Since then, many young people have left, migrating south in search of, as Agneta put it, “an easier life”. But modern technology helped the mine swell anyway, and it’s now visible from every part of the city, seething away on the jagged horizon.

On the snowy streets around the state-run bottle shop, where old ladies use traditional stand-on sledges called sparkar to keep from slipping over, buildings tell the story of Kiruna’s expansion. Some of the prettiest houses, painted red, blue or grey, with foot-long icicles clinging to their wooden rooflines, are as old as the city itself. Nearby, there are ugly apartment blocks thrown up fifty years ago to accommodate the new waves of miners. Locals told me that late at night, when explosives are detonated in the mine, many of these buildings shake.

Kiruna sparkar

“I’ve had nightmares about the city falling into the deep,” wrote Agneta when her rose was exhibited in Umeå, a seven-hour drive to the south. “For visitors, Kiruna is depicted as a high-technology city, surrounded by romantic landscapes. The relocation of the city is seen as something exciting. I see a city in decay.”

There’s much to suggest she’s right. She’d wanted to show her drawings in Kiruna, but the city has no gallery. The city hall, which houses paintings from the early days, when Kiruna was a more popular base for Swedish artists, is already scheduled for demolition.

And on the main square, I noticed that all three faces on a clock tower designed by Swedish artist Inger Olsson were stuck at different times of the day. Nobody seemed in much of a rush to fix them.

Kiruna mine

“Do you know when this part of the city will be moving?” I asked three women in a nearby flower shop. Bemused looks were exchanged, before they pointed me towards the tourist office.

There, around a scale model of the city, an LKAB spokesperson said exact timescales for the project are still being decided. But, she insisted, waving a metal stick over miniature houses near the mine, nobody who’s asked to sell their property will lose out financially. LKAB will pay the market value, plus an extra 25 per cent.

For Agneta, who still doesn’t know when her home and studio will be affected, money isn’t everything. Kiruna was built on a hill, she explained, to let people see the mountains and the trees. Areas designated for the first replacement apartments are on lower ground, further from the bruised Arctic skies and their dancing green auroras.

Train sidings in Kiruna, Sweden, with mine in background

“I want to say stop!” she told me. “Dig in another place, not under my town.”

But Agneta, like everyone else, accepts that the mine must grow. Kiruna was built on an iron rush, and more than ten per cent of the population are employed directly by LKAB. If the mine can’t provide wealth and jobs, the community will almost certainly fall apart.

Uprooting the city is an extreme alternative, but doing so will give all of Kiruna’s residents – from the miners to the artists – at least some kind of future.

All content © 2013–2015 Steve Vickers