Lauren Nassef

For more than 250 years, the northern Lapland region of Sweden has supplied the world with iron ore. Today, some of the most fruitful mines in Europe exist here, feeding the global appetite for steel, an appetite that is almost as voracious as the one for oil.

Mining for ore is not a gentle prospect. Earth is blasted away with powerful explosives and gouged open with machinery to access hidden rock deposits. This industry has rewritten the very topography of Lapland, and the transformation is most notable in the small town of Malmberget, located in the municipality of Gällivare, just north of the Arctic Circle. The town’s name translates as “the Ore Mountain,” a nod to the rich deposits discovered near the Illuvaara mountains when the mine opened in the 1740s.

In the beginning, there were plenty of jobs but few places to live; workers built impromptu shacks from leftover dynamite crates. Today, a proper town has grown up around the mining industry, but the houses and buildings of Malmberget are no more stable than they were when those pioneering workers tacked boxes together.

Malmberget, you see, is being swallowed by a giant crater.

As the mining industry grows, an ever-widening pit some three miles deep and almost half a mile across metastasizes across the landscape. The ground is literally crumbling under Malmberget. Viewed from Google Earth, the dark pit that is the mine resembles a massive lake. Buildings and roads seem to spiral toward it, ending abruptly at the edge, as if consumed by a black hole.

“Right where the pit is now is where the center of the town used to be,” says Lars Albinsson, a consultant who has been hired by the mine (which is owned by the Swedish government) and the Gällivare municipality to help relocate Malmberget’s residents. “People have been moving from this expanding mine for 150 years. It’s a kind of tradition.”

In recent years, some houses in the path of the pit have been uprooted and moved via flatbeds to safe land. Other homes were abandoned as occupants sought new shelter in nearby towns or left the area altogether. Today, this slow migration is speeding up. More iron ore has been discovered under what remains of Malmberget. Blasting it out will render the entire city uninhabitable. As many as 3,800 people will need to leave, and within about 20 years, Malmberget will cease to exist.

Last year, the Swedish Industrial Design Foundation (SVID) focused on the curious reality of Malmberget. The group posed a question: Is it possible to relocate an entire town while protecting the very things that make it a community? SVID partnered with the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID), a nonprofit based in Montreal, to create an intensive two-week workshop called City Move Interdesign. Since 1971, ICSID has hosted Interdesign workshops in numerous countries, matching designers from around the world with local experts to solve problems that are of international relevance.

Claes Frössén of SVID saw a global opportunity in Malmberget. “When we started this project, we thought that this was a very unique need—but it isn’t,” Frössén says. He points to cities all over the world suffering from manmade or natural disasters. Floods in New Orleans and Pakistan; earthquakes in Haiti and Chile; mining in Brazil and Colombia; postindustrial exodus in Detroit. “This is one of the main problems for cities of the future. Communities are going to have to move,” he says.

SVID issued an international call for participants, and out of the 200 or so respondents, 40 were invited to come to Malmberget in the spring of 2009. “We realized that we were not just moving houses; we were moving society, and that is a very complex thing,” Frössén says. So SVID made sure that the group included people not only from different geographies, but also from different industries. “We looked for architects, engineers, industrial designers, doctors, psychologists, preservationists,” Frössén notes. The 7.3 million kronor (roughly $1 million) cost was funded by the European Union, national and local governments, and the mining company.

Lauren Nassef

The goal of City Move Interdesign was to start a dialogue with community members, as well as the mining company and the government, in order to conceive of a new town. Organizers also aimed to develop a process for relocating cities that could be exported. “This kind of problem is going to be a trend for the 21st century,” says participant Felipe Francisco de Souza, an urban manager with the city of São Paulo, Brazil, echoing Frössén. Lance Rake, a professor of industrial design at the University of Kansas, took part in the workshop as well. “When Pakistan flooded, the U.S. sent rolls of plastic sheeting for housing. Is that really the best we can do? What’s happening to help move people?” he asks. “You’d have to say: not very much.”

Creating a new methodology for moving people meant reconsidering traditional urban planning. Albinsson calls this the “content before containers” approach. Instead of swooping in to town for two weeks, trying to glean the important facts on the fly, and leaving behind a set of renderings for new buildings, the group sought instead to help imagine the very ideals of a future town, one with thriving businesses beyond mining and a vibrant cultural life. “There is an increasing recognition that design has to extend past physically planning a building and get into the whole structure of a community,” Rake says.

Here’s how it worked: The 40 participants were split into several interdisciplinary groups and partnered with Swedish locals who served as guides and translators. SVID also employed facilitators whose jobs were to help keep the groups on task. Participants avoided drawing specific buildings or city plans, instead trying to compel the community into a dialogue about the potential uses of the new town. “We wanted to understand what goes on in this new city,” Albinsson says. “We wanted to talk about the social plan first. It’s not a traditional planning process.”

The Interdesign group spent several days getting to know the region. “We were living around the edge of the pit, some of us in vacant houses that were abandoned,” says Frank Mruk, associate dean at the architecture school of the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT). Every night, just after midnight, the mine operators would set off an explosion to expand the mine. “Sometimes the blast would start small earthquakes,” he recalls.

On the third day, the group descended into the mine. “It’s more complex than the subway of Paris down there,” says de Souza. “They have an enormous amount of infra­structure inside the underground layers.” Including a restaurant at 1,600 feet below grade, where the group sat perched on the edge of the crater while eating lunch.

Above ground, however, life was far less organized. “There were streets leading to nothing, that were not connected with the city,” de Souza says. “This is the urban disaster that they are creating [by moving houses] without an urban plan.”

After several days, it became evident that a few key areas needed the attention of the international group. First, there was poor communication among the citizens, the mining company, and the municipal government. “Lack of communication was a big problem, and it needed to be opened up,” Frössén says.

Lauren Nassef

For instance: The group learned that the site chosen by the government and mining company for relocating residents was actually an active mining area, making it likely that another move would need to happen in 50 years’ time. “[The participants] said, ‘Absolutely not,’” Frössén explains. “They started trying to find new alternatives for where the new society would be built.” Among the proposals: to use an underdeveloped area around a river, or to create a New Gällivare, blending the towns of Gällivare (population roughly 8,000) and Malmberget. The region surrounding Malmberget is not just rich in iron ore—it also has a wealth of natural beauty, from Arctic rivers and mountains prime for skiing to vast forest preserves. Some groups within Interdesign envisioned the development of a robust outdoor tourism industry (Gällivare has a small airport) and other business ventures. Finally, there were the buildings themselves. How do you create sustainable, energy-efficient structures in an Arctic setting? And what happens if, despite all best intentions, the citizens have to move again?

“My group looked at moving cities in a couple of different ways,” Rake remembers. “I was interested in the history and the culture of the [indigenous] Sami people who live there. They’ve been following reindeer herds for centuries. They are a nomadic society, but they’ve also managed to keep their families and community intact. The moving becomes part of the culture. I wondered if we could do that.” Rake’s team discussed possible techniques for fabricating movable structures. “What if we had a way of building buildings so that the core of it gets moved, and the rest could decay?”

Thinking progressed over two weeks at the group’s home base, a sports arena in Malmberget, outfitted with all the supplies they needed to work—easels, paper, markers, computers. Residents were invited to stop by and participate. At first, few showed up, but as word of the project spread, more and more popped in.

The process of the workshop was not always easy. “It’s a fashionable thing to do multidisciplinary, international projects, but making that work is pretty difficult,” Rake concedes. There were language barriers, disagreements, egos to be checked. This is where the facilitators earned their keep. “A lot of teams had internal problems just getting their team together,” says NYIT’s Mruk. “The organizers had to work to mediate.”

Before leaving, each group gave a final presentation to residents. The ideas ranged from the abstract to the concrete, but it was the process more than the product that was beneficial. “The citizens had the opportunity to talk and to criticize the government and the mining company. In small Scandinavian towns, I don’t think this is an everyday possibility,” de Souza says.

After the workshop, Albinsson was appointed to lead a second community project called The New Gällivare. A series of discussion groups—participants were asked to think about a perfect day in the new town—led to a wealth of planning priorities. Three key areas of urban development have been identified, and the collective vision will be ready by the end of this year, with the goal of getting approval from the municipality early next year. Planners, architects, and other experts are now being brought in to formulate plans.

Is the process exportable? In February, an earthquake hit the coastal community of Concepción, Chile, shifting the entire city 10 feet closer to the sea. City leaders determined that they must move the whole town farther up a nearby mountain to avoid the faultline. And they invited Albinsson for a visit.