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Pastures New

In the 1930s when Britain was beefing up the country’s infrastructure to serve a growing urban population, planners were apt to take a single-minded approach to the march of progress. Nowhere was this more eloquently demonstrated than in the construction of Derbyshire’s Ladybower Reservoir.

As part of the push to establish a vast new water source to supply the rapidly expanding cities of Sheffield, Derby, Nottingham and Leicester, a decision was taken – against strong local opposition – to create a reservoir by flooding the Derwent Valley. The major obstacle to the plan was that the area was home to the communities of Derwent and Ashopton, whose inhabitants were required to relocate and whose buildings were eventually consigned to the watery depths when construction was completed in the mid-1940s. Every so often, when the area experiences a dry summer, as in 2018, the bones of the village reappear, attracting sightseers curious to peer into the past.

Although the Ladybower project feels like a relic from a distant era, the increasing impact of human activity on the planet is forcing us to consider how we might manage migrations from low-lying areas, for instance, in the event that sea levels continue to rise. However, it’s another kind of human impact – the subsidence caused by an underground mine – that’s compelling the wholescale relocation of the Swedish town of Kiruna.

In what must be one of the most remarkable urban projects ever undertaken in the country, a team of planners and architects have embarked on a scheme to move 20 significant buildings – including its church which is regarded as Sweden’s most beautiful building – plus 18,000 inhabitants of its northernmost town two miles east. The rest of the town is being freshly constructed and will include some notable designs, including a new town hall.

The planners are very much aware that moving a town involves more than shifting a handful of buildings and relocating its residents. Trickier to tackle is the task of maintaining the links between the community and its history of settlement – not something that can be guaranteed, even with the reassurance of a few familiar landmarks. Kiruna residents have been consulted about the move throughout, with the result that some additional items will be finding a new home – including the 100-year-old birch trees that frame the church.

There’s a lot of interest in the Kiruna project from outside Sweden: the town could become an exemplar for how to move other imperilled cities around the world – including many threatened coastal communities. It’s a threat that’s no longer a remote possibility: a recent UN panel report on climate change estimated that an increase of just 1.5 degrees centigrade in global temperatures would result in an average rise in sea levels of between 26 and 77 centimetres by the turn of the next century. It’s thought that some of the world's largest cities, including Miami and Mumbai, as well as island chains like The Maldives, could be completely inundated.

The Kiruna project could also provide a learning opportunity for architects and urban planners everywhere – not so much in the implementation of the move, per se, but in the way in which its planners have made the community the central focus. Residents have been encouraged to share their ideas on key elements of the new town so they will feel a sense of ownership after the move is completed. Government policy can often feel like it rides roughshod over the needs of individuals in order to achieve a ‘bigger’ goal; projects like Kiruna help to redress the balance.

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