Going underground

Sheila Moorcroft, Research Director, Shaping Tomorrow

Subterranean activity is part of modern life, but usually focuses on mining, transport or utilities. Several recently announced projects indicate interest in building subterranean living, leisure and working. Such developments will require radically new technologies and provide significant opportunities.

What is changing?

Living underground is not new; ancient civilisations did it centuries ago. Modern technologies are enabling us to create new underground cities.

Plans are afoot to develop a subterranean Eco City 2020 in the remains of one of the world’s largest ever mines in Siberia. The city would potentially house 100,000 people; include farms, recreation and transport. It would be covered in a glass dome including photovoltaic cells for energy efficiency and so that natural light can be ‘piped’ inside. In the Chinese city of Dongcheng, space is limited and building regulations control building height in certain areas. After considerable research, the local government has approved plans for a major underground development over three levels, with homes, shops, offices and transport. Similarly in Amsterdam, space limitations are encouraging the idea of building underground.

In Helsinki, a vast underground complex, putatively the world’s largest, is planned to house datacentres, parking and heating. The city already boasts the world’s greenest data centre, housed under the local cathedral.

26 abandoned Tube stations in London may get a new lease of life as leisure, conference and office space. Several companies have already expressed interest in using the space for rock climbing, weddings, theatre productions and conference facilities.

Why is this important?
Underground facilities tend to use less energy. They can also protect people and equipment from the impacts of harsh climates and increasingly the impacts of climate change and radical climate events. As we explore resources in ever more inhospitable areas of the planet and the climate becomes increasingly unstable, going underground will increasingly make sense. In Tokyo a vast ‘cathedral’ underground has been developed as a flood containment area, to protect the cities underground train network.

Cities often have many miles of disused or underutilised tunnels and areas. As space becomes ever more expensive above ground, so putting more and different types of facilities underground will become more cost effective. Data centres are already regularly built underground to reduce energy requirements. (see Data centres in the limelight) There is a growing opportunity to map and assess the range of existing underground spaces beneath cities – much of which is often not well mapped in older cities such as London, for alternative uses. Outside cities, exhausted mines have been targeted as potential sites for storing waste, carbon and other industrial applications. Could there now be a rethink on the potential range of uses for such workings. Will the mining industry be required to identify the potential for legacy / alternative uses of mines as part of the initial development?

Subterranean living will also require a host of new technologies not least of which the engineering and construction skills to make them safe, but also to bring effective communication systems, ensure daylight can be beamed in, and to create genuinely liveable areas.


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