Notes from underground

7 June 2021

Persuading lay people and decision makers of the potentially life-improving benefits of subsurface developments can be an uphill task. The popular imagination has been conditioned since childhood to think of the underground in terms of being dark, dirty, unwelcoming and potentially menacing, not a place to linger in for long. This is reinforced by the influence of popular fiction and Hollywood movies such as ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’, and the fearful associations many of us may have with burial and entombment. So, how can the ill-informed and the sceptical be persuaded that subsurface developments can be attractive, adaptable, safe, sustainable and resilient, not only promising new urban typologies but also new ways of living?

A recent publication attempts to achieve this through 240 pages of sparkling thought leadership with contributions from engineers, architects and academics. ‘Underground Cities: new frontiers in urban living’ produced by infrastructure consultant AECOM and published by Lund Humphries is a collection of essays which cover current thinking on the subject. The book deserves serious promotion.

Likely to be accessible by lay individuals as well as professionals, the book highlights ways of rethinking urban space, using the subsurface to relieve the pressures of population growth and climate change.

And it does this in a visually striking way through motivational projects – some new, some old – showing how life can be improved on the surface but also creating new concepts of living. The focus is not just on engineering and systems but also on the resulting underground architecture, and the type of utopian spaces that may result.

Hitherto well-publicised examples include Montreal’s extensive underground city; Helsinki’s multi-layered underground, and the Cargo Sous Terrain tunnel network linking Swiss production/distribution centres.

Some of the essays delve into a digital future and discuss how new techniques of representation can build holistic pictures of as yet unchartered territory.

Thus, new infrastructures are built not with steel and concrete but with data and AI tools based on BIM. But how does such advanced technology encourage new approaches and impacts?

It is good to note that more cities are creating underground masterplans as a way out of potentially looming dystopian nightmares. But planners and policy makers must always be reminded of the need for more long-term planning and strategic vision if we are to get underground developments that provide viable solutions to the complex urban issues we face today.

This book is praiseworthy for expressing those aims.