Our underground future: Buried nuclear plants? Subterranean stadiums? The next great frontier may just lie beneath our feet.
June 27, 2012
A finished basement can be a beautiful thing. With the right accoutrements and enough effort, what might otherwise be a damp, empty space lined with concrete can be turned into a cozy playroom, or a den, or an office and gym. Properly planned, the basement can become an integral part of a household, even a kind of engine that powers it from below.
The same is true for the far larger basement that all of us share: that vast space that exists under our feet wherever we go, out of sight and out of mind. Those of us who are city-dwellers already keep a lot of stuff down there—subway stations, sewer pipes, electrical lines—but as our cities grow more cramped, and real estate on the surface grows more valuable, the possibility that it can be used more inventively is starting to attract attention from planners around the world.
“It used to be, ‘How high can you go up into the sky?’” said Susie Kim, of the Boston-based urban design firm Koetter Kim & Associates. “Now it’s a matter of, ‘How low can you go and still be economically viable?’”
A cadre of engineers who specialize in tunneling and excavation say that we have barely begun to take advantage of the underground’s versatility. The underground is the next great frontier, they say, and figuring out how best to use it should be a priority as we look ahead to the shape our civilization will take.
“We have so much room underground,” said Sam Ariaratnam, a professor at Arizona State University and the chairman of the International Society for Trenchless Technology. “That underground real estate—people need to start looking at it. And they are starting to look at it.”
The federal government has taken an interest, convening a panel of specialists under the banner of the National Academy of Engineering to produce a report, due out later this year, on the potential uses for America’s underground space, and in particular its importance in building sustainable cities. The long-term vision is one in which the surface of the earth is reserved for the things we want to see and be around—houses, schools, yards, parks—while all the other facilities that are needed to make a city run, from water treatment plants to data banks to freight systems, hum away underground.
Though the basic idea has existed for decades, new engineering techniques and an increasing interest in sustainable urban growth have created fresh momentum for what once seemed like a notion out of Jules Verne. And the world has witnessed some striking new achievements. The city of Almere, in the Netherlands, built an underground trash network that uses suction tubes to transport waste out of the city at 70 kilometers per hour, making garbage trucks unnecessary. In Malaysia, a sophisticated new underground highway tunnel doubles as a discharge tunnel for floodwater. In Germany, a former iron mine is being converted into a nuclear waste repository, while scientists around the world explore the possibility of building actual nuclear power plants underground.
Overall, though, the cause of the underground has encountered resistance, in large part because digging large holes and building things inside them tends to be extremely expensive and technically demanding. Boston offers perfect examples of the pluses and minuses of the endeavor: Putting the Post Office Square parking lot underground created a park and a beloved urban amenity, but the much more ambitious Big Dig turned out to be a drawn-out and unspeakably costly piece of urban reengineering.
And perhaps an even greater obstacle is the psychological one. As Ariaratnam put it, “Even in a condo tower, the penthouse on the top floor is the most attractive thing—everyone wants to be higher.” The underground, by contrast, calls to mind darkness, dirt, even danger—and when we imagine what it would look like for civilization to truly colonize it, we think of gophers and mole people. Little wonder that our politicians and urban designers don’t afford the underground anywhere near the level of attention and long-term vision they lavish on the surface. In a world where most people are accustomed to thinking of progress as pointing toward the heavens, it can be hard to retrain the imagination to aim downward…