The New Age of the Underground



The New Age of the Underground

Nico Portuondo

Professor Bray

Math of the Universe

April 30, 2016

Rapid population growth and concerning environmental trends are making our traditional beloved planet Earth an unreliable home. Many see the stars as our future, envisioning humanity’s destiny to leave Earth and colonize Mars and potentially planets across the galaxy. But what if we are looking in the wrong direction? Perhaps instead of looking up, we should look down where seemingly a world of potential lies right underneath our feet. While space colonization is perhaps a more permanent future solution, potential use of the underground in urban areas provides practical solutions that can be employed right away to solve problems such as overpopulation and climate change that are affecting humanity now. Transportation systems, power plants, and even ski slopes have already been moved underground in modern cities across the world and have proven themselves to function very well underground. Not only do they function well, but also provide benefits like land optimization and protection from the environment that directly counteract the effects of both overpopulation and climate change. With climate change and overpopulation becoming extremely threatening problems, the best solutions may exist in the relatively unexplored inner regions of our planet.

Overpopulation and climate change are perhaps the greatest problems that humanity as a whole will have to address in this and in coming centuries. The world population has been increasing at an ever faster rate in recent centuries, and 2011 saw the first time in human history where the population of the world exceeded 7 billion. Whether Earth has a carrying capacity for human population is a debate not pertinent to this paper, but what is important is the increasing urbanization rate due to population growth. It is predicted that “[b]y 2050, 70% of all people will live in cities and the world urban population will have more than doubled compared to the turn of the century.” (Broere 2015). The increase in urbanization in major geographical areas around the globe is further illustrated by this graph:

With a continued increase in urbanization, especially in developing countries, seemingly inevitable, urban areas must devise solutions to deal with this increasing population rate within limited land areas. Cities around the world must also come up with solutions to combat the effects of climate change, especially in regard to extreme weather. Moving forward, climate change is projected to increase the frequency of heat waves, extreme rainfall, winter precipitation, hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods, potentially making going outside and traveling in several cities around the world unbearable and dangerous. (“Understanding the Link”, 2016). Both climate change and overpopulation present real problems to urban centers in the coming years.

Utilizing urban underground space presents solutions to almost all of the problems presented by both the increase in population growth and climate change. When looking at the modern city, we can break down the most typical problems that urban areas face into a number of different categories: quality of the urban environment, traffic congestion and travel time, space consumption, pollution and noise, and protection against natural disasters. (“Report on Underground”, 2012). A rather obvious solution to improving travel time is underground travel using rail systems underground like subways. While subway systems are fairly commonly used in large cities across the world, the use of road tunnels is far less common. With “the most recognized problem (of urban areas) [being] the need for congestion relief in city streets”, road tunnels present an important solution. Not only can they provide relief from traffic congestion, but they can also provide roads that contribute less air and noise pollution to the city, are immune from environmental factors that cause massive amounts of damage, limit land usage, and reduce the need for aesthetically displeasing high-rise highways. Underground storm water relief systems also present a rationale solution to the problems caused by population growth and global warming, as more intense storms attributed to climate change will necessitate better drainage systems to prevent devastating floods. Most importantly, moving transportation, storm relief, storage, or a plethora of other necessary functions of a city underground improves the quality of life of urban populations and reduces space consumption. Moving more and more of the necessary urban services and amenities underground provides more room for green space, less pollution and noise, and an overall more pleasant city environment. Utilizing underground space also reduces the need for city sprawl, limiting the effects of habitat destruction and the overall negative effect of humanity on the environment. Finally, anything built underground is extremely resistant to natural disasters, which are projected to become more frequent and more severe in the coming century. This is especially important with respect to the infrastructure of cities, as building roads or running electrical wires underground can ensure that absolutely vital services remain available to the urban population and workers during times of emergency.

These practical implications of utilizing underground space in the near future are important, but what is the ultimate potential of the underground world? Could we reach the level of some science fiction scenario where entire cities exist completely underground? Professor Rinne answers this question as follows: “Basically anything can be built underground. Imagination is in fact the only limit as to what can be built there.” (The World of Underground Opportunities, 2012). This view of the potential of underground development is becoming more and more realistic around the world, as limited space and warming climate are resulting in rather unconventional aspects of urban life being moved underground. For example, in Helsinki, Finland there are already shopping malls, transportation tunnels, a swimming pool, and a hockey rink built underground, with additional plans in motion to build ski slopes and night-clubs underground due to the extreme cold temperatures in the region. Even more impressive, an entire town called Coober Pedy in Australia lives completely underground, in an urban setting featuring homes, a night club, and a pub that exist entirely beneath the Earth’s surface in order to avoid the area’s brutally hot temperatures. While these towns are certainly not massive cities, they do suggest a trend in which extreme temperatures and weather make underground life more and more appealing. In fact, living underground has been shown to be one of the most energy efficient and sustainable ways of living, as temperatures underground tend to stay very moderate without using energy and no habitat or greenery is destroyed to build a house.

There are, however, some disadvantages to the growing trend of underground life. One disadvantage is the high initial cost of building underground, with mega projects such as building a highway underground reaching well into the billions of dollars. There is also a part of the human psyche that perceives something inherently wrong and unsafe with being or living underground for extended periods. As pointed out in this abstract:

“It is well known that many people have negative feelings about spending extended periods underground due to lack of sunlight, poor ventilation, and air quality, a high level of humidity, lack of orientation, or an association with darkness, coldness, and dampness. (The World of Underground Opportunities, 2012).

This attitude may make people hesitant to travel and especially live underground, perhaps making the underground solution a tough sell initially. It should be pointed out, however, that all of the negative traits associated with the underground can be completely avoided with things like climate control, ventilation, glass floors, and proper lighting conditions (The World of Underground Opportunities, 2012). Because not many private organizations have built underground, the legal ramifications regarding building under private property will also need to be explored. New laws and regulations would have to be developed to protect the property rights and define the legal responsibilities of those living beneath as well above the Earth’s surface. Finally, while the underground provides great protection against natural disasters, it is very susceptible to disasters caused by humans. The threat of terrorist attacks, for example, could be especially pronounced due to the limited number of exits and the danger of explosions inherent in a closed space. Clearly, safety measures will need to be put in place to prevent such events, but examples of these safety measures are already being developed and effectively used in subway systems around the world.

Overall, it seems that increased urban usage of underground space is inevitable in the very near future. The increasing population and urbanization rate suggest that soon cities will have to find living space without creating a city so dense that it is unpleasant to live in. As temperature extremes and natural disasters become more frequent due to climate change, the idea of continuing to build higher and higher skyscrapers to accommodate population growth may become impractical and frankly dangerous. Living underground will also increase green space for cities, making them more environmentally friendly and pleasant to live in. For people who are worried about living underground, the technology to make life underground mimic our above ground environment will undoubtedly be developed in the near future. Soon it may be practically impossible to distinguish underground living conditions from those above ground. It seems only fitting that the current obsession in urban development with verticality will be replaced in the coming century with a trend in the absolute opposite direction.


  • Naghadehi, Masoud Zare, Andreas Benardos, Rouhollah Javdan, Hamidreza Tavakoli, and Mahdi Rojhani. "The Probabilistic Time and Cost Risk Analysis of a Challenging Part of an Urban Tunneling Project." Tunnelling and Underground Space Technology 58 (2016): 11-29. Web
  • Broere, Wout. "Urban Underground Space: Solving the Problems of Today’s Cities." Tunnelling and Underground Space Technology 55 (2016): 245-48. Web.
  • "Underground Solutions for Urban Problems - ITA-AITES." Underground Solutions for Urban Problems - ITA-AITES. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2016
  • "Understanding the Link Between Climate Change and Extreme Weather."US Environmental Protection Agency. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.
  • The World of Underground Oppurtunities. Perf. Mikael Rinne. N.p., 5 June 2012. Web.