Underground Cities: The Future?

Colm Ryan

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Smoke Rises from a manhole in Holborn, West London, Credit:
Smoke Rises from a manhole in Holborn, West London, Credit: Neil

The scenes of London streets plunged into darkness as night fell on the April 1st produced one of the most striking stories from all of news this year, as a fire deep underground caused massive electrical outages across Britain’s capital.

If nothing else it showed our deep reliance on modern technology as one of the world’s most iconic cities ground to a halt, complete with dramatic images of flames shooting out of manholes.

Over 5,000 homes and businesses in the West End were blacked out with everyone from office workers to tourists affected.  By early evening those initial flames and power cuts of the afternoon had transformed into thick grey smoke billowing across streets by early evening.

The network of tunnels underneath London housing these cables runs for hundreds of miles, unbeknownst to the millions that traverse the streets above every day.

 

The events in London may not be the best advertisement for developing a city’s underground, but many communities around the globe have developed what lies beneath past simply a transport network and set of tunnels for utilities.

As space has become a premium and skyscrapers not always an option – it’s often a necessity to do so. Just like the Roman Catacombs millenniums ago, contemporary networks continue to be developed.

Take for example Japan.  Unsurprisingly, they have been to the forefront of this urban evolution over the past few decades.

The city of Osaka above ground.  Credit: Kevin Dooley
The city of Osaka above ground. Credit: Kevin Dooley

 

The nation’s second largest city Osaka, one of the most populated municipalities in the world, has three separate underground districts: Umeda, Namba, and Shinsaibashi.  All of them are connected by the subway network, meaning you can shop, eat and live without ever venturing above ground – if you desire.  To give an idea of the size of these areas Umeda boasts over 1,000 stores, whereas here at home Dundrum town centre has just over 150.

 

And a more tranquil Osaka below ground.  Credit m-louis
And a more tranquil Osaka below ground. Credit m-louis

Tokyo also has similar districts, though not yet as extensive, based around metro-line hubs.  However, plans exist for the largest underground development in history that would go beyond just retail.  Alice City, if built, will cost almost $5 billion (working out cheaper than building above ground in Tokyo) and house entire communities including offices, factories, warehouses and even living space.

 

Elsewhere in the United Kingdom, Edinburgh has the historic Edinburgh Vaults were completed underneath the Southside of the city in the late 1700’s.  Nowadays, a tourist attraction, they initially were areas for tradesmen and taverns during a period of heavy overcrowding above ground.  After some years they began to house illegal material as well as those who could not afford regular housing before being abandoned for unknown reasons which has led to speculation of paranormal activity.

The Niddry Street section of the Edinburgh vaults. Credit: Trevor Mendham
The Niddry Street section of the Edinburgh vaults. Credit: Trevor Mendham

Famously the vaults were used by former Scottish rugby international Norrie Rowan in 1989, as looked for a way to help Romanian rugby player Cristian Raducanu escape the Romanian secret police and seek political asylum.

 

Just like other areas which have developed such structures, Taipei did so because of overcrowding also, the result being the Taipei City Mall.  Unlike other underground malls, it’s in the heart of the city itself and takes brighter tone then some of its Japanese cohorts.

Singapore’s similarly named CityLink Mall has an incredible seven subterranean floors and is perhaps the most complete of its kind so far, including a wide range of stores and activities – even providing multiple connections to above ground locations across the city.  In fact its total area is over 5km square.

 

Finally, various places across the United States have developed the below ground property.  Atlanta has the aptly named Underground Atlanta, which sees old utility tunnels converted rather than going to waste.  Recent years have seen the space attract numerous bars and night clubs, slowly transforming the area into Atlanta’s answer to Harcourt Street.

Underground Atlanta. Credit: 7263255
Underground Atlanta. Credit: 7263255

They say everything is bigger in Texas and deep underneath Houston lies a long seven miles of pathway.  More so used for commuting than retail, it connects the major landmarks above while keeping users out of the humid, hot sun.  Not to be out done, Dallas also has the Dallas Pedestrian Network, linking together over 30 blocks of streets.

New York of course has its famous Subway, but did you know many famous landmarks are actually directly connected to it, unlike other such metro lines?  Much of central Manhattan such as the area around Times Square features such links.

 

Underground ‘cities’ may not be part and parcel of everyday life, but as property prices and space become a premium more and more urban communities will have to eventually explore possibilities below surface – even if that means radically different lives than what we live for those that will inhabit them.

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Colm Ryan