The case for underground cities

The concept of underground cities aren’t just something you would have seen in science fiction stories - they have been around for centuries. A new proposed project by designer James Ramsey brings the idea back into the mainstream.

Ramsey has focused his project on an abandoned trolley terminal underneath New York City’s Lower East Side. The terminal has been unused for 65 years and according to the designer this 1.5 acre space is the perfect setting for a public park called the Lowline, which will be powered by a remote skylight system of his own invention.

This all seems very dystopian - a space devoid of natural light, people living underneath the ground away from things such as colourful landscapes and vast vistas. But the truth is that there are advantages to underground cities and it has been done for centuries.

First, the advantages - initial excavation might be costly and challenging in places where the water tables are high, such as the Netherlands, but underground spaces are more easily maintained than above ground cities. There are no windows or facades exposed to changing weather. Lighting would be more expensive, but you would be saving on heating and cooling as below ground temperatures are more constant. Cities with harsh winters and blazing summers have been on the forefront of the  new downward trend.

In the worst case scenario for climate change, the Earth’s surface might become so hostile that it would be unlivable for humans - the only way to survive would be to move down, argues author Annalee Newitz in her book Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.

It might sound all a little like we should be preparing for doomsday, however as mentioned before underground cities are not a new concept. Here are the some amazing underground cities from around the world:

Beijing Underground

Built in 1969, this underground city was initially used as military defense and emergency shelter for the socialist government. It had everything you would expect from a city, stores, restaurants, schools, theaters, barbershops, and even a roller skating rink. The underground city also featured over 1,000 air raid shelters, and it was built to house up to forty percent of the Beijing’s population in the event of an attack.

In 2000 the city was opened as tourist attraction and some of the shelters are still used as youth hostels.

Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan

Located in Canada, the series of tunnels were built to provide warmer travelling conditions for workers. Due to the time period these tunnels were used, it became somewhat of a mobster city connection. It is rumoured that the original gangster, Al Capone had a hand in what became known as the “Chicago Connection”

City of the Gods, Giza Plateau

Thousands of tourists flocks to the pyramids each year and marvel at the architectural masterpieces but not everyone knows that below these massive structures lies a network of tunnels and chambers.

Beginning in 1978, researchers started mapping out these tunnels and chambers which they believe could be the ‘metropolis.’ It is known now as the City of the Gods, but 35 years later much of this fabled city is still shrouded in mystery. Due to its location underneath the iconic pyramids it is highly unlikely that more will be unearthed anytime soon.

Portland, Oregon

Beneath one of the largest cities in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States lie the Shanghai Tunnels. They are located beneath Chinatown and were used to transport goods and, legend has it, people. Thanks to this giant underground infrastructure, Portland gained notoriety as the worst place on the West Coast of America for Shanghaiing—kidnapping men for forced labour aboard ships.

The Shanghai Tunnels, also known as the Forbidden City, are believed to have been used for other illegal activities such as prostitution. Today you can tour the tunnels with a significantly smaller risk of being shanghaied than in the past.

Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland

Although this underground marvel was still producing salt until 2007, it is the structures housed inside this vast area that are the most breathtaking thing to witness. There are statues, chapels, and even a cathedral in this massive complex.

Coober Pedy, Australia

The town of Coober Pedy still exists and is home to more than 1,600 residents. It is referred to as the opal capital of the world because it produces more opal than anywhere else on Earth. The town consists of homes called “dugouts,” which were built underground to combat the unbearable heat on the surface and to keep their babies safe from dingoes and Australians.

Ever since opal was first discovered in Coober Pedy in 1915, the area has continuously been occupied and mined for the gemstones, and chances are if you own anything with opal in it, it came from the Coober Pedy mines. Along with the dugout homes and mine shafts, the town boasts underground shops and pubs, as well as a church, and even a graveyard.

Cappadocia, Turkey

The area of Cappadocia, Turkey, has become famous for its underground cities—most notably the underground city of Derinkuyu. It consisted of seven underground levels and is said to have housed residents in the thousands. This was not a small city and it was not a series of small cave homes either. Throughout Derinkuyu were shops and churches, areas in which the residents produced wine, and even schools. The underground cities are believed to have been hiding places for Christians avoiding persecution from the Roman Empire, because no one likes being fed to lions.

You can read about the Eartscarper project proposed for Mexico City here

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