It’s very exciting to think about the prospects of colonising Mars or the Moon as land becomes increasingly scarce. But instead of travelling through space another possibility – and one that is far more practical – would be to look at moving underground.
We in Malaysia are quite lucky – we have a lot of space. The folks in Singapore are less so. The tiny island state already has 5.6 million residents, with another 1.3 million more to be added by 2030. It’s literally running out of space.
The country has long been reclaiming land from the sea but there’s only so much of that that you can do. The next logical thing to look at is building things underground. Actually Singapore has already moved some of its infrastructure and utilities below ground. Much of its MRT lines are underground.
But that is not all it’s got underground. There are also pedestrian walkways, retail shops, a water reclamation system, a five-lane highway, air-conditioning pipes, and fuel and ammunition storage facilities.
And there’s more to come. This year the Singapore government is set to reveal its master plan for underground space. From published reports, we know this master plan will look at utility plants, a bus depot, warehouses, water reservoirs and various industrial facilities. Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be any plans to build homes, offices or public parks underground. All those will remain above ground.
To prepare for the underground development, the Singapore government has made the necessary legislative changes to allow it to acquire land underground. Under the new law, homeowners only own the space underneath their land for up to 30 metres. That’s enough space for them to build a basement. But anything below that is not theirs.
Singapore is not the only land-starved island that is looking at building facilities underground. Hong Kong is looking at it too. With more than seven million people already living on that small island, everything is cramped and land prices have shot through the roof.
Like Singapore, Hong Kong has already built some underground facilities, including a salt water reservoir for Hong Kong University, a sewage treatment plant and an explosives depot. It’s also not surprising then that, like Singapore, Hong Kong is looking at building facilities underground for things such as sewage and water treatment plants, reservoirs, data centres, various storage and warehousing units, car parks, laboratories and even sport centres.
Some press reports indicate that mortuaries, crematoriums and slaughterhouses might be housed underground too. Details are very sketchy and there doesn’t seem to be anything as concrete as Singapore’s soon-to-be-released master plan.
Two cities, Helsinki and Montreal, are considered leaders in underground urbanism. They’ve had thriving underground developments since the 1960s. Helsinki was the first city to develop an underground master plan to ease urban congestion. Its underground facilities include swimming pools, ice hockey rinks, a church, and a data centre.
It is all very meticulously planned. For example, because the data centre is underground and cooled by seawater, the heat from the computer banks can be transmitted to the city’s heating system. This ingenious design saves on electricity.
Unlike the Singapore and Hong Kong approach, Helsinki’s underground efforts are designed to be a city underground where the general public would frequent. But it also stores its coal underground and the Finnish army has training grounds too.
Montreal is the other city that has an underground city of its own, known as RESO, which is really targeted at the general public. This underground network has retail shops, restaurants, hotels, art galleries and a metro station. There are also many public areas that people can go to for relaxation and recreation.
Think of it as one huge underground shopping mall. It’s literally the largest subterranean complex in the world. This impressive development consists of 32 kilometres of tunnels with more than 120 exterior access points.
As the Earth’s population continue to grow – it’s anticipated the population will veer close to 10 billion people to 2050, there is a pressing need to find more land. Unlike the Mars or Moon solution, which is only a theoretical possibility, the underground approach has already been proven to work. It’s very expensive to build things underground, granted. But it’s a pittance compared to what it would take to try to terraform Mars so humans could live on it.
Oon Yeoh is a consultant with experiences in print, online and mobile media. Reach him at email@example.com.