Underground Urbanism

With 5.6 million residents packed into an area about two-thirds the size of New York City, space is already at a premium on the island of Singapore. What's more, the city-state's government expects its population to grow by an additional 1.3 million people by 2030.

To meet the needs of all those people, Singapore is solidifying its place as a world leader in underground urbanism — innovative design projects that utilize underground spaces.

Singapore is already home to a large underground network of trains, shopping centers, and passenger tunnels, as well as a five-lane underground highway — the Marina Coastal Expressway — which accounts for 10 percent of its expressways.

The construction of Singapore's Underground Ammunition Facility, to store live ammunition and explosive, reportedly freed up an equivalent of 400 football fields' worth of space above ground. Meanwhile, the city-state's underground district cooling network — reportedly the world’s largest — not only frees up space, but also saves on costs and reduces carbon emissions, according to a Singapore Power press release.

The Future Below Our Feet

Singapore's downward growth is far from finished. The city-state is investing $188 million in underground technology research and development, and in 2019, the government expects to unveil pilot areas of its master plan for underground spaces. Potential projects include the relocation of utility lines, the creation of water reservoirs, and the expansion of rail networks.

Singapore is wise to invest the necessary time and money into research and development before breaking ground on any projects. Not only are upfront costs higher when building underground, but mistakes can be more costly as well.

“If you are going to build underground, you should do it properly,” Mark Wallace, an engineer for ARUP, told Smithsonian.com. “Tall buildings are dead easy to take down. The underground? Not so easy."

If Singapore's future underground projects are successful, they could go a long way toward helping the city-state cope with its influx of new residents. They could also serve as a template for other cities to follow. The Earth's population is expected to soar to 9.8 billion by 2050, and living and working underground could be our best option for dealing with the inevitable overcrowding of urban areas.

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