Megacities Have Mega-Infrastructure Below

Sometimes you have nowhere to go but down. As part of our special package this month on the future of big cities, we asked Associate Editor Sandra Upson to look at the foundation of booming urban centers, literally. She found that there's more to megacities than meets the eye. When urban planners can no longer find the surface space to install vital infrastructure components, they go underground, she writes in "How to See the Unseen City".

The primary example of a major city expanding into its own depths is New York, Upson notes. It followed the lead of many of the European capitals, notably London and Paris, during the Industrial Revolution in digging beneath its existing streets to situate crucial arteries for transportation, sanitation, water, gas and electricity and kept on going the same route into the Information Age.

Today, few--if an--cities can rival New York in the density and complexity of its subterranean networks, Upson reports. New York's urban underground contains a haphazard network of wires, cables, and water mains interspersed with a hodgepodge of corroded pipes and forgotten chambers. To many city dwellers--and even to many city officials--underground infrastructure is both out of sight and out of mind.

How do planners know where all the lines are buried? That's increasingly becoming a significant challenge as 21st Century projects are being developed. The answer lies in something called geospatial-information services (GIS), a new field in which the Japanese are the recognized leaders. Japan has created an underground mapping system that consists of utility grids layered over a road map that utilities and builders consult before breaking new ground. (Doing the same thing in the U.S. has been hampered by national-security concerns, Upson discovered.)

Looking to the future, officials in Oslo, Norway, may be the next underground pioneers. In their capital, developers have created a whole sub-urban community. Troubled by the city's hilly terrain, engineers have built all sorts of structures--such as power plants, an air-traffic-control tower, and a dairy processing operation--under the surface. As a result, some of the world's most sophisticated air-circulation systems can be found in Oslo, as well as underground lighting that's tweaked to mimic the movement of the sun throughout the day.

Wealthy cities are increasingly facing a premium on space, Upson concludes. As metropolitan areas grow denser and richer, the urban underground is likewise poised to mirror the congestion above.

[Editor's Note: Click here to see all of Spectrum's special report on "The Megacity," including online extras and audio and video exclusives.]


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