Going underground: cities of the future

engineering careers  Going underground: cities of the future

The Engineer has written a lot of boring stories over the past few years. By that, of course, I mean stories about tunnel boring. Crossrail but also the Thames Tideway project and National Grid’s power tunnels have carved out several new layers of infrastructure beneath London, and in doing so have created a new generation of British tunnelling expertise.

Now comes a suggestion for another underground network, one for people and cyclists. Design firm Gensler has proposed the creation of subterranean walkways beneath the Capital, funded by the creation of underground shops alongside them and powered by energy harvested from users’ footsteps using Pavegen technology.

The proposal, which has just won Best Conceptual Project at the London Planning Awards, wouldn’t require new tunnels but would instead utilise old tube tunnels. However, at a time when ground space in the Capital is at an all-time premium, it raises an interesting idea of how London might develop in the future.

Gensler’s proposal for turning old tube tunnels into self-powered walk- and cycle-ways

Later this month, a conference at the Institution of Civil Engineers will explore what the UK’s engineering community has learned from its last 10 years of designing and building new tunnels, but also the potential for putting this expertise to use in the future.

Could one possibility be the creation of an underground city that provides respite from the pollution and changing climate above ground, while bringing a new level of much-needed construction space into play?

Other cities such as Toronto, Helsinki and Hong Kong already have networks of pedestrian tunnels and amenities either providing shelter from inclement weather or a safe alternative walkway in an area dominated by motor vehicles.

Other major locations where space is limited, including New York, Paris and Amsterdam are also examining ways in which underground building could expand the space available for their citizens.

And in one sense, this new subterranean development of London has already begun, with rich property owners expanding their buildings downwards in order to circumvent planning restrictions.

However, is a life underground the most desirable future we can imagine? Encasing ourselves in tubes in order to make more space for motor vehicles and protect ourselves from their fumes seems like a claustrophically backward way of dealing with the problems facing major cities.

Why should we cut ourselves off from any remaining semblance of the natural world in the urban environment? Instead I’d favour the plan put forward by Transport for London’s Road Task Force to put more major roads into tunnels, leaving the surface – with its sunlight and trees – for public spaces.