Barun Roy: Notes on the underground

By : Barun Roy
Last Updated: Wed, Oct 31, 2012 19:50 hrs

Remember Kanal, Andrzej Wajda’s famous 1957 movie on the Warsaw uprising against the Nazis, where a handful of resistance heroes wade through the city’s underground sewers in a desperate escape bid? Now imagine those weren’t sewers but dazzling, brightly lit, air-conditioned, shop-lined passageways, with no other traffic than pedestrian, and you’ll get an idea of what’s happening in an increasing number of places in Asia and around the world: the birth of parallel cities, or sections of cities, below the level of the ground.

Underground walks and malls aren’t, of course, a new idea, but using subterranean space as an independent urban planning concept has become one, inspired by Montreal’s sprawling complex of tunnels under its downtown area and by the growing spread of urban subway networks. Urban metros, in particular, have vastly expanded opportunities, unavailable earlier, to exploit underground space, adding to station concourses tasks other than simply funnelling passengers.

Experts believe, in the ultimate analysis, digging below is perhaps the only way to get rid of surface congestions and keep cities healthy, mobile, and liveable. Flyovers, elevated railways, or overhead walkways are good as far as they go, but beyond a certain point, they only degrade the urban landscape.

After City Link (opened in July 2000) and Marina Bay Link (opened in November 2010) serving its new downtown, Singapore has proposed to build 12 new underground links to transform the Orchard Road premium shopping district. Tokyo’s Marunouchi underground plaza is a good example of Japan’s aggressive pursuit of sub-surface space to rejuvenate busy sections of its major cities. Below several blocks in Seoul’s posh Gangnam district lies what’s reputedly Asia’s largest underground mall, the CO-EX, a 85,000-sq m shopping Disneyland now set for a massive renovation to double its size. Bangkok, Taipei and Hanoi are all actively seeking underground answers to urban problems. Even Almaty, capital of Kazakhstan, has a 25,000-sq m underground shopping centre, the first in Central Asia, opened last April.

But underground malls and walkways are only one part of the story. Diverting surface traffic underground is the logical next step. Inspired by Boston’s hugely successful Big Dig, rerouting the city’s Central Artery (Interstate 93) through a 3.5-mile tunnel and saving it from gridlock, Asian planners have begun to explore similar urban solutions. Singapore has in mind two concentric rings of underground roads, roughly 15 km long and two to four lanes each, encircling the city centre and expanding road space in the area by as much as 40 per cent.

In Japan, opinion is growing that the ageing elevated lanes of Tokyo’s metropolitan expressways should be buried underground. About 80 per cent of the 301-km-long system is elevated and repairs are needed to make it safe for some one million vehicles that use it every day. The Inner Circle Route alone needs repairs at nearly 100,000 locations, and that’s not going to be cheap. Since earthquakes are also a perennial worry, experts say going underground would be a better long-term solution.

Big digs are particularly hot in China and developers are taking full advantage of the country’s rapidly growing subway networks and existing civilian air defence shelters. According to one estimate, the stock of China’s underground shopping space alone rose from 4.6 million sq m in 2003 to 8.49 million sq m in 2010; and, as this expansion continues at about 7.5 per cent a year, other subterranean uses are growing as well.

Large-scale underground traffic systems are being put in place in many busy areas of Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing. At least 20 Chinese cities have plans for building urban underground expressways to speed up both inner-city and inter-city traffic. Shanghai is studying the feasibility of an underground container transport system. By 2020, reports say, developed underground space in China would amount to some 90 million square metre.

Town planners are increasingly convinced that facilities like parking lots, bus depots, and truck terminals, or activities like the loading and unloading of goods could very well be driven underground. Certain back-office operations could go sub-surface as well. If bulk-storage godowns would go down below, too, a lot of surface space could be freed up. Singapore’s Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) is contemplating building a science complex 30 stories below the surface at Singapore Science Park to house research laboratories and a data centre.

“The key is really to see how one can use a piece of land twice — above and below,” a JTC official recently remarked. Though costs are a big factor (Boston’s Big Dig ran up a bill of $14.8 billion), but benefits will win out handsomely in the end. As subways and sunken roads expand sub-surface mobility, it’s not difficult to foresee mirror urban enclaves – what some people call “Alice” cities, a reference to the burrowed world of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland – flourishing below the ground.  

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