The latest underground movement is a real game-changer!

A growing band of engineers, scientists, architects and visionaries are looking at the unrealised potential of underground space within our congested cities and are asking “what if?”

Cities are much like living organisms – to be successful they must grow and continue to evolve. With room to expand aboveground becoming scarce, we need to look at how to create a sense of place within our cities’ foundations says Jess Scully, a public art curator, festival director and media producer.

Starting the conversation

Planning decisions made a generation ago are struggling to cope with the demands of today’s increasingly dense cities. The aspirational quarter acre block in the leafy suburbs disconnected from public transport appears wasteful by today’s standards.

Jess believes that the most important part of place-making is starting the conversation about what we want out of underground spaces and why.

According to figures from the World Bank a staggering 89% of Australia’s population lives in urban areas. This puts us in the company of spatially-challenged countries such as Luxembourg, Bahrain and Israel, and well above those with similar expansive land masses such as Canada, China or India.

However, unlike these countries, our cities cover enormous areas. With burgeoning populations in remote and isolated suburban areas, people are cut-off from public transport and infrastructure, as well as from employment opportunities and cultural activities.

Becoming better neighbours

According to Jess, we must learn to deal with population density, and become better neighbours through shared communal leisure, cultural and social spaces.

These, she says will provide a high quality lifestyle, within a high density urban area.

The re-purposing of underground infrastructure such as dis-used water reservoirs into public art and leisure spaces at the Cisterns exhibition venue in Copenhagen or the Paddington Reservoir Gardens in Sydney represents the first step in creative re-invention.

Transforming communities

AECOM’s team of urban designers, environmental scientists and engineers has espoused the concept of precinct development, appreciating the need to create multidisciplinary urban environments that incorporate the public realm into the design and construction of our living, working and leisure spaces.

As part of our brief to transform communities, improve lives and empower growth, we have collaborated with both public and private organisations to bring exciting, integrated and functional communities to life – above and below ground.

Lighting the way

James Rosenwax, AECOM’s Market Sector Director of Cities, says there are two critical issues that must be addressed in order to create welcoming and functional underground places.

These are lighting and way-finding. Lighting is self-evident. Humans need light in order to be productive and feel safe. The latest advances in lighting technology and design can effectively mimic the sun’s power and impact, allowing us to create thriving underground gardens as well as pleasant living and working environments that respond to our need for natural light and heat.

The other issue we have to get right is way-finding. Our underutilised underground spaces do not have the myriad of above-ground geographical or built environment landmarks to give us a sense of place and orientation. Once again, recent advances in wayfinding research and human psychology can assist us in the application of sensory cues and directional strategies. These will both promote efficient navigation and add to our sense of comfort within complex physical environments, minimising any sense of claustrophobia or spatial anxiety.

With a projected doubling of our population over coming decades, James believes that we need to establish a clear vision and pragmatic planning for the underground networks that will serve our future, polycentric cities. In combination with the development of surface-based development patterns, these will help to preserve our green spaces while increasing capacity and diversity.

Underground place-making can expand our cities and our lives, unearthing a new world of possibilities!