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The future of cities on the Moon, Mars and orbital habitats.
- In the 1970s NASA published an extensive book on urban planning in space.
- Acclaimed architectural and engineering firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) designed a conceptual plan for the first permanent settlement for human life on the moon.
- An MIT team developed a concept for the first sustainable cities on Mars to be built in the next century.
One day humanity will again step foot on other worlds. When that day comes we will need to build new cities in these places. Where we go, our cities go. The urban form follows us like a civilizational shadow.
In order to house our post-terrestrial bound culture, we'll first need to layout the new order of our settlements. There are three prime candidate planets and places in space that may be the first to house our founding space pioneers.
These are the Moon, Mars, and orbital habitats around Earth.
Major governmental space agencies, engineering firms and even urban planning groups have already seriously considered the prospect of space colonization.
In 1977 NASA published "Space Settlements: A Design Study." This extensive 155-page book essentially contains a city planning policy guide on the future of cities and urban planning in space. The book focuses exclusively on orbital civilian habitats – the type that would revolve and settle in Lagrange Points around Earth.
"Space Settlements" covers everything it can think of, from the psychology of its inhabitants, rocket landing areas, and zoning land-use to the barebones of oxygen production. Even with such depth the book still covers only a small portion of the challenges facing space colonization.
The sheer scale of genius needed for this feat will keep us busy down here for years.
Yet, urbanists would be happy to hear that the plan advocates for communities that are walkable, transit-oriented, dense and inclusive. This list checks off a fair bit of principles modern urban planners abide by.
The book's authors even took the time to think about the notion of the first extraterrestrial pioneers' budding culture:
The first extraterrestrial communities may not be purely American if the United States is no longer a major world power or a major technological center by the time the first extraterrestrial community is established. If the United States remains a major world power, many nations including nonwestern nations and African nations could be highly technological and want to participate, so that the first extraterrestrial community may be international.
The present technological nations are not necessarily advantaged, because the technology they possess is "Earth-bound" in addition to being culture-bound. They may have first to unlearn the forms, the assumptions and the habits of the Earth-bound technology before learning the new forms and assumptions of technology useful in extraterrestrial communities.
Moon culture evolution, confirmed. The thought of new cultures developing in the newly forged lunar cities and floating metropolis colonies would be a testament to our accomplishment.
Building a city on the Moon
Wikimedia Commons | Source: NASA Ames Research Centre
What would it take to build a full scale city on the moon? Skidmore, Owings & Merrill recently threw their hat in the proverbial moon ring.
In partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), SOM presented a conceptual design for their "Moon Village." In a press statement, Design Partner Colin Koop talked about the new challenges needed for architectural design in space.
"The project presents a completely new challenge for the field of architectural design. The Moon Village must be able to sustain human life in an otherwise uninhabitable setting. We have to consider problems that no one would think about on Earth, like radiation protection, pressure differentials, and how to provide breathable air."
Masterplanning, designing and engineering the imagined settlement, SOM imagines are cross-disciplinary collaboration and an entirely new way to approach the space industry's most complex problems.
- The Moon Village is imagined on the edge rim of the Shackleton Crater near the South Pole.
- This area was selected because it receives near continuous daylight throughout the whole lunar year.
- Overall development plans were envisioned in three distinct phases to set up infrastructure, resources and habitable structures.
The Moon Village would sustain its energy from direct sunlight and set up food generation and life-sustaining elements through in situ resource utilization by tapping into the Moon's natural resources. Water extracted from the depressions near the South Pole would create breathable air and rocket propellants to support the burgeoning industry in the town. By being near the South Pole, the town would have direct access to the crater's water-ice deposits.
As for habitats for lunarites to live in, there would be individual pressurized modules which are inflatable, giving residents the flexibility to increase their living space when needed.
Most buildings would be three to four story structures that would serve as a combined workspace, living quarter and have the necessary environmental and life support systems integrated into each one.
The Moon Village was created for the ESA's reflection of future exploration beyond 2050 in partnership with NASA's strategic plan to "extend human presence deeper into space and to the Moon for sustainable long term exploration and utilization."
A pioneer Moon Village could set in stone the first opportunity to permanently inhabit the moon, spur research and explorations and serve as a gateway to the rest of the solar system and beyond.
Designing cities in Space Colonies
Wikimedia Commons | Source: NASA Ames Research Centre
Such ring habitats have been a common sight in science fiction for years, from Halo's massive ring worlds to Neuromancer's Tessier-Ashpool floating Freeside. But physicists have known for quite some time that they're actually possible to build. When space becomes more accessible, these would be the first contenders for habitation.
In NASA's "Space Settlements" study, researchers dedicated a few chapters on basic comprehensive plans, which is a deep dive into how much space would be needed for residential housing, schools and other land uses combined with transportation and other infrastructure. As for transportation, the book again goes into detail:
"Because of the relatively high population density (15,000 people/km2) in the community, most of the circulation is pedestrian, with one major mass transport system (a moving sidewalk, monorail, and minibus) connecting different residential areas in the same colony."
These floating cylinders with artificial gravity would survive by creating from the natural resources of outer space. Again in the 1970s Princeton physicist Gerald K O'Neill laid out compelling studies where he envisioned 100,000-person colonies, stationed at what is known as the fifth Lagrangian libration point (L5) in the moon's orbit.
"It is orthodox to believe that Earth is the only practical habitat for Man, but we can build new habitats far more comfortable, productive and attractive than is most of Earth," he wrote in Physics Today in 1974.
He was interested in building alternative human habitats that were both beyond Earth and beyond a planetary body. Out of this was conceived the idea of a giant rotating spaceship, which could support a biosphere and house up to 10 million people.
Planning the first cities on Mars
Wikimedia Commons | Source: NASA Ames Research Centre
In 2017, an MIT team developed a design for a settlement that won the Mars City Design competition. MIT's winning urban plan, titled Redwood forest, proposed to create domes or tree habitats that would house up to 50 people each. The domes provided residents with open public spaces containing vegetation and water, which would be harvested from deep in the Martian northern plains.
The tree habitats would be connected on top of a network of tunnels, or roots, providing transportation and access to both public and private spaces between other inhabitants of this proposed 10,000 strong community. Advanced technology such as artificial light inside these pods could strongly mimic the sight of natural sunlight.
MIT postdoc Valentina Sumini who led the interdisciplinary team, described the project's design fundamentals and elaborated on the project's poetic forest metaphor:
"On Mars, our city will physically and functionally mimic a forest, using local Martian resources such as ice and water, regolith (or soil), and sun to support life. Designing a forest also symbolizes the potential for outward growth as nature spreads across the Martian landscape. Each tree habitat incorporates a branching structural system and an inflated membrane enclosure, anchored by tunneling roots.
The design of a habitat can be generated using a computational form-finding and structural optimization workflow developed by the team. The design workflow is parametric, which means that each habitat is unique and contributes to a diverse forest of urban spaces."
The team aims to build a comfortable environment and architecture that focuses on the fundamental and critical aspect of sustainability, a baseline component needed for any Mars or offworld city.
On the entirety of the system, System Design Management Fellow George Lordos summed up the functionality by explaining the holistic and connected system they imagined.
"Every tree habitat in Redwood Forest will collect energy from the sun and use it to process and transport the water throughout the tree, and every tree is designed as a water-rich environment. Water fills the soft cells inside the dome providing protection from radiation, helps manage heat loads, and supplies hydroponic farms for growing fish and greens. Solar panels produce energy to split the stored water for the production of rocket fuel, oxygen, and for charging hydrogen fuel cells, which are necessary to power long-range vehicles as well as provide backup energy storage in case of dust storms."
A mile-high tower would not just be a new structure, but a new technology.
- Frank Lloyd Wright originally proposed The Mile-High Illinois in the 1950s.
- Innovations in construction materials and elevators are necessary to reach the one mile height and beyond.
- We may see the first mile-high skyscraper by the middle of the 21st century.
Humanity has been on a quest for millenia to build bigger and taller structures. In our reach skyward we've built ziggurats, pyramids, and coliseums. Our mythologies placed the seat of the gods in lofty towers high on mountaintops. We've had moralizing religious parables like the Tower of Babel, warning those who'd place themselves above a god. And some of the self-proclaimed greatest among us have always sought to immortalize themselves through massive works.
It's safe to say our world civilization is one fixed on achieving ever higher milestones.
Yet, the dreams and wonders of yesterday's buildings look like children's toys compared to our structures now. In the past century and a half skyscrapers have come to dominate the city's form and they haven't stopped growing taller.
Now we have to ask ourselves, is it possible to build a skyscraper one mile high?
Perhaps. Let's find out.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s The Mile-High Illinois
One of the first legitimate plans to build a mile-high tower that wasn't some megalomaniac's fever dream (maybe his was too), was famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright's The Illinois.
On October 16th, 1956 at the Sherman House Hotel in Chicago, Wright at 89 years old presented his design for what he conceived to be the tallest skyscraper in the world, an incredible spire shooting one mile high. The structure proposed to stand 528 floors and 5,280 feet (1,609 meters) tall. Behind him stood an illustration that measured 25 feet (7.6 meters) tall with the skyscraper's dimensions drawn at a scale of 1/16 inch to the foot. The Illinois' dimensions would have been astronomical at the time, with:
- 528 floors
- 76 elevators
- Gross floor area (GFA): 18,460,106 ft² (1,715,000 m²)
- 100,000 occupants
- 15,000 parking spaces
- 100 helicopter landing pads
- Architectural height of 5,280 ft (1,609.4 m)
- Tip antenna height of 5,706 ft (1739.2 m)
"This is The Illinois, gentlemen… In it, will be consolidated all government offices now scattered around Chicago," Wright proclaimed.
Frank Lloyd Wright presents The Mile High Illinois at the Sherman House Hotel in Chicago
Credit: Alamy Photos
Wright in an exemplary display of showmanship unveiled the first proposal for the mile-high tower. He believed that he'd found a method to construct the tower out of two principles he coined "tenuity" and "continuity." With these methods he'd believed he would be able to construct the tower out of reinforced concrete and steel.
The general principles between these two ideas is characterized by Wright's designs in which he used a "taproot" foundation to support the central load of the structure.
Chicago Tribune's Blaire Kamin described it as follows:
"The Mile-High didn't simply aim to be tall. It was the ultimate expression of Wright's "taproot" structural system, which sank a central concrete mast deep into the ground and cantilevered floors from the mast. In contrast to a typical skyscraper, in which same-size floors are piled atop one another like so many pancakes, the taproot system lets floors vary in size, opening a high-rise's interior and letting space flow between floors."
In Wright's own words he saw his method as a break from conventional form, which instead he'd mimic the appearance of a tree with its deep roots and branches spreading deep into the foundation.
"I detest seeing the boys fooling around and making their buildings look like boxes," Wright said. "Why not design a building that really is tall? ... Long ago I observed trees after the passing of a cyclone. Those with deep taproots were the ones that survived."
As evident by our lack of sky cracking buildings, Wright's vision never came to pass. His taproot idea, which had only been put into practice in a single building of his, never became part of the future structural engineer's toolkit. While Wright did put an extraordinary amount of effort working out the details of this vision, there were far too many what-ifs that still hadn't been figured out. Many of which we're still working on today.
But there has been progress.
Building technology for a 1-mile skyscraper
The undefeated champion of the skies right now is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which stands at 2,717 feet (roughly half a mile) and is the tallest building in the world.
Although take that with a grain of dusty salt—only 1,916 feet of the Burj Dubai is occupiable space, the rest is vanity height, meaning nearly 800 feet is non-occupiable space. That represents 29 percent of the building's height.
So let's get back to real contenders for a mile high.Researchers at MIT Technology Review used data from the experts at the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat and predicted that there is a 9 percent chance that a building exceeding a mile will be built by 2050. They've also predicted that by 2050, nearly 6 billion people will live in cities. Already we're seeing that urban areas in China and the Middle East are continually building up, not out.
Credit: Jonathan Auerbach and Phyllis Wan, International Journal of Forecasting Vol. 36, Issue 3
There are three major construction and stability aspects that must be dealt with if we're to reach a vertical mile. Those are:
- Dampening wind sway
- Elevator speed and length
- Construction materials
The tallest skyscrapers all employ a tapered top design. This serves both a utilitarian and structural purpose. It's simply not possible to take pre-existing buildings and just double their height.
A mile-high tower would not just be a new structure, but a new technology.
Putting aside Burj Khalifa's vanity height for a moment, we have to admire its structural ingenuity. Designed by architect Adrian Smith and structural engineer William Baker at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the structure's foundational approach is a buttressed core – which is a hexagonal concrete core that frays out into three triangle buttresses. This was one inventive solution they made to support such a great height.
But that only solves one issue.
Diverting winds at high elevations
What might be a slight breeze on the ground floor can turn into a windstorm in greater heights. Aside from the fundamentals of stability, occupants also need comfortability. Most building sway is harmless to the structural integrity of the building. But the last thing anyone wants is to feel like they're in the midst of a tornado 500 floors above ground level.
Architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) professionals calculate estimated wind sway from a building's height and incorporate that into the design. Buildings are often made to withstand cataclysmic 500 to 1000 year inclement weather disasters.
To deal with wind, you either confuse it by spinning it around the building in creative structural ways or you use a mass dampener.
A mass dampener is a counterweight suspended somewhere in the building to counteract and balance the movement from the outside. For example, the Taipei 101 Tower employs a 730 ton orb pendulum that sways back and forth to balance wind from storms and typhoons.
Aerodynamic vortexes of wind can exert dangerous amounts of pressure and vibrations on a building. Air currents can be unpredictable, so rather than guess what could happen to the building, AEC professionals need to calculate it directly into the design. If it's not a mass dampener, it'll be a mix of structural fins, curves, and asymmetrical floors.
Elevator speed and stability
The logistical obstacles of moving thousands of people in a mile-high skyscraper is one of the biggest challenges. To reach the floor at the top of a mile-high building with current technology would require people to change elevators multiple times.
The current figure for elevators runs at 1,600 feet as wire suspension ropes cannot support their own weight and any additional weight after that point. Aside from the technical limitations, needing multiple elevator lobbies would take up too much valuable space.
A few years ago, Finnish elevator company Kone developed a carbon fiber cable, UltraRope that they believe could double the distance of an elevator rope. This would be enough to get those would-be mile-high penthouse residents to their sky digs.
Beyond the old school cable elevator, others have floated ideas about a looped system that could pull elevators up, down and sideways. This could increase the building's usable area by 25 percent.
New structural materials
Concrete has served us well for thousands of years. It's time to rethink what materials we can use. Engineers are looking at materials like carbon fiber, an extremely lightweight and strong material.
Carbon fiber is a polymer composed of thin strands of carbon atoms bound together in a unique crystalline formation. It is far lighter than steel, five times stronger and has double the stiffness. Currently carbon fiber is used in a number of manufacturing processes ranging from aircraft wings to bike frames. Carbon fiber and other related composite materials weigh very little but can take on heavy bearing loads.
The future of the mile-high skyscraper
With billions of residents in our cities, it's an inevitability that we'll one day reach the one-mile-high mark, if not beyond that as well. But we need to think about what these skyscrapers will be used for and how they'll interact with and reshape the built environment.
At the turn of the 20th century, the 1916 Zoning Resolution in New York City was a measure adopted to stop massive skyscrapers from blocking light and air from reaching the streets below. It established limits to what could be built and created a series of setbacks to building lots.
New measures would need to be created as a building of this magnitude entered into the public domain. New building uses also need to be considered. How many more luxury condos and office space do we really need?
The advent of a mile-high tower could bring about a new age of the homestead and of our created environment. We have the opportunity to build something that could be a fully functioning self-contained ecosystem, more than just a building, but a city within a city.
A mixed use building like this could shelter thousands and give them a place where they could work, play, live, and exist on the peripheries of humankind's greatest ingenuity. A place like this could also serve as a consolidated seat for governments and working space for companies of the future. Why not continue to build vertically with farms, factories, and more?
When we one day build to a mile and beyond, the sky will no longer be the limit, it will be our domain.