Urban planning in space: 3 off-world designs for future cities

The future of cities on the Moon, Mars and orbital habitats.

Urban planning in space: 3 off-world designs for future cities
Wikimedia Commons | Source: NASA Ames Research Centre
  • 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."

Mike Colagrossi is the founder of Alchemist City, the most thought-provoking urban development and technology email newsletter. Sign up to stay up to date.

Iron Age discoveries uncovered outside London, including a ‘murder’ victim

A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.

Photo Credit: HS2
Culture & Religion
  • A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
  • The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
  • An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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