Designers plan future cities under the ocean

Life on the depths: An artist’s impression of Shimuzu Corp’s underwater city.

As life on the Earth’s surface becomes increasingly uncertain, Japanese designers propose a radical solution — building new metropolises beneath the waves. Will it ever happen?

Imagine it is the near future, and life on Earth’s surface has become impossible. Rising sea levels have swamped the world’s major cities like New York and London and overcrowding and rising property prices are leaving millions without proper homes.

In the recent blockbuster ‘Interstellar’, mankind had to search for a new home planet in a distant galaxy. However, a Japanese design firm says our future cities will still be on Earth, but deep beneath the ocean waves.

Shimuzu Corp has drawn up plans for an underwater city of 5,000 people that will ‘capitalise on all the infinite possibilities of the deep sea’. The company is completely serious and estimates that building it will cost £16bn. The technology to sustain so many lives under water, it says, is only 15 years away.

A group of humans already live underwater: the aquanauts. A university in Florida set up a research station 20m below the ocean's surface in 1993; it can support up to six aquanauts at a time. The station has no doors, as air pressure stops water seeping inside, and it has a hot shower, a kitchen, electricity and even wifi. ‘You’re inside the aquarium and the fish are watching you,’ says one of its occupants.

A marine expert says we already have the technology to support a community of around 100 under the sea and ‘if you had the money and the need, you could do it today’. But supporting more people would require more advanced emergency evacuation systems, air supply and humidity controls and a more efficient way to harness energy, perhaps through wave power.

Shimuzu Corp’s design includes a research base from which it hopes will find a way to generate energy from the sea bed. This is connected by a spiral path that leads up to a floating sphere which will house the underwater community. But while the city is theoretically possible, would it ever catch on?

Ocean view

Some say that while an underwater hotel might entertain those searching for novelty, no right-minded person would want to make an underwater city their permanent address. No one has yet tried to build even a small underwater village, even though the technology exists, so what is going to change? This would only appeal to the super-rich, and it would be an ecological disaster for sea life.

Yet Shimuzu Corp says that while building its first city would be expensive, costs would soon come down as designs become more efficient. And mankind may well need alternative ways to live. By the end of the century sea levels are expected to rise by 2.3m, which may well swamp major cities like New York, Guangzhou and Mumbai. If life on land becomes more difficult, living underwater could be an increasingly attractive idea.

You Decide

  1. Would you want to live in an underwater city? Will the idea ever catch on?
  2. Will climate and technological change make cities a century from now almost unrecognisable?

Activities

  1. In pairs, imagine you are designing an underwater city. List five practical considerations you would have to take into account and draw a picture of your design.
  2. Research the dangers that our cities will be facing in a century’s time and some of the solutions to them. Make a proposal for what you think humans should do to keep safe.

Some People Say...

“We are naive to think that we can trust the ocean.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Are people taking the idea of living underwater seriously?
Yes! While no one is proposing that all of mankind could migrate beneath the oceans, it is likely that many would be interested in living there. Thousands of people signed up to join a proposed colony on Mars which would open in 2024, even if it meant never being able returning home. This suggests that many people would be interested in living in the ocean.
Are cities as we know them under threat?
They could be, by the end of the century. One report forecasts that by 2100 coastal cities will have to spend $1 trillion each year repairing flood damage unless our cities change. At the very least, this will be mean much larger flood defences. This is, of course, unless the world starts making more effort to halt climate change.

Word Watch

Shimuzu
It is not the only Japanese company with highly-ambitious architecture plans. Construction giant Obayashi Corporation has announced that it hopes to have a space elevator that reaches 96,000km into space up and running by 2050.
Occupants
The research station allows divers to go stay down under pressure for longer periods. Living under water has huge benefits for scientists because it allows them to dive at 20m and deeper for up to nine hours a day, whereas divers from the surface can only do it for an hour at a time.
Hotel
For the price of £5,000 a night, visitors at Dubai’s Atlantis The Palm Hotel can stay in a room surrounded by an aquarium. At least four companies are looking into designing a fully-submerged hotel experience.

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