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Plea for better rules to help realise ‘earthscraper’ vision

Better planning regulations are needed for underground space if cities are to unlock their full potential, a key figure has warned.

Han Admiraal, chair of the Underground Space Committee at the International Tunnelling Association’s Committee for Underground Space, this week outlined a vision for future cities in which engineers were encouraged to design downwards to deal with above-surface constraints.

Speaking at the ICE Engineering Underground Space conference in London, Admiraal called for better planning rules, and proposed making a conceptual model for the underground consisting of four resources: energy, water, geo materials and space.

Most of the problems in underground engineering were caused when city planners focused solely one of these four resources, he said.  

“You could have a city that decides that alternative energy is the thing to do and they start encouraging people to invest in geothermal energy,” he said. “Everyone starts driving pipes deep into the ground, and then the next local government comes along and says they want to invest in a mass transit transport system. At that stage you’re going to have a big problem.”

In another presentation at the event, Martin Knights, senior fellow of technology at CH2M Hill and designer of the much hyped ‘Hammersmith Flyunder’ proposal, echoed the sentiment that underground planning laws were urgently needed, particularly in the UK.

“Cities like Helsinki are showing the way by having a co-ordinated strategic masterplan for the use of surface space and also the underground [environment] and if any city needs it, it’s London,” he said.

Knights wondered whether it would be possible to create an equivalent of the London Underground Jubilee Line in 50 years’ time if there wasn’t a more joined-up approach. “If we’re not careful, every horizon will have been taken out and lots of opportunities underground will have been blighted,” he said.

Both speakers said that innovative concepts such as the Hammersmith Flyunder or the idea of ‘earthscrapers’ – inverted sky-scrapers or pyramids with a central void – would be important in getting the public and politicians to engage with the idea of developing underground spaces. 

The Hammersmith scheme was one of five possible underground road projects mooted by London mayor Boris Johnson recently.

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