For a long time, cities have entertained a complicated relationship with the notion of going underground. Sure, most cities maintain extensive subway systems, but what lies beneath the city streets has traditionally been perceived as a dark and dirty netherworld. Thankfully, at a time when cities are pressed for square footage like never before, new technologies are allowing planners, developers, and innovators to make use of the land below street level to improve their cities. In this spirit, we have compiled five stellar examples of underground projects that meet the needs of the modern city.

Toronto’s subterranean shopping connection

In cities where extreme temperatures can make a quick walk down the block unbearable, underground shopping malls and pedestrian paths often help to solve this particular problem. A famous example is Toronto’s PATH, a network of pedestrian tunnels that connects more than 50 buildings and office towers while also making up the world’s largest underground shopping complex. Another city with particularly frosty winters, Montreal, even has its own underground city: The so-called RESO network connects train stations, a hockey stadium, several museums, office buildings, retail shops, and even a university!

Toronto Path underground shopping mall
Toronto’s PATH, a network of pedestrian tunnels
Photo: Ricardo Viana BSB, via Flickr

Sci-fi style bike parking

Meanwhile in Tokyo, planners looked down to address the city’s need for extra parking and storage with an elaborate automated bike storage system called Eco Cycle. The novel facility can hold hundreds of bikes in deep cylindrical shafts and works by automatically taking a bicycle, storing it securely, and making it available for retrieval by the owner at just a quick swipe of a card. The entire process of storage and retrieval takes approximately 8 seconds, making this type of bike storage both safe and time-efficient while also saving precious street level space. In Amsterdam, too, bike parking has become a huge problem, so the city recently announced a plan to create a bicycle garage under the IJ River with space for 7,000 bicycles. Due to the sheer size of the challenge, there have even been talks of constructing additional bicycle parking facilities on top of buildings.

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The food solution? Grow below!

In recent years, London has been toying with a variety of options for transforming the city’s complex system of existing and abandoned underground tunnels. One of these projects, Zero Carbon Foods, has now taken urban agriculture 33 meters below the streets of London. Based on an advanced hydroponics system and a network of abandoned air raid shelters that date back to World War II, the group maintains a 2.5-acre underground growing environment. The benefits of this approach are a markedly reduced carbon footprint, no agricultural run-off, stable prices, and added inner city employment. Furthermore, because of the system’s stable light and temperature conditions, the enclosed underground environment produces consistent and year-round yields within easy reach of local restaurants, vendors, and consumers.

Zero Carbon Foods has now taken urban agriculture 33 meters below the streets of London
Photo: Zero Carbon Food ZCF
Photo: Zero Carbon Food ZCF
Photo: Zero Carbon Food ZCF

Taking bike traffic to another level

Another project that aims to refashion abandoned infrastructure in the UK’s capital is the London Underline. A proposal by the Gensler design studio, it plans to turn old London Underground tunnels into cycling paths. The goal is to ease congestion at street level while making cycling in the city safer and more efficient. Such repurposed underground passageways could also host pop-up businesses, exhibitions, and retail or event spaces. As for the electricity needed to power the Underline, Gensler has proposed the use of energy-harvesting tiles, which store a small amount of kinetic energy and – at least in theory – could make the Underline carbon-neutral.

The world’s first underground park

Last, but not least, one of the world’s most exciting underground projects comes from New York City. Following the resounding success of the city’s High Line – a public park and pathway built upon an elevated rail track – a matching project proposes the world’s first underground park, appropriately called The Lowline. Just like the High Line, this Lowline would be a unique expression of public space achieved by reinventing an abandoned part of the city’s past. The Lowline would occupy an abandoned trolley tunnel dating back to 1908 and found below New York’s Lower East Side. It would boast features like a solar collection dish, a helio tube to channel sunlight to the underground paths, and green spaces with trees and other plants sustained by natural sunlight. Once completed, the project would add green space the size of a football field to the community, offering residents and tourists alike an exceptionally unique urban experience.

About Pop-Up City
Founded in 2008 by Amsterdam-based urban consultancy and communications agency Golfstromen, Pop-Up City is an online magazine reporting trends and ideas that shape the city of the future. In 2014, the platform published its first book, Pop-Up City: City-Making in a Fluid World.
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Header image: RAAD