Space Urban Planning: Part I

By: Britt Duffy Adkins, Founder & Space Urban Planner

Planning a city in space seems pretty wild until you realize you’re already living in a city in space. By no means do I intend to trivialize all of the challenging technical and biological hurdles that we still have ahead of us if we are to inhabit other parts of the solar system — humans have of course been granted a tremendous head start with a kind and forgiving home planet. Nonetheless, I think it’s quite likely that humans will eventually find a way to become interplanetary and the exponential pace of technological progress implies it might even happen sooner than we think.

The United Arab Emirates plans to spend roughly $136 million on Mars Scientific City, a simulated Martian environment intended to carry out research in preparation of the UAE’s longer-term plans of building a city on Mars by 2117. Credit: Inhabitat.com

Either way, the thing I always tell people is that it really doesn’t matter whether a new space city pops up in 30 (see SpaceX), 50, or 100 (see Michio Kaku) years — an urban planning approach requires a commitment to the long game. I believe Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel of MIT said it rather succinctly in their intriguing book, The City of Tomorrow: Sensors, Networks, Hackers and the Future of Urban Life: “Planning decisions we make today determine the scope of choices we will have tomorrow.” But perhaps I would tweak this a bit to say that the planning decisions we, the current generation, make today may determine the scope of choices that future generations have tomorrow. Especially given the logistical nightmare that is a space city, we really must try to get it right from the beginning.

“Planning decisions we make today determine the scope of choices we will have tomorrow.”

So naturally, to me it seems strange that urban planning registers as little more than a footnote in most presentations or papers attempting to plan the first lunar or Martian city (with a handful of notable exceptions that I was quite pleased to discover). Failing to bring urban planners to the table would be a missed opportunity for innovation and creativity. Systems engineers and urban planners should be working in tandem on the human-centric aspects of space exploration and settlement, as well as, to address the impacts these activities have on Earth. Urban planning isn’t some flourish you add to the end of the project to give it a stamp of sociological legitimacy — it is a process, a systems approach, a conversation, a beginning. Good urban planning is never really done, it continues to evolve and adapt itself as needed — it carries us forward so subtly that we almost forget it’s there. Perhaps that is why the field of urban planning is largely forgotten about in the context of space settlement. Or perhaps it is because people don’t really understand what urban planning is, or believe it can only be applied at significant scale. In part one of this Space Urban Planning Series, I will attempt to address the foundational importance of integrating urban planning principles into present and future space exploration objectives — most critically for early, sustained human presence off-Earth and later, burgeoning space cities.

And if you find yourself saying, “but wait, I saw that picture of a Mars City concept from SpaceX, surely they have a plan,” you should know that this image is no more than an artistic depiction of a fictional city layout.

Credit: SpaceX courtesy of Inverse.com

It is my understanding that this image was intended to capture the imagination (which it does quite successfully and is thus included here) but rather unsuccessfully addresses the complexity and rigor of urban planning. To my knowledge, no one with an urban planning background was involved in the creation of this image and SpaceX continues to make plans for infrastructure to support a Martian city without the involvement of anyone from the planning profession, much less seeking participation or input from the general public.

So, what exactly is urban planning? I get this question all the time — so if you aren’t an expert or even amateur on this topic do not dismay! Many different definitions exist, but I prefer this one written by Professor Susan S. Fainstein of Harvard University, that defines urban planning as the “design and regulation of the uses of space that focus on the physical form, economic functions, and social impacts of the urban environment and on the location of different activities within it. Because urban planning draws upon engineering, architectural, and social and political concerns, it is variously a technical profession, an endeavour involving political will and public participation, and an academic discipline.”

Vision of a future city courtesy of Inverse.com

Yet, because urban planning is so multidisciplinary it also tends to be a bit abstract for a lot of people. It doesn’t fit neatly into any one box, because it is a shape-shifting field — assuming the form of what is needed in a given instance, even if only temporarily. It requires planners to be both big picture thinkers that can capture an all-encompassing overview of the city system but also revere the beauty of a bottoms-up approach too — understanding that at different junctions there must be respect for both individual identity as well as collective action for the good of the local, regional, global, or celestial community. The value of successful urban planning — at least in my opinion — is that it is one of very few professions that aims to intervene as little as possible, allowing humanity to take the reins of its own destiny while still facilitating discussion and moderating disagreement. Urban planning presents options, asks for consideration, but ultimately adherence is voluntary (of course zoning regulation is another story). And so too in matters of space urban planning, the greatest source of power that any future plan or doctrine could have is that it carries the weight of self-selection. We must all believe in the principles we create, and they must transcend terrestrial borders if they are to be of any long-term value. No small feat to be sure, but I believe possible in time.

A Lightning Quick History of Urban Planning

There is a lot to say here and frankly there could be multiple posts written about the history of urban planning, so instead I will direct you toward a very handy resource and short video that briefly covers the highlights of planning in the United States. There is a lot more nuance and detail to be sure but for an introduction I think this is quite concise and helpful in framing the profession. If you really love to nerd out on urban history then I recommend checking out Lewis Mumford’s The City in History, a staple of planning graduate students. I would also suggest, New York Times Bestseller, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, which provides an eye-opening critique of the systematic racial segregation that occurred in the United States during the twentieth century at the hands of policymakers — which to me, demonstrates the crucial importance of representation and transparency in our current social and political institutions so that repairs can be made to our broken systems and future city planning is void of these atrocious injustices. If you live in a city or town where most of your neighbors look like you and there are high barriers of entry to outsiders — this book does a fantastic job of explaining why.

Okay, so congratulations you just earned your degree in city planning! Kidding of course — there is an enormous amount of detail, debate, and even intellectual revolution happening in the field of urban planning right now so there will be plenty more on that later in future posts.

Continue reading part two of the Space Urban Planning Series to learn more about the history of Urban Planning & NASA.

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