Reflections on 'Underground Cities: New Frontiers in Urban Living' - by Pamela Johnston

'Underground Cities: New Frontiers in Urban Living', edited by Pamela Johnston, John Endicott and Nancy F Lin, explores the new ideas and technologies that are transforming the ways we build and inhabit underground space, and how these innovations can help to make our increasingly dense, climate-stressed cities both more resilient and more of a pleasure to live in.
To mark the book's publication, co-editor Pamela Johnston reflects on the inspirations that led to the production of this ground-breaking new book...


Making this book took me to Hong Kong for the first time. For an earth-bound Londoner, walking the city proved a revelation. Rather than hugging the ground, the map on my phone split into different layers and took me, not on a beeline from A to B, but on a more zigzagging route – up aerial walkways, down underground tunnels and through unexpected places, a mix of public and private space, corporate lobbies and shopping malls. Crossing a footbridge over a highway, carried along in a flow of people heading for the metro station, l looked around and saw two more aerial walkways, both of them thrumming with movement. I’d been absorbed into the vast multi-level pedestrian infrastructure that interconnects Hong Kong’s dense mash of buildings. Rising and falling according to its own logic, with no apparent relation to the traditional ground datum – the street – this network of segregated pedestrian spaces forms the connective tissue of what Jonathan Solomon, Adam Frampton and Clara Wong call a ‘city without ground’.


Pamela in Hong Kong for a site visit of Tuen Mun-Check Lap Kok Link, 2018.

West Kowloon Station, Hong Kong.


It was this particular quality of Hong Kong – the way the life of the city unfolds at multiple different levels both above and below ground – that provided the initial spark for Underground Cities. The book recognises that underground spaces already play a vital role in making a high-density city less congested and more liveable, and looks at how they could be developed beyond their traditional uses. We seem to be at a step change moment, with a growing understanding that the world below ground can be just as diverse and ingenious as the world above. This is quite evident in nature: look at the recent discovery that trees, far from being solitary creatures, are connected into intercommunicating forests by the gossamer-fine tubes of subterranean fungal networks. And the same sense of expanded possibilities propels the book’s exploration of the new ideas and technologies that are removing many of the limits on how we inhabit the layers of the city beneath our feet. Constructed underground spaces used to be hermetically sealed, sterile environments. Now there is the possibility of setting up a connection with nature, incorporating the elements of living vegetation, light, water, air. 

Tunnel lighting.

Equally, they can revel in their own distinct ‘subterranean’ atmosphere, chiming with James Turrell’s assertion that ‘we’re made for the light of a cave, and for twilight … When we dim the light down, and the pupil opens, feeling comes out of the eye like touch’. Either way, these new kinds of underground space are not built around utility, but are people-centred, allowing for an expansion of the inhabitable realm of the city. They can also make our cities more resilient, by taking on a greater role in providing climate shelter, for example, or in growing large-scale food crops.

Changi, Singapore.


While the book originated in Hong Kong, it has a broad geographical sweep that encompasses not only Singapore, Tokyo and Seoul, but also Montreal and Helsinki, Paris and Aarhus, among many others. At a time of restricted horizons – of emergency measures defined in spans of weeks or months – it embraces a long-term view of the future of our cities. Beyond Covid-19, we face the existential challenges of climate change and population growth. And despite the talk of a ‘flight to the suburbs’ in the parts of the world nominally able to endure more urban sprawl, the high-density city – where we minimise our footprint and make full use of all available land, whether above or below the surface – remains one of our best hopes of meeting those challenges.

-- Pamela Johnston, 2020. 


 Underground Cities is available now! Order your copy HERE.

Plus visit the book's dedicated microsite hosted by AECOM HERE.

Paperback • 248 Pages • Size: 255 × 155 mm
150 colour illustrations
ISBN: 9781848223585 • Publication: September 03, 2020 


View the full list of Autumn books in our catalogue HERE.