Urban Planning in Space Colonies

In the next few years our species is going to build its first cities in space and one of my great fears is that when they do, the cities will grow organically based on the utilitarian needs of the first settlers. Building cities from scratch comes with the wonderful opportunity to create something beautiful and streamlined without having to cope with the legacy issues of existing structures. Having old-timey tastes and being a strong Jane Jacobs-believer, my view is that extra care should be taken to ensure that whatever cities we build are bike-friendly, pedestrian friendly, have lots of green space, have water features , many public buildings, that all buildings are canvasses of artistic design and not merely utilitarian coverings with life-support and scientific instruments. As I’ve written before, urban design and human topography are major contributors to our moral and our mental health. That if a community is designed to be interconnected and interdependent then we won’t have Durkehim’s Protestant depression rates and people will be happier and healthier. Not to mention the limited resources on the moon, Mars, other natural bodies, and the O’Neill cylinders that will be residential space stations. 

Energy is going to be as precious a resource in space as it is on Earth, if not more so. There are ways to create energy, lots of them. Solar, geothermal, nuclear, wind in some places, sublimation/boiler turbines (in places like Mars and Triton, the temperature hovers around the sublimation points of CO2 and Nitrogen, a magnifying lens of sunlight could create perpetual, artificial, geysers like the natural ones there. Despite the many ways of getting energy out there, they still are all harder than what we do on Earth, for the most part. Therefore, designing pedestrian-friendly and bikable cities will be very important there, as well. Not having cars almost, at all. With intercity transport done by high-speed rail on ground. Obviously, that wouldn’t work for the O’Neill Cylinders or interplanetary travel. Yet, we could create a world without highways.

Sports leagues, a film industry, indie bands, culinary competitions, chess clubs, religious services, debating societies, and much else will have to fill the perimeters of the social container shortly after those settlements are founded in order to have the healthiest society from the start. The psychological harm done by not having a thick culture from the beginning will have lasting effects and create social ills that may be very difficult to reverse. In watching series like The Expanse , as relatively accurate as it is in portraying the physical realities of space colonization, it fails to address the social and anthropological realities of building cities and countries from the ether and what has to be done to keep them well and funcional. And physically, it does very little on the urban design of the cities. It isn’t known whether parks or community pools are typical features of a Martian city or what musical genres are popular in the various regions of local space or new ethnic cuisines that have emerged from the disparate cultures. Very little scifi does that, actually.  

These ideas aren’t typically thought about and space colonization is dreamt of as domed, utilitarian, settlements rather than vibrant, metaphorically verdant, places that people will want to live full with the physical and social civic institutions that make life healthier and more pleasant when they exist here. As a political scientist, the alienation, spiritual and emotional vacuity, and isolation caused by suburbia, the internet, and Rawlsian liberalism were the poisons of liberalism and we would be very stupid if were planted those very flaws in the new societies we set to craft. The people who do this, plan space colonies, are STEM people with little background in sociology or psychology and the idea that civic institutions of culture, art, morality, mutual support, ritual, and the like are needed for the human psyche is not on their radar.  Scientifically, we know that if people don’t have those things that not only will they be miserable and depressed but also fascist. 

I greatly fear that in the societies that will spring in the coming decades of this century the next that the planners of institutions of those societies will transplant the same mistakes from Earth to there and that we will have to fight the same battles with pandemic-level mental illness and political movements of people struggling to be special and loved and to do that committing crimes against humanity.The social and psychological scientists have to reach the STEM people who plan these settlements before the plans are finalized to ensure that when we recreate society elsewhere, we create a society of happy, healthy, people with good values, and liberal politics. 

4 thoughts on “Urban Planning in Space Colonies

  1. I sincerely hope that your concerns are fully addressed when and if humanity begins to colonize the solar system. However, like you, I am currently pessimistic. My hunch is that the first off-world residencies will be mining colonies and outposts as economic incentives would predominate other interests. Efforts to create a healthy and vibrant community will not be the priority for these mining societies and the people who would populate these same communities would not come from classes who would care otherwise. Additionally, transplanting a community vested in the long-term development you envision for those communities such as artisans, academics and quality teachers, urban planners, etcetera, would not have the incentives to move to what I believe would be strictly utilitarian, industrial-designed, soul-crushing factories in space.

    The reasons are two-fold. Our planet’s development is largely controlled by capitalist interests. where the majority of national interests are either controlled or curtailed by capitalist actors (i.e. banks, conservative voting blocs, developers, large agro-businesses, other powerful corporations, etcetera). To invest beyond material extraction would be “cost-prohibitive,” “wasteful-spending,” “fiscally irresponsible,” as the litany of corrosive capitalist catch-phrases typically come. For such a risky venture to succeed, I think corporations will take center-seat, and with it largely control policy and design of these first communities. Perhaps China is the only powerful actor that could buck that trend, assuming the Chinese Communist Party would care about the long-term (holistic) development of their off-world communities? The other meta-factor controlling my belief here is the current lack of a global, unifying, populist, and progressive society dominating not just major public and private institutions, but be the norm and not just a position of the “left.” In other words, lets colonize the stars for humanity’s sake and make our best and brightest marks upon them! Who knows if global progressivism can occupy the world to culture such a society but it’s way too soon to tell.

    How we conduct our affairs off-world will be just like how we do business on this one. It will be political and politics is unfortunately used as a pejorative, as if nothing good can come from deciding who, what, when, where, and how. As long as we view politics in this light, decision-making is not only a poisoned well, but participation will continue to be dominated by a few, for the interests for the few.

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    1. Mining has been touted but I think data storage and blockchain will be major industries, too. Especially on places like Io and Venus with enormous amounts of energy from geothermal and aerothermal. Server farms are ugly and require huge energy input so Venus is an ideal place. Aerothermal hasn’t been discussed, surprisingly, as a source of Venusian energy.

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      1. I had no idea computing would require so much energy that it would be beneficial to take it off-world.

        I think the clearest indication that your (our) off-world dreams can come true is if our own world begins to see cities as an organism to cultivate for our own long-term development rather than just a concrete place that happens to have the opportunities we need for our next stepping stone or the restaurants we love to go to. Far from being a built environment with flashy lights and artistic landscapes, cities seem to be the primary institutions that hub our specie’s evolution.

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      2. It’s not only a matter of energy, although that’s a huge factor, but also spatial volume. Blockchain, clouds, and all of the newfangled data services take up space that is useless to developers who would rather have residential or retail in those places. While some of the data would have to be accessible in real time, any data that doesn’t need instant recall could be uploaded to Venus and it would be 2-20 minutes to access it. I highly doubt that five year old financial information would be needed less than ten minutes after it was realized it was needed. And sure, you could get the energy on Earth, it’s not that it doesn’t exist here. The energy on Venus is basically free, however. It would be cheaper for a data storage company to rent their Earth-based properties to Starbucks and Macy’s, having them pay half of the small energy costs of retail, while dropping some aerothermal tubes into the atmosphere and turning a steam turbine. It’s basically how geothermal works on Earth, among the simplest and dumbest forms of energy extraction ever. As Venus’s atmosphere is freezing and low pressure on top and the inverse on bottom, it’s the same except you don’t have to dig. So, it’s a matter of what’s cheaper and easier than what’s possible.

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