As Disasters Mount, Our Cities May Need to Move Underground

Temperatures are rising, and urban centers are packed. To preserve livable societies, some argue we should build ‘Earthscrapers.’

Thomas Kostigen
OneZero
Published in
11 min readMar 26, 2020

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Images: Joven Santos

InIn just a few years, Mexico City will be the most crowded city in North America, perhaps in the Western Hemisphere. With 22 million people, it’s one of the fastest growing populations in the world. There are few tall buildings. Zoning restrictions abound. And it is quickly running out of land on which to expand. Geographic boundaries block it in. This is a metropolis bordered by mountains and volcanoes — the Sierra Nevadas to the east; and lower sierras and ranges to the north, west, and south. For millennia, hordes of people have been drawn to this area because of its wealth of natural resources — pine forests and rivers, wildlife, and even saltwater lakes. There is food and water aplenty. But now there is no more room to grow.

Tokyo, with 38 million residents, is the most populated metro area in the world. It has grown upward, with skyscrapers, and outward without the impediments of hard natural boundaries. Similarly, New York City has jumped the East River and morphed into Brooklyn and Queens and beyond. For Mexico City, there is no such luck. And Mexico City is on track to add millions more people by mid-century. Goldman Sachs says it may become the world’s fifth-largest economy by then. Still, historic preservationists ban renovations. Zoning laws won’t allow developers to build anything taller than five stories in the city’s core. Transportation infrastructure is aged, and the surrounding mountains inhibit connections to satellite towns that could serve as commuter alternatives. The result is mass urban concentration.

Walk through any megacity these days and the crowds are sometimes difficult to fathom. Which is why standing alone in the middle of Mexico City, in the center of its main square — Plaza de la Constitución, or the Zócalo, as it is commonly called — is so surreal. The plaza stretches nearly 800 feet in each direction and is cordoned by national monuments. Yet, there are only a few dozen people at a time crossing it. It is a vast, open area, just a lone flagpole rising high in its center. Mere steps away, outside of this main square, the city…

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Thomas Kostigen
OneZero
Writer for

New York Times bestselling author and award-winning writer. Longtime journalist. Former USA Today, Discover, and Dow Jones columnist.