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Planning a Martian city

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Building a celestial city on the rocky red planet is a mind-boggling concept. But this off-world urban challenge has been embraced by Curtin urban planning graduate, Cassie Barrow.

Working in the realms of space architecture, Barrow is used to having diverse conversations about the built environment.

Her thesis, A City for Mars, rewrites the rules of urban design. It goes beyond engineering and science concepts that ensure humankind will survive on Mars, and instead looks at aspects that could make the red planet truly liveable.

“Today, more than ever, we look to space as an achievable future home, and even a solution to on-going human survival,” Barrow says. “However, liveability not survivability should be the standard, or an off-world civilisation will not be sustainable.”

The project saw her engage with a multidisciplinary team of experts in urban design, water sustainability, agriculture, biodiversity and the environment, and planetary science.

“I undertook a three-part ‘enquiry by design’ process to determine how urban design can contribute to viability and create liveability,” she explains.

“This knowledge informed a set of urban design principles that would satisfy all of our human viable and liveable needs – achieving a sustainable off-world colony.”

Top of the list is urban self-sufficiency – including growing food, replenishing water and maintaining a comfortable climate – which Barrow says is vital for long-term survivability and financial viability on Mars.

“Self-sufficiency is not only necessary given the distance from Earth and expense of space flight, but also removes the ripple effect of catastrophe if a doomsday event were to occur [on Earth].”

Design flexibility and adaptability is a second important aspect, making the city responsive to changing human needs, and ensuring land and modular building materials are used and re-used efficiently, with little or no waste.

“All elements of the urban realm should be multi-functional rather than possess a singular use or purpose,” she says. “Individual modules should be able to function independently, but also contribute to wider outcomes of holistic and integrated place.”

Barrow’s concept for a Martian city comprises a compact, below-ground, multi-layered spiralling tunnel. Her design maximises the use of space while sheltering the city from the harsh, barren environment, a surface temperature of minus 60°C and the threat of asteroid impacts, which occur up to 200 times per Martian year (687 Earth days).

Concept for a compact, below-ground, multi-layered spiralling tunnel on Mars.

Inside the tunnel, the city is designed with human wellbeing in mind – stimulating all five human senses while mitigating feelings of isolation and claustrophobia. There are wetland and biological environments, waterfalls, animal murals, private spaces, a range of crops for a varied diet, and public open spaces for relaxation and entertainment.

Concept for internal environment of the Mars tunnel, with people enjoying natural environments and surrounded by animal murals.

Socially, Barrow sees mental stimulation, social interaction and connection to place as powerful drivers in creating a city where people will eventually identify as ethnic Martians.

“There is a significant need to reinforce existing place connection with Earth – maintaining consistent communications, celebrating cultural events and building familiar environments. However, we must maintain balance between this and creating new connection and identity,” she says.

Concept of people enjoying familiar building environments in the Mars tunnel.

Building blocks

While planning a celestial city is beyond the scope of most urban planners, Barrow says at Curtin they were always taught to reach for the stars.

“I enjoyed the hands-on experiences and being able to plan for ‘utopia’ without the limitations of the real world. And there were opportunities to learn about and engage with new cultures, which broadened my thinking and understanding of planning and design.”

As part of her bachelor degree in urban and regional planning, Barrow travelled to India, Beijing and Mongolia to take part in rural community work and to study the influence of power and nationalism on the built environment.

She also undertook a two-month work placement with Shanghai development firm, Qinsen, who design large-scale tourism developments using ancient heritage buildings, furniture and other artefacts that have been deconstructed, preserved and re-used.

“Qinsen was an opportunity to live in a different country and be involved in major projects. It gave me confidence to tackle big issues, see the industry through another cultural lens, and understand and compare the different economic, social and governance drivers.”

Since graduating, Barrow has been working for Perth-based urban planning and design company, Urbis, where she is developing her skills in statutory and strategic planning.

“My favourite part of my current role is providing strategic advice in relation to highest and best use options for development, and predicting and resolving any issues that may arise in the planning process. I also enjoy obtaining approvals for complex, innovative and sometimes controversial developments – an interest that stemmed from my thesis!”

Testament to her dedication to the profession, Barrow is an active member of Planning Institute Australia as the Young Planner Convenor for Western Australia and also works as a seasonal lecturer at Curtin University.

She believes the design principles she developed in A City for Mars are transferable to cities on Earth.

“Cities should evolve in a natural and gradual way to ensure efficient responsiveness to knowledge, technologies and changing community needs and desires,” she says.

“The experience of developing an urban strategy for Mars has made me reflect on the low standards we have for liveability and planetary viability on Earth, in comparison to the solutions we achieve when we no longer have the luxuries of natural water, air and resources.

“It sets a standard for achievement and is a reflection on why we plan cities on Earth – for a viable and liveable experience.”

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