The Great Spaceship of Toronto

This underground labyrinth may be as close to a spacecraft as most of us are likely to board.
More
Alexis C. Madrigal

 

On the surface of Toronto, the air is cold. Life survives, but in the winter months, it is just barely in the habitable zone. 

So, the humans of the city have burrowed underground. It began in the early part of the last century. Then, as the towers of the downtown core exploded upward, the underground labyrinth expanded, tunnels finding each other, the whole thing turning into a four-million-square foot city within a city. 

Some 100,000 people regularly commute through this place, including 2,500 people who work down here. There are 1,200 stores. Access to PATH is worth about $2 per square foot to the office owners in the towers above. 

Landscape architect Pierre Bélanger describes the system as a set of nodes—shopping pavilions, food courts—connected by axes. And, also like the Internet, it's a public-feeling space that is actually privately held. Ken Jones, who has studied the retail establishments of the space, describes PATH as "a retailing subsystem that is directly linked to the corporate city of enterprise" that "serves the residents of the white collar city of privilege." 

The most mundane way to think about PATH is that it is simply an "alternative grade" pedestrian walkway. It's one of about 50 large systems throughout the world. 

But I like to think of it as a spaceship underground. After all, the available square footage is greater than the Constitution-class Starship Enterprise from the original Star Trek.

Given the state of the space program, The HMCS PATH is about as close to a spaceship as you're likely to board in your lifetime. We are talking about a completely climate-stabilized, surveilled, artificially lit human-maintained system.

There are design guidelines that keep things consistent down there. For example, the city of Toronto does not like high lighting-contrast, presumably because it's disorienting. They, in fact, have an artificial light to darkness ratio that they suggest following: "Avoid glare and/or shadowed areas, and maintain a uniformity ratio that does not exceed 4:1 (i.e. the ratio of average maintained level of illumination to the minimum level of illumination)."

For safety's sake, they tell architects to avoid blind corners around which one could get jumped. If there are areas that seem dangerous, they ask that for convex mirrors to be installed, not to mention security cameras for low pedestrian flow areas. 

Even the sonic landscape has been designed to minimize reverberations. The Toronto design guidelines ask that the "aftersound" of a given sonic event be kept to less than 0.5 seconds. 

And yet, despite all these attempts to manufacture a space: it is lived in. People work here. People eat here. Their bodies spend millions of hours exchanging material with the unnatural environment. 

One of my favorite quotes about space travel came from the solar inventor Steve Baer responding to late '70s fantasies of countercultural space colonies that were going to look like the northern California coast. "I see acres of air-conditioned Greyhound bus interior, glinting slightly greasy railings, old rivet heads needing paint," Baer wrote. "I don't hear the surf at Carmel and smell the ocean—I hear piped music and smell chewing gum."

Real talk: the Toronto underground is how space colonization would actually be. Come with me on a tour of the spaceship of the present. 

* * *

There are so many memories of the topside, where giants roam.

Sophisticated life-support systems sustain all that's down here.

We remember the plants.

But they can't grow down here.

What I notice is the light in the ship. Golden:

Blue:

Bright:

Dim:

From obelisks:

And reflecting off walls:

Orange neon:

And more blue:

Everything is jammed together.

We do not have the normal microbial interchanges, and so we worry about sickness.

 And try to fix how things were outside more firmly.

But some things don't really change. Like food.

It is eaten in great halls called courts.

And work, which happens everywhere at all times.

And foot problems. They abide. 

So does power.

But amid the torrential flow of these human lives, a few quiet spaces remain aboard the ship. Not quiet like the forest, but quiet like an elevator. We're not as comfortable among our own creations, but we can learn down here.

How to find peace.

Where it was not meant to be found.

 

Jump to comments
Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Social Security: The Greatest Government Policy of All Time?

Social Security is the most effective anti-poverty program in U.S. history. So why do some people hate it?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

Just In