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Young alumni stories: Planning a Martian city

Anita Shore


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).

Planning a Martian city

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.

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.


Graduate snapshot

Name: Cassie Barrow

Role: Planning Consultant at Urbis

Studied: Bachelor of Arts (Hons) (Urban and Regional Planning)

Graduated: 2017