The Great Spaceship of Toronto

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

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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.

 

 

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

About the Author

  • Alexis C. Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology.