Intervention — “What Are the Limits of the Planet in Planetary Urbanisation? An Exploration of the Final Frontier to the City”

Oli Mould (Royal Holloway, University of London)

In 2017, a New York based architectural design firm developed a piece of “speculative” architecture called Analemma. This “building” is suspended from an asteroid, and effectively dangles approximately 1,000ft above the Earth’s surface. The highest point of the building above the ground would be around 32km, although according to the firm’s website, “the near vacuum and -40C temperature would prevent people from going outside without a protective suit”. Analemma could move in a geosynchronous orbit, allowing the luxury accommodation situated nearer the Earth to view entire continents in just one day. But of course, the “proposed orbit is calibrated so the slowest part of the towers trajectory occurs over New York City”.

Architecturally, the tower would therefore obliterate the perceived distinction between Earth and Space. It would provide a physical and conceptual bridge between the lived environment of the Earth’s surface, and the soon-to-be-lived environment of Space. It would effectively extend the surface of the Earth, reterritorialising Space into an urban landscape. It would be the introduction of extra-planetary urbanisation. Of course, this is science fiction as brand; standing in the way of this building actually ever getting constructed are pretty much every occupation of air space law, commercial and military flight paths, not to mention some of the laws of physics.

So, while clearly a piece of speculative urbanism that has been modelled on science fiction discourses designed to boost the firms’ visibility in an increasingly crowded, competitive, and hyper-mediated architecture industry, it points towards an inconvenient truth about the limits (or perhaps lack thereof) of one of the most obdurately present urban debates of the last decade, namely planetary urbanisation (Brenner and Schmid 2015).

Critiques of this seemingly all-pervasive narrative with post-colonial hues (Roy 2011) have articulated how it sees the urban as dominating space in toto, thereby negating any sense of an “outside” (Jazeel 2018). Planetary urbanisation has also been critiqued with a cosmopolitan hue (Millington 2016). In such narratives, “[c]osmopolitization describes the clashing and enmeshing of metropolitan modernities and the novel ways in which contemporary urbanization incorporates or interpenetrates its socio‐spatial other” (Millington 2016: 483), thereby revealing the “ambivalence” of planetary urbanisation discourse. In essence, cosmopolitanism entails a profound understanding of the socio‐spatial‐historical other, something which planetary urbanisation seeks to foreclose in a totalising conceptualisation of the “the urban”.

But if (outer) space really is the final frontier—perhaps the ultimate “Other”—will we now have to expand our epistemological understandings towards an extra-planetary urbanisation? With the advent of corporate space exploration, moon tourism, Mars colonisation, asteroid mining, long-term stay space stations, dangling skyscrapers that pierce the stratosphere, and, inevitably, cities in space and exo-planets, is the concept of the urban no longer fixed territoriality nor spatially? In essence, we have exhaustively debated the limitations of the urban within planetary urbanisation, but no sustained attention has been paid to what the limits are to the planet (cf. Catterall 2013).

With all this in mind, this short intervention seeks to even further exhaust the limits of the planetary urbanisation debate by taking it beyond the planet and into the ultimate “other” of the cold, dark, lifeless reaches of outer space. To do so (and to test its viability to the limit), it is worth refracting it through the concepts of verticality and the volumetric, both very much grounded in terrestrial and, importantly, gravitational epistemologies.

The language and the very imaginary of planetary urbanisation is—or at least was initially—fairly horizontal. Gleaned as it is from a Lefebvrian discourse that focuses on the urban as a “horizon, an illuminating virtuality” (Lefebvre 2003: 16-17), the visual imaginary of planetary urbanisation is one of perpetual horizontality. Indeed, as one of its advocates, Merrifield (2018: 1604) argues, “the importance of what planetary urbanisation should be, has to be: an affair of perception … a vision that begins vast, at the horizon, and sees particular parts (including your own particular part) comprising an interdependent totality”. But as the debates developed, “vertical geographies” (Graham 2016) began to stretch the thinking of this horizontal territoriality; does thinking outer space stretch it to zero-gravitational breaking point? Indeed, as Tripodi (2020: 432) noted when discussing geostationary satellites, they “have pushed human vertical ascension to the limits where horizontality and verticality lose sense and dissolve into the absence of gravity” (emphasis added). Or as professor dusky purples (2018: 282) pertinently asks: “Insofar as the epistemological orientation of planetary urbanization identifies a trajectory, a direction in which the planet might be headed, how does the architecture of its way of knowing constrain us to read the surface of the Earth?” The answer, they suggest, lies in opening up the limits of not only planetary urbanisation, but its conceptual underpinnings too.

With that in mind, Graham (2016) argued that as the city “at ground level” became congested, polluted, dirty, and crime-ridden, the elite have “succeeded” upwards, elevated themselves out of the clutches of the city into a God-like elevation with a voyeuristic gaze upon their dominion below. This is no more evident than in the supertall luxury skyscrapers that have begun springing up in the more affluent parts of the world, not least so-called “billionaires’ row” in New York City (Lauermann 2022). Echoing de Certeau’s (2011) famous essay in which he travels to the observation deck of the now-destroyed World Trade Centre in New York, Graham (2016) outlines how the contemporary city discourse of elite dwelling has looked vertically, increasingly below the ground (i.e. underground bunkers for super-rich “preppers” [Garrett 2021]) and “iceberg” houses in cities like London [Burrows et al. 2022]) as well as high above it. As Harris (2015: 612) has persuasively argued, the verticality of the city is epistemologically embedded in the horizontal and the grounded urban territory, countering what he sees as the “Cartesian framing of the vertical against the horizontal”. When thought of in relation to the planetary urbanisation debate, Harris’ conceptualisation makes a great deal of sense in so far as why is planetary only limited to the horizontal?

Further to the horizontal and the vertical (both above and below the level of the ground), we can add the third spatial dimension or geometric concept, that of the volumetric. McNeill (2020: 829) has argued that the volumetric city as a concept shows “how the spatial referents of verticality, surface, and underground might be linked through volume”. For example, it is via compartmentalised “air rights”—parcels of airspace above specific street-level blocs—that are bought and sold on an open market, that the legal construction of the supertall skyscrapers in New York have been able to be built (the engineering and technological capabilities are another). The volumetric, in this instance, is a way to think through the capitalisation and privatisation of “volumes” of air above the city streets. But in outer space, where air is non-existent and the ability to build “tall” is not a marker of status, wealth, or engineering prowess, what happens to this understanding of the volumetric? Indeed, how many parcels of air rights would a skyscraper dangling over Central Park have to purchase? This volumetric appendage to the critical potency of the planetary urbanisation thesis becomes somewhat different, perhaps even redundant. As Keil (2018: 1598) has noted, “[p]lanetary urbanization merely offers the terrain on which a new politics of the city can be fashioned”, but if that “terrain” negates horizontality, verticality, volumetric, and, beyond that, agravitational, does that affect the politics of the city even further?

Perhaps a way to think through this spatial conundrum, is to fall back on a technological fix: insofar as the highly advanced technological capacities that will no doubt be required to build, run, and live in the cities of outer space will substitute (or perhaps create from scratch) their own forms of urban space. In direct reference to planetary urbanisation and its relation to geostationary satellites, Tripodi (2020: 426) talks of a “technological urbiquity”, which:

constitutes an essential factor endorsing the planetary urbanization process, increasing the capacity of individuals to transcend locality and contribute to distant transformations, and extending urban lifestyles and imaginaries beyond the urban scale while consolidating dependencies on global infrastructure.

In other words, planetary urbanisation can be thought of less through spatial and/or Euclidian frames, and more through complex technological webs of that intermingle urbanity, technology, and socio-spatial construction itself.

Indeed, thinking through the everyday technicalities of urban space in outer space, the infrastructures that we take for granted (and in turn, take a vertical and volumetric conceptualisation of gravity for granted), will require entirely new modes of operation. Waste, water, food production, and many more besides; they will all “redraw” the spatialities of the urban form when existing in zero-gravity (or on planets that don’t match Earth’s 9.81 m/s2 gravity, or in common parlance, 1 g). And then there is the atmosphere itself: here on planet Earth, the air we breathe is taken for granted and has not (at least not yet) fallen prey to privatisation, but in space where even the atmosphere gives way to a pure tabula rasa of elemental experiences, breathing may become a luxury that only the super-rich can afford; or at least another means by which to stratify the social order via air access (there is no doubt a corporate CEO somewhere dreaming up a subscription model of air akin to mobile phone data).

In addition, Ingold (2016) encouraged us to think architecture in tandem with atmosphere. He problematises the fetish that architects and architectural historians have to think their buildings without the:

air that floods its volumes and circulates in its rooms, without the drafts that betray an open door or window, without the fire in the hearth and the smoke in the chimney, without the light that—at different times of day—illuminates certain surfaces while leaving others in shadow, and without the sounds of its inhabitants as they go about their business, of steps on floorboards, of the scraping of chairs, of the clatter of pans in the kitchen and the chatter of voices in the hall… (Ingold 2016: 163)

Here on Earth, the disentanglement of architecture and atmosphere is indeed a futile practice, but in space where no one can hear you scream (not unless you’re paying for unlimited air on a monthly plan, that is), perhaps this cleavage of architecture and atmosphere is more actualised? Beyond the purely infrastructural, the vast sums of money that have already been poured into space exploration by private companies suggests that any cities built in space or on other planets will also have been financed by billion-dollar corporations, and all the violent spatial enclosures that entails (Squire et al. 2021). All this will require massive technological determinism that will ultimately dictate the existence of any form of life in the closed, dark vacuum of space. And of course, such technological determinism, including the very air that is needed to survive, will not come cheap.

Additionally, cities in space “move”. Indeed, Analemma, the building that is described in the opening of this essay, lacks fixity on Earth. It is true of course that many cities on our planet are shifting around or sinking (e.g. Jakarta is sinking so much that the Indonesian government have greenlit the creation of a new capital city, Nusantara) either due to tectonic activity or ocean activity brought on by climate catastrophe. However, Analemma’s foundations are not on Earth at all, and it can cover vast distances in a single day, travelling across the width of a continent in a 24-hour period. The same is true of the International Space Station, and will be of any geostationary cities. This lack of an Earthly spatial fix renders these urban forms some of the most fluid architecture every concocted, certainly the fastest (in terms of pure velocity). It also further problematises the spatial characteristics—the horizontal, the vertical, and the volumetric—even further.

Planetary urbanisation has been a mainstay of geographical thought for nearly two decades, and it has—rightly or wrongly—come to characterise the conceptual landscape of urban theoretical debate. As such, the “planetary” in these discourses is somewhat one-dimensionally applied to mean expanding the fabric of the urban and its associated economic practices “throughout the space of the entire globe” (Brenner et al. 2011: 237): it is used as quasi-Euclidian understanding of vast distances (and volumes). Extending this beyond the planet may well simply just increase these distances and volumes, but as this short intervention has alluded to, this may be far from the case: it might well finally imprint a limit to the planet in planetary urbanisation.

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The featured image (the International Space Station seen from Space Shuttle Discovery STS-119 in March 2009) comes from NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, via Wikimedia Commons: