Arcology: an alternative for space colonization?


World population is expected to rise to nine or ten billion halfway this century, and all these people need somewhere to live. Some people believe that space colonization will be the solution, for others arcology is the answer, but the question is, of course, whether arcology is nothing but a megalomaniac fantasy?

What is arcology?

On the English Wikipedia we can read the following:

Arcology, combining “architecture” and “ecology”,[1] is a set of architectural design principles aimed toward the design of enormous habitats (hyperstructures) of extremely high human population density. These largely hypothetical structures would contain a variety of residential, commercial, and agricultural facilities and minimize individual human environmental impact. They are often portrayed as self-contained or economically self-sufficient.

In other words, we can explain an arcology as a city contained in a single, enormous building. Different arcological proposal have varying estimates for their intended population number, from as low as a few ten thousands to as high as slightly more than one million residents. Because of their scale, inhabitants of arcologies are supposed to leave their city very rarely, if ever.

I am not quite sure whether I would classify so called domed cities as arcologies, they have certainly some characteristics of arcologies but for the purpose of this post I will leave them out (I will discuss them in a separate post). To some degree, also vertical farming can be considered as a kind of arcology. And many proposals about arcologies, indeed include vertical farming into their plans.

The main purpose of arcology is to enable large concentrations of humans. This idea is based on the assumption that there is too less land available on our planet for humans to live on. But if you look on the map of the Earth, especially one which shows the local population densities, you will see that human are unequally spread around the globe. Not land scarcity is the problem, but population distribution.


There are several problems with arcology. The first is the vulnerability for catastrophic events such as earthquakes, which can destroy arcologies and kill their inhabitants. Since many proposed arcologies foresee population in the order of hundred thousands or millions, evacuation of all inhabitants might be impossible in some cases. Therefore arcologies should be build such that they survive several catastrophes.

The problem of evacuation is part of the second problem with arcologies. The entrances of such structures are a kind of bottlenecks, only a few percent of the residents can pass through the entrance during a certain period of time. Traffic jams will be frequent, if substantial numbers are leaving or entering the arcology all the time.

The construction of arcologies does not face only technical challenges, but also it also requires a lot of natural resources. If great numbers of arcologies will be build, we might ask whether will be enough resources to build them. However, this problem can be solved by space mining, which is also good new for space colonists.

Another problem is energy consumption. People living in arcology will use more energy than the same number of people who life on a “flat” surface. This because a certain amount of energy is required, just to keep the arcology running. We believe that fusion reactors might be the most likely methods of generating power for these structures. Because these reactors are relatively small (compared to coal-fired power plants).


One alternative for arcology is using solar desalination of seawater in order to settle large desert areas such as the Sahara or Western-Australia. This approach would solve most, if not all, of the problems we mentioned in the previous sections. Problems might, however, arise from the governments of those areas. They might oppose the immigration of large numbers of people to their countries.

Another possible alternative is seasteading. This concept has problems on its own, although it shares the problem of resources for construction. However, seasteading might be cheaper and can start at a much smaller scale.

Space colonization is in the long run a far better alternative. In space there more than enough resources, no earthquakes, megavolcanoes. Further space governments might be much more willing to accept new immigrants than their terrestrial counterparts. And if space governments would not be willing to accept new immigrants, people can start their own colonies. However, space colonies has some other issues such as radiation, in an upcoming post we will discuss the danger of space radiation and how to deal with it.

We believe that arcology is most suited for small countries with high population densities such as Singapore.


7 thoughts on “Arcology: an alternative for space colonization?”

  1. An interesting post. If we leave aside the issues of construction challenges, energy requirement and even allow that they will work from home, I wouldn’t want to live in such a crowded place! There are streets in Nairobi where you walk and it feels like you need to get out so fast and this to me is how this place will be.
    I think it would be a bad idea!

  2. Welcome to “The Crisscross Sideways Only On Thursday World” ~ the title of a science fiction short story in a paperback collection I read about 30 years ago. I don’t remember the name of the author, and have not been able to find any record of it on the Internet. I do remember the story, and the story within the story. I’m not familiar with the term acrology, but from your description here I believe that is in part one of the solutions presented in that story to help solve the population problem. I recall the author went down the list of all known options, most of which you have included in this article. In that story the people of earth proceeded with all or most of those. Even so, doing all of those ways to manage population eventually turned out to not be enough to solve the problem.

    So the newest solution was to limit people to living just one day out of every week! The other six days they are put in something like suspended animation hibernation chambers. So each day of the week, only one seventh of the population is active. Living and work places are shared by you with six unseen others. You get a personal locker for the few allowed personal possessions. Otherwise all property is shared. The perspective from the person going into suspended animation for six days is such that its no different from living day to day, totally unaware of the passing of six days as it happens. There is a means to get caught up on events and news that happened during those six days and what others have accomplished while you were away.

    The story within that story is that a man, walking down a hallway of suspended animation chambers, sees a beautiful woman visible through the glass door of her chamber. He immediately falls in love with her. Problem is, she lives on Fridays, and he lives on Thursdays. He couldn’t control when he gets out of his chamber, but he could risk the consequences of delaying his return so that he could meet her. He does. He gets caught. His supervisor has mercy on him after he explains why he was late. His supervisor accepts his request to be transferred to Fridays so he can be with his discovered soulmate. After he makes the change, and goes to greet her at her chamber, he discovers he has been betrayed! His supervisor arranged for the women to be transferred to Thursdays, so that she would be with him instead!

    Anyway, the ultimate solution in that story is time management in addition to space management.

    1. Interesting story. Actually this is a radical way of time sharing, well if all space is already used as efficient as possible you might be tempted to consider this time sharing thing. However, I would not want to live in that future, and I hope no one will (unless they would volunteer for it).

  3. Larry Niven’s “Oath of Fealty” had a nice examination of arcology (much as I dislike Niven as a person, you got to grant him certain chops in fiction writing).

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