Elon Musk’s introduction of SpaceX’s plans to go to Mars was long on the how to get there, but short on the “now what?” once passengers land. What would cities on Mars look like, and how would they solve the material and social challenges they would encounter from the moment they arrive at their destination?
A practical place to start looking – and planning – would be Earth’s driest deserts. It’s not by whim that scenes in the 2015 movie The Martian were filmed in the barren Wadi Rum of southern Jordan. While no place on Earth is really comparable to Mars, the most arid areas are as close as one can get in many respects.
Urbanization in sparsely populated “deep deserts” – areas away from water sources where most ancient and modern desert cities are located – is a path we will have to consider in the wake of population growth and environmental change. But such urbanization will need to be much more concerned with water conservation and efficient protection from the harsh climate than say Las Vegas or Dubai.
The technologies necessary for creating sustainable communities in these harsh arid environments exist, such as solar and wind power, water recycling, thermal insulation, and food production in controlled and even vertical environments. Their combination and application in deep desert cities would have benefits for humanity on Earth – and potentially on Mars.
In fact, if SpaceX’s (or any other) Mars venture really is to take flight, its organizers would do well to have first collaborated on development of cities in deep deserts. Many technical issues could be worked out which could both be scaled on Earth and implemented in Mars colonies.
Examples of potential candidates for such collaboration might include the French architectural firm Manal Rachdi OXO Architectes which has a concept for a city-in-a-tower in the Moroccan Sahara, and Masdar in the United Arab Emirates which has a plan for a sustainable city in the desert there.
Beyond the relatively straightforward (which is not to say easy) engineering problems of getting to Mars or creating a sustainable built environment, are a range of social, cultural, linguistic, health, and governance issues that will arise where hundreds or thousands of people are housed in a more-or-less self-contained habitat. Better to have a practical experience dealing with such issues closer to home before attempting to do the same on an another planet.