How Should We Design Cities On Mars?

The challenges of living on Mars will no doubt rewrite some of the rules of urban design. But by redefining how we interact with nature–and with ourselves–space colonization offers a broader chance to remake urbanism itself, writes the Earth Institute’s Sarah Fecht.

How Should We Design Cities On Mars?
[Source Photos: ESA, NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS]

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the moon in 1969, they arrived in a craft roughly the size of a two-person tent. The landing module had no recognizable toilet and no privacy, but it didn’t matter much, since the men were only making a day trip. Humanity is now, once again, trying to crack out of the shell of its atmosphere, but the goal has changed: We want to go to the moon and to Mars, not just to plant a flag and leave behind a few footprints, but to stay.


For some, the reason to settle on Mars is evident in the challenges and the opportunities it presents. Crossing vast oceans, climbing the highest mountains, and visiting the most extreme environments can inspire generations and lead to unforeseen scientific and economic discoveries. Traveling to Mars and installing a new foothold for humanity could push the limits of technology, the human psyche, and design, and potentially teach us how to live better on Earth.

Inhabiting off-planet space offers the chance to experiment with new social and environmental arrangements that incorporate lessons we’ve learned from mistakes on Earth. “If you want to go to Mars, let’s live, and live happily, and live better than here on Earth,” says Vera Mulyani, an architect and founder of the Mars City Design competition. “Let’s design a better place for humanity.”

[Source Photos: Mark Asthoff/Unsplash, NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS]

Justin Hollander, a Tufts University professor of urban planning and advisor for Mars One—an organization that aims to set up a permanent Mars settlement by 2035—likewise suggests that a blank slate provides a chance to privilege elements of good urbanism, such as public space, rather than adding them as an afterthought.

The challenges of lethal surroundings and the freedom of lower gravity will no doubt rewrite some of the rules of design. But by redefining how we interact with nature and with ourselves, space colonization offers a broader chance to remake urbanism itself, and by extension, public spaces and the publics who use them—the implications of which could play out both on Mars, and on our own ecologically changing planet.

It may come as no surprise that there are some who don’t think we should colonize other worlds. Although Elon Musk believes we must establish a colony on Mars in order to ensure the future of humanity in case of an asteroid strike or climate-related cataclysms, there’s no guarantee that humans can even survive long-term on Mars. The low gravity will weaken our bones, hearts, and immune systems. The soil is toxic, the air unbreathable. Can humans have babies in microgravity? No one knows. And every rocketful of supplies we launch to Mars will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. For context, it took $150 billion to build the International Space Station that orbits Earth, and that’s right in our cosmic backyard. Many people think the colonization money would be better spent trying to save the planet we have.

These physiological and economic barriers aside, colonization of other planets would entail other trials. “[L]iving far away from Earth in confined, artificial environments will challenge psychological health in brand new ways,” writes space architect Brent Sherwood in his book Out of This World: The New Field of Space Architecture. That’s why, if we choose to accept the serious challenges and risks that come with off-world living, it’s important for architects and designers to start thinking about how to make spaceships and habitats not just survivable, but actually livable. Future astronauts will need public places to rest, socialize, and congregate, in order to maintain healthy minds and a healthy society—and public (as well as private) spaces will play a role in working towards a functioning Martian society, and even perhaps, one day, the ideal of a Martian utopia.

[Source Photos: Muhd Asyraaf/Unsplash, NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS]

But utopia won’t happen immediately (if ever). For now, Earth’s best and brightest are still working out how to fulfill our basic needs in space, like oxygen, water, and food.

The first travelers to Mars will likely set sail in groups of four, traveling inside large metal cans linked together, with solar panels extending out like sails. Each ship will be about the size of a small two-bedroom house, which almost seems roomy until you consider all the supplies and science equipment they’ll need to haul for the years-long mission. In working toward the ideal of a Martian utopia, “We have got to figure out how to build these things to keep people happy, productive members of society for years at a time,” says Tristan Bassingthwaighte, an architectural designer at Deep Space Ecology. “If your whole crew goes insane, it’s still just as much a mission failure as if you crash into Mars.”

We don’t know how human culture, technology, and eventually even biology will change once we leave Earth, but we can anticipate some of the design essentials for the initial missions.

The first habitats on Mars or the moon will likely be similar to those four-person spaceships: small and cramped, with social life centered around the kitchen table. For long-term stays, these pill- or dome-shaped aluminum cans and inflatable structures would need to be covered with a thick layer of rock and dirt to protect the crew from deep space radiation as well as extreme temperature shifts.

During these early years of interplanetary exploration, private space may be just as much a concern as public space. Starting in August 2015, Bassingthwaighte and five others spent 12 months cooped up in a simulated Martian habitat in Hawaii called HI-SEAS. The habitat was designed to be as open as possible to combat the quasi-astronauts’ sense of confinement, but as a result, nearly every part of the habitat was visible or audible from everywhere else. “We actually didn’t have nearly enough private space,” says Bassingthwaighte. “It was one of the bigger stressors after a while. It’s very hard to get into a place where you can unwind and let down that last psychological wall…. That constant stress will definitely contribute to aggravations or misunderstandings.”

An architecture student at the time, Bassingthwaighte wrote his doctoral dissertation on how he would improve the design of this mock Mars habitat. He suggests keeping the large open common room, but making it convertible into smaller, more private spaces, so that the area could be used for events like soccer practice and movie night, or provide private areas for people to draw or read (or perhaps write their 305-page dissertations). Since permanent residences on Mars will need to be buried beneath several feet of soil, Bassingthwaighte would use virtual reality to help people escape that closed-in feeling, and a CoeLux artificial skylight that “perfectly replicates the look and feel of natural sunlight. It tricks your mind into thinking there’s a much larger space just on the other side of the [simulated] glass.”


Looking decades or even centuries into the future, the Musk-founded Space Exploration Technologies Corporation—popularly known as SpaceX—hopes to send colonists to Mars in droves. The company hasn’t unveiled details about the innards of its mega-sized colonial ship concept, other than a sleek white interior with large windows, but the 100-person spaceship Musk envisions would obviously need large gathering spaces. Like soldiers on military aircraft carriers (known as “cities at sea”), these Martian colonists would probably pass the time socializing in common areas such as a gym or cafeteria.

Yet Hollander thinks these sorts of sleek white “futuristic” spaceship interiors, depicted everywhere from 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Martian, are too sterile for a years-long journey. “Everything looks like it’s made by machines,” he says. “There’s no details, nothing intricate, even though that’s what we really want.” Some concepts include natural materials like wood veneer and woven fabrics, “to create a greater feeling of home and, since monotony is a potential psychological issue, for visual and tactile stimulation.”

As the Mars bases grow and humanity establishes a more permanent off-world settlement, public gathering spaces will likely become more important. Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division, speculates that these crews may live in independent habitat modules, landed across multiple missions and amassed into one general area, similar to a trailer park. Newer buildings would be constructed from glass or concrete made on Mars. This homegrown masonry and 3D printing would allow for the creation of larger gathering spaces that could bring together the growing Mars population under one roof to maintain a sense of community, and to make decisions that affect the entire group. These areas will no doubt be the gathering spaces where the foundations of Martian civilization are laid. And if these far-flung societies can become stable and self-sufficient, they will surely attract other explorers, entrepreneurs, and free thinkers over time.

Such a population explosion on Mars might present its own challenges to the utopian ideal, or at the very least force us to ask exactly what sort of Martian utopia we are seeking. According to the Outer Space Treaty, drafted in 1966 and accepted by the United Nations a year later, all of outer space is a public space—or rather, something like a public good, not to be subject to “appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” Yet in so many proposed space colonization scenarios, spearheaded by both public space programs and private companies such as SpaceX, other worlds are also invariably viewed as potential sites of economic opportunity, largely by way of extraterrestrial resource extraction. As our economies migrate with us to other worlds, how will our structures of ownership translate to these alien landscapes?

Perhaps before reaching Mars, a settlement on Earth’s moon could more quickly and easily grow into an economic center, thanks to its proximity. Using essentially the same infrastructure as a Mars base, these lunar colonies would likely start out as research outposts that grow into industrial towns mining for helium-3, an isotope that could fuel fusion reactors, and water, which can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen, aka rocket propellant. People like the European Space Agency’s Johann-Dietrich Woerner and George Nield from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration envision these bases growing into an off-world marketplace, perhaps transforming the moon into a bustling gas depot where Mars-bound spaceships could top off their tanks before the long journey ahead.

If the lunar industries really do take off, the people working there, and their families, will need apartments, offices, farms, and assembly halls to form a functional society. Sherwood thinks those amenities could pave the way for lunar tourists, which in turn could lead to more development, including theaters, pools, restaurants, hotels, bars, and arenas for playing low-gravity sports.

[Source Photos: Andre Benz/Unsplash]

Some folks even want to establish parks on the moon to protect historical areas like the Apollo 11 landing site. While the views from these outdoor spaces will no doubt be incredible, they could only be enjoyed from inside a spacesuit, cut off from your companions except by the radio in your helmet. Nevertheless, by the standards established in the Outer Space Treaty, such “supranational parks” may best represent the lofty ideal of outer space as shared treasure, to be enjoyed by all of humanity. The management of such culturally significant areas might serve as a mirror, or perhaps even a model, for preservation and conservation efforts on Earth— particularly as terrestrial public lands are increasingly threatened by privatization.

Though there will be plenty of open areas on Mars, the real, every day off-world public spaces will be indoors, and for the foreseeable future they won’t be as grand as one might hope. “When it comes to large structures and domed cities, I don’t believe that will be in my lifetime,” says Crusan. Sadly, those majestic glass-domed cities we see in sci-fi drawings of lunar settlements would actually bake people alive, Sherwood notes, since the moon’s surface can reach nearly 250 degrees Fahrenheit. A domed city might not be quite so hellish on Mars, whose daytime temperatures max out at about 70 degrees, but the glass still wouldn’t offer much protection against radiation. And unfortunately for humanity, terraforming would probably require thousands of years to make the Martian air breathable for humans.

While Martians will need greenhouses to grow their food, neither recreational indoor parks nor installing greenery in the public spaces would be practical in Mars habitats for a while—it would be too difficult to regulate the moisture and oxygen levels in those areas. But there are other ways to make a space feel natural. Bassingthwaighte recommends locating the greenhouses next to the gathering space, separated by clear glass. That way, the food crops would be visible from the public space, replicating the relaxed stimulation that nature can provide, while maintaining the ideal air quality in each separate space. Hollander suggests designing with fractal patterns, curves, interesting textures, the color green, and maybe even piping in the sounds and smells of Terran nature.

Though these indoor public spaces will be largely unlike any domicile our species has built before, Sherwood recommends looking to history for inspiration. Roman outdoor spaces were essentially enclosed “rooms” for public rituals, proving that interior urbanism “can nonetheless be grand and theatrical and promote civic life.” Medieval and Gothic architecture, he notes, show that “we can use precious but dangerous external views sparingly, yet still be emotionally and spiritually inspiring.” Islamic courtyards bring nature into the center of the home, and modern-day shopping malls provide an airy indoor space for entertainment, exercise, and socializing.

Such earthly design inspirations offer many practical points of departure, and their variety of forms beg us to speculate on the nature of public life in outer space. The interior urbanisms of ancient Rome or a modern-day shopping mall, after all, reflect very different types of publics. To what degrees will the space-faring public be determined by citizenship or consumerism, traditional family structures or extended kin, interdependence with, or independence from outside forces (a faraway Earth, for instance)? If Mars is a blank slate, it is one upon which space architects and designers are apt to project their own interpretations of (or assumptions about) these issues. The colonists themselves are also likely to hold a variety of attitudes toward these questions, some of which may agree or conflict with one another. The built environment of lunar or Martian colonies, even at the most intimate scale, will comprise spaces for negotiating both survival and society, and its physical design will affect the parameters of that negotiation, opening doors to some possibilities while closing others. Respecting the complexity of this relationship may be a crucial, if often overlooked, component of both public and private visions of space travel or colonization, particularly as the momentum to expand into deep space keeps growing.

The European Space Agency dreams of setting up a “moon village” populated by researchers, miners, entrepreneurs, and tourists. NASA intends to go further, in the mid-2030s, by sending astronauts to Mars on a journey that would take two to three years, round-trip. Private companies may beat NASA to the red planet: Mars One aspires to send an initial crew of four intrepid explorers on a one-way mission to establish a permanent settlement. SpaceX hopes to launch a Mars-bound crew as early as the mid-2020s, paving the way for a colony that could grow to house a million people within a few decades—or so Elon Musk hopes.


Regardless of who gets there first, the need for a place to interact away from home or work seems inevitable. Over time, these public spaces may become the seats of local governments, as well as places for marriages, political discussions, carnivals, cinemas, funerals, and parties.

As their society grows and becomes self-sufficient, Martians will need to create their own systems for dealing with problems and governing themselves. They’ll develop their own traditions, jokes, and idioms. These cultural transformations will most likely have their origins in the shared spaces where everyone comes together.

[Source Photos: NASA/JPL-Caltech, Christopher Burns/Unsplash]

Eventually, as its culture evolves, one could expect that a colony may even start to feel like its interests and values have diverged significantly from those on Earth. History suggests that eventually, these colonists could decide to declare independence from forms of Terran rule. One could easily imagine that decision being made in a cafeteria or sports arena that doubles, intentionally or not, as an agora; public spaces could be the gardens where the seeds of Martian revolution are planted.

Luckily for Earthlings, off-world innovations, whether cultural or scientific, won’t likely be restricted to these future off-world settlements. Learning how to 3D-print a house using local materials, living off renewable energy in zero-waste neighborhoods, and designing cities for inclusivity are ideas that could help humans on any planet, as well as the other lifeforms forced to interact with us.

Perhaps colonizing other worlds would, in fact, help us save the planet we already have. The barren surface of Mars represents the extreme end of processes that humans have unwittingly initiated on Earth: climate change, land degradation, and desertification. Scientific efforts to solve the problem of habitation on Mars, whether ultimately successful or not, may provide invaluable clues for helping reverse these processes on Earth, or at the very least mitigating their worst effects on human society.

And perhaps the idea of widespread space colonization obliges us to revisit the Outer Space Treaty and its utopian ideals. If the moon or Mars “shall be the province of all mankind,” should Earth be as well? As this question becomes less abstract, how we choose to answer it will be of significant consequence to publics on all planets, and for all of the spaces they share in common.


Sarah Fecht runs the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog. This article was adapted with permission from The Future of Public Space, the second volume of SOM Thinkers, a series of books that poses provocative questions about design and architecture from perspectives outside its professional culture (Copyright Sarah Fecht, 2018).