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St. John’s: A Plan for the Age of Inner Space

St. John’s: A Plan for the Age of Inner Space is a film directed by Fred Hollingshurst describing a development proposal for the South Side Hills of St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. The film and proposal answer the questions:

  1. How can the future growth of St. John’s stay close to its economic focus?
  2. Where can we get more economically usable land close to the harbour?
  3. Where can we accommodate more modern, deep water shipping?
  4. How can we solve the problem of the oil tanks?
  5. (Or 4.5) Where can we get construction rock?

Cities, the film argues, typically grow radially from their economic centres. In St. John’s, however, where this centre is the city’s harbour, growth is limited by the steep faces of the coast and the South Side Hills. The film then offers a plan to ensure growth proximate to the economic heart of the city: “a plan for the functional growth of [St. John’s]”

Using maps, diagrams, economics, and case studies, Dr. Thomas W. Kierans, of Memorial University’s engineering faculty, proposes developing the “inner space” of the South Side Hills: excavating usable space within the rock mass itself. Kierans’ expertise is in mining and large infrastructure projects, and he is known professionally for his work on Churchill Falls. His proposal was presented in May 1978 to the Engineering Institute of Canada and submitted as a report to Premier Frank Morris and the provincial government.

According to the proposal, the hills would first be pierced by a tunnel directly to Freshwater Bay, a potential site for high-capacity, deep-water shipping. From there, the inner space could be developed into five levels approximately 40m apart, connected by a long and sloping corridor. These levels would open up millions of square meters for uses as diverse as food/fish processing or cold storage on the larger, lower floors, to apartments, hotels, and hospitals on the smaller uppers. Above 170m, Kierans proposes, should be preserved as newly accessible public parkland.

South Side Plans

Kierens’ proposal, while fantastic on the surface, is described entirely plausibly. The work has already started, for one thing, with a number of deep tunnels pre-existing from wartime munitions storage. Development costs would be tempered by the fact that excavated rock could be sold as aggregate and fill, creating years of mining employment and reducing the need for landscape-marring surface mines. By his economic calculations, the hills could be excavated at a cost of $1.50/ft^2, compared to downtown office space at $25/ft^2. Inner space development would further see instantaneous and continuous benefits (space could be utilized as it is mined), would result in energy savings from the thermal mass of the hills themselves (with an average temperature of 10 degrees Celsius), and would open up the exterior of the hills at each level for further development.

To support his proposal, Kierans points to the success of inner space development in Kansas City, Missouri. The film profiles the SubTropolis development and highlights its suitability for temperature- and humidity-controlled environments, storage (especially for perishable and hazardous materials), and calibrated, vibration-sensitive equipment.

Kierans does not acknowledge any risks or concerns regarding the development, likely because the report was before the provincial government for consideration at the time.

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