Paolo Soleri's Babel arcology concept.

Urban Arcology
Tech level: 12
Coastal Arcology
Tech Level: 13
Dam Arcology
Tech level: 13

Some arcology-like structures, such as orbital colonies, floating cities, and undersea colonies, will be addressed in their own sections.

The word "Arcology" comes from a fusion of "architecture" and "ecology," a term first coined and discussed at length in Paolo Soleri’s 1969 book, Arcology: City in the Image of Man. Arcologies have since entered into many serious discussions on the future of cities, as a possible inevitable evolution of today’s ever-larger skyscrapers. They have also been seen in many science-fiction sources, such as the movie Blade Runner, the cyberpunk worlds of William Gibson and Masamune Shirow, the novel Oath of Fealty by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, and even in video games such as SimCity 2000, among others. The largest and most detailed description of an arcology (complete with level-by-level diagrams) is Chicago Arcology, put out in 1991 by Iron Crown Enterprises for their Cyberspace RPG.

Arcologies are envisioned as optimal human urban environments, large, self-enclosed mega-skyscrapers that contain everything a human being could ever need. They would be miniature cities onto themselves, engineered for maximum comfort and efficiency. Some see arcologies as the remedy for the massive urban and suburban sprawls that are overwhelming the industrialized world; others see them as urban monstrosities that would rob cities of their culture and individuality.

Whatever their effectiveness in solving the physical problems of ever-burgeoning populations, exactly how they would effect the social problems of cities remains unknown. Proponents see arcologies not only as architectural triumphs but as grand social experiments as well, re-engineering human social interaction to a more dynamic and egalitarian level. Detractors see them as widening the already huge gap between the haves and have-nots, as the wealthy and corporate elite would retreat into the high-tech arcologies and leave the poor to fend for themselves in ever-decaying sprawls. This is in fact a very common motif in Cyberpunk science fiction.

Chances are human beings, being what they are, would bring many of both their virtues and ills into the arcologies with them. Arcologies would have sections for the rich and not-so-rich, have "good" neighborhoods and "bad", be run more often than not by leaders influenced by one special interest group or another, be at least occasionally riddled by crime, disaster, and scandal, etc, etc. But there would also be a very strong sense of community, security, neighbor interaction, and even optimism that is absent in many cities today. Designers and social engineers will no doubt try their best to emphasize the positive, but chances are the unpleasant parts of human social interaction will never be eliminated completely.

Though arcologies today are seen primarily as an urban development, arcologies can be built for nearly any environment. Sea-floating arcologies, cliffside arcologies, farmland arcologies, and even dam arcologies have all been proposed. Arcologies are also seen as a necessary precursor to building orbiting space colonies, deep sea colonies, or colonies on other planets such as Mars.


First, a break-down of what an arcology would be required to provide for its population:

Living Space: Because space within an arcology is used much more efficiently, an arcology would require about 2% as much land as a modern city of equivalent population. Actual living space per person would be about the same, but the support structure can be built on a much more efficient three-dimensional scale, and the need for road infrastructure (which can consume as much as 60% of the space of modern urban sprawls) would be eliminated altogether.

The interior of arcology residential areas would probably be somewhat modular, with reconfigurable walls and fixtures, in order to compensate for dynamic changes in the needs of the population. The interior design will also be built to be as human-friendly as possible, with wide corridors, friendly colors, and many plants, murals, and artworks to please human aesthetic sense. Many mirrors and windows would also be worked into the design in order to create an illusion of space. With so many people living in such a compact space, the designers will do everything they can to offset psychological problems that could arise from such conditions, such as claustrophobia, malaise, and anxiety.

As a general rule, single, unmarried individuals would be given efficiencies with one to three rooms, whereas families would have between three and ten rooms, depending on their size. In both instances the space allotted would depend greatly on the Arcology’s exact design, the inhabitant’s social status, and prevailing population density.

The one big disadvantage of arcologies is that they are not readily expandable as modern cities are. Arcologies would be optimized for a certain population; it may be a few thousand or many millions, but once this number is exceeded people have to leave or the artificial ecology of the structure will start to suffer.

Open Areas: Arcologies are often designed with many open areas, referred to in general terms as parks, where the population can gather and/or spend recreation time. In fact, some arcologies are built around a single enormous open area that may be up to a quarter or a half mile square. Rooftop gardens could also serve as parks in some designs.

These open areas are extremely important to the psychological well-being of the inhabitants; human beings do not thrive well dwelling constantly in constricted environments such as apartments and hallways, no matter how user-friendly designers try to make them.

A number of arcologies are designed to make optimum use of sunlight, with windows, mirrors, and open areas designed in such a way as to bring as much natural light into the arcology as possible.

Power: Like modern cities, arcologies will almost certainly require their own dedicated power sources. Fossil fuels, with their accompanying pollution, would be extremely disadvantageous for such a compact community. Nuclear and solar power plants are often cited as solutions, but alternatives such as wind and tidal power are mentioned as well, especially for coastal and floating arcologies. Arcologies built as dams could also easily solve this problem. More exotic solutions, such as geothermal taps and fusion reactors, may be available for advanced arcologies.

Water: An arcology would by necessity have to provide an enormous amount of water to its residents every day. An arcology of 400,000 residents would require nearly 1 million gallons of water per day just to meet drinking requirements. For things such as showers, janitorial needs, hydroponics and such, multiply that by 20.

Unless the structure is built right next to a body of water, an in-arcology reservoirs would be an unavoidable necessity. The reservoir may be one centralized tank, or it may take the form of an open artificial lake around which the arcology is built. It may also be decentralized between many tanks and/or "ponds" in many of the arcology’s parks.

Water recycling would also be a smart investment for arcology builders, to reduce the amount that has to be pumped in on a daily basis. Waste water from the arcology’s human residents can be filtered and used for the arcology’s many parks and farms, for example.

Food: Food importation would be a necessary evil for many urban arcologies. However, they can supplement their food supply with rooftop farms, hydroponics, micro-organic cultivation (yeasts and such), greenhouses, and/or recycling. The residents would buy their foods pretty much like any other city resident, in in-arcology supermarkets and restaurants.

Waste Management: Efficient sewer and garbage management systems would be absolute necessities in an arcology, and would in fact have to be developed to a much higher degree than almost any other system in order to make an arcology work. It would also have to employ a veritable army of janitors. With so many people living so close together, communicable diseases are a very viable danger, and keeping on top of waste management and cleaning would be the first line of defense to prevent any potentially harmful outbreaks.

Employment: While it is true many living in the arcology will have to commute out of the building for employment, many arcologies will be set up to provide jobs directly inside the arcology. Many arcologies will have their own industrial and commercial sections right in the structure, making commuting to work just a brisk walk and an elevator ride away.

Manufacturing industries inside an arcology will by necessity have to be mostly non-polluting and, given the arcology’s nature, will most likely be high-tech.

One of the main features of an arcology would be an enormous central retail district, or mall, to cater not only to its residents but visitors and tourists as well in order to generate outside revenue. The New Edison Arcology in the aforementioned Chicago Arcology supplement had an enormous ten-story mall that became the defacto commercial and retail center of the immediate Chicago sprawl.

Tech Level: 12

So-called "first generation" arcologies would essentially be large urban mega-skyscrapers, designed to ease burgeoning city population problems. They may or may not evolve naturally from the current trend toward ever-larger buildings. They would no doubt at first be corporate showcases and considered engineering marvels, and be located in the downtowns and commercial districts of many cities.

The urban arcology would be very much a product of the cities they are a part of, and would take advantage of a city’s infrastructure for many of its utilities, such as power, water, and so on. The first arcologies would therefore not be very self-sufficient as many later generation arcologies are envisioned to be.

Tech Level: 13

The next step in arcology evolution would be to move the arcology out of its urban settings and into more practical environments. Situating the megastructure close to or even overlapping a large body of water would provide a great many advantages, such as a reliable water supply, more efficient temperature control, coastal access for water vehicles and trade, and even power by tapping things such as tidal motion or river flow.

Tech Level: 13

Soleri's vision of a dam arcology.

As the name implies, this is an arcology integrated into a dam structure. Envision the Hoover Dam with most of its non-support structure given over to living and arcology space. The biggest advantage of this scheme is that the arcology would not only have its own, artificial body of water to draw upon, but would also have a ready-made power provided by the dam itself.

Related Information

In Print:

Arcology: City in the Image of Man by Paolo Soleri

Chicago Arcology by James D Long, a supplement for ICE’s Cyberspace RPG

Oath of Fealty by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

On the Web:

A unabashedly enthusiastic site that concentrates as much on social evolution than technical workings of an arcology:

A site promoting Paolo Soleri’s ideas in full:

A table detailing Soleri’s various visions for arcologies:

A now-defunct project that featured the intriguing idea of a floating, politically independent arcology:

Soleri’s Hyperbuilding, a fully detailed arcology:

Article added 2005