Subterranean Street Maps

Mapping New York City’s underground infrastructure


Beneath the cities of the developed world lie hidden labyrinths of piping, wires, and tunnels that carry water, gas, telecommunications, and sewage to and from residing populations.

Private actors in New York City (with support from the Mayor’s office) are developing a comprehensive floor plan of the city’s subterranean labyrinth, leading the way in a new faction of GEOINT: underground infrastructure mapping.

Bloomberg News recounts the historical narrative of this practice, beginning with an electric power substation located at a severe flood zone on the banks of Manhattan’s East River. When Hurricane Sandy blew through New York in 2012, the overflowing river submerged the substation and destroyed its transformers. A three-day blackout followed. Base maps depicting the city’s water and sewer lines underneath topographical and built features existed at the time—but a comprehensive underground road map did not.

Access to centralized geospatial data outlining a city’s delicate layers of underground infrastructure would be instrumental in responding to disasters like the 2012 floods, and the availability of such data during city planning could help mitigate emergencies. Bloomberg reports that mistakes made during underground repairs or construction (like rupturing a gas line) cost New York City more than $300 million each year. With more precise maps, many of these mistakes could be avoided.

Now, the trend is catching on as more municipalities note the value of underground infrastructure mapping. In response to a fatal gas line accident, Flanders, Belgium, created a de-centralized utilities map available upon request to contractors planning to dig underground. Chicago launched a similar project with local tech initiative City Digital. London and Singapore are working on pilot programs as well.

Photo Credit: Reconstruct and UI Labs

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