Planning Practice Feature

Extreme Survival Bunkers and Subterranean Land-Use Planning

by Jerry Weitz, FAICP

Land-use planning and regulation always have focused on development on or above the surface of the earth, but rarely have they addressed uses below the land surface. Other than subsurface mining regulations, underground storage tanks, and perhaps a few others, it appears that governments largely have abdicated responsibility for planning and regulating subterranean uses. There are several underground uses, such as emergency shelters, tunnels for roads and transit, utilities, and burial grounds that are sometimes addressed in land-use plans, particularly when they are publicly provided.

In this essay I outline some public policy considerations for subterranean land-use planning, and I call for planners and regulators to begin considering issues associated with neglecting underground land-use planning. I also suggest that the American Planning Association develop a policy guide for planning and regulation of subterranean structures, including specifically the so-called "extreme survival bunkers" (discussed below).

Zoning ordinances establish districts and regulate land uses — virtually every type of land use, building, and structure. It is therefore surprising that underground structures are hardly addressed, if at all, in local land-use regulations. In principle, construction of underground structures should require appropriate permits just the same as those required for the construction of structures above ground. Perhaps that neglect is a vestige of concerns about nuclear war since World War II, after which some concerned householders in the United States constructed nuclear fallout shelters on their lots. Local land-use regulations have remained mostly silent about underground bunkers, perhaps out of respect for the rights of households to protect themselves from threats.

Trends now clearly have moved well beyond the backyard fallout shelter to "extreme survival bunkers" and beyond concerns about just nuclear fallout to other fears. You might have seen the television show Extreme Survival Bunkers, which premiered in 2013. If not, for short primers on the topic, take a look at short videos from commercial companies that build personal/recreational shelters and underground condominiums for longer-term survival (see links to Atlas and Vivos at the end of this article). According to the website for Atlas Shelters, there are now more than 100,000 corrugated pipe shelters in the U.S. There is also a report of a company now developing a 15-story, 54,000-square-foot luxury condominium complex underground, created in a decommissioned missile silo at a secret location in central Kansas (Survival Condo, not dated).

Owners of personal survival bunkers want to construct in secrecy, and for good reason; after all, it would defeat the purpose of many bunker owners if the government (sometimes the source of fear) had to issue a permit for the underground structure, thus requiring disclosure of the bunker's location and details. Construction of an accessory carport (on the ground) or a communication tower (above the ground) usually requires zoning compliance and building permits, so why not structures built underground? With regard to the construction of an underground condominium complex, shouldn't it be addressed the same as a multi-family residential complex above ground?

Without oversight, a number of issues may arise. Without a permit and inspections, how can one ensure adequate safety standards are being met in the construction of underground structures? What are the proper safety and health standards for occupancy and use of underground structures? Do we know the full environmental impacts of underground structures? Constructing underground bunkers may be ill-advised in areas with a shallow water table or that are susceptible to flooding. And they may be difficult and costly to construct in areas with bedrock. Underground utilities may be damaged when subterranean land disturbance occurs. Who certifies the safety of air ventilation and water treatment systems serving extreme survival bunkers, other than the manufacturer, and shouldn't inspections be required?

Planners should acknowledge that there are certain benefits to building underground. Underground construction within cities could create a more compact urban structure, protect the natural landscape, and reduce environmental stress factors (Ronka, Ritola and Rauhala 1998). Underground structures may be more sustainable than above-ground uses because there is less need for heating and cooling and fewer maintenance costs; underground structures may also be more resilient when earthquakes occur (Bobylev 2009).

The importance of underground shelters for purposes of emergency management has been recognized for decades. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (2006) has published a manual on building safe rooms and shelters, and articulated certain standards for emergency and fallout shelters. It may be that planners should be encouraging even more development of shelters, in addition to considering appropriate regulations and guidelines. FEMA publications would be a good place to begin in preparing a policy guide for underground structures, at least with regard to sheltering functions, as the 2006 publication provides occupancy standards per person that vary based on the length of occupancy.

In addition to the neglect of regulatory issues, planning for underground structures also appears to be mostly nonexistent. Should local governments adopt plans for underground spaces that address the entire jurisdiction? Can such plans be incorporated into existing comprehensive plans? What are the contents needed for an underground plan? Should plans of various public authorities be coordinated with underground plans of private individuals and companies, in anticipation of potential conflicts? Should underground space, as a nonrenewable resource, be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis, even when structures located in upper layers of the underground effectively prevent the development of lower layers (Bobylev 2009)?

American planners may be behind the times when it comes to the planning for and regulation of underground structures. The private (apparently, mostly unregulated) development of extreme survival bunkers on a commercial scale may be cause for some concern, particularly in light of the opportunity costs of constructing other potential underground uses (e.g., geothermal resource extraction). The building of extreme survival bunkers raises more general thoughts about the broader use of underground space and, indeed, building of entire cities underground. Is the building of entire cities underground a possible wave of the future, or is that just a far-fetched idea out of a science fiction movie? Surely, underground structures and underground cities are an important topic worthy of policy formulation by the American Planning Association.

Jerry Weitz, FAICP, is associate professor and director of the urban and regional planning program at East Carolina University, president of Jerry Weitz & Associates, Inc. (a planning and development consulting firm), and editor of Practicing Planner. He specializes in land-use planning, land-use regulation, and growth management.


Atlas Survival Shelters video.

Atlas Survival Shelters website.

Bobylev, Nikolai. 2009. "Mainstreaming Sustainable Development into a City's Master Plan: A Case of Urban Underground Space Use." Land Use Policy 26: 1128-1137.

Ronka, Kimmo, Jouko Ritola, and Kari Rauhala. 1998. "Underground Space in Land-Use Planning." Tunnelling and Underground Space Technology 13, no. 1: 39-49.

Survival Condo. No date. "Missile Silo Converted into Luxury Survival Resort Nears Completion." (Press release). Concordia, Kansas.

Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 2006. Safe Rooms and Shelters: Protecting People Against Terrorist Attacks. May. FEMA 453 Risk Management Series.

Vivos Bunkers video.

Vivos Survival Shelters website.