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Fully Integrated 3D Analysis on Site-City Interaction in an Urban Transport Hub

Bence Kato1 and Gang Wang, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE2
Ph.D. Student, Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Hong Kong Univ. of Science and
Technology, Clear Water Bay, Kowloon, Hong Kong. E-mail:
Associate Professor, Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Hong Kong Univ. of
Science and Technology, Clear Water Bay, Kowloon, Hong Kong. E-mail:
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Previous studies have shown that site-city interaction (SCI) is important for sustainable
seismic design in a congested urban environment. However, due to its complexity, the
phenomenon is not yet fully understood. A fully integrated 3D model was developed herein to
analyze the problem using a transportation hub in Hong Kong as a testbed. The site assumes a
typical downtown layout with a central plaza, a large underground chamber surrounded by 16
high-rise buildings with deep foundations. This investigation aims to explore SCI emphasizing
soil-underground structure-soil interaction (SUSSI) and contamination of the site response
caused by the dense building cluster. To simulate visco-elastic wave propagation, a
discontinuous Galerkin spectral element code (SPEED) is employed. Key SCI effects manifest in
a wavefield propagating from the buildings and surface waves trapped in-between them. The
propagated wavefield travels up to 450 m with 20% increase in peak ground accelerations (PGA)
compared with the free field. In the center plaza, 70% increase in PGA is observed. Furthermore,
a coherency analysis was conducted to quantify the spatial variation of ground motions. The
building layout and subsurface structures govern the SCI phenomena, which highlights the
importance of realistic fully integrated modeling for sustainable urban design.

Safety and sustainability of ever-growing metropolises are at the forefront of civil
engineering research. With the advancement in technology, the need for intellectual labor force
has been booming. Centers for economic, financial and technological industries are found in
large cities. This results in a rapid growth of urban developments and population alike.
Accordingly, cities get more and more congested. Taller buildings and larger underground spaces
are built in close proximity to accommodate the rapid growth of municipal population. From an
earthquake engineering perspective, this raises concern for the safety of high economic valued
sites, such as transportation hubs. These priority sites necessitate far-seeing urban planning and
cutting-edge design to ensure long-term safety, sustainability and possible further development.
Nevertheless, seismic design of structures is routinely carried out using conventional methods
that consider structures in isolation. As shown by post-earthquake observations of erratic damage
patterns in cities of Mexico, Japan and Italy (Flores et al. 1987; Uenishi 2011), it became
obvious that the built surrounding can significantly change both structural and site response. The
cause of such phenomenon is collectively called Site-City Interaction (SCI). To this end, seismic
design of a structure in isolation is not comprehensive and potentially unsafe. Fully integrated
analysis on the seismic response of building clusters is suggested for the resilient design of tall
buildings, i.e. simultaneous modeling of soil, above and underground structures. SCI can be
described as the cumulative effect of site response, Structure-Soil-Structure Interaction (SSSI)


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and Soil-Underground Structure-Soil Interaction (SUSSI). Figure 1 shows some of the key
phenomena. Beatings are the results of the feedback vibrations from the buildings’ reaction and
their inertial effects. Resultant waves from beating can interact with the surrounding structural
environment. Conversely, they could travel outward from the building cluster, thus amplifying
the seismic demand of nearby areas. Furthermore, due to SUSSI, waves get trapped between
subsurface structures such as foundations or metro stations. These phenomena will be identified
in the present study.
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FIG. 1. Illustration of Site-City Interaction phenomenon

Several early works have demonstrated the beating effect (Jennings 1970) and interaction
between buildings via the soil. Isbiliroglu et al. (2015) and Gueguen and Bard (2005) have
concluded that large, rigid and closely-spaced buildings have a significant effect on the seismic
site response and they would interact with each other close to their natural frequencies. Indeed,
Kato and Wang (2017) and Semblat et al. (2008) has shown that SSSI exists at frequencies other
than buildings’ natural frequencies if they are closely spaced and have great inertia. Moreover,
several studies imply that underground structures may modify ground motions (Uenishi 2011;
Dashti et al. 2016; Pitilakis and Tsinidis 2014), however, further studies on wave propagation
and ground motion contamination are necessary to clearly identify the phenomenon.
Recent studies highlighted some important aspects of SCI through experimental and
numerical methods (Schwan et al. 2016; Semblat et al. 2008; Isbiliroglu et al. 2015; Bard et al.
2006; Kham et al. 2006). Numerical analyses were mainly based on 2D or non-fully integrated
models, and only a few studies have considered realistic 3D site settings (Guidotti et al. 2012;
Taborda and Bielak 2011). In this study, earthquake scenario simulation is carried out on the
Kowloon transportation hub in Hong Kong using the discontinuous Galerkin spectral element
method (DGSEM) to simulate wave propagation in visco-elastic media. The hub consists of a
central plaza with an underground metro station and 16 high-rise buildings surrounding it in an


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elliptical layout. In the following, a detailed description of SCI phenomenon is given based on
fully integrated 3D analyses. The site and the design of the numerical experiment were chosen to
study whether underground structures can modify the ground motions and whether waves get
trapped and amplified between these structures, as theorized by the authors. Furthermore, the
experiment was designed to examine questions regarding the importance of realistic site settings;
such as would the circular-like geometry of the building layout would be reflected in the
disturbed wavefield between and around the structures under a real earthquake scenario? The
case study highlights the influence of underground structures, special building layouts and
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outward propagating waves in the outskirts of this typical downtown setting. In the end, the
authors discuss the key concerns and implications of SCI on resilient and sustainable seismic
design in a congested urban environment.


Three-dimensional simulations of Site-City Interaction present several primary challenges,
including the effectiveness and efficiency of the numerical platform as well as the difficulty of
meshing complex, multi-scale geometries. Our choice of numerical tool is SPEED (Mazzieri et
al. 2013) as this software is capable of handling the aforementioned key challenges. It is based
on the discontinuous Galerkin (DG) formulation of the visco-elastic wave equation whilst
utilizing the spectral element method (DGSEM). SEM is regarded as one of the most effective
numerical approaches for dealing with wave propagation problems (Komatitsch and Vilotte
1998; Faccioli et al. 1997). Furthermore, the DG formulation permits the use of unstructured,
non-conforming meshes, which eases the task of meshing multi-scale geometries. The DG
formulation reinforces compatibility of displacements at discontinuous interfaces using jump and
penalty functions. Non-conforming meshes allow decomposing the model into discontinuous
sub-domains. These sub-domains can have sharp changes in their mesh size (h) and their shape
functions’ polynomial degree (p), i.e. the code is h and p adaptive. Finally, computational
efficiency is achieved by various means. The choice of Lagrange polynomials as basis functions
and Lagrange-Gauss-Lobatto (LGL) integration at spectral nodes result in a diagonal mass
matrix, which facilitates the use of parallel computing. Standard leapfrog time marching scheme
is adopted, which requires the satisfaction of the CFL condition and a minimum number of 5
spectral nodes per wavelength to limit grid dispersion and dissipation. All these attributes make
SPEED an excellent tool for the investigation of SCI effects.

The testbed for our simulation is Kowloon metro station in Hong Kong, a transportation hub
with one of the largest traffic and highest population density. A 12m deep metro station that
supports an additional 18-meter superstructure is located in the middle of Union Square. The
square is surrounded by 16 closely-spaced super-tall buildings, including the tallest tower of
Hong Kong (480m), the International Commerce Centre (ICC). The site is illustrated in Figure 2.
Such a building layout is typical of Hong Kong and many major cities of the world. The
Kowloon transport hub accommodates some of the most expensive real estates of the city and
it’s subjected to further development. The density, complexity, and priority of the site make it an
ideal testbed for this SCI study.


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FIG. 2. Testbed – Kowloon metro station, Hong Kong

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Soil domain
Soil conditions at the study site are typical of Hong Kong’s harbor front. According to
borehole data acquired from the Buildings Department of the Hong Kong Government, a 30-
meter layer of hydraulic fill is on the top of the site, followed by completely decomposed granite
(CDG) to the bedrock at around 100 meters in depth. Properties of these materials are presented
in Table 1. Based on this soil profile, a 1.8 1.80.15 km visco-elastic model was created with
5-layer of soils and a building cluster with a footprint of 1.4 km2 placed in the center. The shear
wave velocities of soils were calculated based on SPT-N values according to Wair et al. (2012).
A piecewise linear shear wave velocity profile was adopted for the soil domain to account for
effects of overburden pressure. A Poisson’s ratio of 0.33, typical for elastic soil, is adopted (i.e.
Vp=2Vs, where Vp is compression wave velocity and V s is shear wave velocity) to ensure the
stability of the absorbing boundary (Stacey 1988) prescribed on the bottom of the domain. On
the sides of the domain, Dirichlet boundary conditions are prescribed restricting movement in
vertical and ‘y' direction, while allowing displacement in the ‘x’ direction. The model is
subjected to an excitation fitting the 2475-year return period design spectra specified for Hong
Kong (Arup 2015), as shown in Figure 3, which is an outcrop motion recorded during the Chi-
Chi earthquake selected from the Design Ground Motion Library (Wang et al. 2015). The ground
motion was deconvoluted to the bedrock and applied as a vertically propagating shear wave in
the horizontal “x” direction. The predominant frequency of the acceleration is about 2.2 Hz,
while the natural frequency of the soil site is 1.1 Hz. Hence, resonance is not expected, however,
the frequency gap is small enough for significant ground motion amplification. SPEED uses
frequency proportional damping defined by the quality factor Q=Q0*(f/f0), where Q0 is the
quality factor evaluated at a reference frequency f0 . f0=4Hz is chosen as the majority of signal
energy is contained between 1 and 7 Hz. Q=20 is assigned to the soil layers, while Q=100 is
assigned for the granitic rock. Polynomial degree p=3 is selected for the basis function to ensure
at least 5 spectral points per wavelength in the soil for desired numerical accuracy up to 5 Hz.

Table 1. Properties and simulation parameters of the soil domain

Layer Mesh
Density ρ Polynomia
ID Soil type thickness SPT-N Vs (m/s) size h
(g/cm3) l degree p
(m) (m)
1 Fine sand fill 30 28 230 2.0 20 3
2 CDG 30 50 400 2.0 20 3
3 CDG 20 70 450 2.0 20 3
4 CDG 20 80 480 2.0 20 3
5 Granite 50 >200 2000 2.6 50 3


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FIG. 3. Time histories of the input motion and design spectra

Buildings and foundations
Geometric and structural data were obtained from the Hong Kong Buildings Department for
model creation. A metro station (A) and seven building groups (B to H, 16 individual buildings)
at the site are shown in Figure 4. Since the principal aim of this study is to examine the effects of
building clusters on the ground motions rather than the detailed behavior of the structures
themselves, structures and their foundations are modeled as 3D homogeneous equivalent blocks.
This type of model was used successfully in previous 3D SCI studies (Taborda and Bielak 2011;
Mazzieri et al. 2013; Isbiliroglu et al. 2015). If the basis functions of the block elements have a
sufficiently high polynomial degree (C1 continuity requirement) and the mesh size is sufficiently
fine, the block model is capable of capturing shear, flexural and rotational response of the high-
rise buildings.

FIG. 4. Layout of Kowloon station and locations of special monitoring points

Dynamic and inertial parameters are important for a rather accurate SCI modeling. Table 2
lists these parameters for each building-foundation model. Their shear wave velocity (Vs) and
mass density (ρ) were determined based on the averaged stiffness (note G= ρVs2) and density of
soils and concrete weighted by their areal ratio. Quality factors Q=20 and Q=100 are assigned to
the superstructures and foundations, respectively. One may refer to Kato and Wang (2017) for


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details of calculating these parameters. The metro station is modeled as a hollow box sunk 12
meters deep into the soil. It has 1m thick walls and dimensions of 57×127×30m. Concrete
material properties are assigned to the material that gives it significant weight and stiffness.
Monitoring points are placed on the surface of each structure. As shown in Figure 4, a regular
20×20m grid of monitoring points on the soil surface and on three vertical cross-sections are
utilized to track ground motions. Six special monitoring points [1]-[6] are selected to analyze
ground motions and their spatial variability. The points in the outskirt were chosen to capture
motions 100m from the perimeter of the building cluster following the building layout’s pattern.
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While the points in the central plaza are meant to capture motions in the center of the open
spaces on each side of the metro station where the largest disturbance of the wavefield is

Table 2. Dynamic and inertial parameters of building-foundation models

Height/ Nat.
Vs ρ Gavg
ID Name Structure Depth freq. 3
(m/s) (g/cm ) (MPa)
(m) (Hz)
15 - 1250 2.5 3906
A Metro structure
Found. - - - - -
The 225 0.14 90 0.3 2.4
B structure
Found. 40 4.27 683 2.01 937
Water- 138 0.2 78 0.3 1.8
C structure
Found. 20 5.49 439 1.97 380
Sorrento Super-
208 0.14 83 0.3 2
D short structure
towers Found. 34 4.1 557 1.99 617
Sorrento 243 0.13 88 0.3 2.3
E structure
tall towers
Found. 34 4.1 557 1.99 617
The 242 0.14 92 0.3 2.6
F structure
Found. 40 4.27 683 2.01 937
480 0.09 120 0.3 4.3
G ICC structure
Found. 89 2.75 980 2.08 1996
Harbour 245 0.12 84 0.3 2.1
H structure
Found. 55 3.81 839 2.04 1437

Meshing is a challenging yet important procedure for complex geometries. For SEM analysis
a high-quality mesh is fundamental. The scaled Jacobian is a commonly used metric to define
mesh quality. FEM and SEM analyses necessitate a minimum value of 0.2, preferably 0.5 to


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guarantee efficient and precise modeling of the displacement field. Owing to the capabilities of
SPEED to deal with non-conforming meshes, the meshing procedure is eased. Eight sub-domains
were created and meshed independently, by assigning discontinuous interfaces between the soil
and each foundation. Consequently, a very high-quality mesh is achieved for our model. The
minimum scaled Jacobian is 0.23. Moreover, 99.4% of the elements are above 0.7. An advanced
meshing software, TRELIS, was used to generate the hexahedral mesh on a CAD model of the
site and the structures. Superstructures and foundations have a mesh size ranging from 8 to 15
meters, depending on their complexity, while the soil domain is meshed with elements scaling
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gradually from 15 meters up to 75 meters towards the domain boundaries. The mesh sizes (h)
and polynomial degrees (p) were carefully chosen in pairs to achieve the desired 5 spectral nodes
per wavelength whilst, guaranteeing the lowest possible computational cost. The final model
consists of 117,000 elements. Visualization of the subdomains, the mesh, and the soil layers are
depicted in Figure 5. Each color in Figure 5a represents a non-conforming sub-domain with
discontinuous interfaces between them.

FIG. 5. Meshed geometry, non-conforming sub-domains (a) and soil layers (b)
Time history data
During the simulation, SPEED records displacement values at 33,000 grid points as
mentioned in the previous section. Figure 6 is a snapshot of total displacements at 16.4 seconds
when peak ground displacement (PGD) occurs. Several regions displace close to the PGD value
(20 cm) at both sides of the central plaza and along a ring in the outskirts resembling the shape of
the building layout at about 30 meters from the edge of the foundations. SCI and SUSSI are
clearly present. An outward propagating wavefield can be observed in the figure. This wavefield
is strongest on –X and +Y side of the cluster. The large mass of structures B, F, G, and H
represent a greater obstacle for the propagating wave, hence the ground motion is most disturbed
in their vicinity. A significant increase in displacements can be seen amid buildings. The surface
waves get trapped and focused between the metro station and the foundations creating an
injection of energy into the soft soil in between them. The distinct patterns of the propagating
wavefield and the focused zones of motion amid buildings highlight the significance of building


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layouts in fully integrated modeling. The superstructures show a flexural response that is lagging
compared to the soil response. On the other hand, all building foundations move in sync as a unit
but, the superstructures assume different modal shapes according to their dynamic properties.
The metro station mostly moves together with the base of the buildings. However, it is more
compliant with soil displacements.
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FIG 6. Total displacement field at PGD (16.4 s) in meters

Peak ground acceleration and velocity occurs, at the close outskirts and in the middle of the
building layout around 16.5 seconds. The PGA value is 6.5 m/s2, occurring close to the monitor
point 5 within the development. This PGA is 71% in excess to the free-field PGA (3.8 m/s2),
which shows that SUSSI can dramatically increase seismic demands if wave trapping occurs.
The propagated wavefield travels up to 450 meters with a PGA of 4.5 m/s2 in the -X and +Y
direction. This is 0.7m/s2 higher than the free field PGA and larger than the PGA of a
serviceability level earthquake (SLE) specified by the Chinese seismic design code. The velocity
field follows the distribution of accelerations. Overall PGV is 0.36 m/s near monitor point 5 and
0.3 m/s up to 400 meters in the outskirts.
In order to highlight radiated wavefields and ground motion contamination, the perturbed
displacement field is calculated via
u p  t, x i   u  t, x i   u  t, x ff  (1)
where up(t,xi) is the perturbation history of displacements at monitor xi, u(t,xi) is the
displacement history at xi and u(t,xff) is the displacement history at the far-field. Figure 7 shows
the peak ground perturbation (PGP) occurred around 17 s. A PGP of 1.4cm occurs in the central
plaza on both sides of the metro station. Based on animated results SUSSI is clearly visible.
Surface waves get trapped and reflected by subsurface structures. Trapped surface waves persist
and interfere causing two-fold amplification compared to the free-field PGD. This phenomenon
emphasizes the importance of subsurface structures for evaluating SCI. PGP in the outward
propagating wavefield reaches 6.5 mm around the heavier structures, B, F, G and H.
Furthermore, the perturbation wave persists up to 300 m with a maximum amplitude of 3.5 mm.
Note that this is 14% of the free-field PGD.


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FIG. 7. Ground perturbation field at PGP (17 s) in meters

Accelerations and velocities at monitor points 4 and 5 (cf. Figure 4) are shown in Figure 8.
There are significant amplifications compared to the input motion shown in Figure 3. Motions
are highest at point 5 in the center plaza. PGA and PGV values are around 5 m/s 2 and 0.31m/s,
respectively at both monitor points 5 and 6. PGV in the central plaza is 17% in excess to the
PGV outside of the buildings, at monitor point 4. The cause for this stems from larger
incoherencies and trapping of surface waves between buildings. Deep and stiff foundations
restrict ground motions in their vicinity that creates phase difference in the motions. Hence,
noticeable velocity pulses can be identified at point 5. These pulses can severely damage
secondary structures in the zone, as they are principal driving forces of structural damage.

Energy and frequency domain analyses

In this section, the velocity signal energy field and transfer functions at monitoring points 1-
6, shown in Figure 4, are discussed. The signal energy is descriptive of soil kinetic energy that
indicates the power contained in the reaction of the ground and its potential to generate large
inertial effects (Bard et al. 2006), defined as (2):

E  v  x, t  dt

where E is the velocity signal energy and v(x,t) is the velocity signal at monitor x integrated from
the initial time (t0) until the end (tf) of the signal. The ratio between free-field and SCI velocity
signal energies are highlighted in Figure 9. This metric clearly highlights ground motion
contamination caused by the presence of transport hub. It can be interpreted as a direct indicator
of the increased risk on structures in the area. The driving energy contained in the soil can
increase by up to 50% due to the presence of buildings. Such energy increase is observed in a
well-defined circular manner caused by beating and inertial response of the buildings. The rings
of increased energy can be observed up to 500 meters in the outskirts of the hub. A significant
increase up to 30% can also be noted amid buildings and the metro station. This observation
suggests strong SUSSI. Beating and site response jointly generate surface waves that get trapped
between underground structures. Based on motions recorded on the vertical profiles it becomes
evident that surface waves play a principal role in SUSSI. Contamination of the wavefield can


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only be observed in the top 5 to 8 meters of the soil. The preceding observations might raise a
safety concern for future developments near the transport hub and secondary structures in the
center plaza.
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Time (s)
FIG. 8. Comparison of acceleration and velocity histories at points [4] [5]

FIG. 9. Ratios between SCI and free-field velocity signal energies

A stiffening of the site response can be observed, due to change in overall mass. Structures
act as energy sinks in the soil during SCI. As the buildings are extremely heavy with deep
foundations, they limit ground motions in their close vicinity. Simply put, they pin the soil in
place. Figure 9 displays the pinning effect due to the weight of the structures and the depth of
foundation (cf. Table 2). While all buildings decrease signal energy in their vicinity, the ICC
tower (G) has a significantly larger area of influence in the direction of motion. Conversely, the
Waterfront building group (C), which is the lightest and has the shallowest foundation, has the
smallest zone of influence and the least reduction in energy. The SCI response of the model
shows similar patterns in energy ratios when it’s subjected to a real input motion or to a Ricker
pulse (Kato and Wang 2017). However, energy increase is larger in the outskirt due to a longer


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excitation while, energy decrease around structures is comparable. Figure 10 depicts the
amplification functions of Fourier spectra between points 2, 4, 5 and 6.
Amplifications between monitor 4 in the outskirt and 5 within the building layout is rather
significant, further stressing the importance of fully integrated SCI simulations and SUSSI.
Largest amplifications occur at 1.5, 3 and 4.7 Hz. These are vibration modes of the surface
waves based on the size of the plaza. Monitor 5 versus 6 have similar amplification pattern but
smaller peaks. Amplification between monitor 6 versus 2 is not very obvious. Not shown in the
figure, when compared with the free field motion, amplification functions of monitors 1 to 6
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show peaks at around the same frequencies as point 5 vs 4 in Figure 10. Overall, the
amplification factors for inner monitors are larger than the ones in the outskirt.

FIG. 10. Amplification function between special monitoring points

FIG. 11. Coherency between special monitoring points and far-field

Spatial Coherency
The spatial coherency of accelerations is examined amongst special monitoring points in
Figure 4. Such statistical methods are commonly used to quantify ground motion variability
based on recorded data to better predict the seismic demand at different locations within a region
(Huang and Wang 2015; Zerva and Zervas 2002). Here the coherency function is calculated as


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sjkM  f 
 f   (3)
sjjM  f   skkM  f 
where s jkM (f) is the smoothed cross-spectral density between monitor j and k,
s jjM  f  and skkM  f  are the smoothed power spectral density at monitor j and k, respectively.
The smoothing of the spectra is performed using an 11-point Hamming window with 5-point
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overlap between each windowing following Abrahamson (1992). To ensure our data is a 2nd
order stationary random process, the strong motion was windowed between 13 and 23 s then
cosine tapered.
Coherencies are described in Figure 11. Overall, the coherency reduces at higher frequencies.
It is observed that motions inside (5 vs 6) has slightly lower coherency than motions outside the
building layout (1 vs 2, 2 vs 3, 1 vs 3). Largest incoherency is observed between the far-field
motions (FF) and point 5, showing the effects of SCI.

The aim of this study was to explore SUSSI and SCI effects by realistic, fully integrated 3D
simulations of a transportation hub. Key SCI phenomena are a wavefield propagating from the
buildings and surface waves trapped in-between them. Entrapment and refraction of waves
between underground structures are demonstrated by the simulation showing the existence of
SUSSI and its importance. In the center plaza, about two-fold amplification of the free-field PGA
is observed due to SUSSI. The propagated wavefield travels up to 450m with accelerations
0.7m/s2 higher (20% increase) than the free field PGA. Distinctive patterns in velocity signal
energy ratios, between SCI and free-field case, follow the shape of the building layout in the
outskirts with a ratio between 1.25 and 1.5 up to 500 meters. This outward propagating wavefield
follows the shape of the building layout while waves in the plaza get trapped and amplified. This
suggests that the geometry of the building layout will significantly affect the propagation of
waves and their intensity. Last, a coherency analysis was conducted to quantify the spatial
variation of ground motions. The key SCI phenomena are governed by the layout of buildings
and subsurface structures, this highlights the importance of a realistic fully integrated model for
sustainable urban design. Conclusions derived from this study highlight the importance of site-
specific seismic design in a densely populated environment. Well-developed cities must ensure
the safety of the urban population and developments of high economic values. Constructions in
the neighborhood of high rise building clusters must be carefully designed with the consideration
of SCI effects. For example, less resilient secondary structures may be adversely affected by the
SCI effects. Although the building layout in this study is common in metropolises, further
realistic SCI studies should be conducted to help large cities located in seismic zones make
educated decisions regarding strategies in financial and insurance policies as well as urban

The authors acknowledge support from Hong Kong RGC grant no. 16213615 and Intergroup
Collaborative Research Program from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering


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