The corridors and meeting rooms here bustled this week with a familiar-soun ding mix of sessions, on “policy options for low fertility,? ? the launch of “The State of Pacific Youth Report,” the “International Day of Sport for Development and Peace.”
But something completely different was going on in conference room 8 on Wed nesday, where a glowing blue-and-beige model on a central podium illustrate d the theme on the door: “Sustainable Floating Cities.” (Se e more photos of floating city concepts.)
There, dozens of experts, investors, scientists, and officials—alon g with a group of students on a video link from Nairobi—explored a new approach to building offshore hubs of habitation, commerce, education, and recreation designed to ease pressures facing coastal cities squeezed be tween rising populations, rising seas and storm risk, resource limits, and threatened ecosystems.
Bright and dark visions of humanity spreading from land to life offshore ha ve been around for decades, with variants ranging from hopeful—a va ulting pyramid-shaped floating city conceived for Tokyo Bay in the 1960s by R. Buckminster Fuller—to involuntary, as with straggling survivors of a flooded planet building ragtag “atolls” in the dystop ian 1995 film Waterworld.
The developers, a company called Oceanix and partners including the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, insist this time is different. They envision an eventual galaxy of satellite “cities” buil t where coastal urbanization is hitting limits. They would consist of mass- produced, storm-worthy hexagonal floating modules, towed into position, moo red and connected in larger arrays topped by sustainably built housing, wor kplaces, recreational and religious facilities, and the rest. Ferries and d rones would be a tie line to shore. The communities would be sustained as m uch as possible with local solar and other renewable energy, recirculating water and rainwater, and local food production.
At first hearing, the concept of floating cities has the feel of magical th inking.
But coastal cities around the world face the ultimate space crunch, and it ’s worsening fast.
The erosion of polar ice sheets and expansion of heated seawater under glob al warming are relentlessly raising sea levels, almost assuredly for centur ies to come, with only the pace of coastal immersion, and rising storm-surg e losses, in question. And coastal risk is building even faster through the surge in populations in a fast-urbanizing world.
So it would be magical thinking to exclude such solutions, proponents say.
A new vision for seasteading
The project is the brainchild of Marc Collins, a Hawaiian-born entrepreneur with Tahitian and Chinese family roots who has spent more than a decade pu rsuing a range of options for such developments, including ones favored by “seasteading” individualists seeking to escape the strictur es of governments and taxes.
In interviews, he said he came to realize that floating communities can onl y really succeed with government support and would work best within a count ry’s coastal waters. “It will take governments,” he said in an interview.
This proposal is aiming for a middle ground, attracting investors by center ing on Asia—where cities are extraordinarily dense and real estate exorbitantly pricey, and where there’s substantial government power to orchestrate offshore or onshore development. But Collins said it? ?s vital that such projects benefit everyone in a city, not just the pros perous. “This can’t turn into something where a bunch of ri ch people watch poor people drown on the beach,” he said in an inte rview.
The meeting was hosted by the UN-Habitat program, which was launched in 197 8 to pursue progress toward socially and environmentally sound human commun ities and is now focused on achieving Sustainable Development Goal 11, maki ng cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable by 2030.
It’s not an agency associated with cutting-edge technology or desig n. But given the intensifying pressures, particularly the slow progress add ressing human-driven global warming, unconventional solutions can no longer be discounted, said Victor Kisob, deputy executive director of UN-Habitat and the convener for the day.
How did such an unconventional idea take center stage?
“This got into the mix simply as we looked at possible solutions ou t there that we could consider when you have a superstorm Sandy or the huma nitarian crises we’re dealing with, as in Mozambique,” he s aid. “Listening to Marc and seeing his designs, this seems futurist ic but it really is practical. And you have to consider what would happen t o these places otherwise.”
During the course of the day, the merits of such a project, in theory, beca me evident. The threat from rising seas and storm surge is erased a mile or two offshore. Even tsunamis would not pose the kind of threat they pose to coasts because such quake-triggered waves only rise to devastating heights in shallowing waters.
Offshore waters can be leased in most countries for dollars an acre while r eal estate values in cities like Hong Kong or Lagos are astronomical.
Potential challenges But the discussion identified a wide array of issues.
Some were technical. Can a cluster of tethered, moored platforms ride out a typhoon?
Nicholas Makris, the director of MIT’s Center for Ocean Engineering , was on hand with several colleagues. He asked how many attendees had been at sea in hurricane-strength winds. Only his hand went up.
Makris described a host of structures around the world designed for such co nditions, but noted they are all enormous, and enormously expensive, compon ents of global oil and gas infrastructure.
In an interview, he said the Oceanix concept has merit, but would need to b e restricted to sheltered waters as designed.
Scale of course is perhaps the grandest challenge. There are plenty of floa ting structures around the world now. The low-lying Netherlands, long in th e lead on such efforts, has a prototype floating dairy farm in Rotterdam, a nd is home to a new Global Center on Adaptation to climate change—h oused in a floating building. But the farm is designed for 40 cows.
But Collins notes that the Oceanix concept centers on eventual mass manufac turing of the basic floating units, which can then be towed anywhere in the world, offering the same economies through manufacturing efficiency that s o deeply cut the cost of everything from furniture to solar cells.
While the construction of such communities can be expensive, he said, an Oc eanix “city” would be a bargain compared to the cost of hou sing onshore. And the societal value can be enormous in the world’s fastest-growing cities, where housing shortages and costs place a particul arly enormous burden on the poor.
Enthusiasm was expressed at the meeting by Joseph Stiglitz, the Columbia Un iversity Nobel laureate in economics who has built his career on studying p olicy paths to reducing inequality. “It’s certainly worth t rying,” he said in an interview. “The only way you’ re going to find things out is to actually do these things.”
He said the merit of moving offshore is the capacity to start from scratch, taking a holistic approach to shaping services and limiting costs and risk s—both environmental and financial.
What would floating island life be like?
The meeting also identified political and social challenges.
How would residents of these communities be chosen? Students in the video l ink from Nairobi were less focused on the technology than on doubts about h ow such projects would lessen the world’s rich-poor divide.
One observer in the seats fringing the central circular table wondered whet her young people might feel isolated on such an artificial island, even con nected by transportation to the coast. From Polynesia to North Africa, the allure of cities worldwide is magnified for the young, not only for jobs bu t also for arts, culture, creativity, connection.
Would island living be seen as a trap?
But another young person, Max Kessler, an engineering student from MIT, sai d he was eager to work on this kind of project.
“I grew up on an island in the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “If we create something that can foster the kind of tight-knit cul ture and mentality of sustainability we had there, this is really doable. ”
Another participant noted that the community design would be ideal for the elderly, offering an important option for retirement housing as the percent age of elderly in populations swells in coming decades.
Urbanization and development are all about tradeoffs. If an option like flo ating annexes doesn’t take hold, that could simply boost the prospe cts for more dredging and filling—the solutions of choice through t he past century, which already say global sea levels rise about a foot.
The island nation state Singapore, through sand mining and imports and fill ing has expanded its size by almost a quarter since independence in 1965, a ccording to the United Nations. But the environmental damage from the globa l sand industry and from the filling is limiting that option going forward.
It’s no surprise, then, that later this month Singapore is holding a more expressly commercial event promoting offshore development—th e World Conference on Floating Solutions.
Before the day was out, the idea gained a remarkable endorsement from Deput y Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed, who had dealt with excruciating coas tal challenges as Nigeria’s environment minister, particularly in a nother kind of floating city—Lagos’s vast offshore Makoko s lum, where several hundred thousand people live in a maze of tethered boats and rafts. (Read Mohammed’s full prepared remarks.)
She said it would take years, but perhaps this floating-community model cou ld help there. “We really do have an opportunity to do something? ?? in places like Makoko, she said. “We could take from our uni versities, young people, partners from outside, and turn this into a shinin g example of the possibilities for millions of people being able to live on a coast and not have to move inside if they didn’t have to.? ?
She said “frontier” ideas and innovations are essential as the world grapples with achieving sustainable development amid accelerating environmental and technological change. (In May, another United Nations br anch will hold a Geneva session on the role of science and technology in ac celerating progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals.)
“Our approaches to development and environmental sustainability in cities need a serious retooling to meet the challenges of today and tomorro w,” Mohammed said, noting that cities are the main testing ground f or new ideas and noting the urgency of climate vulnerability. “Floa ting cities can be part of our new arsenal of tools.”