Floating cities: a good plan for the future or magical thinking?

big floating city
© Oceanix/ Bjarke Ingels Group

Oceanix, Bjarke Ingels and an interesting group of magical thinkers have a round table at the UN.

Floating cities are not a new idea, and we have shown many of them on TreeHugger, mostly proposed by libertarians hoping to build a new society without taxes or regulations. Others see floating cities as a way of adapting to climate change, and recently the United Nations held the first Round Table on Sustainable Floating Cities.

View in city© Oceanix/ Bjarke Ingels Group
The meeting was convened by Marc Collins Chen, CEO of Oceanix, who has put together a remarkable team to study floating cities. Bjarke Ingels Group are the architects, Olafur Eliasson is on board, Transsolar is doing their mechanical thing, The MIT Center for Ocean Engineering and The Center for Zero Waste Design are involved. Dickson Despommier of vertical farm fame is there to serve dinner. These are mostly serious people.

View on the platform© Oceanix/ Bjarke Ingels Group

Bjarke describes the architecture:

Oceanix City is designed to grow, transform and adapt organically over time, evolving from neighborhoods to cities with the possibility of scaling indefinitely. Modular neighborhoods of 2 hectares create thriving self-sustaining communities of up to 300 residents with mixed-use space for living, working and gathering during day and night time. All built structures in the neighborhood are kept below 7 stories to create a low center of gravity and resist wind.

gong for a cruise© Oceanix/ Bjarke Ingels Group

Every building fans out to self-shade internal spaces and public realm, providing comfort and lower cooling costs while maximizing roof area for solar capture. Communal farming is the heart of every platform, allowing residents to embrace sharing culture and zero waste systems.

Underwater© Oceanix/ Bjarke Ingels Group

Below sea level, beneath the platforms, biorock floating reefs, seaweed, oysters, mussel, scallop and clam farming clean the water and accelerate ecosystem regeneration.

UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed told the Round Table that "floating cities can be part of our new arsenal of tools."

A thriving city has a symbiotic relationship with its water. And as our climate and water ecosystems are changing, the way our cities relate to water needs to change, too. So, today, we are looking at a different type of floating city — a different type of scale. Floating cities are a means of ensuring climate resilience, as buildings can rise along with the sea.

City growth© Oceanix/ Bjarke Ingels Group

Writing for National Geographic, Andy Revkin notes that on "first hearing, the concept of floating cities has the feel of magical thinking." But he seems to have become convinced during the Round Table:

During the course of the day, the merits of such a project, in theory, became 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.

There are economic advantages too, since land is expensive and, as the joke used to go, they are not making any more of it.

Offshore waters can be leased in most countries for dollars an acre while real estate values in cities like Hong Kong or Lagos are astronomical....While the construction of such communities can be expensive, he [Marc Collins] said, an Oceanix “city” would be a bargain compared to the cost of housing onshore. And the societal value can be enormous in the world’s fastest-growing cities, where housing shortages and costs place a particularly enormous burden on the poor.

Bjarke says it will all be green and sustainable: "All communities regardless of size will prioritize locally sourced materials for building construction, including fast-growing bamboo that has six times the tensile strength of steel, a negative carbon footprint, and can be grown on the neighborhoods themselves."

Key Princioples© Oceanix/ Bjarke Ingels Group

A lot of thought has gone into this proposal, and it is definitely more Bucky Fuller than Peter Thiel, with systems thought out from food to waste to power. There are hydroponics and aeroponics and aquaponics, and according to Clare Miflin of the Center for Zero Waste Design, it would, of course, be zero waste. She tells Katherine Schwab of Fast Company how this would work:

Zero waste systems© Oceanix/ Bjarke Ingels Group

Miflin wants to create a circular system where all food waste is turned into nutrients for the soil through composting. Food waste would go through a pneumatic system of pipes directly to an anaerobic digester to start the composting process. But there’s also the problem of packaging. Miflin believes that it would be crucial for the floating city to only use reusable food containers, with centrally located drop-off points for people to put their empty containers; from there, they could be cleaned centrally and reused.

Sharing economy© Oceanix/ Bjarke Ingels Group

Everything is on the table, even private ownership. Instead, it would be a true sharing economy where “everything will be rented rather than owned.”

Greenhouse© Oceanix/ Bjarke Ingels Group

It is all a grand vision, and one cannot complain about the United Nations looking at all options, even if they are a little out there in a Bjarke sort of way.

But as the climate heats up, storms at sea may well be more common and more violent. Some might think that heading for the hills is a better idea than setting sail. Others might also suggest that we should be doing more right now to stop climate change and less imagining how we will adapt to it. But there is nothing wrong with a little magical thinking; it's kind of fun.

Floating cities: a good plan for the future or magical thinking?
Oceanix, Bjarke Ingels and an interesting group of magical thinkers have a round table at the UN.

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