UN investigates bold plan for floating cities
The United Nations is investigating the concept of floating cities to help tackle global warming.
UN-Habitat - which works on sustainable urban development - last week (April 3) hosted a roundtable discussion of architects, designers, academics and entrepreneurs at UN Headquarters on how floating cities could be a viable solution to urban challenges such as climate change and lack of affordable housing.
While some have rubbished the concept, questioning the feasibility, others believe it’s full of potential and worth exploring further. And they say bold vision and courage is needed to find solutions to this pressing problems.
Ninety percent of the world’s largest cities are vulnerable to inundation as glaciers melt and sea levels rise on a warming planet.
A UN-backed partnership between Oceanix, a company looking to build the floating structures, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Centre for Ocean Engineering and the USA-based Explorers Club, will study the possibility of building modular platforms anchored to the ocean floor. They’d be built close to cities and could be used to house those fleeing rising sea levels and other threats from natural or climate-related disasters.
UN-Habitat’s Executive Director Maimunah Mohd Sharif said now was the time for innovation.
“We must to ensure that the benefits of technological advances are a basic right, not a privilege of the few. UN Habitat is ready to provide the platform so that we can engage the best minds in every part of the world,” she said.
Leading architect Bjarke Ingels says the floating cities could be home to 10,000 people, withstand severe weather conditions and would produce their own power and food and manage water and the disposal of waste.
“We are trying to imagine a country based on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals,” he said.
Nobel Laureate, Professor Joseph Stiglitz said “some of the most important benefits are not going to be in floating cities, but on land if you think about recycling waste and water.”
His words were echoed by Suzy Amis Cameron, who is an environmental advocate along with her husband, film director James Cameron.
“If we are able to create a closed loop system for floating cities, they will become role models for cities around the world,” she told the roundtable.
The co-founder of Oceanix, Marc Collins Chen, said the floating cities had to be affordable and said they aimed to build a prototype on a reduced scale to solve the small problems first.
UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said floating cities can be part of a new arsenal of tools. “For example, because of climate change, cities are increasingly at risk of flooding,” she said. “In Bangkok, the ground on which some parts of the city stands is sinking by around two centimetres every year, according to some estimates, while sea levels in the Gulf of Thailand are rising.
“Growing urban populations are also increasingly pushing people closer to the water. In Lagos, the urban poor have responded to the lack of land and a growing population by living in floating villages on the outskirts of town. And in Singapore, land is so scarce that the city has, through land reclamation, expanded its size by almost a quarter since its independence in 1965.”
Mohammed said while the challenges facing these and other cities were daunting, they weren’t insurmountable. “Sustainable Floating Cities give us an opportunity to reimagine how we build, live, work and play. Cities such as Seattle, Jakarta and Mexico City have made way for houseboats and floating markets for some time. The relationship of these communities with the water they live on highlights how water is integral to cities.
“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. And when entire floating communities are designed from scratch, they can be designed as climate‑neutral from the onset. Why not use the abundant wind and water to cover all of their electricity needs?”
Floating cities could also experiment with ways to grow their food right on their doorstep, she said, through hydroponics and sustainable aquaculture. In Rotterdam a floating dairy farm is being constructed.
The partnership plans to have a prototype open to the public within months. It hopes to dock on the East River next to UN headquarters.