With Floating Cities We Don’t Have to Go to Space to Get More Space

Some people are under the illusion that we’ve colonised every corner of Earth, but they’re ignoring the fact that more than 70% of our planet remains untapped and untouched. Daniel Davies looks at plans to combat overcrowding by moving to floating cities in the sea

It seems like we all want to live in cities. According to the professional services firm PwC 1.5 million of us make our way into global urban populations each week, where 85% of global GDP is generated. That’s good news for nations’ economies, but not so good news from a space-to-breath perspective. Previously, it was thought our lack of space could be solved by us becoming a multi-planet species and jetting off to far-flung corners of the universe, but shouldn’t we look to solve our overcrowding problem by setting up camp on some of the uninhabited and inhospitable corners of Earth first? Before we leave, it might be a good idea to try and turn the more than 70% of our planet that makes up the oceans into some sort of home.

That’s the task facing Blue21, whose raison d'être is “to inspire and empower land-based cities to expand on the water”. Blue21’s goal is obviously ambitious, but as water pioneer and architect (that’s his actual title) Bart Roeffen says, the company’s scheme – to build floating cities that have a positive impact on the planet – arose organically and was driven as much by historic, social and ecological forces as it was economic.   

“I'm from Holland, the Netherlands, and looking back at our history, we basically started out in a swamp, so some crazy people at a certain point though let's start living in this swap” said Roeffen in a talk at the Seasteading Institute. “There're a lot of resources, but it's not really safe, so we had to deal with a lot of water, both its merits and its threats. In 1953, we had huge break of the dykes and that was the reason to start building bigger dykes to protect ourselves.

“We are not alone in this respect. 40% of the world's population lives in coastal areas, and 5% lives in the very low-lying areas that are directly threatened by climate change. What’s interesting is that it's not only people that like to live near to the coast and near the water – to get food, to be able to use ports, to discover – but actually our ecosystems they are most productive at the coastal areas. That is an interesting idea and it was really inspiring to me.”

A proposed floating city design. Image courtesy of the Seasteading Institute

No gods or kings: Turning to the seas to escape government interference ​​​​​​​

Before Blue21 there was the Seasteading Institute, which was founded in 2008 by Google software engineer Patri Friedman and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.  At its inception the Seasteading Institute also had the idea of building manmade island nations, but unlike Blue21 and Bart Roeffen, its motivation wasn’t to combat weather extremes or to give people access to the coast. Instead, the Seasteading Institute’s sole aim was to escape government interventions.

What Friedman and Thiel proposed was a nation in the middle of the sea that was free from government regulation, which would allow innovators to make advances without obstruction. In a 2009 essay, Thiel described these island paradises as giving innovators the potential to “escape from politics in all its forms.” But it wasn't just desirable, it was also possible. “We may have reached the stage at which it is economically feasible, or where it will soon be feasible,” he wrote

The Seasteading Institute’s sole aim was to escape government intervention

Unfortunately, the prospect of putting a structure like Apple’s headquarters, Apple Park, out on the open seas proved more difficult in practise than the Seasteading Institute had originally imagined. But on 13th January 2017, the non-profit group was thrown a lifeline when it signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of French Polynesia to build a floating city that would be tethered to the nation, using sustainable modular platforms built by Blue21.

“Five years ago we got into contact with the Seasteading Institute, and we were really happy to find another group of people and a community that has had ideas that are probably crazier than ours, like being in the middle of the ocean and trying to survive. That's a big challenge. You have waves of 13m high, you have to get food from somewhere or start producing it, so this is a big challenge and when we got into talks we thought about what could be the first step to make this a reality,” said Roeffen.

“How could this ever come into existence? Together, we thought of a strategy. Basically it's like tiny little fish that are in a protected place that can grow and at a certain stage they go closer to the ocean, so to the estuaries, and out to the open ocean. I think for seasteading the only way to make this step to one day have cities floating out in the open ocean is to be pragmatic, with a small project and then see if there is interest. If people like it and you have enough people it is much easier to protect yourself. It's much easier to create food and energy.”

Image courtesy of Blue21

Events, restaurants and greenery on the water

Blue21’s involvement in the French Polynesia project is a result of its experience of successfully annexing floating structures to the outskirts of cities. In 2013, the company placed three connected bubble-shaped hemispheres in the Dutch city of Rotterdam’s old harbour. “This story might seem like science fiction, but we've already started. We are building floating systems in the Netherlands as a first step towards future floating developments,” said Roeffen. “We have started a pilot project in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. We built it and then towed across the river to its final destination, and this one project has generated so much interest.”

We are building floating systems in the Netherlands as a first step

The firm’s Rotterdam project is an indication of the kind of structure that could be in store for French Polynesia, as the design blurs the gap between the city and its transportable, floating edifice. Right now, all we know is the first floating city is set to be built by 2020, but what could floating cities of the future be used for? Well, according to Roeffen the structures could play host to anything from events locations to restaurants.   

“We started only recently thinking about the architecture, and what I would find interesting is to see if we can come up with architecture that actually does justice to the mana, the local system, something that is humble, that is not screaming in your face like a modern structure, but something that is a mokulana, a sacred floating island. It could have green surfaces, it could be used as an office or a research centre. Perhaps it could be used as gathering place, or a floating restaurant and to show people that the place that we're in is actually growing, the ecosystems are doing well and I think this is the way to go,” said Roeffen.

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