Sure, it’s a wildcard, but the notion of floating cities and floating communities would allow the colonization of the world’s oceans. It has long been a vision of dreamers and science fiction writers.
Yet as technological capabilities advance and drivers gain force and momentum, the dream of waterborne colonies could be realized within decades.
Plans for waterborne construction encompass projects that include small-scale yet ambitious schemes to create floating casinos, hotels, golf courses, and parking garages; proposals to extend existing waterfront developments with floating malls or entertainment centers; concepts for supersized cruise ships that have all the amenities of city life; and even building full-scale floating communities on abandoned oil rigs or synthetic islands that could house tens of thousands of residents.
With most of the world’s readily habitable land explored and settled, oceans offer an expansive frontier for today’s and tomorrow’s pioneering engineers, architects, and other visionaries.
As Joe Quirk, the communication director of the Seasteading Institute—which hopes to establish its first floating city by the end of the decade—notes, “Nearly half the world’s surface is a blank slate.”
This new frontier is inspiring individuals and groups to research and develop plans for building on the ocean’s surface. In anticipation of successfully meeting the challenges this would entail, the Seasteading Institute projects that as many as 10 million residents may live in floating cities by 2050.
Whether or not this optimistic projection is realized, the results of such efforts could yield new construction and energy technologies.
The growing interest in creating floating structures and even floating cities is being driven by a number of factors.
- Climate change. Due to global climate change, rising sea levels are threatening coastal cities—as well as entire island nations such as the Maldives (the lowest country in the world, with a peak altitude of 8 feet above sea level)—with both gradual progressive immersion and periodic flooding. Some researchers have estimated that by 2020 global climate change may create as many as 50 million “environmental refugees”— many of them forced to move by flooding. Floating cities—and the technologies needed to build them—may offer fresh solutions for such island nations and coastal cities.
- Urban growth. Cities seeking to expand have been forced to build on surrounding land, leading to urban sprawl. Yet 89% of the world’s cities with a population of at least 1 million people are on a waterfront. The creation of waterborne structures would offer an alternative to inland expansion, allowing cities to extend the coast by building on the water. Such construction would also in effect increase the availability of valuable urban real estate, both on land and on water.
- Sustainability and Entreprenialism. Concerns about environmental sustainability are fueling efforts to create eco-friendly, self-sustainable developments. Floating cities and structures could offer sustainable solutions to such concerns. Recycled plastic, for example, might be used to build floating foundations for construction. And the incorporation of systems that harness renewable sources of energy (wind, waves, solar) would augment the eco-friendliness of such floating developments. Additionally, entrepreneurs in search of prime urban real estate for ambitious building ventures are increasingly looking to the water. In recent years, entrepreneurs have floated proposals for waterborne shopping malls, casinos, golf courses, entertainment complexes, and parking garages.
3 POTENTIAL OBSTACLES
A number of challenges could prevent the concept of constructing full-fledged floating cities from being fully realized, as well as hinder advancements in smaller-scale floating structures.
No floating city has yet been built, with most projects stuck in the design phase. The obstacles that confront both floating cities and more modest waterborne structures include:
- Capitalization. Constructing floating cities will require massive capital investment. Even city-sized ships will demand considerable funding. For example, the mile-long Freedom Ship, billed as a “floating city,” is projected to cost $10 billion— and $1 billion is needed just to begin construction.
- Technical and engineering challenges. Construction of a floating community would require mastering several engineering and technical challenges. Although the Seasteading Institute contends that the engineering technology to build and support smaller “seasteads” already exists, its Floating City Project in 2013 invested more than $20,000 to finance an engineering feasibility study for the project. Among the questions that need to be answered are the ability of floating cities to weather typhoons, giant waves, and other natural threats; determining whether stationary or mobile construction would prove more durable; generating electricity; dealing with waste (disposal or recycling); and handling such day-to-day details as growing, harvesting, or importing food.
- Sovereignty. Floating cities created with the goal of self- governance will likely face legal challenges to any attempt to assert their own sovereignty or secede from the countries in whose territorial waters they are located. No precedents exist in which an artificial structure became (or attempted to become) sovereign.
3 BUSINESS IMPLICATIONS
- While the notion of building entire cities that float may seem fantastical, its adherents are committed to its realization—and it may therefore be worthwhile for observers in a variety of sectors to monitor their progress. Their research and development efforts could yield significant innovations and breakthroughs not only in the construction sector, but also in such disparate sectors as alternative energy, waste disposal, and even agriculture.
- Entrepreneurs in both architecture and entertainment may find it beneficial to observe the progress of such floating ventures as Breakwater Chicago, London’s Royal Docks, and Sydney’s Dockside Pavilion to see what types of enterprises are best suited for future waterborne construction—and how best to utilize the unique setting.
- Island nations and low-lying coastal nations are likely to be the most receptive to waterborne ventures. Like the Maldives, many such nations may be ready to extend rights to develop floating resorts, casinos, golf courses, and the like in exchange for assistance in creating floating structures that would support the creation of housing for those of its citizens at risk of displacement due to rising sea levels.