The Floating Island Project: Building Beyond Sustainability

By Nathalie Mezza-Garcia

“We need to go from sustainability to restoration because sustainability is not sustainable.”

— Bart Roeffen, lead architect of the Floating Island Project

I just spent two and half weeks in the Netherlands at the offices of Blue21, the architecture firm designing the Floating Island Project. One of the most fascinating facts I learned from them is that most life on the planet lives near bodies of water, such as rivers and oceans. Humans, mammals, reptiles and birds all tend to make their homes near water. Similarly, fish and marine species prefer to inhabit places near coastal land. As a result, there is a huge diversity of flourishing life near beaches, but not very much in the depths of the ocean. “Most of the ocean is a desert,” Bart Roeffen, lead architect of Blue21, explains. “A desert of water.”

Seavangelist Joe Quirk elaborates, “most of the ocean surface is virtually lifeless because organic matter sinks below where sunlight can reach, making photosynthesis impossible. The rare resource of ocean deserts is not liquid but solid. In fact, life in the ocean desert has evolved to cling to any solid surface and grow. In the ocean desert, solid structures serve as an oasis of life”.

Barbara Dal Bo Zanon, Nathalie Mezza-Garcia, Nephi Temaheku, Bart Roeffen, Pascal Erhel, Karina Czapiewska and Alexandre Thevenet at the Rotterdam Floating Pavilion

For the past decade, Bart and his team have been studying the design of human habitats that can return to our planet what it has given to us. Blue21 is designing structures that help improve the lives of other species by providing habitats for them. When I asked Bart,“Why floating?” he said that building floating islands is a way of extending the coastline where most humans and other species live. Bart also mentioned a professor in Rotterdam who identified small niches within large cities where endemic species have made their habitats. The architects of Blue21 predict this to happen with the seasteads Blue Frontiers builds. If you have had the marvelous opportunity to snorkel in French Polynesia, or anywhere with overwater bungalows or docked boats in the water, you probably saw many little fish, mollusks and sessile organisms living near the human constructs.

Bart and his team of architects at Blue21 are developing a design strategy for seasteads to help restore the marine environment underneath the platforms (1). Bart contrasts the floating islands with the islands of Dubai, citing that the way in which the project in Dubai was built did not take into account the marine life living underneath the area. Seasteads are a much better solution than using sand or land recovery because with floating structures there is no loss of habitat for the species living there. If designed properly, floating islands can actually provide new habitats for humans while improving the existing marine ecosystem. The Floating Island Project will allow corals, fish, mollusks and other small marine species to continue to live peacefully.

Bart Roeffen at the office of Blue21 in the Netherlands

Barbara Dal Bo Zanon, another architect at Blue21, says that the best way to describe how the design of the Floating Island Project will facilitate harmonic relations between humans, other species and the environment is through the concept of systems ecology. This approach looks at the relationship between humans and nature with a holistic perspective. Designing the first seastead for Blue Frontiers from a systems ecology point of view means considering the lagoon and the seastead as parts of a larger system. Blue21 is currently deciding upon the best solutions to guarantee that nothing, not even water, is disposed from the Floating Island Project into the lagoon. This can be done by using closed loop systems for toilets, bathrooms and all other water infrastructure for the project. This will ensure that the floating platforms do not harm the environment or species living there. The Floating Island is, indeed, being designed to integrate with the entire ecosystem.

The systems ecology approach is also informing Blue 21’s decision to design this first seastead to be not only sustainable but restorative. Although sustainability has become a common-place topic of conversation and an important part of every industry, from architecture to food production, we tend to overlook the term’s inherent flaws. This may be due to the ubiquitousness of the sustainability efforts of countries, cities, NGO´s and companies. However, the word ‘sustainability’ suggests reaching a state of maintained sameness, not an ongoing state of improvement. A more contextualized reading of the term is to understand it as a way of making processes less damaging for the planet. It is, nevertheless, still a very modest and timid approach.

Blue21 and Blue Frontiers want to take a more transformative angle to all future habitats on water. Both teams recognize that now is the time to start a restorative blue revolution through seasteads, and they are determined to succeed. Unlike on land, where construction practices for safety and environmental protection are very well regulated, there is little precedent for standardization of floating habitats. In fact, floating houses are so recent -the oldest floating house registered in the Netherlands is from 1922 (2)- that there exist hardly any sustainability parameters for them in most places of the world. Building on water is almost like a tabula rasa waiting to be propelled, to help create a better future for humanity, the environment and other species.

Seeking restoration goes beyond sustainability. If we continue to focus on producing energy, growing food and building houses in a sustainable manner, we may not actually reverse much of the damage we have caused to ecosystems. While it may be impossible to bring back extinct species without genetic engineering (3), sustainability without regeneration puts us at risk to lose countless more species in the coming years. The number of species that have gone extinct due to human causes is more dramatic than one might expect. In French Polynesia alone, nine species of mollusks and fifteen species of birds have gone extinct since the 18th century. Some were clearly endemic to specific islands, such as the Tahiti Parakeet (perruche de Tahiti or Kakariki de Tahiti), the Tahitian Red-Billed Rail, the Raiatea Starling, the Maupiti Monarch (Pomarea pomarea), the Marquesas Swamphen and the Nuku Hiva Monarch. Although not all of these species became extinct due to human hunting, in almost every case they disappeared because humans changed their ecosystem.

Tahiti Parakeet and Marquesas Swampeen (4)

Now, more than ever, we need to protect the planet we live on. We cannot continue to act as though we are the only species that matters and we cannot sustain current practices of non-renewable energy production, non-cruelty free food growth and environmentally detrimental home building. As Bart Roeffen says, “We need to go from sustainability to restoration because sustainability is not sustainable.” It’s time to go beyond sustainability, to create systems and processes that restore and regenerate the environment, the planet and its biodiversity. Sustainability just isn’t sustainable enough.

Like the Blue21 and Blue Frontiers teams, I am also convinced that this change in paradigm is what we need to minimize human ecological damage. As Joe Quirk says in the introduction to the Blue Frontiers Podcast (5), humans are capable of great things. What could be greater than developing a model for future societies with restoration and regeneration at its core. Seasteads can help us become more resilient as societies improve, become stronger and adapt. Although seasteading is a global concept, the initial Floating Island Project in French Polynesia is a once in a lifetime opportunity to demonstrate restoration and sustainability and to influence the future of floating infrastructure and environmental frameworks worldwide.

Realizing the promise of seasteading. Sustainable floating islands and innovative governing frameworks

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