Floating cities: dream or reality?

Nov 18, 2020 · 6 min read

“Climate change has the potential to reshape cities, economies, shores and entire regions of the globe”.

These are the words of Scott Kulp, lead author of a scientific study on global warming published by Climate Central.

But this restructuring has already begun. Hurricanes, cyclones, storms, and devastating floods have become more prominent in recent years because of global warming. And their effects are all the more destructive as sea levels continue to rise and entire cities are drowning underwater.

This reality is an imminent threat to at least 100 million people worldwide who live on coastlines or in geographical areas below sea level. And that, according to studies, it’s only the beginning.

To accommodate the entire population concerned, “we would have to build the equivalent of the city of Paris every week for 40 years” says Marc Collins Chen, former Minister of Tourism in French Polynesia and CEO of the company Oceanix, which is behind a floating city project whose prototype will soon be in development.

A project for a science-fiction film or a very, very distant future? Unfortunately, no.

In Bangladesh, for example. It is today the country where global warming is causing the most victims. There have been 700,000 people displaced by climate change every year for the past 10 years and 8,000 deaths every year.

And the prognosis is bleak: in 30 years, 30% of the country will be underwater.

Specialists see this as a portrait for our planet’s future, a testbed for the climatic catastrophes that threaten the rest of the world.

Bangladesh is caught between two uncontrollable phenomena: the melting of the Himalayan glaciers in the north of the country — which increases the flooding of the rivers that crisscross the country — and the rise of the Indian Ocean in the south.

Nicknamed the “country of water”, or the “country of crazy rivers”, Bangladesh is crisscrossed by more than 200 rivers over an area four times smaller than France, including the mighty Brahmaputra the stormy Ganges. With 10% of the country below sea level, and almost non-existent relief, the government has always had to cope with floods, severe weather, and bank erosions.

However, in recent years, due to global warming, the pace has accelerated dramatically. Cyclones, storms, and devastating floods… the inhabitants have no time to rebuild and are repeatedly affected. Not to mention the rise of the Indian Ocean in the south of the country, which results in coastal erosion, salinization of arable land (which becomes uncultivable), the appearance of new diseases due to the excess consumption of salt…

Then the inhabitant’s fight. They get used to rebuilding their roofs; they learn to take refuge in anticyclonic shelters. The Friendship association has even moored a ship and turned it into a hospital in the tank region, north of the country. A way to guarantee access to healthcare, even if the city is underwater.

Faced with rising sea levels, other countries must find even more radical solutions. Indonesia, for example, has decided to move its capital.

With its 11 million inhabitants, Jakarta is one of the most vulnerable cities to rising sea levels. According to the latest aerial images, part of it is already underwater, and a dike simply holds back the sea. By 2050, a third of the city will be submerged.

Therefore, the government has decided to relocate the capital more than 1000 km away on the island of Borneo, far from this imminent threat. But the chosen location is now covered with forest, and the work promises to be monumental and destructive for all the local fauna and flora. A minister has been appointed to carry out the project. But will it be enough? He has announced that he will be able to welcome the first civil servants there in 2024. The promise seems all the more unrealistic as Jakarta is not the only place concerned by Indonesia’s rising waters.

Let’s return to Europe, where some countries have already started to live with water a long time ago, where some cities are already almost watery.

The Netherlands is the very emblem of this. With 26% of its land below zero altitudes, the country is forced to seek solutions and has always protected itself from water.

Since the 1953 tidal wave that killed nearly 2,000 people, the Dutch have rethought their way of living with water, and the country has become an example of prevention and development in the face of rising sea levels.

The Dutch have been mastering waters for more than a thousand years. By gaining ground on the sea with the famous polders, building dikes to fight against the tides, by raising buildings. And even more recently, by widening the riverbed in the Nijmegen region to absorb future floods.

From experience, the Dutch people have learned to prevent rather than cure. They no longer react to rising sea levels; they anticipate them and make the ocean their ally.

It’s in this state of mind that the idea of Oceanix City was born. An entirely floating city, resistant to natural disasters, eco-responsible, and self-sufficient to create ecological and sustainable extensions to existing towns.

Marc Collins Chen, the CEO of Oceanix, has surrounded himself with the best.

The prototype city was designed by Bjarke Ingels, a famous Danish architecture firm, and the project is supported by UN-Habitat, together with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Explorers Club.

It’s no longer just a project but a reality. As soon as the permits and agreements are finalized, it will only take 21 months to build the prototype city, the location of which is being kept secret until the action plan is completed.

Captain Cousteau’s dream will come true in the next few years,” according to Marc Collins Chen. The legendary navigator who dreamed of an underwater world will soon see his wishes come true.

Just imagine. The city will be made up of platforms, held in place with an anchoring system, under which cages are used to grow and harvest seaweed, seafood and fish. The energy will be renewable — Hydraulic, solar, wind.

To get around, there will be pedal boats, electric boats, or by merely walking in the heart of each neighborhood that will function as a village of 300 people.

In total, the city will cover 75 hectares and will be able to accommodate 10,000 people. The key to success? Proximity to workplaces, according to Marc Collins Chen. Therefore, it will be thought of as an extension of another city, anchored 1 km from the coast, and very accessible. According to calculations, it will take only 5 to 7 minutes to reach the electric boat’s waterfront.

Utopian? No, because all the technologies that have been used are already proven to be effective. No need for years of laboratory tests; they’re already within reach. Take the example of recycling wastewater: this is already a reality in Tanzania (French technology, by the way, from Veolia).

But above all, Oceanix is designed to be duplicated hundreds of times and replicated as often as necessary. “The whole approach aims to resolve this issue; it wouldn’t make sense otherwise,” explains Marc Collins Chen because the objective is that this project should not be reserved for the wealthiest countries that can afford it.

The Pacific Ocean’s Kiribati Islands very much influenced the former Minister of Tourism in Polynesia. Most of them are deserted and paradisiacal sandbanks but very low compared to the sea level. One of them has erected a 3-meter high wall to protect itself from rising waters. “The inhabitants don’t even see the sea anymore,” Marc Collins Chen is indignant.

Oceanix could therefore be part of the solution. But are we ready to live on the water? What about the unfortunate people who get seasick?

Don’t worry; the town will be very stable. And according to studies, “human beings are even more used to living on the sea than on land”.