How Floating Cities Could Battle Rising Sea Levels

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When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, reports circulated widely that failed levees and floodwalls exacerbated the Category 5 hurricane’s disastrous impacts. Likewise, in 2012, Hurricane Sandy flooded and crippled New York City, a massive urban hub lacking proper hurricane protection. With the likelihood of Sandy-sized storms expected to increase seventeenfold by the end of the century, not to mention the looming threat of climate change-induced sea level rise, scientists have begun thinking up some truly leftfield ways to protect coastal cities.

One such way is the seemingly straightforward but technically complex notion of a floating city. The New York-via-China startup Oceanix recently pushed forward a model that has already garnered the support of the United Nations. Just this month, at the U.N.’s New York headquarters, the U.N.-Habitat program hosted a roundtable discussion on Oceanix’ floating city proposal.

In digital renderings of the floating cities that Oceanix envisions, hexagonal floating concrete platforms nearly five acres in area are anchored to the seafloor at shallow depths. Each platform hosts the usual structures found in cities: homes, schools, hospitals, and the like. Walkways among the platforms transform what might normally be isolated regions into thriving cities that will stay dry no matter how much sea levels rise. A single platform would be designed, in Oceanix’ vision, to accommodate 2,000 people. A city would comprise six platforms, which could combine to hold 10,000 people.

Further driving Oceanix’ mission is the company’s devotion to sustainable causes — sustainability is, after all, tied directly into the battle against climate change. Oceanix thus envisions its floating cities as comprised entirely from sustainable materials, such as buildings built from timber sourced from sustainable forests, energy produced entirely by solar and wind farms, vertical farms, and underwater gardens.

To bring its vision to life — and potentially power a vital solution to the perils of climate change — Oceanix is working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Ocean Engineering and the architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Group. The former team will design the floating platforms, and the latter team will create the structures that sit on the floating cities’ interconnected platforms.

Many climate change, urban planning, and architecture experts have praised Oceanix’ initiative, but they’ve often done so with some caution. Geoffrey Thün, an expert on future cities and architecture professor at the University of Michigan, praised Oceanix for developing a model that exemplifies how future city planners should address the “metabolism” of the modern city. In the same breath, though, Thün criticized Oceanix for not considering the “gritty realities” that dictate the layered, complex infrastructures and systems of modern urban life.

Likewise, in a conversation with CityLab, climate resilience expert Josh Sawislak said that Oceanix has yet to truly figure out its vision for future cities while also showering the project with praise. Sawislak drew an apt comparison between Oceanix’ floating platforms and the many people who live in houseboats in Seattle, Amsterdam, and other major cities that are far from lacking for bodies of water. Houseboats are inherently immune to the negative impacts of sea level rise, and Sawislak seems to suggest that if Oceanix can properly develop boats that function as cities instead of houses, humanity may have a remarkable, effective solution for sea level rise on its hands.

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