Climate Action: Sustainable Floating Cities


Climate Action: Sustainable Floating Cities

8 August 2019 YaleGlobal online

In anticipation of climate change’s rising seas and increased migration, the UN Human Settlements Programme explores the possibility of sustainable floating cities – and requested advanced proposals from marine engineers and related firms for the UN Climate Action Summit in September. The plan is far from fanciful considering that thousands of oil platforms and cruise ships already operate in ocean, explains Stefan Huebner, a research fellow with both Harvard University Asia Center and the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore. Russia launched a floating nuclear power facility in 2018 and a Chinese shipbuilder has constructed a massive floating fish-farming facility for Norway. “These examples of mass producible floating industrial structures suggest that technology is not the challenge but rather globalization and the future of the ocean commons as well as sustainability, waste, legal issues, funding and business models,” Huebner writes. He urges designers and governments to develop sustainable standards to prevent temporary solutions from devolving into slums with long-term environmental and security hazards. – YaleGlobal

Preparing for rising seas and mass migration, the United Nations calls for ocean engineers to submit designs for sustainable floating citiesStefan HuebnerThursday, August 8, 2019

Floating salvation? The UN Human Settlements Program explores floating cities like the 1960s Triton project to handle climate migration; offshore operations like Ocean Farm I, designed in Norway and made in China, farm 1.5 million salmon

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS: Unconventional and seemingly extreme responses to climate change, related sea-level rise, and floods are gaining considerable attention, with the goals of creating adaptable homes and reducing mass migration.  

In April, the United Nations hosted a high-level roundtable on “sustainable floating cities” in New York City, and Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed requested advanced proposals for September’s UN Climate Action Summit. Ocean engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with architectural firms and organizations with ties to Denmark, French Polynesia and the United States, are drafting designs for such a “sustainable floating city” with a low ecological footprint. Of particular interest is a large floating structure’s resilience to floods and sea-level rise for many coastal cities, settlements near river deltas, and islands in Oceania and elsewhere in the world.

The plan is less eccentric than it might initially sound. Several thousand offshore oil platforms with living quarters and cruise ships have operated in the world’s oceans for decades. The yet undefined term “floating city” can refer to a variety of large floating structures that could be combined. Inspired by oil platforms, a free-market libertarian US-Thai couple built a small, offshore floating homestead off Phuket in Thailand earlier this year. Weeks later, the Thai navy ended that attempt to escape state control. In 2018, Russia launched a floating nuclear power plant, the Akademik Lomonosov. China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation constructed the first, semi-submersible fish farm, Ocean Farm 1, for a Norwegian company, SalMar, raising 1.5 million salmon several miles off the Norwegian coast.

These examples of mass producible floating industrial structures suggest that technology is not the challenge but rather globalization and the future of the ocean commons as well as sustainability, waste, legal issues, funding and business models.

Climate change, or rather its consequences, is not a really new element in the cost-benefit calculations. During the 1960s and 1970s, a small number of plans and prototypes for floating communities were released, and such analyses addressed temporary or permanent relocation of people, promotion of energy alternatives to carbon fuels, increased food production, and a state’s extension of judicial control over such offshore facilities. US and Japanese governmental agencies and designers wrestled with what is actually considered cost or benefit in their calculations related, for example, to cheap prices of air pollution-causing carbon fuels and aesthetic versus structurally efficient designs.

The UN roundtable panelists are in a quest for a sustainable floating city as a tool for climate action and resilient refuge. The goal is for permanent settlements rather than temporary fixes. A modular design is expected to allow growth in capacity and capability over time, similar to the growth of onshore cities over time. Design and flexibility will determine whether floating refuges turn into permanent settlements with reasonable living standards or slums, reminiscent of longstanding refugee camps intended as temporary solutions.

NASA satellite images document rising seas at the rate of 3.3 millimeters per year
Steady rise: The rate of change in sea level rise since 1993 is 3.3 millimeters per year – caused by melting ice sheets and glaciers as well as seawater’s expansion as it warms (Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

Inevitably, a floating city will be a centrally planned megastructure and, similar to an aircraft carrier, difficult to restructure. Aware of the problem, designers since the 1970s have argued for a plug-in system of mobile and rearrangeable trapezoid- or hexagonal-shaped floating modules, as advocated at the UN roundtable, to allow flexibility. For many, this recalls the rapid “urban renewal” development around the world during the mid-20th century. In neglecting actual human needs, the central planning and cost-benefit calculations easily led to dystopian spaces. Critics of urban-renewal projects during the 1960s, like journalist-activist Jane Jacobs, but also prominent architects, such as Christopher Alexander, pointed out that such planning and calculation failures resulted in residential spaces that were artificially separated from commercial or recreational spaces, isolating communities at night, and exacerbating crime and transportation problems.

As a reaction to urban projects in coastal cities, US designer Buckminster Fuller and his associates proposed Triton City, a floating community for unused harbor space, and released a study in 1968. That design still featured concepts that had been attacked by critics, likely because even a modular megastructure limited its flexibility: commercial and recreational space was prearranged with shops, restaurants and supermarkets in specific locations, again reducing pedestrian traffic in residential parts after daylight hours. To address crime, Triton City was proposed as a gated community, featuring guarded access points like a cruise ship. Designers must consider how choices add to social and economic problems if they aspire to offer more than dystopian, temporary solutions.

Fuller’s idea received noteworthy criticism from Gaylord Nelson, best known as the founder of Earth Day. In October 1969, this Democratic senator from Wisconsin and staunch environmentalist warned that within one decade unchecked human commercial enterprises might kill off most ocean life, and he pointed to the disastrous Santa Barbara offshore oil spill that had taken place that year. He also saw floating cities as another major threat, expressing concern that such structures could be located beyond US territorial waters – meaning that federal laws on conservation would not be applicable. The global proclamation of contiguous and exclusive economic zones ended such concerns of insufficient state control.

Enforcement of a legal framework is essential for sustainability. The Thai Navy ending the free-market libertarian experiment off Phuket illustrates that states capable of enforcing judicial control over their marine regions will do so – although this does not say anything about their offshore conservation standards. Monitoring the activities of fixed floating structures is, technically and legally, easier than monitoring transit vessels like cruise ships. Other free-market libertarian groups like the San Francisco–based Seasteading Institute therefore do not expect to escape state control without negotiations. The group focuses on building a startup floating city through private investments, without funding from the host state. In exchange, they ask for private judicial control over a special economic zone harboring the community, placing it outside the state’s tax and penal systems.

Reaching true sustainability is a related challenge. The international community, first and foremost UN agencies for now, must discuss the legal framework under which a sustainable floating city would operate as well as financing. In countries that cannot afford the funding, the choice would be between development assistance, private investment capital – with or without privately or publicly administered special economic zones – or a combination. The related legal framework must define the sustainability of economic activities, for example related to the use of huge amounts of cooling water. Regulators must consider if offshore server farms, zero-carbon nuclear power plants or waste incinerators comply. The same question is related to other economic activities like tourism.

Many structures struggle for sustainability. At the UN roundtable, participants advocated for a combination of renewable energies; hydroponics, or growing plants in a water solvent; and ocean farming. Yet, many business models of mariculture are unsustainable. For offshore wind turbines and other renewables such as solar, technical challenges like energy storage for times with low winds or night hours, may possibly be overcome via a kind of pumped hydroelectric energy storage using ocean water. In some cases, high costs for connecting to energy grids remain.

For now, floating structures are individual sites tasked with specific industrial or commercial purposes. They do not try to fully emulate cities with their intricate systems of cooperation, culture and justice around a range of vibrant activities. Supporting further research on ocean-related sustainable economic practices and on affordable, flood-resilient housing would be valuable as the United Nations considers sustainable floating cities as climate action in September – even individually, these would reduce the human impact on oceanic ecosystems and assist people living in flood-prone regions.

Stefan Huebner is a Social Science Research Council–funded Fellow at the Harvard University Asia Center and a Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore. He is finishing a global history of ocean industrialization and colonization projects since the early 20th century.

Leave a Reply

SSCP   CAS-002   9L0-066   350-050   642-999   220-801   74-678   642-732   400-051   ICGB   c2010-652   70-413   101-400   220-902   350-080   210-260   70-246   1Z0-144   3002   AWS-SYSOPS   70-347   PEGACPBA71V1   220-901   70-534   LX0-104   070-461   HP0-S42   1Z0-061   000-105   70-486   70-177   N10-006   500-260   640-692   70-980   CISM   VCP550   70-532   200-101   000-080   PR000041   2V0-621   70-411   352-001   70-480   70-461   ICBB   000-089   70-410   350-029   1Z0-060   2V0-620   210-065   70-463   70-483   CRISC   MB6-703   1z0-808   220-802   ITILFND   1Z0-804   LX0-103   MB2-704   210-060   101   200-310   640-911   200-120   EX300   300-209   1Z0-803   350-001   400-201   9L0-012   70-488   JN0-102   640-916   70-270   100-101   MB5-705   JK0-022   350-060   300-320   1z0-434   350-018   400-101   350-030   000-106   ADM-201   300-135   300-208   EX200   PMP   NSE4   1Z0-051   c2010-657   C_TFIN52_66   300-115   70-417   9A0-385   70-243   300-075   70-487   NS0-157   MB2-707   70-533   CAP   OG0-093   M70-101   300-070   102-400   JN0-360   SY0-401   000-017   300-206   CCA-500   70-412   2V0-621D   70-178   810-403   70-462   OG0-091   1V0-601   200-355   000-104   700-501   70-346   CISSP   300-101   1Y0-201   200-125  , 200-125  , 100-105  , 100-105  , CISM   NS0-157   350-018  , NS0-157   ICBB  , N10-006 test  , 350-050   70-534   70-178   220-802   102-400   000-106   70-411  , 400-101   100-101  , NS0-157   1Z0-803   200-125  , 210-060   400-201   350-050   C_TFIN52_66  , JN0-102  , 200-355   JN0-360   70-411   350-018  , 70-412   350-030   640-916   000-105   100-105  , 70-270  , 70-462   300-070  , 300-070   642-999   101-400   PR000041   200-101  , 350-030   300-070  , 70-270  , 400-051   200-120   70-178   9L0-012   70-487   LX0-103   100-105  ,