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Water World: Is the Future Floating?

In the face of dramatic changes in climate and increasing social inequality, could life on the water come to define urban planning?

At 200m long, The World is the largest super-yacht on the planet, boasting 165 private apartments. Meanwhile, in Lagos, Nigeria 100,000 people live a precarious but increasingly typical existence above a fetid lagoon in the slums of Makoko. Life on the sea is polarised by such dramatic economic extremes: either a hasty, dangerous necessity or the height of luxury. Yet today, the increasingly dramatic effects of a changing climate and rising social inequality are forcing new approaches to waterborne life.

The uncomfortable sight of a tourist cruise ship drifting past floating slums along the Mekong delta in Vietnam is emblematic of our split engagement with life on water. Thousands live on the Mekong delta as cities, unable to cope with an exploding population, stretch out on to the water, congregating to form ad-hoc communities on market days. In Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s largest city, entire districts are at the mercy of the Mekong and Saigon Rivers. With a risk of flooding twice a day in rainy seasons and record water levels last year, the glamour of the 1989 Saigon Floating Hotel is a distant memory.


The coast off Cat Ba Island in Nothern Vietnam is home to over 4,000 people


Cruises frequent the Mekong delta, home to floating villages, hotels and markets

Across East Asia, Vietnam and South Africa, thousands face the same situation, with life on the water presenting the only answer. Poor construction, a lack of infrastructure and water-borne diseases have led to many floating communities resembling post-apocalyptic settlements. These problems are not just restricted to developing countries. In the UK, growing overcrowding and an increasingly inflated property market are pushing hard-up Londoners to seek radical alternatives to conventional accommodation. A growing fleet of 10,000 houseboats on the city’s canals now supports a transient community attempting to escape the British housing crisis.

In the face of accelerating change, ad-hoc approaches are clearly unsustainable. However for a positive glimpse of what a ground-up floating infrastructure could provide urban planners can turn to the Netherlands. Rotterdam harbour may not look as dramatic as Vietnam’s floating markets, but concerns with rising water levels are just as pressing.


The Floating Pavilion in Rotterdam City Harbour by Dura Vermeer rises and falls with the water level

The Dutch developers Dura Vermeer have long been experimenting with amphibious houses. In Maasbommel they float on hollow concrete cubes anchored to the ground with a single pile, and in Rotterdam harbour solar-powered domes sit on platforms of expanded polystyrene that rise and fall with the water level. These small artificial islands herald an ambitious plan to create 13,000 climate-proof houses in the Stadshavens area by 2040, including 1,200 floating residences. Back in London the Royal Docks is set to transform 15 acres of water into a desirable − and floating − village of luxury flats while Baca Architects’ design for an amphibious Thames-side house is already on site.

It was hard to miss the reappearance of the Freedom Ship in the press last year, a proposal from the 1990s for a monolithic, mile-long ocean vessel capable of supporting up to 100,000 inhabitants that cruises the world once every two years. Project member Roger Gooch relaunched the project last year having sensed a more sympathetic economic climate. Despite the project’s dated renderings depicting an aquatic multi-storey car park, Gooch’s bold ideas are timely and increasingly popular. Last year research organisation the Seasteading Institute launched their Floating Cities Project, the first step in creating a start-up city built using modular floating platforms allowing for a gradual growth and the rearranging of communities rather than a last-minute rush to the seas.


The Seastead Institute’s vision allows for the dynamic formation of communities at sea, each with the potential for political autonomy

Schemes like these are reminiscent of Buckminster Fuller’s Triton in the 1960s, or the centrepiece of Expo ‘75 in Tokyo, Aquapolis − anchored platforms integrated with the mainland physically, economically and socially. The Japanese government spent 13 billion yen developing Kiyonori Kikutake’s unrealised floating platforms that, although subsequently superseded by the 1,000-metre floating airport Mega-Float, was emblematic of a once infectious optimism for floating cities that is again finding its way into mainstream urbanism.

The utopian visions of the Seasteading Institute jar with the very real slums of Makoko but, as issues of extreme weather and rising sea-levels increasingly intersect with ballooning populations, the serious consideration of positive urban-scale relationships to water may come to define city planning.

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