Floating cities

The beauty of the concept is that the platforms are designed for flexibility and are made  up of different shapes connected and disconnected easilyImage Credit: Supplied

In August Dubai-based architect Simon Nummy won the top prize in an international design contest for his vision of a floating city. The competition was organised by Seasteading Institute, a non-profit think tank experimenting with new societies. PW talked to Nummy, who works for Atkins Middle East, about his vision.

You won a design prize for your concept of a floating city.What inspired this vision?

Firstly I must thank the Seasteading Institute for the award and the remarkable thought leadership and resource that they are building.

Will cities of the future float? Maybe, driven by the same variety of reasons that any community develops: social, environmental and economic. I believe sustainability has and will always drive people’s desire to live and work in certain places.

The preliminary designs for the platforms are being done by an engineering firm, DeltaSync, based in the Netherlands, [where] 26 per cent of its landmass is below sea level. As we progress further [and continue to adhere to the widely accepted limit of] a two-degree rise in global temperature, we are going to see increasing stress on communities particularly in low-lying areas, due to increasing frequency and intensity of storm events and also due to sea level rise.

I believe people in areas already subjected to such climate stress, for example the Netherlands, New Orleans, Bangladesh, Mauritius, the Mekong Delta or Venice, would see an immediate need for an application of such thinking.

Are such concepts economically feasible?

Cost calculations done by the Seasteading Institute suggest that land values of a seasteading platform are feasible at less than current New York square-metre rates. The eight moral imperatives set out by the institute for proposed seasteading are feed the hungry; enrich the poor; cure the sick; live in balance with nature; power civilisation sustainably; clean the atmosphere; restore the oceans and stop fighting. Lofty goals indeed, but that may be enough to draw people and investment to these kinds of projects.

The opportunities for new technology, commerce, sustainable fuel production, aquaculture and food production available off-shore are vast. As an example, Google was awarded a patent for a floating data centre, cooled and powered by the sea. back in 2009, and there have been sightings of an interesting barge in San Francisco.

I also like the idea of seeing this as a mega-permaculture mixed with flood protection. As the century unfolds, trillions of dollars will be spent around the world on infrastructure required to address climate change.

I can imagine platforms such as this playing a part, whether it’s to upgrade coastal defenses or as a protection against flooding and storm surges, or perhaps as a repair mechanism — a way of finding value on or near threatened or degraded land. A regional, historical precedent would be the Marsh Arabs of the Tigris- Euphrates in the south and east of Iraq and along the Iranian border.

Aren’t there a lot of infrastructural challenges, such as transport of goods to and from a floating city and waste disposal, especially when the city grows?

Indeed, that is why the next phase of the Seasteading Institute’s business plan is to find nations or sites willing to host pilot projects with substantial political autonomy, to test proof of concept.

I think it will be a while before pioneer communities head off into international waters, but there are precedents already out there ranging from people who currently live on cruise liners to floating museums in Korea, to hospital ships, to pirate radio stations, to semi-submersible modular platforms used in the oil and gas industry and so forth.

Venice hasn’t done too badly so far with regards to many of the infrastructural challenges mentioned. The city’s main problems are due to global anthropogenic environmental degradation.

You said your floating city concept, titled Storm makes sense of shelter, aims at reaching resilience against all kinds of storms –political, social, economic, physiological or psychological. Isn’t this a bit of an overestimation of what architecture and urban planning are able to deliver?

I wasn’t saying that the concept necessarily achieved resilience against such storms, one should always be humble before nature. I was saying that the design approach tried to be cognisant of the many issues and hardships Seasteadings could face, in the same way one would design systems that have to be self-reliant such as marine vessels or, indeed, spacecraft — if something goes wrong you are on your own. Life safety and preservation, redundancy and risk mitigation, for example, are all key drivers, and the architecture comes from this.

Building new societies through planned communities has been a major task undertaken by several visionary architects in the past. But the outcomes were not always satisfying. Do people want to live in planned cities?

The competition wasn’t really about city design per se, it was more about some blue sky thinking for ideas for the modules that could go to create the community. The beauty of the Seasteading platform concept is that it is designed for flexibility, the platforms are made up of 50m-sided forms — square, pentagon, hexagon — which are able to be connected and disconnected relatively easily. This allows the community to grow and to change and shift in response to the demands of the location or indeed social or political demands, as in, if you don’t like your neighbour, move!

Is it realistic to build such a floating city in Dubai?

This is an interesting question. I think it could be in line with Dubai’s pioneering spirit for many of the reasons outlined previously. Of all the places in the world, I’d say Dubai would be a place where such ideas could be developed and actioned. Dubai’s dramatic land reclamation projects have created more than 200km of highly desirable and valuable waterfront — why not consider a platform approach next?

What is your ideal concept of a smart city, in line with Dubai’s vision to become one?

I believe we are seeing the concept of sustainability and its main pillars of social, economic and environmental issues being reframed, and that frame is knowledge. I see a smart city as one that learns and builds upon information with a view to maintaining viability and vibrancy. A city that recognises the importance  of resilience is future proofing itself, that’s smart.

When we talk about smart solutions, it’s really about integrating physical infrastructure with digital infrastructure to provide services that everyone uses in a more efficient and resilient way. That’s really important because it’s about using all the resources at our  disposal more effectively and sustainably, but to really work it needs holistic thinking, which is deeply focused on the people who live in and visit a city.

We need our urban environments to encourage healthy and active lifestyles, with strong communities, while connecting all aspects of how we live as human beings — water,  transport, food, health, wealth creation and energy.

Dubai’s vision for the future is really powerful and as this is a place where nothing is impossible, I think we have every chance of leading the way in the solutions we create and deliver.

Source: Arno Maierbrugger, Special to Property Weekly


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