Floating cities are getting far closer to reality than ever before - but they won't be the libertarian utopias billionaires have proposed
- For decades, floating cities have been part of a utopian vision to build societies that operate independently of government.
- Organizations like the Seasteading Institute aim to create peaceful, self-sufficient communities at sea - but they've faced multiple obstacles.
- In April, a United Nations roundtable entertained an idea for a new kind of floating city that could address issues such as rising sea levels and overcrowding in urban areas.
- The vision is part of what designer Bjarke Ingels calls "utopian pragmatism," or generating grand designs that can be built in practical ways.
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It's been about 13 centuries since Homer envisioned a mythical floating city surrounding by "unbreakable bronze." The idea has generally remained the province of myth since then - until last month.
In April, the United Nations hosted a roundtable to discuss a proposal for a floating community called Oceanix City that could withstand floods, tsunamis, and Category 5 hurricanes. The project, which hails from architect Bjarke Ingels and the design firm Oceanix, consists of a collection of hexagonal platforms that combine to form six villages, each with around 1,800 residents.
The concept arose from a desire to address rising sea levels and land constraints in major cities. In a statement at the roundtable, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed called the floating city "part of our new arsenal of tools" to address issues like poverty, climate change, disease outbreaks, and the mass movements of migrants and refugees.
Read more: Silicon Valley's largest city wants to house the homeless in floating apartments
"This is not a luxury concept. It's an essential concept," Thomas Goreau, the president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, said at the roundtable.
That's a change from the way designers and developers thought about floating cities in previous decades. Instead of a utopian vision of libertarian societies without taxes or government regulation, the idea of a floating city today is emerging as a practical solution to the world's most pressing challenges - and it's closer than ever to getting built.
The dream of floating communities
Floating cities draw inspiration from a time-honored structure, the houseboat, which has evolved from shabby buildings built on rafts to hurricane-resistant fortresses and light, prefabricated homes that can be assembled in a day.
In the Netherlands, floating homes have become a ubiquitous solution to flooding. The nation has even experimented with floating apartment complexes and dairy farms that bob on the water.
But building an entire floating city remains an unprecedented challenge.
For the most part, those who have attempted the feat have aimed to create autonomous societies that operate independently of government.
In the early 1970s, luxury real-estate mogul Michael Oliver attempted to build a floating island off the coast of Tonga in order to create his own self-sufficient society. The planned community, which he called the Republic of Minerva, was supposed to have its own currency and do away with taxes and welfare. But the project was squashed by the King of Tonga, who said his nation already possessed the land.
The concept of a floating utopia didn't die there, though. In 2008, political theorist Patri Friedman teamed up with PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel to form the Seasteading Institute, a think tank that advocates for the construction of floating cities. Like Oliver, Friedman and Thiel subscribe to the libertarian ideology that freedom can be achieved by removing oneself from the strictures of government.
"Our goal is to maximize entrepreneurial freedom to create blue jobs to welcome anyone to the Next New World," the organization's website reads. "We are credentialed, qualified, pragmatic idealists who plan to ... create the first nations not to aggress against any people."
Much like Alpahabet's efforts to build a high-tech city in Toronto, the Seasteading Institute views floating cities as testing beds for new ideas. Among the organization's "eight moral imperatives" are plans to enrich the poor, clean the atmosphere, generate autonomous power, and live in balance with nature.
These priorities are not unlike those of Oceanix City. At the UN roundtable, the designers described their plan to build an autonomous energy source for the community, produce fresh water sustainably onsite, and achieve zero waste.
Instead of high-emitting cars or trucks, Oceanix City would allot space for driverless vehicles and experiment with new technologies such as drone deliveries and pneumatic trash tubes, they said. Beneath the surface of the water, aquaponic systems would use fish waste to help fertilize plants, while vertical farms would generate year-round produce.
"We're striving toward the highest degree of autonomy," Ingels told Business Insider.
But Oceanix City would be self-sufficient without being fully independent
The design for Oceanix City calls for the floating structures to be bolstered by Biorock - a material with a limestone coating that's three times harder than concrete, but can still be made to float - and moored to the ocean floor. They could be towed to safer locations in the event of a disaster.
Though the city still needs funding, the design proposal so far serves as a kind of blueprint for brave investors.
"I see this, in many ways, as our Apollo 10 dress rehearsal," said Victor Kisob, the deputy executive director of the UN Human Settlement Programme.
But there are, of course, downsides to building a community at sea. For one, floating-city projects may find it difficult to secure approval from local governments.
After signing an agreement with French Polynesia in 2016 to build a floating city off the coast of Tahiti, for example, the Seasteading Institute learned last year that the government wouldn't be renewing the deal. In the time since the agreement was announced, Tahitian locals had grown wary of a billionaire-backed enterprise taking over nearby land. The government eventually issued a note on Facebook saying the deal was non-binding.
That public wariness reveals another major challenge for the development of floating cities: that the communities could become isolated enclaves for the ultra-rich.
Oceanix CEO Marc Collins is determined to avoid that scenario. While presenting his vision at the UN, Collins painted floating cities as a solution to the homelessness crisis in major cities.
In his hometown of French Polynesia, Collins said, low-income residents are paying more per square foot than their wealthy neighbors. By developing a floating community that serves as "an extension" of an existing city, Collins hopes to alleviate housing constraints caused by growing populations and a lack of available land.
Unlike Michael Oliver's vision for his autonomous island, Oceanix City could be built and operated within a local government's jurisdiction - a difference that could keep the new proposal from languishing as a series of renderings.
Ingels calls his vision for the project "utopian pragmatism," meaning that grand design feats can be accomplished in concrete, practical ways.
"Everybody on the team actually wants to get this built," Collins told the UN. "We're not just theorizing."
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