UN Brings Back Controversial Floating City Concept
Emily Pollock posted on April 15, 2019 |
Oceanix City is the newest generation of “seasteads”: cities built for life on water. But can the city shed seasteading’s difficult past? (Image courtesy of Oceanix.)
Oceanix City is the newest generation of “seasteads”: cities built for life on water. But can the city shed seasteading’s difficult past? (Image courtesy of Oceanix.)

The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) has embraced the concept of floating cities as a solution for housing and climate change. At its High-Level Round Table on Sustainable Floating Cities on April 3, scientists and politicians discussed a city designed to ride out floods and storms atop the waves.

The design under discussion was Oceanix City, a hypothetical city moored in shallow waters and capable of housing about 10,000 people. Designed by architect Bjarke Ingels and floating city company Oceanix, the city has dazzled and impressed, and made major news since it was released.

But despite its ultramodern look, Oceanix City is only the latest iteration of an old idea. It takes its designs from seasteading, the libertarian concept of an island paradise free from laws and government. With the resurrection of seasteading, it’s worth reexamining the past and the promise—as well as the problems of this concept.

The Floating City

Seasteading is the idea of "floating cities," or permanent liveable areas in international waters. Modern seasteading is largely the brainchild of two people: libertarian political economy theorist Patri Friedman and engineer Wayne Gramlich.

In 2008, the two men joined forces to establish The Seasteading Institute (TSI), a not-for-profit that facilitates and promotes the creation of seasteads. The institute picked up steam after an investment from entrepreneur Peter Thiel, currently most famous for founding data-mining and surveillance company Palantir. Over the course of his partnership with TSI, Thiel invested $1.7 million dollars in TSI.

Driven closer to shore by the prohibitive costs and difficulties of mid-ocean parking, TSI launched The Floating City Project—aimed at creating a city within the bounds of a country's territorial waters—in 2013. Three years later, TSI met with officials in French Polynesia to work on cocreating a legal framework for a separate floating city to exist in a special economic zone (SEZ) within its borders. After both parties signed a memorandum of understanding in 2017, TSI also launched for-profit Blue Frontiers to build and operate the seazone.

And then the project abruptly sank.

Concept art of Blue Frontiers’ proposed “seastead” (floating city) off the coast of French Polynesia. (Image courtesy of Blue Frontiers.)
Concept art of Blue Frontiers’ proposed “seastead” (floating city) off the coast of French Polynesia. (Image courtesy of Blue Frontiers.)

In March 2018, French Polynesia decided to back out of its deal with TSI, stating that their agreement had expired at the end of 2017. "It's not a contract," ruling party Tapura Huiraatira said in a post on Facebook. "This document does not bind the Country in any way. It has no legal value."

Blue Frontiers hasn’t publicly acknowledged that the deal has fallen through. Its site still advertises the French Polynesia project, and dismisses opposition to it as one voice among many. And speaking to CNBC last year, self-proclaimed "seavangelesse" Nathalie Mezza-Garcia talked about the project without any mention of government difficulties. "There is significance to this project being trialed in the Polynesian Islands,” said Mezza-Garcia, while failing to mention that the project may not go forward in the Polynesian islands at all.

Still, some of seasteading’s top talent has migrated onward. Entrepreneur Marc Collins, cofounder of Blue Frontiers, went on to found Oceanix. The company’s goal? Work a little more closely with government powers in order to get floating cities off the ground—or, off dry land.

The Next Generation

Oceanix City is designed as a collection of 4.5-acre hexagonal platforms that hold about 300 people each. A group of six platforms will be designated a “village,” and a group of six such “villages” will be designated as a city. These “cities” can be made more livable by rearranging the platforms.

The design will be recognizable to anyone who followed TSI in the past. While seasteaders never had a unified vision of what these cities should look like, TSI has favored the floating module structure proposed by Dutch company DeltaSync in its 2013 report on the subject. In the report, DeltaSync emphasized what it believed were the six most important objectives of the project: movability, dynamic geography, growth, seaworthiness, safety, and the residents' ability to "experience" the water (through activities like swimming and through a clear ocean view). For each objective, DeltaSync listed potential designs that would emphasize the objective, along with their pros and cons.

The company’s final vision, the one it decided would be most practical, was a city of 11 reinforced concrete platforms, either squares or pentagons with 50-meter (164 ft) sides. The platforms would be caissons, or hollow boxes, reinforced by "ribs" to carry the load of the water pressure to the walls. The modular nature of the platforms would let "citizens" rearrange them to create more efficient city layouts.

DeltaSync’s detachable modules can be flexibly moved around and disconnected if the “city” needs to be towed to more welcoming waters. (Image courtesy of DeltaSync, Blue Frontiers.)
DeltaSync’s detachable modules can be flexibly moved around and disconnected if the “city” needs to be towed to more welcoming waters. (Image courtesy of DeltaSync, Blue Frontiers.)

Some of Oceanix’s living solutions—like “ocean farming,” where cages under the platform harvest sea life—are borrowed from the old DeltaSync design, but some of them are entirely the proposal’s own. Oceanix is designed to be anchored to the ocean floor with biorock, a limestone coating created by exposing underwater minerals to an electric current.And unlike the old seasteads, Oceanix is meant to be permanently anchored no more than a mile from shore—a concession to the difficulty and expense of building on the open ocean.

Oceanix City’s design, and its lack of vulnerability to flooding, has caught the attention of the UN. “We live in a time when we cannot continue building cities the way New York or Nairobi were built,” UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said at the recent roundtable. “We must build cities with solutions for low‑emission development—scaling safe and electric‑powered public transport solutions and changing the grid on which cities rely to clean energy solutions. We must build cities for people, not cars. And we must build cities knowing that they will be on the frontlines of climate‑related risks—from rising sea levels to storms.”

Both the UN and Oceanix seem enthused about their partnership. "Everybody on the team actually wants to get this built," Collins said. "We're not just theorizing."

But the question remains: how many of seasteading’s problems have actually been solved, and how many of them are still lurking under the waterline?

The Holes in the Hull

The new initiative does solve one of the biggest problems with the old concept of seasteading: the lack of government buy-in. While the old seasteads were seen as independent city-states, the newer generation are meant as extensions of preexisting cities, bound by the same laws. The change means these latest proposals are much more likely to find a willing partner.

But the practical limitations still remain.

Floating city tech is still very much in its infancy.Even Thiel, seasteading’s most prominent advocate, seems hesitant about the concept’s applicability today. “They’re not quite feasible from an engineering perspective,” he said, in a 2017 interview with the New York Times. “That’s still very far in the future.”

Currently, the largest "floating city" project in the works is a floating farm in Rotterdam, soon to be home to 40 dairy cows. Backed by the Dutch company Beladon, the farm began construction in summer 2018, when a 900-ton concrete platform was towed into the city's Merwehaven harbor.

A rendering of what Beladon’s dairy farm will look like when completed. (Image courtesy of Beladon.)
A rendering of what Beladon’s dairy farm will look like when completed. (Image courtesy of Beladon.)

The farm is planned to be sustainable, humane and beautiful. But looking at the renderings, it is immediately obvious that it's also small, and very closely linked to the land.

By Bjarke Ingels’ own statistics, “9 out of 10 of the world’s largest cities will be exposed to rising seas by 2050.” That leaves engineers less than 30 years to figure out how to turn the floating farm into a floating city that can be home to millions of people and the infrastructure needed to sustain them instead of 40 cows.

Then, there’s the problem of cost.

It’s difficult to estimate the exact cost of Oceanix, given that the idea is still in its very early stages. But when DeltaSync planned its city back in 2013, the company included a cost estimate. Each of the plan’s concrete platforms would cost approximately $15 million each, meaning that the cost of the entire city (which was to house 225-300 full-time residents) would be approximately $167 million. Scaled up to the 10,000-person Oceanix City, and the idea starts to look a lot more expensive.

And that’s just the cost of the platform itself. One of the major infrastructural costs of living in an isolated community is transportation, whether that’s the transportation of people or the transportation of goods and materials. Oceanix City plans to transport its waste in pneumatic tubes, and its people by autonomous vehicle. Still, the problem remains: transporting people, goods and waste to and from the shore is going to be expensive.

Of course, one possible solution to such high costs is to have Oceanix function as its own sequestered community, with all of its own separate amenities. But that solution touches on one of the biggest problems with the floating city: public perception.

A World Apart

One of the main problems with seasteading has always been the image of it as a gated paradise, a way of separating the “haves” from the “have-nots.”

The problems that TSI faced in French Polynesia were as much about public perception as they were about government distrust. The island’s government broke its partnership after widespread local resistance surfaced, lead in part by local radio and TV host Alexandre Taliercio. “How would a new tax-free zone … have the potential to change the face of our economy?” Taliercio asked, echoing many who were suspicious about a foreign “nation” living inside the country’s borders.

An artist’s rendering of Oceanix City. Critics of the “floating city” concept worry that the cities could serve to stratify people by income. (Image courtesy of Oceanix.)
An artist’s rendering of Oceanix City. Critics of the “floating city” concept worry that the cities could serve to stratify people by income. (Image courtesy of Oceanix.)

To their credit, the new generation of seasteaders are concerned about the social impact of their cities. In a recent interview, Collins said, “This can’t turn into something where a bunch of rich people watch poor people drown on the beach.”

Ironically, one real-world application of the floating city concept has turned out to be exactly the opposite.

Because of skyrocketing Silicon Valley rents, San Jose has a homeless population of approximately 7,000 people. Mayor Sam Liccardo is looking at a range of possibilities to make the city more livable, including creating a floating apartment complex to house the city’s homeless. If the plan goes ahead, the city will develop on the swampy land at its north end.

Part of it is an ingenious solution to climate change and rising waters; if the ocean rises, the development can rise with it. But in part, it’s the city’s attempt at finding a solution for a population that many people don’t want to be around.

In the past, Liccardo has struggled to find a welcoming place for the homeless in his city. "It doesn't matter whether it's tiny homes or permanent housing," said Liccardo. "There's a constant challenge in identifying locations where a neighborhood nearby is not going to say, 'Not in my backyard.'"


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