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Floating cities: Is the ocean humanity’s next frontier?

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Floating cities are nothing new. In the early 1960s, Buckminster Fuller designed a city – Triton – that was intended to float off the coast of Tokyo Bay. It was later considered but never commissioned by the US government.

“Three-quarters of our planet Earth is covered with water, most of which may float organic cities,” Fuller explains in his book Critical Path. “Floating cities pay no rent to landlords. They are situated on the water, which they desalinate and recirculate in many useful and non-polluting ways.”

Fifty years on, with heavy pollution causing climate change and rising sea levels, Fuller’s floating city concept is being seriously considered as an antidote to those problems.

China’s enthusiasm

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With almost 20% of the world’s population living in China, it is no surprise that the People’s Republic is one of the keenest countries to translate Fuller’s idea into a modern reality.

At the behest of the Chinese Construction Company (CCCC), British firm AT Design Office has planned a four square mile floating city that could ease the overcrowding and environmental problems that plague the country.

Using the same technologies that CCCC used to build a 31-mile bridge between Hong Kong, Macau and Zuhai, a series of prefabricated 150m x 30m blocks would be created in a factory and floated out to site for construction.

The city’s infrastructure includes a cruise dock, walkways and a network of roads and canals that will be used by electric cars and submarines, keeping the island free from congestion and air pollution.

Recreational green spaces would be located above and below the water’s surface while farms, hatcheries and rubbish collection facilities would allow the community to produce its own food and sustainably dispose of waste.

“The project offered an opportunity to develop a new urban nucleus of world-class residential, commercial and cultural facilities, as well as to promote a zero-carbon, energy-efficient and self-sufficient city,” says AT Design architect Slavomir Siska. “China Transport Investment Co is reviewing the proposal and is likely to start to test this ambitious project from a smaller scale next year.”

Politics on water

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The Seasteading Institute aims to take the idea of floating cities even further, creating communities that have political autonomy whilst existing under the sovereignty of a host state. They are currently in discussions with several potential host countries and are aiming to establish their first seastead by 2020.

“Right now there is no open space for experimenting with new societies,” explains the Seasteading Institute’s chairman Patri Friedman. “Currently, it is very difficult to experiment with alternative social systems on a small scale.

“Countries are so enormous that it is hard for an individual to make much difference. The world needs a place where those who wish to experiment with building new societies can go to test out their ideas. All land on Earth is already claimed, making the oceans humanity’s next frontier.”

Dutch aquatic urban design firm DeltaSync have put together an implementation plan for how a seastead would work in practice. In their vision, the city’s base structure would be constructed out of 50m x 50m modular platforms, which will cost approximately $15m each to build.

The modular platforms are key to the success of the seastead as they allow movability within the community (if your friend joins the project you can move your house next to theirs). It also means that if the host nation or the seastead no longer wants to continue their union, the floating city can simply move elsewhere.

“It is going to be a big challenge to create a seastead in the middle of the ocean,” admits Bart Roeffen, creative director at DeltaSync. “Oil platforms can withstand waves but we want to create something with a clearer connection with the water. A protective wall is one strategy we’re looking at that may help.

“A lot of knowledge has been built up with boats but the problem is; boats can leak. I was the charge of the design and construction of the Floating Pavilion in Rotterdam and for that project we built a basic structure out of expanded polystyrene (EPS) blocks. These are made up of tiny cells filled with air so are impossible to sink.

“For the seastead’s modular platform and floating breakwater we’d use a similar system, combining EPS with concrete to create something really solid and stable with a low centre of gravity. These foundations would then be anchored to mooring poles, allowing them to move up and down with the tide.

“The idea is that although the base is modular the actual buildings have wood or brick facades like they do in a regular neighbour. Before we get that far though we need to build a prototype, probably in a bay or protected area, so we can test how it works in practice. I hope this will happen in the next few years.”

Super sea structure

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It’s hard to categorise Freedom Ship International at first. On one hand, the intended MO of continually moving around the world, mooring off the coast of different ports for weeks at a time would suggest it to be a rather large boat.

However, the sheer scale of the project tells another story – with a design length of 4,500ft, a width of 750ft and height of 350ft, the self-styled city at sea would be four times longer than the Queen Mary. And with good reason.

Designed on a much bigger scale than any of the other floating cities, the proposed vessel’s superstructure would rise twenty-five stories above its broad main deck and have its own airport, banks, library, hospital, athletics facilities, casinos and warehouses catering for up to 80,000 people.

“The super platform base is a compilation of barges essentially in lieu of conventional ship hull design,” explains Freedom Ship International director Roger Gooch. “It will be principally made out of steel and we have now affiliated with a shipyard in India that is currently working on design and testing.

“I said in previous interviews that this project had a 25% chance of getting off the ground but I can tell you that things have improved appreciably. We’re well on the way of securing our initial target of $1bn investment funding and as far as initial construction processes are concerned, we’re pleased to say that things are underway.”


“Most of the world is covered in water but we’re still hunter-gatherers on the sea”


The ocean solution

If you like the sound of these floating city projects the good news is, AT Design Office, DeltaSync and the Freedom Ship collective are not alone. From Phil Pauley (Sub Biosphere 2) to Aleksandar Joksimovic and Jelena Nikolic (Noah’s Ark), designers are increasingly trying to realise the potential of Fuller’s ‘60s vision to meet 21st century needs. So does that mean offshore living will be the norm by the turn of the century?

“We should be looking to build more on water but not enough people are developing such concepts,” says Roeffen. “We have done some research that is broader than the Seastead concept and evaluated the necessity of building floating structures in the wider world. There are important reasons to develop these concepts.

“The climate is changing and sea levels are rising. Space in cities is running out, causing people to live on flood plains, which is very dangerous. Also, land is becoming scarcer and with the population still growing, we might run out of land one day.

“Floating structures could be part of the solution. Most of the world is covered in water but we’re still hunter-gatherers on the sea – all we really use it for is fishing. Building more floating structures would allow us to use the water in a much more efficient and sustainable way.”


This is a long read from issue 2 of Factor Magazine which is available to download for free for iPad and also read online. 


Featured image and image one courtesy of AT Design Office.  Image two courtesy of the Seastead Institute. Image three courtesy of Freedom Ship


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