Why Floating Cities Could Set Sail a Lot Sooner Than We Think

Ready to live on a boat forever?

Ready to give up land for a city life on the sea? Floating cities, long the domain of libertarian dreamers and nomadic cultures, could form the basis for a more sustainable living approach that uses resources more efficiently. The idea is getting more scrutiny after a recent United Nations report highlighted some of the potential benefits.

One of the academics at the center of this discussion is Nathalie Mezza-Garcia, a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick, who has been researching the idea of floating cities as part of her thesis. In an article for The Conversation published Monday, she argued that floating cities are not only technically feasible, but desirable as countries can react to rising sea levels and expand their usable land space.

“I have no doubt that floating cities are possible and will become a reality at some point this century,” Mezza-Garcia wrote. “The biggest challenges will be legal and political — not technological.”

It’s an encouraging sign for the concept which, despite the report form the United Nation’s hexagonal zero-emission platforms or the Seasteading Institute’s libertarian islands, backed by entrepreneur Peter Thiel, is less technologically radical than we thought. In fact, as Mezza-Garcia notes, the idea of establishing floating cities is actually centuries old, like the Kompong Luong floating village in Cambodia or the Bajau Laut in Malaysia.

Nueva Venecia
Nueva Venecia in Colombia.

As the seven continents become increasingly crowded, innovators are increasingly looking to the seas for solutions to the problems facing humanity. North Holland’s Andjik reservoir is set to play host to the world’s largest floating solar installation, described by some as “floatovoltaics.” Of course, this is only one example of the types of infrastructure that can be readily adapted to oceans, as Mezza-Garcia points out.

“The sheer amount of existing floating infrastructure points to the eventual emergence of floating cities,” Mezza-Garcia says. “We already have floating: solar farms, wind farms, runways, bridges, container docks, nuclear plants, farms, stages, restaurants, hotels, storage facilities, student houses and homes. There is even a floating prison and floating surf pools.”

Floating City: Why Live on the Sea?

A floating city offers numerous advantages that could help mitigate the worst effects of a changing climate.

Mezza-Garcia argues that this strategy will ultimately work better than land reclamation, as it doesn’t involve harming local ecosystems and disrupting natural rock formations. Floating cities could also double as artificial reefs, supporting marine life.

A vision outlined by a United Nations roundtable in April noted how two in five people live at least 100 kilometers near the coast, and one in 10 are at risk from erosion and flooding as they live less than 10 meters above sea level. With this in mind, a floating city could avoid flooding while also offering a chance to start afresh with a more sustainable design.

Oceanix floating city
Oceanix floating city.

The United Nations’ plan would create a zero-emission city, chained to the floor one mile from the shore. Each 4.5-acre hexagon would host 300 people, with six forming a village and six villages forming a city. Buildings would rise no higher than seven stories for stability. Ocean farming would provide food, while an aquifer could pull in clean water from the air.

Oceanix floating city
Oceanix floating city.

The Seasteading Institute, started by Peter Thiel in 2008 with $1.7 million, considers floating cities to have another benefit. The group has described the possibility for “start-up societies,” with people naturally migrating toward the islands and societies that they prefer to live in. In this hyper-capitalist floating marketplace of ideas, not only would we choose what companies to buy goods from, we could in theory choose what governments to pay tax to and which laws we would follow.

“In mere decades I think our children will be living on floating, sustainable societies, based on the voluntary choices of the people who live there,” Joe Quirk, president of the Seasteading Institute, told Inverse in August 2017. “They’ll look back on our primitive governments founded in previous nation states and wonder why we had to argue between two choices, when they have such a proliferation of choices.”

The institute partnered with French Polynesia in 2016 to establish a special economic zone and get its idea started, only to see it scuppered two years later amid protests.

Another vision, as noted by Mezza-Garcia, is to have an island with a foundation attached to the sea bed, more like an oil rig. This bears similarities to Sealand, the unrecognized micronation off the coast of the United Kingdom that set up base on a former military platform.

Unfortunately, like Sealand’s legal limbo, floating cities have a lot of legal questions left to answer that could hamper their progress. Issues like water ownership and ownership of the islands may need to be resolved before islanders can set sail.

But with the climate crisis increasing by the day, law makers could soon face much greater pressure to resolve these issues.