For a very long time, cities floating on the ocean are the stuff of science fiction. Literature and pop culture have imagined a myriad of ways life on, oftentimes under, the water would be like — bot not too long from now, sheer frivolity may just evolve into something approaching reality.
At the forefront of the effort is Oceanix City, the world’s first sustainable floating city. The scheme, debuted at the United Nations (UN) roundtable discussion in New York early last April, is backed by a platoon of multidisciplinary experts. Oceanix — the city’s founding company that’s focused on innovating ways to build on water — commissioned a team of 16 from Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) to spearhead the architecture division, working closely with scientists and engineers from the MIT Center for Ocean Engineer and specialised consultants on zero-waste design and energy efficiency.
It’s nothing like “Waterworld”, says Bjarke Ingels at the conference, referring to Kevin Costner’s bizarre film. The scheme also does not adhere to the ocean-faring utopianist philosophy of the Seasteading Institute, the libertarian organisation that has spent about a decade trying to convince the public that breaking away from land and society altogether is not an entirely farfetched idea.
Marc Collins Chen, mastermind and chief executive of Oceanix, has brewed the idea of floating cities for more than a dozen years. The former French Polynesian minister of tourism spent years talking to experts in various fields before collaborating with the Seasteading Institute and starting Blue Frontiers, a Singapore-based company aiming to build floating islands outside the borders of governed waters, which would ostensibly operate as independent nation-states.
Not long after, Chen decided to change the direction. “The big difference between Blue Frontiers and Oceanix is on the political ideology,” says Chen over the phone, underscoring Oceanix’s non-exclusive populist slant. “We want to build affordable housing for any city that needs them.”
The framework for Oceanix City is planned to house some 10,000 citizens on buoyant islands clustered together in groups of six to form villages, which will then be repeated in multiples of six to form a 12-hectare village, and then again to form a hexagonal archipelago. The floating city, albeit self-sustaining and autonomous, will not be a separate entity of its own. It is designed to be anchored close, about one to two kilometres, to the shores of a coastal megacity — ideally populous and productive cities such as New York, Hong Kong, Singapore or Shen Zhen — to provide housing alternatives for overcrowded urbanity.
Bjarke Ingels Group
Bjarke Ingels Group
The nautical lifestyle of Oceanix City is designed to be modular and self-sustaining.
For the pessimists, the futuristic concept of cities built on sheltered waters should not be so quickly dismissed, considering the inexorable calamities of global overpopulation and rapid sea level rise.
“We need to adapt and we are aware that climate change is something real,” Chen asserts. “We can’t design future cities the same way we design cities today.”
Working with the Inevitable
In Tolstoy’s short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” a peasant ponders in frustration: “Our only trouble is that we haven’t had land enough. If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself.” Similar musings must have struck the world’s current country leaders.
At the UN conference, statistics were laid out. The figures were grim: By 2050, the UN predicted the earth to host a global population of 9.7 to 10 billion people. Another critical issue is the escalating influx of people moving from the suburbs or rural areas into cities. Every week, three million people worldwide move to cities. To put the numbers into perspective, the UN reports that in order to support the demand of housing, the world, collectively, needs to build the equivalent of a New York City every month for the next 40 years.
The earth today is thronged as it is. The claustrophobia-inducing fact strikes us daily: jostling for breathing space with clammy strangers in morning commutes, hours-long queueing at the bank, elbowing through a teeming supermarket, exasperated honking at a traffic standstill.
Yet a potential solution has been glaring at humanity all along, or rather, illustriously glinting under the sun, lapping at our sandy toes. Half of the surface of the planet that we live in is unclaimed: The ocean covers two-thirds of the earth. “It just makes sense that we find a way to live in harmony with the ocean instead of just polluting it,” Chen posits. “The real question today is, really, “What do we do about the planet?””
In the epoch of a human-induced warming planet, sea levels are expected to rise at least 16 inches by the end of the century. Many of the world’s major cities will be engulfed and entire island nations will be underwater.
While awareness has been piqued and major conscious efforts, from land reclamation bans to nation-wide recycling schemes, have been pushed to reduce damage to the environment, will these be enough to reverse the meltdown of our planet? Or do they merely buy us more time before the inevitable?
Bjarke Ingels Group
The framework is meant to evolve and adapt to wherever they are placed. The site of the floating city determines how it will be built, depending on its climate, water profile and demographics. “A direction that we felt quite strongly about is using not just sustainable, but ideally, locally sourced materials,” explains Alana Goldweit, BIG’s lead project designer for Oceanix. This means, the architecture may differ, from one floating city to the other.
The answer, according to Chen, lies in reshifting our relationship with nature. Rather than fending off the ocean — land reclamation, managed retreat or building sea walls — why not embrace and work with the inevitable?
This is where innovative, forward-thinking proposals like Oceanix’s step in to offer what was once unthinkable but should now be explored as a possible solution. “As opposed to doing just traditional types of developments, we’re talking to governments, saying, “Look, give this a serious thought.””
The Off-Shore Emerald City
It’s realistic. And backed by modern science and technological advancements, life on water can be as viable as life on land.
Floating infrastructures aren’t a 21st-century novelty. New York’s Pier 57, for instance, is proof that massive concrete boxes — one and a half blocks long and three stories high — can float. Built in 1954, the 228-metre-long pier, sitting on the tip of Manhattan, the pier has been floating for 65 years. Colossal transatlantic cruise ships have crossed the vast seas for almost a century. The world’s biggest cruise ship, Symphony of the Seas, can carry close to 9,000 people. It’s practically a moving island.
What Oceanix is doing, then, is expanding on explored structures and stretching them into high-tech heights, where sustainable, closed-loop systems are integrated into the city’s way of life. Designed to be autonomous, the framework for Oceanix City need not be tethered to the land for water, food, energy and waste management.
“Working on water and isolation, we were able to start with a clean slate, and really build up all of our systems so that the city can truly be self-reliant,” Alana Goldweit, BIG designer and co-project leader for Oceanix, explains over the phone. “The best design often comes when faced with the strongest limitations.”
Bjarke Ingels Group
Bjarke Ingels Group
Bjarke Ingels Group
From top to bottom: Below sea level, underwater farms that harvest sea produce; agriculture will be an integral feature of the floating cities; greenhouses for residents to leisure in.
Designing an architecture masterplan for a floating city essentially means redreaming a whole new way of living. Oceanix, Chen decided, is to be a self-resilient and communal city, home to an egalitarian, diverse community. The company has roped in Nobel Prize-awarded economist Professor Joseph Stiglitz, whose expertise on social equality will be crucial in making sure Oceanix “doesn’t just become a city for the rich.” It sounds like a pipe dream utopia, but one of the defining linchpins of Oceanix is its affordability, and that it will be part of a government-backed effort. Ocean real estate also doesn’t bear the hefty price tag of land real estate.
What would life on these islands be like? The blueprint for Oceanix is for it to be a zero-waste, energy-positive, self-sustaining maritime metropolis. The neighbourhoods are clustered around a central harbour, where social, recreational and commercial hubs are placed; the floating city’s nucleus for its societal fabric. Residents can easily walk or boat through the city. Vertical farming will be at the crux of the man-made environment’s agriculture, while below sea level, beneath the platforms, are farms harvesting sea produce the likes of oysters, scallops and clams. Everything, says Chen, will be plant-based. Of course, that doesn’t mean citizens can’t bring back food from land if they so wish to. The autonomy of Oceanix, then again, isn‘t to the degree of it being completely independent from land.
Situated close to land, citizens have the freedom to commute to land, and exchanges between Oceanix cities and the coastal cities they’ll be placed closest to will be continuous. Citizens can work on land, but ideally, most of them, Chen hopes, will be working on the floating city itself. There will be enterprises — hotels, restaurants, cinemas and so on — which will make it a vibrant economy of its own.
Interestingly, the floating city boasts a flexibility to constantly reconfigure, something that’s impossible to execute on land. Based on the needs and desires of the communities, a platform can be towed in or out, plugged on or off — like a giant jigsaw puzzle. “You can bring in a platform that has a specialised health care, for example. The ability to rearrange the platforms is one of the most exciting aspects of this design,” Goldweit remarks.
On the floating city, safety is priority. The framework is built to withstand Category 5 storms. And being on the ocean, the city will, naturally, be immune to earthquakes and flooding. Tsunamis can be avoided by situating itself at a strategic site where huge waves won’t hold any impact.
“We’re looking at this from the perspective of the future, where cities are going to be subjected to more extreme weather conditions. We need to design to that,” Chen says, explaining that even in the case of the worst possible storms, where small objects — “maybe a chair, some glasses, things you can lose in any city” — may be washed away, but the goal for Oceanix is for critical surfaces such as electricity, telecommunication, water or food systems to not fail in said events.
Bjarke Ingels Group
An aerial rendering of Oceanix City from above.
Will the world be seeing the first Oceanix City anytime soon?
At the moment, the company is in discussions with several governments through its partnership with the UN. “There is a strong sense of urgency that came out of the April roundtable. Everybody was saying that what the world needs now is that something we can touch, we can walk on, we can sleep on,” Chen says. A small-scale prototype is being discussed and planned, yet as to where, announcements have yet to be made. “But absolutely,” the chief executive declares, “we will see floating cities in the next few years.”
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