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BiodiverCity, Penang
BiodiverCity, Penang. Image: BIG / Bjarke Ingels Group / Time Out

Could floating cities be the future?

As sea levels rise worldwide, architects think city living might be more enduring if it’s waterborne

Sophie Dickinson
Written by
Sophie Dickinson

We’ve all heard the projections. Flooding all over the shop. Homes lost to storms. Entire metropolises under water. And with the climate emergency only getting worse, that means the coming decades will likely see architects and urban planners having to rethink entirely the way they design cities.

Some think we may even need brand-new cities, and many are looking to the sea for inspiration. Enter Danish starchitect Bjarke Ingels and his frankly ridiculous Oceanix City project. This huge, hexagonal, tsunami-resistant conurbation would be anchored to the sea floor and be able to produce its own heat, power and water. Because it floats, it would move as the environment around it changes.

The main issue that coastal cities like Amsterdam, Miami and Venice are up against is, should things deteriorate as much as predicted, they’ll have to change the very way they’re structured to survive the climate crisis – constantly. That would obviously cause great upheaval for locals, as well as wipe out a whole load of heritage and history. So you can understand why entrepreneurial types like Ingels are wading into the floating-city market.

As well as the hypothetical Oceanix City, which could have a population of 10,000 and be appended to any continent around the world, the architect has more definite plans for an urban cluster off the coast of Penang, Malaysia. BiodiverCity – yep, that’s its real name – would comprise three lilypad-shaped islands spanning a whopping 4,500 acres and providing homes for up to 18,000 people. All buildings would be prefabricated or made on site, and cars would be banned altogether. Boat it is.

One clear pitfall of these plans? They could only house a fraction of the people who live in big cities. But experts are optimistic about floating metropolises as a way to mitigate the climate crisis. Architect Kunlé Adeyemi, who runs Amsterdam-based firm NLÉ, has already created several floating buildings, from schools to concert halls, that move with rising water levels. ‘Harnessing water is going to be a major challenge for future cities,’ he says, adding that the issue of ‘water abundance and scarcity is already shaping architecture practice, especially in Africa’.

But for Adeyemi, it’s not all gloom. He sees this as an opportunity to enhance the ‘relationship between water, land and humans’. So perhaps floating cities aren’t just a weak and belated reaction to climate change. They could bring us closer to our planet, too.

Now find out how Barcelona’s ‘superblock’ plan is carving out a post-car future.

And here’s how Milan is being transformed into one gigantic urban forest.

More on climate crisis

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