The United Nations estimated that about 70% of the world population would live in urban areas by the next three decades (1).
Urban developers are increasingly turning to nature as a move toward sustainability. They see houses built on water and urban farming communities as potential solutions to housing shortages and food scarcity (2).
As major population growth is set for urban areas, we may see these ambitious plans combating supply chain issues and improving our living conditions within the next few years.
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Living on Water to Becoming a Norm
Dutch is Embracing Floating Homes
As sea levels rise and we see more supercharged storms causing waters to swell, floating neighborhoods provide an experiment in flood defense. If successful, it would allow coastal communities to withstand the adversities of climate change better (Suggested Reading: The Disastrous Effects of Climate Change on Your Business).
The Netherland, faced with worsening floods and a housing shortage, is witnessing a growing interest in floating homes. As more businesses look to build on the water in the land-scarce but the densely populated nation, officials have started to update zoning laws to make the whole process easier.
The floating communities that emerged in the last decade in the Netherlands have served as proof of concept for large-scale projects that Dutch engineers are currently spearheading.
Apart from other European countries like France, Norway, Britain, countries like the Maldives and French Polynesia, where rising sea level poses an existential threat, have also started working on floating cities.
Also, there is a plan for floating islands to build small cities in the Baltic Sea (3).
Waterstudio, founded by Koen Olthuis in 2003, is a Dutch architectural firm that focuses on floating buildings (4, 5).
According to Olthuis, the low-tech nature of floating houses are their biggest advantage. He stabilizes the designs of these houses with poles dug about 210 feet (~65 m) into the ground and outfitted with shock-absorbent materials to lessen the movement feelings from nearby waves.
Even though these houses look simple at first glance, Olthius believes that they can transform cities we have not seen since the introduction of the elevator, which thrust skylines upward.
And the idea doesn’t look far-fetched in a country where most of the land is reclaimed, with a third of it remaining below sea level.
Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands, has almost 3k officially registered traditional houseboats across its canals. And over the past few years, at least hundreds of people have moved into floating homes in previously neglected neighborhoods.
Schoonschip, designed by another Dutch company Space&Matter has 30 homes, 15 of which are duplexes on a canal in an area once used for manufacturing(6). It is a short ferry ride from central Amsterdam, where most residents work.
It is also worth noting that these community members share almost everything, including cars, bikes, and food bought from local farmers. Each building has its own heat pump and has roughly a third of its roof for greenery and solar panels. Residents also sell surplus power to each other and the national grid.
Rotterdam, another city in the Netherlands, is 90% below sea level. Europe’s biggest port is also home to the world’s largest floating office building and a floating farm where robots milk cows, supplying dairy products to local grocery stores (7, 8).
Since 2010, when Rotterdam launched the Floating Pavillion (9), a solar-powered meeting and event space, the city has increased its efforts to mainstream similar projects. They have also named floating buildings one of the top pillars of its Climate Proof and Adaptation Strategy (10).
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More Efforts from the Dutch Government and Businesses
In 2006, to help protect their cities from climate change, the Dutch government launched the “Room for the River” program, which strategically allowed certain areas to flood during heavy rains. A paradigm shift sought to embrace than resist the rising water levels.
According to Olthuis, the housing shortage in the Netherlands can fuel the demand for floating houses, including in “Room for the River” areas where floods will be part of the landscape at least for a portion of the year.
Experts also believe that relieving the Dutch housing shortage would need more than one million new homes in the next decade. And floating homes can help relieve the land shortage for such development.
It is worth highlighting that Dutch companies specializing in floating buildings are getting numerous requests from developers overseas for more ambitious projects.
For instance, Blue21, a Dutch tech company focusing on floating buildings, works on a proposed series of floating islands in the Baltic Sea (11). It can house over 50kl people and connect to a privately funded 16.9 billion USD underwater rail tunnel to link Finland, Helsinki, and Tallinn in Estonia. Finnish investor and Angry Birds entrepreneur Peter Vesterbacka is backing this project (12).
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Floating City in the Maldives
The Netherlands-based Dutch Docklands has recently collaborated with the Government of Maldives to set up Maldives Floating City.
In development for over ten years, MFC is set in a warm-water lagoon, 10-minute by the board from the Male (capital of Maldives) to feature thousands of waterfront residences. The first-of-its-kind “island city” offers a revolutionary approach to new sustainable living perched against rising sea levels of the Indian Ocean.
Inspired by traditional Maldivian sea-faring culture, the project is claimed to be the world’s first true floating island city – a futuristic dreamscape finally becoming a reality!
Floating alone a flexible, functional grid across a 200-hectare lagoon, MFC will eventually host hotels, stylish boutiques, restaurants, and a world-class marina.
“The MFC doesn’t need any land reclamation; hence, it has a minimal impact on the coral reefs,” explained then President of Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed. “In addition, new reefs will be grown to act as water breakers. Our adaptation to climate change must not destroy nature but work with it. While we cannot stop the waves, we can rise with them.”
Now almost at the end of its planning stages, Maldives Floating City will begin construction in 2022 and be completed in parts over the next five years. Once the project comes to a complete realization, a school, hospital, and government building will complete its residential and commercial structures (13, 14).
“With its unique location next to President’s island in a paradisiacal setting, and full support of the Maldives government, we are proud to launch the first Floating City in the world,” said CEO of Dutch Docklands, Paul HTM van de Camp. “It will be an amazing place for locals and foreigners to purchase their dream property at affordable prices.”
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South Korea Has Also Given Green Lights to Flood-Resistant “Floating City” Plans
South Korea’s (the land of Kimchi, K-Beauty, and BTS) Busan city has green-lit plans for an ambitious ocean settlement, set to begin this year.
The proposed floating city, which comprises a series of interconnected platforms, could accommodate over 10k people once realized by its designers. It offers coastal areas a drastic solution to the threat posed by rising sea levels.
The Oceanix project, a joint venture by engineers, designers, and architects, unveiled plans for a “flood-proof” city in 2019. Ever since, organizers have been looking for somewhere to build prototypes.
In November 2021, the group signed an agreement with UN-Habitat, Busan, and the UN’s urban development agency to host its prototype of floating neighborhoods on the coast of South Korea (15).
These houses will be prefabricated in factories and then towed into their respective position and can rise and fall as per the sea level. These five-acre neighborhoods will be designed to house about 300 people in buildings up to seven stories high.
There are plans to arrange these small communities into larger networks, connected through walkways and bicycle paths. As per BIG, Bjarke Ingels Group, a Danish architecture firm leading the design, we can cluster these neighborhoods around a central harbor to make a huge 1,650-person village.
In theory, these towns might eventually merge to form Oceanix City, a 10,000-person city with everything from co-working spaces to restaurants to urban farms and recreational amenities.
The southern coast of South Korea is thought to be particularly vulnerable to the effects of increasing sea levels (16). According to local media sources, Greenpeace Korea warned last year that the city’s iconic Haeundae Beach could be gone by 2030 (17).
As per a research published in the Sustainability journal (18), we have also started seeing its effects. The city suffered more flood damage than any place else in South Korea in the ten years leading up to 2020.
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In the proposed settlement, residents will be able to produce their food and energy in “zero waste closed-loop systems” to make it “self-sustaining.”
Communal farms, compost gardens, and aquaponic food-growing facilities will be built into neighborhoods, while fish farms may be located in the neighboring waterways.
Meanwhile, uninhabited platforms might host floating wind turbines and solar panels or grow bamboo for new building development.
With on-site treatment plants and methods for collecting and storing rainfall, BIG’s suggested urban plan also accounts for freshwater generations. Moreover, the architects envision electric vehicle fleets connecting the neighborhoods to other city and mainland sections, ranging from hydrofoil water taxis to solar-powered ferries.
Busan Mayor Park Heong-Joon praised the deal in a statement, adding, “With the intricated changes facing coastal cities, we require a new vision where people, nature, and technology can coexist.”
Meanwhile, Maimunah Mohd Sharif, the director of UN-Habitat, identified Busan as the “perfect” location for the prototype.
In a press release, he is also reported as saying, “Sustainable floating cities are a component of the arsenal of climate adaptation methods available to humanity.” “Rather of fighting with water, let us learn to coexist with it.”
According to Oceanix co-founder Itai Madamombe (19), the prototype neighborhood in Busan will be completed and inhabited by 2025. She continued to say that the project is currently in talks with ten other governments about using the Busan-developed technology.
Challenges of Floating Homes
Floating homes have numerous channels like:
- Severe rain, wind, and even the passing of large cruise ships can make these houses rock.
- Need extra infrastructure and work for electricity and sewer system connection, with special waterproof cords and pumps to link higher-level municipal services. For instance, Schoonschip in Amsterdam and the floating office building in Rotterdam needed new microgrids built from scratch.
However, according to Rutger de Graaf, the co-founder and director of Blue21 (20), the benefits outweigh the costs.
“If there are floods, we can expect people to move to higher grounds. However, another alternative is to stay close to coastal cities and explore ways to expand onto the water. Let’s consider that in the second half of the century, hundreds of millions of people will have to relocate because of the sea levels rise. We need to start working now to increase the scale of the floating developments,” said De Graaf (21).
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As mentioned, about 70% of the world population will live in urban areas by the next three decades. And feeding city-dwellers will need complex supply chains that are vulnerable to collapse (22).
However, the new generation of farmers is looking for ways to tackle it by bringing nature back into our cities. Analysts also found that urban agriculture can yield about 10% of several food crops, paving the way for sustainability (23).
One such example is Gotham Greens, a company based in New York that sells boxed lettuces with names like “Queens Crisp,” “Windy City Crunch,” and “Blooming Brooklyn Iceberg.” It seems clear that the company is selling salad and a story (24).
It grows greens in hydroponic greenhouses on the rooftops of buildings in NYC and Chicago. The company also ships it to nearby restaurants and stores within hours of being harvested. All of it translates to less spoilage, fresher product, and fewer transportation emissions compared to a similar rural operation. In addition, the customers also get a warm feeling of participating in a local food web.
“As a company, we wish to connect urban residents to their food, with produce grown only a few short kilometers from where they are,” said Viraj Puri, Co-founder, and CEO of Gotham Greens (25).
While Gotham Green’s appealing initiative, along with eight-figure annual revenue, indicates a healthy future for urban farming, evidence suggesting the benefits of urban agriculture for the environment has been difficult to pin down.
A study undertaken by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University observed that transportation from producers to stores only makes up about 4% of food’s total greenhouse gas emissions (26). It questions the concern over “food miles.” In addition, some forms of urban farming, like indoor vertical farms relying on AI for climate and lighting control, are also more energy-intensive than rural farming (27).
While initiatives like Gotham Greens can recycle water via its hydroponic system, outdoor farms need irrigation, which is a potential problem most municipal water systems struggle to keep up with demand.
Notably, many urban farms struggle financially, with a 2016 survey suggesting that only one in three farms in the US make a living from the farm (28).
Even though more cities worldwide have started to accept urban agriculture, with some even encouraging it with financial incentives, there is still a question about the tradeoffs’ worth.
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Challenges Ahead for Mainstream Adoption of Urban Agriculture
A recent analysis of urban agriculture’s global potential published in Earth’s Future took this big step to find an answer to this question (29). And the news is looking good for urban farming.
“Not only could urban agriculture account for several percent of global food production, but there are additional co-benefits past that point and beyond the social impacts,” said Matei Georgescu, Geographical sciences and urban planning professor at Arizona State University and a co-author of the study with researchers from Arizona State, Google, Tsinghua University in China, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Hawaii.
If fully implemented in cities worldwide, the researchers calculated that urban agriculture could produce as much as 180 million metric tonnes of food per year—roughly 10% of the global output of legumes, roots, tubers, and vegetable crops. They used Google’s Earth Engine software and population, meteorological, and other datasets.
Those are significant figures. Researchers hope that their results will uplift other scientists, urban planners, and municipal authorities to consider urban agriculture a viable sustainability source.
And one such company working in this direction is Peas&Love (30). It is an urban farm that has expanded to over seven sites across Belgium and France in the past two years.
“I see urban agriculture as a wonderful trojan horse,” sad Nicolas Brassier, owner of Peas&Love.
Brassier and Maxime Petit, his business partner, share the idea of using urban farming to bring food production closer to the people while also helping people connect with their agricultural heritage.
The key to Peas&Love’s initiative is to use space that would otherwise be barren, like flat roofs of commercial buildings, for cultivation. Its story is also symbolic of a rising French movement to address the aging population of farmers, and the disconnect between individuals, produce, and producers.
Reportedly, half of the rural farmers in France will retire within the next decade (31). Simultaneously, people are growing more conscious of their diet, and the pandemic revealed an urgent need for green urban cities (32).
What “new” spaces, however, can cities provide? Peas&Love, for example, uses unusual locations in cities to create “third places” where people can reconnect with nature and their food. Urban farms can increasingly be found on office building roofs, railway tracks, and even underutilized parking lots (33, 34).
You might ask if the future farm would be fully urban, given the technology available to farm in cities, the growing demand for local products, and ambitious farmers finding spaces in strange places. Does entire urban farming, on the other hand, make sense?
While the number of urban farms is growing, experts point out that urban farms face several barriers. Roofscapes, for instance, have complexities in getting legal authorization to install pilot terraces.
In addition, urban farms are also not suited well when it comes to producing crops like gains, which need huge surface areas to grow at scale. It may never be possible for urban farmers to grow wheat in a city. Yet, it makes up a huge part of the calories our world consumes.
Given the restrictions of urban farming, it is unlikely to replace rural agriculture as the primary food source, particularly in countries where growing conditions are favorable. However, it may provide new local growing possibilities in some regions, shorter supply chains, improved urban biodiversity, and improved quality of life.
“Our goal is to reconnect people and the city to the soil,” Brassier says of their efforts to develop growing spaces in Brussels and Paris’ downtown areas. He remains optimistic about his goal, even if only half of their sites are profitable today.