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City on the Sea, Part I

By Liz Clift

Editor’s Note: This is a 3-part blog that will post on consecutive Tuesdays.

When most of us think about resiliency planning for sea-level rise (SLR), we generally think about it in terms of coastal cities and islands. As ecologists and landscape designers, we consider options to buffer the coast from storms, ways to build parks that can withstand occasional tidal inundation, develop plant palettes with a higher salt tolerance, and consider the benefits of various building structures.

However, there is a group of people who are considering seasteading (similar to homesteading, but in the ocean) as a solution. Seasteading would, ideally, create floating, man-made, self-sufficient islands, and its gaining attention worldwide. In fact, French Polynesia recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with San Francisco’s Seasteading Institute to begin the development of the world’s first self-sufficient floating city. Seasteaders, according to the Seasteading Institute website are:

“a diverse global team of marine biologists, nautical engineers, aquaculture farmers, maritime attorneys, medical researchers, security personnel, investors, environmentalists, and artists. We plan to build seasteads to host profitable aquaculture farms, floating healthcare, medical research islands, and sustainable energy powerhouses.”

Their first step in the process of creating “blue” jobs and of moving the idea of seasteading into reality will be the Floating Cities Project. Since the idea of a floating city is still conceptual, there isn’t a set idea of how large these structures would be; if they would be moored or anchored in some way versus truly floating; or how long they would be designed to last and the necessary maintenance and associated costs that upkeep would require.

The floating city that may one day exist in French Polynesia would be located in a fairly tranquil bay. But, the idea moving from the conceptual and design stages into actualization is dependent on a number of factors including the results of feasibility studies, environmental impact assessments, and concurrence with the governments of French Polynesia and France.

Tiger Shark, image from Wikimedia Commons

Tiger Shark, image from Wikimedia Commons

Most of the model floating cities on the Seasteading Institute website are small, which would limit how much (or what type) transportation is needed. People could easily get around on foot, by bike, or by boat (i.e. sailboats, kayaks, canoes). Perhaps the island city would want an emergency vehicle or two, but I suspect alternatives could be found even for these cases.

A floating city presents a number of design challenges and opportunities, and the Seasteading Institute ran a design contest (you can see the submissions on their site) to generate ideas for how this could work. I spoke for a while with one of our landscape architects about some of the challenges that might be present with this type of project, and he raised concerns about what would happen to the sea life beneath the city.

The idea of a self-sufficient city that floats in the sea can also raise questions about how food will be grown or cultivated, what will happen to waste, how energy will be produced and captured, how it will fare in storms, how to build a structure that is moderately resistant to corrosion and fatigue, and other concerns including about how sea life will be impacted. Unless otherwise noted, answers below are not based on anything put out by the Seasteading Institute, but instead are a compilation of how those questions that might begin to be answered. As a note, my attempts at answers are based on input from colleagues, articles I’ve read, videos I’ve watched, and what I understand about permaculture design.

In the following installations, which will be posted the next two Tuesdays, I attempt to respond to some of the opportunities and challenges (maybe you would call them a concern) that such a city would present. I don’t address them all—politics, for instance, appears to be a point of challenge/opportunity, especially if these floating cities have some level of sovereignty—because they fall far outside of the work we do here, at Great Ecology.

Subsequent posts will cover:

  • Food & Water
  • Waste
  • Storms
  • Corrosion & Fatigue
  • Energy
  • Other Concerns

Continue to Part II!

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