A floating city in the Maldives is starting to take shape

A city emerges from the waters of the Indian Ocean. In a turquoise lagoon, just 10 minutes by boat from Malé, the Maldivian capital, a floating city, large enough to house 20,000 people, is under construction.

Designed in a similar pattern to Brain Coral, the city will consist of 5,000 floating units including homes, restaurants, shops and schools, with canals in between. The first units will be unveiled this month, residents will begin moving in early 2024, and the entire town is expected to be completed by 2027.

The project – a joint venture between property developer Dutch Docklands and the Maldivian government – is not intended as a wild experiment or a futuristic vision: it is being built as a practical solution to the harsh reality of rising sea levels. sea.

An archipelago of 1,190 low islands, the Maldives is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. Eighty percent of its land area is less than a meter above sea level, and with levels expected to rise to as much as a meter by the end of the century, almost the whole country could be overwhelmed.

But if a city floats, it can rise with the sea. It’s “a new hope” for more than half a million people in the Maldives, said Koen Olthuis, founder of Waterstudio, the consulting firm architecture that designed the city. “It can prove that there are affordable housing, great communities and normal cities on the water that are also safe. They (Maldivians) will grow from climate refugees to climate innovators,” he told CNN.

Floating Architecture Center

Born and raised in the Netherlands – where around a third of the earth is below sea level – Olthuis has been close to water all his life. Her mother’s side of the family were shipbuilders and her father came from a line of architects and engineers, so it seemed natural to combine the two, he said. In 2003, Olthuis founded Waterstudio, an architecture firm entirely dedicated to building on water.

At that time, there were signs of climate change, but it wasn’t considered a big enough problem for you to build a business around it, he said. The biggest problem then was space: cities grew, but suitable land for new urban developments was scarce.

Want to protect your home against sea level rise? Make it float

However, in recent years, climate change has become “a catalyst”, pushing floating architecture into the mainstream, he said. Over the past two decades, Waterstudio has designed over 300 floating homes, offices, schools and health centers around the world.

The Netherlands has become a center for the movement, home to floating parks, a floating dairy farm and a floating office building, which serves as the headquarters of the Global Center on Adaptation (GCA), an organization focused on empowering scale of climate adaptation solutions.

Patrick Verkooijen, CEO of GCA, sees floating architecture as both a practical and economically smart solution to cope with sea level rise.

The headquarters of the Global Center on Adaptation is anchored in the Nieuwe Maas river in Rotterdam. Credit: Marcel IJzerman

“The cost of not adapting to these flood risks is extraordinary,” he told CNN. “We have a choice to make: either we delay and pay, or we plan and thrive. Floating offices and floating buildings are part of this planning against the climate of the future.

Last year, floods cost the global economy more than $82 billion, according to reinsurance agency Swiss Re, and as climate change triggers more extreme weather, the costs are set to rise. A World Resources Institute report predicts that by 2030, more than $700 billion worth of urban assets will be affected by coastal and riverine flooding each year.

But despite the momentum of recent years, floating architecture still has a long way to go in terms of scale and affordability, Verkooijen said. “This is the next step in this journey: how can we scale, and at the same time, how can we accelerate? There is an urgency for scale and speed.”

A normal town, just afloat

The Maldives project aims to achieve both, building a city for 20,000 people in less than five years. Other floating city projects have been launched, such as Oceanix City in Busan, South Korea, and a series of floating islands in the Baltic Sea developed by Dutch company Blue21, but none rival this scale and timeline. .

The town of Waterstudio is designed to attract locals with its rainbow-colored houses, wide balconies and waterfront views. Residents will travel on boats, or they can walk, do cycling or driving electric scooters or buggies along the sandy streets.

The capital of the Maldives is extremely overcrowded, with no possibility of expanding outside the sea.

The capital of the Maldives is extremely overcrowded, with no possibility of expanding outside the sea. Credit: Carl Court/Getty Images AsiaPac

It offers space that is hard to find in the capital – Malé is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with more than 200,000 people crammed into an area of ​​around eight square kilometres. And prices are competitive with those on Hulhumalé (a man-made island built nearby to reduce overcrowding) — starting at $150,000 for a studio or $250,000 for a family home, Olthuis said.

Modular units are built at a local shipyard and then towed to the floating city. Once in place, they are attached to a large concrete underwater hull, which is bolted to the seabed on telescopic steel stilts that let it fluctuate gently with the waves. The coral reefs that surround the city help provide a natural wave breaker, stabilizing it and preventing residents from getting seasick.

Olthuis said the structure’s potential environmental impact was rigorously assessed by local coral experts and approved by government authorities before construction began. To support marine life, artificial coral shoals made from foam glass are attached to the underside of the city, which he says helps stimulate natural coral growth.

Residents can get around the city by boat, and it's only about a 10-minute ride to the capital and the international airport.

Residents can get around the city by boat, and it’s only about a 10-minute ride to the capital and the international airport. Credit: Waterstudio.NL/Dutch Docklands

The goal is for the city to be self-sufficient and have all the same functions as a terrestrial city. There will be electricity, powered mainly by solar power generated on site, and wastewater will be treated locally and reused as manure for plants. As an alternative to air conditioning, the city will use deep-sea marine cooling, which involves pumping cold water from the deep sea into the lagoon, which will help save energy.

By developing a fully functional floating city in the Maldives, Olthuis hopes to take this type of architecture to the next level. It will no longer be about “bizarre architecture” found in luxurious places commissioned by the super-rich, but a response to climate change and urbanization that is both practical and affordable, he said. he declares.

“If, as an architect, I want to make a difference, we have to scale up,” he said.

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