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The future of coastal cities is on the water. Find out how rising sea levels are driving innovation in this field.

Water cities

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Rising temperatures are causing the ice at the poles to melt and sea levels to rise around the world. This trend is already proving disastrous for flat coastal regions across the globe. And it’s set to become even more devastating in coming decades. According to forecasts, around 450 million people will lose their living space due to flooding by 2050.

But instead of walling cities in behind ever-higher dykes and flood defences, more and more architects are opting for a different solution: floating houses or even entire cities on the water. Among the futuristic plans and buildings that already exist, technical innovations and sustainable solutions are springing up. In this article, we present some projects that clearly demonstrate one thing: The future of the water city has already begun.

A floating building formed of old shipping containers

Floating houses like this one in Copenhagen are not fantastical visions of the future any more. And architects don’t restrict their creativity to residential buildings. (Image: Nick Karvounis, unsplash)

Floating Office Rotterdam

One country at particular risk from flooding is the Netherlands. On average, the nation is just 30 metres above sea level – and a whole 26 per cent of its territory is actually below it, making it one of the lowest-lying countries in the world. This is driving the Dutch government to take proactive measures. As part of its climate adaptation strategy, a very special pilot project opened in Rotterdam last year: the Floating Office Rotterdam, otherwise known as FOR. Covering a total area of 4,500 square metres, the floating office building is completely supported by concrete barges. Aside from this concrete base, the aim was to make the floating structure as sustainable as possible. Hence the office building is made entirely from wood. On the sun-facing side of the roof, a photovoltaic system produces electricity, while a natural green roof on the other side ensures pleasant climate control in summer – and it binds dust and other airborne pollutants.

FOR also serves as the headquarters of the Global Center on Adaptation, an NGO dedicated to working towards a climate-resilient future.

A yellow house floating on the water

Where can we go if sea levels rise? The architectural designer and AI artist Shail Patel has also sketched a similar idea. (Image: Shail Patel)

Floating cities

There’s one country even flatter than the Netherlands: the Maldives. A considerable 80 per cent of the archipelago is not even one metre above sea level. It’s no wonder, then, that the chain of islands has a reputation for being the flattest country in the world. But the threat of flooding is not the only problem it faces. The small islands are running out of living space. The capital, Malé, is ranked among the world’s most densely populated cities. This has prompted the Dutch architect Koen Olthuis to develop a floating water city for the Maldives. The first buildings in the project have already been built. The Maldives Floating City is to be formed of a total of 5,000 floating homes for around 20,000 people – including schools, shops and small public squares. The project brings the visions created by AI artist and architectural designer Shail Patel to mind.

A similar approach is being adopted in South Korea. The coastal city Busan in the south-east of the country is to become a water city with a floating district. Four- to five-storey waterborne buildings are to house around 12,000 people – as well as solar power systems, rainwater harvesting and greenhouses. The project is being planned by a New York start-up and the United Nations. After the last remaining legal obstacles have been resolved, it is scheduled for completion in five years.

A storm-absorbing island

Rising sea levels are set to be a major future challenge, but their full impact won’t be felt immediately. By contrast, many of our coastal regions are already experiencing an ever-increasing number of destructive storm surges. To keep Copenhagen safe from them, an unusual approach has been chosen. An artificial peninsula constructed in the Danish capital’s harbour is to absorb the force of future storms, thereby minimising the resulting damage. Lynetteholmen, as the project and the peninsula is called, will cover around three square kilometres in total and house up to 35,000 people. To this end, the authorities are planning to deposit more than 100 million tonnes of earth in the city’s small inland sea, which flows directly into the Baltic Sea. Despite the project’s good intentions, it has attracted widespread criticism. Nature conservationists fear that the natural balance between Copenhagen’s inland sea and the Baltic will be disrupted.

Green doesn’t always mean sustainable

Water cities are still in their infancy, and many problems must be solved in order to make them truly sustainable. Nature conservationists are constantly raising justified objections to water projects. This raises a question: Does the damage caused by these intrusions into nature outweigh the actual benefits for people? The future of coastal cities is on the water – at least for parts of them. That much is already clear today. And as with many technical developments, answers to urgent questions will follow in time if we devote enough attention to the issues.

But we mustn’t forget one thing: The measures presented here are designed to help us adapt to the consequences of climate change. But we still have a small chance to stop it from reaching a devastating scale.

And the interior industry is also playing its part. How? You’ll find out at the next edition of imm cologne – register now to be an exhibitor at imm cologne 2024.