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Leon Kaye headshot

Could Floating Cities Help Us Adapt to Climate Change?

By Leon Kaye

Will the smart cities of the future float?

With data suggesting sea levels could rise by as much as six feet before the end of this century, the possibility of building floating communities has captured plenty of imaginations. One Silicon Valley startup suggested -- and even patented -- “self floating environments” that would create communities immune to rising seas. Several years ago, a Paris architecture firm drew up renderings for biomimicry-inspired floating cities that could house climate refugees.

Now, a South Pacific government has entered into an agreement with a California NGO that will supposedly make such communities the reality.

Earlier this month, French Polynesia (which includes Tahiti, its largest island) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Seasteading Institute to embark on a development called the Floating Island Project.

Upon completion, the island or islands will have their own “special governing framework” and will comprise an “innovative special economic zone." The territory’s housing minister, Jean-Christophe Bouissou, touted the agreement as one allowing French Polynesia to “find solutions to the problems facing Island communities by building ocean platforms.”

Founded in 2008 by Patri Friedman and initially funded by Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel, the Seasteading Institute at first had a lofty and libertarian goal to build in international waters in order to “establish new nations and spur competitive governance from the outside.” But the expense of building in remote oceanic areas, along with the access to land these proposed cities would need, convinced the organization to build its first prototypes adjacent to a nation or territory.

And these floating cities, in the shape of a small square or pentagon at least 50 meters (180 feet) on each side, promise a bevy of sustainable benefits.

They would be powered by solar, allowing them to function completely off the grid. Their design also suggests that they could host small-scale aquaculture and desalination projects.

But at first, they will not come cheap: Joe Quirk, an author and spokesman for the Seasteading Institute, said that the cost to build floating communities and house residents in three-story homes would cost “just over” $500 a square foot – a price equivalent to real estate prices in London or Manhattan.

And therein lie some head-scratching questions. Randolph Hencken, executive director of the Seasteading Institute, told the New York Times the cost of building these cities could become cheaper and more scalable as more of them are constructed.

That would allow these communities to house citizens in low-lying island nations that are most vulnerable to sea-level rise. But as outlined in the Guardian, plenty of Tahitians and other French Polynesians see such a development as a ruse to allow wealthy foreigners to move to the South Pacific in order to avoid paying taxes in their home countries.

Furthermore, challenges such as waste management and procuring resources such as food are overlooked and left unanswered.

Then there are the logistics that could become involved if a community no longer wants to be subjected to a particular government: Where would residents move its platform?

Even Thiel, who has not been involved with the Seasteading Institute for several years, told Maureen Dowd of the New York Times earlier this month that such a utopia will not be the reality until far into the future. “They’re not quite feasible from an engineering perspective," he said.

Unless the Seasteading Institute and its allies can prove these floating platforms are more of a tangible climate change solution than a futuristic vacation or duty-free getaway, critics will insist that such money could be better spent on climate mitigation, healthcare or education.

Image credit: Gabriel Sheare, Luke & Lourdes Crowley, and Patrick White (Roark 3D)

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye