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The Planet's First Floating City Will Be Made of Wood

A floating school was just built in Nigeria. First the school, next, an entire buoyant city.
March 11, 2013, 5:30pm
A floating wooden school that will soon join the world's first truly floating city. Image: NLE

The world is warming, the Arctic is melting, and the seas are rising. So we'd best get with the tides. And that means re-imagining and redesigning some of our most important institutions, even entire communities—and sometimes, making them float.

Not every coastal city has billions to spare with which to build high-tech levees and storm-breakers, you know. The residents of poorer ones, the ones that have of course done little to beckon the rising seas, will be forced to find more creative ways to sustainably survive the surge. So if you can't wall up and keep the oceans out of your city, you might have to start building your city on top of the ocean.

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That's what the Nigerian urban design group NLE plans to do. Here's its newly built Makoko school in Lagos, Nigeria. Two stories tall, it can fit 400 students, comfortably, in its gently rocking, sea-faring classroom. It's the first building set adrift in what NLE hopes will soon become an entire floating city.

Power will be supplied by solar panels, buildings will boast a water catchment system, and huge plastic drums that line the foundation allow it to float. A Dutch architectural firm has determined that the structure is stable and generally unsinkable. The floating school is phase one of NLE's plans to build the first floating community in Makoko, a slum in Lagos beset by constant flooding. That flooding is certain to grow worse as tropical rainfall becomes more extreme in coming years, as our hotter and hotter atmosphere pulls more and more moisture into the air.

Makoko is home to some 100,000 people, and that number is growing as people continue to flock to the oil-rich nation's capital—all while the storms are worsening. Climbing populations, constant flooding, higher sea levels, worse and more unpredictable storms will make life miserable for millions, and similar trends abound in other nations: Bangladesh, India, Vietnam. Et cetera.

So NLE wants to re-engineer communities like Makako's to be resilient to constant flooding and changing sea levels. They're working to create an organized Water World-style city existing peacefully atop the waves, minus Kevin Costner and roving bands of melodramatic oil-bandits. Here's their plan for phase two, via Design Boom:

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phase two includes the construction of floating housing units that can be interlocked or float independently. following the same aesthetic and functional principles as the school, the houses will also contain a state-of-the-art device designed by japanese company air danshin systems inc that detects certain movements (such as earthquake tremors) and activated a compressor that pumps air into a chamber below the structure so that the dwellings may navigate safely over a flood plain. the final phase will see the creation of an entire floating community fully equipped to deal with flooding problems while maintaining an improved quality of life. scheduled for completion for the end of 2014, the master plan is expected to mark a new wave in resilient architecture in high-water zones.

 NLE wants to build the planet's first future-ready floating city here.

NLE

Organized something like this.

NLE

And by floating city, I really mean floating—not just built on stilts, not merely elevated above the waves; actually floating. The whole city will rise and fall with the tide. Neo-Makoko would eventually look like a bit like a more buoyant tent city, but with solar panels and brighter colors.

NLE

It will be a colossal undertaking. Makoko currently looks like this.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

It's home to fishermen and merchants who long ago adapted their homes and transportation methods to high sea levels. But they're not ready for the rain to fall like it will soon, or the seas to keep climbing up towards their doorsteps—who would've planned on a thing like that?

So the stakes are high. Island nations like Tuvalu and the Maldives are already facing existential crises brought on by global warming and the industrialized world's unrelenting devotion to fossil fuels. Countless others will be wiped away, too, in floods and ascendant tides.

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Floating cities aren't a new idea; they've been seriously discussed for years now. In the wake of Katrina, for example, architects and engineers came up with a grandiose, high-tech concept for a floating New Orleans:

You've perhaps heard of the Seasteaders, a group of libertarian entrepreneurs who want to build floating cities—not to avoid climate change, but to avoid the dumb laws and regulations of earth-bound nation-states. And sci fi inspired designers have been dreaming up floating cities for years now; I've seen images of the LILYPAD float across Tumblr plenty of times now:

Image: Inhabitat

But NLE's plan is the first that's even close to pragmatic enough to make an entire city float anytime soon—its first school is already built, after all.

The United States is not going to build a giant mechanized floating New Orleans, and nobody is likely going to build alien-looking seaborne greenhouses. Rich nations don't need to—it's cheaper, though still extremely expensive, to adapt to rising seas with cutting edge dikes and levees. Which is why the floating cities of the near-future aren't going to look like fantastic sea labs; they're probably going to look like a tangle of enmeshed wooden schools and homes. Because the folks that will really have to adapt to the real-life water world are the ones that can't afford the high-tech toys. So, they'll probably, kinda sorta, look more like the cities from the dumb Costner flick than most everything else.

Image: Students of the World