South Korea is set to build a “sustainable floating city” off the coast of major city Busan as early as 2023 in what is being called a “world first.” The goal behind this endeavour is yet another step in utilising breakthrough technologies to combat the continuous threats of climate change.
The project, which presented its prototype renderings at a United Nations (UN) roundtable on Tuesday 26 April, is a partnership made up by OCEANIX (a blue tech company based in New York), the city of Busan—the second largest city in South Korea—and the UN-Habitat ‘Human Settlement Programme’. The UN’s role appears purely advisory at this stage but will later set to work on collecting data on how the city operates.
“As Mayor of the Metropolitan City of Busan, I take seriously our commitment to the credo ‘The First to the Future’. We joined forces with UN-Habitat and OCEANIX to be the first to prototype and scale this audacious idea because our common future is at stake in the face of sea level rise and its devastating impact on coastal cities,” said Mayor Park Heong-joon in a press release.
The city is expected to be the first test in an evolving strategy towards real estate development in its sustainable and ‘survivable’ structural foundations—in simpler terms, being able to withstand continuously changing environmental conditions. Rendered imagery of what the metropolis is expected to look like shows various buildings on floating platforms, all linked to each other (as well as to the mainland) via a number of connecting bridges. The founding concept is that, as sea levels shift, so will the platforms. But, that’s not all—the city is expected to be fully sustainable.
“Meetings like this one are not empty talk,” Maimunah Mohd Sharif, executive director of the Human Settlements Programme, said in a statement on Tuesday. “Three years ago at our first roundtable, everyone wondered when they might visit a floating city or see its revolutionary architecture, experience its zero-waste environment, sample its home-grown produce and enjoy a new way of living sustainably with nature. We now have the answer. Plans are in place.”
As part of the press release, project organisers claimed that the city would be able to first host 12,000 people with potential expansion possible in future for a capacity of 100,000. Completely self-reliant, the floating city will be able to generate 100 per cent of necessary operational energy with its six integrated systems—zero waste and circular systems, closed loop water systems, food, net zero energy, innovative mobility, and coastal habitat regeneration—via both rooftop and floating solar panels.
Described as “innovative urban agriculture,” mock-ups of the city show large open spaces filled with greenery, public seating and art. “Similarly, each neighbourhood will treat and replenish its own water, reduce and recycle resources, and provide innovative urban agriculture,” the press release continued. There won’t be any traditional modes of transportation as residents and visitors alike would be required to travel by bicycle or on foot.
You probably haven’t heard, since it hasn’t made it to the headlines, but Kent Island, Maryland is sinking, along with the entire Eastern shore of the state. The Island, which is regionally famous for its seafood, is drawing locals from across the area who are desperate to enjoy one last crab before this shellfish heaven drifts into the ocean.
The climate is warming, people. Storms and wildfires are intensifying, vast ice-sheets are melting on both poles, and sea levels are rising at a freakishly fast pace. As our dams of denial slowly erode, more of us wake up to the evidence laid out right before our eyes: in the coming decades, life on this planet will change drastically, and the time to prepare for the inevitable is now. Yet, all over the world, governments, companies and communities still refuse to acknowledge the palpable truth about climate change and the rising seas, including in coastal cities destined to havoc. In Florida, for instance, which by most accounts is pretty much a goner, developers are still erecting condos in flood-prone areas, and people, numbed by indifference and denial, purchase them.
The same cannot be said about New York City, where the municipality announced a bombastic $20 billion plan to fortify itself against the rising seas and hurricanes. In a post in New York Magazine earlier this year, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio wrote, “We don’t debate global warming in New York City. Not anymore… The only question is where to build the barriers to protect us from rising seas and the inevitable next storm, and how fast we can build them.”
New York City has a 520-mile shoreline, which is more than the equivalent of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and Miami combined. According to the New York City Panel on Climate Change, sea levels could potentially rise 11 to 21 inches by the 2050s; by 2100, the panel predicts, waters could rise up to 6 feet. In such a scenario, as much as 37 per cent of lower Manhattan, including the Financial District and South Street Seaport, could be at risk for storm surges, as well as areas across Staten Island and The Bronx, and whole swaths of Brooklyn and, primarily, Queens. This would mean that millions of people will be residing in areas prone to flooding, water treatment plants will be vulnerable to contamination and several airports, railways, subway lines and power plants in the New York City and New Jersey’s meadowlands (a 20,000 acre area just outside of NYC) will sustain significant water damage and cease to function.
Among the various facets of de Blasio’s climate crisis plan, is a $10 billion project that would, among other things, extend lower Manhattan two blocks into the sea in order to protect the area from flooding. “The new land will be higher than the current coast, protecting the neighborhoods from future storms and the higher tides that will threaten its survival in the decades to come,” the mayor wrote. Additional initiatives include connecting flood-walls, barriers, and parks from East 57th Street, down to Battery Park and up West 42nd Street, the construction of a 5-mile seawall around Staten Island and mounting massive sand dunes around the Rockaways.
Rising sea levels and tropical storms aren’t New York City’s only problem, however. The New York City Panel on Climate Change estimates that temperatures in the city could rise on average by about 2 to 3 °C by 2050. By the same year, the number of days above 32.2 °C are expected to triple. Already, heatwaves in the city have come to be regarded as ‘silent killers’, disproportionately affecting low-income and minority communities in neighbourhoods like Harlem. In order to tackle the mounting heat, the city intends to plant more street trees, increase reflective surfaces and paint building rooftops in white (which will reduce the amount of heat it absorbs) in heat-prone neighbourhoods.
Many worry, however, that proclamations and reconfiguration plans will not secure the necessary funding to make them a reality. This was the case with the $27 billion post-hurricane Sandy investment plans to reconstruct the battered city, which never saw the light of day.
Aside from access to funding, it is important to ensure that such fortification and preparation plans take into account the particular challenges of vulnerable communities throughout the city, which suffer the brunt of climate change and too often do not have the means to make their voices heard and interests fought for. Such people are frequently ignored by developers and city officials.
ISeeChange, a global online community encouraging people to post about the changes in their environment, is working to tackle and rectify precisely this problem. The organisation, created by Julia Kumari Drapkin, empowers local communities to document the changes noticed in their environment over time as a result of climate change through their platform and mobile tools. The data is then synced with weather and climate data in order to create a big picture that reflects the actual struggles of people on the ground, help communities adapt as best as they can to changing climate trends, and ensure that their voices are considered in the crafting of climate policies and infrastructure planning.
In New York City, ISeeChange documented urban heat in Harlem. “We synced the [ISeeChange] platform to sensors and put them in people’s apartments. This changed our understanding of how indoor urban heat behaves, and we were able to publish this data and even change cooling center policies in NYC,” Drapkin told Screen Shot.
“We may spend a lot of public money on infrastructure that’s actually not well located or targeted for the problems they were designed to solve,” Drapkin further stated, adding that, “If you combine community stories and data to actually document these events in real time in real life, it’s actually proven to be more accurate than the model data, and have suggested changes that need to be made.”
De Blasio’s crusade to protect the Big Apple from the impending destruction of the climate crisis is important, and his resolve should inspire city, state, and government leaders across the US (and elsewhere) to follow suit. That said, it is our responsibility to pressure our authorities to take actions that are practical, timely, just, and equitable.