Floating cities to solve global warming woes

Taking to the waves : Could humans end up living on floating cities like these?

On the eve of a major report on the impact of climate change, a flurry of futuristic designs has been proposed that would see humans permanently living at sea. How realistic are they?

The idea of an apocalyptic flood engulfing the world has long fascinated the human race. Versions of it appear in ancient myths and in the Bible, and it has just become the subject of a new Hollywood blockbuster.

But back in the real world, a major UN report to be published next week is expected to confirm fears that climate change, particularly flooding, will affect tens of millions of people, mostly in Asia.

Now, a new generation of Noahs is proposing that floating cities could provide the solution to rising sea levels, overpopulation and food shortages. Water-borne city states are enjoying political momentum and attracting serious investment; from modest floating villages in London, to huge sea-bound structures which float on the ocean’s surface and can also submerge in the event of rough seas.

Far from being sci-fi fantasy, the infrastructure behind these proposals is well-trodden territory for engineers. The platforms and mooring systems used in these designs are similar to those for large ships or oil rigs, and some airports already float on water.

Other practicalities, such as using wind power for energy, or relying on the sea for food, have also been considered. The Seasteading Institute founded by the grandson of Milton Friedman goes even further. It proposes a series of connected oceanic utopias which would test new ideas for government. The floating villages could even be disconnected in the event of a political dispute.

The idea of entire populations living on the water is not altogether new, although the scale of these visionary vessels is. Freedom Ship – a mile-long floating city for 40,000 residents designed by a Florida-based company – may be close to securing its $10bn funding. If it gets the go ahead, it will include schools, hospitals and even a university.

All at sea

Are floating cities realistic or just maritime madness? Some say the ideas are too expensive and will mean little to those in impoverished countries like Bangladesh, where affordable solutions are needed fast. It is wrong for us to simply set sail, or flee into space after making a mess of life on land. Not enough serious thought has been given to how these watery worlds would be governed, or which laws would be obeyed, and terrorism and piracy have also been cited as major concerns.

But the fact that these ingenious designs even exist is a step forward for humanity, even if much work is still to be done on the technical, social and political aspects. Seven-tenths of the planet’s surface is covered in water, and rather than fearing the sea, we could harness it to protect and expand human life on Earth. It offers great and exciting opportunities as well as challenges.

You Decide

  1. Are floating cities a good idea? Why? Why not?
  2. Can technological and engineering ingenuity save the world from disaster? What other solutions to climate change are there?


  1. Design and roughly sketch out your own floating city. What shape would it be? How large? What facilities would it offer?
  2. Class debate: This House believes that developed countries have a greater responsibility to reverse climate change than developing countries.

Some People Say...

“Creating a better future requires artists, not engineers.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does global warming affect me?
Yes – it affects all of us. While the UN report suggests that the impact of climate change on the UK will be relatively small, global issues such as rising food prices and warmer weather will pose serious problems. But we shouldn’t just be thinking of ourselves – the report predicts that millions of people around the world could be displaced, leading to conflict, food shortages and disease. Some say that those living in wealthier, developed countries have a duty to protect more vulnerable areas.
Because wealthier countries have more money to spend on technological advances, and are often responsible for higher carbon emissions in the first place. Developing countries also have more pressing concerns to worry about, such as poverty, health and education.

Word Watch

‘Noah’, a $130m blockbuster starring Russell Crowe, opens in the UK at the beginning of April. It has been criticised by religious groups who say the film is inaccurate, and by those concerned about its strong green message.
Members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will publish their report on Monday. It is written by the world’s top researchers, but some have criticised it in advance for being too ‘alarmist’.
One of the vulnerable areas is Bangladesh, low-lying and densely populated. Two ‘super-cyclones’ devastated the country between 2007 and 2009, resulting in thousands of deaths.
A floating village at London’s Royal Docks has been granted permission, and is expected to become one of the most sought-after places to live in the capital.
Phil Pauley based his idea on Buckminster Fuller’s 1960s Triton structure, designed to house 100,000 residents. The plans were even approved by the US Navy. Pauley’s Sub-Biosphere 2 could be used as a seed bank to store vital food supplies for feeding the world in the event of a cataclysmic disaster.
Milton Friedman
Friedman (1912-2006) was described by The Economist as ‘the most influential economist of the second half of the 20th century ... possibly of all of it.’
Until the late 1980s, tens of thousands of boat-dwellers – the Tanka community – lived in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay. Their ancestors were fishermen who retreated from warfare on land to live permanently in their vessels.

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