We’ve all heard it before. Climate change! Polar ice caps melting! Rising sea level! Although people argue about the accuracy of these buzz words, the sea level is rising and it’s rising fast. By the year 2050, the sea level could increase more than a meter. Some predictions have the rise of the next century up to 25 meters (80 feet). Natural disasters such as flooding, drought and severe weather are displacing millions of people from around the world who have no choice but to pack up and move. In the coming years, the number of climate migrants is only going to increase. Twelve percent of the world (700 million people) lives within 10 meters of sea level. Twenty-one percent of the world (1.3 billion people) lives within 25 meters of sea level. Although this level of sea rise will not happen in the next century, we must start making the steps toward a world of continual movement and adaption to the water. We must work with the water rather than fight it.
A rural town in Alaska called Kivalina is already seeing drastic effects caused by climate change. The town’s 400 inhabitants, which is made up of 97% Native American and 3% white, are finding it difficult to sustain living. Their main source of income, which is the hunting of whales during the winter months, is being hindered by the melting ice caps. The melting is warming the ice too much, making it dangerous to walk out onto the frozen waters to hunt. It is predicted that by the year 2025, live in the town will not be possible. The future of this tiny town is unknown. There is a possibilty of either moving down the coast or more inland but in order to move, it would cost more than 100 million dollars. The government, at the moment, said they would provide 50 million dollars but that is not enough to cover the cost of the move. Kivalina is not an isolated case. Over the world there are entire countries that are being threatened by the likelihood of mass migration.
In 1964, British architect Ron Herron developed the idea of the walking city. He imagined massive robots traveling the world where resources could be found. Multiple cities could come together in times of need and create a metropolis. They would then disperse when dependency was no longer needed. Herron’s proposal seems either unrealistic or extremely far future when the world no longer operates with state and country boundary lines. However, Herron also saw this theory working on the smaller scale such as buildings and houses. This is a more feasible and foreseeable approach.
There are a number of current examples that fit in line with Ron Herron’s future of nomadic life and movement. Rather than robots on land, however, we are seeing his concept manifest in floating buildings.
The Vernon C. Bain Center was built in 1992 as a jail-barge to house 800 prisoners. Located in the Bronx, it sits in the harbor and functions as a convention jail facility. It was made due to overcrowded jails and lack of space on land. It was a cheaper alternative to building on land. Although physically on water, it is close to land making for easy loading of goods and other conveniences. On board there is a full size gym with basketball court, a library and a medical facility.
In Amsterdam, the problem of an overcrowded city is also an issue. On top of that, flooding is a constant concern. Because two thirds of people in Netherlands live below sea level, they have become accustomed to designing to counteract flooding. In 2008, a project for a floating neighborhood was started. Waterbuurt, or water quarter, consists of 75 buildings in East Amsterdam that house 1000 citizens. The buildings are anchored to the lakebed by steel mooring pipes enabling the houses to rise with the sea level. The neighborhood has be received well sparking interest with other cities that are developing their own floating housing complexes.
The past two examples were both small scale and focuses on the Western world. They were complex and expensive projects that took years to develop. The issue of rising sea levels goes beyond the Western world. In the East, millions of families who don’t even have fresh water and enough food to live are also struggling with mass flooding and massive storms. In order to combat this issue, there must be more accessible and low cost solutions.
Bangledesh, with a population of 156 million people, is situated between three rivers (Ganges, Brahamputra and Meghna) that can cause flooding to up to 12 feet during the rain season. Everything including farms, hospitals, and schools are completely submerged making boats the only form of transportation. In 2002, Bangladeshi architect Mohammad Rezewan started a program that created solar powered school boats after noticing the high rate of dropouts. The program quickly developed and now feature boats that function as adult education centers, libraries, health clinics and even farms. The farm boats can sustain 10 families at a time as well as domestic animals and vegetable gardens. The boats are made with local materials making them cheap and easy to build. Rezewan believes this is the only way that floating boats are to become more widespread; they must be sustainably built with materials that are available in the area.
Tony Fry says that we as humans must go beyond Kronophobia, our fear of time. We must get over this fear of impermanence and start to think differently about how we live. He stresses that we must become urmadic, a combination of nomadic and urban. As the situation worsens, humans are going to get accustomed to moving from a threatening environment to a safer one. And when that becomes unsafe, we must move to a safer one. Although floating houses and buildings are not the only answer, I believe they are the beginning of the different thinking Fry speaks of.