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Floating Cities: 90s-era Sci-fi Becomes Our Current Reality

Is this for real?

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NEW YORK CITY- I’m in New York City for a reason besides evaluating the place as a potential longer-term base of operations. I was invited to cover a roundtable event event at the United Nations about floating cities.
Floating cities?

Floating cities hide nothing in nomenclature: they are new cities that are built out at sea on inhabitable artificial platforms. While this sounds like some strange IRL rendition of a Kevin Costner movie we are moving into an age where people are going to be living on the water and entire cities built on aquatic platforms are going to be normal. The rationale is two-fold: sea levels are rising at an unnaturally fast pace, what we know today as being land will more than likely be submerged in 50 to 100 years and available coastal development property in prime destinations is extremely valuable and extremely rare.

Over the past five ten years Asia has been in the thorough of an all out land reclamation bonanza. Realizing that they can just make wide swaths of virgin development land in high-value locations themselves countries and cities have been extending their coastlines out farther and farther. While the profits are huge — sometimes up to 100-fold — the environmental and social costs are likewise huge, as extracting sand from one maritime locale and dumping it in another means two ecosystems are destroyed for each land reclamation project — not to mention the livelihoods of the communities who live in these places.

From 2006 to 2010, at the height of its new city building boom, China was adding on an average of 700 square kilometers of land each year. That’s roughly the size of Singapore. Speaking of Singapore, the island city-state is more than 25% larger than it was when it came into existence in 1955 — and it is still growing. Meanwhile, Malaysia has massive reclamation works under way for the 700,000-person Forest City in Johor, the island of Penang has been adding on new land in excess, and Melaka is in the process of wiping out a 400-year-old Portuguese fishing village with a slew of new artificial islands.Tthe Philippines is reclaiming 1,010 acres from the sea for its New Manila Bay – City of Pearl. Cambodia has an array of Chinese-financed reclaimed land projects. Dubai went crazy — almost literally — with land reclamation. While Sri Lanka is currently building a new financial district adjacent to Colombo in what only a few years ago was open sea.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

However, the land reclamation bonanza is destined to come to an end almost as fast as it began. The environmental and social damage wrought by land reclamation has become obvious — as has the fact that many reclaimed land developments across Asia have started sinking — and governments have started cracking down on the practice as well as the mining and export of sand, which is fast becoming an endangered resource (as odd as that may sound).

Enter the floating city.

While the idea and technology has been around since at least the 1960s, floating cities are now being pushed to the forefront of urban development as an alternative to land reclamation — rather than dumping sand, build structures. Basically, it’s a new way to maintain the existing status-quo of generating virgin swaths of high-value coastal real estate that governments and developers can continue profiting from. While the people pushing the floating cities strategy have been quick to claim that they are not the next big real estate fling, that they are not going to build floating cities for the rich, that they are going to create these things for the normal working people or to save the poor I can’t respond to this with anything other than an eye roll and a sarcastic, “Sure you are.”

I’ve seen this before. I’ve been writing about big global changes and paradigm shifts, often in the form of the new city, since 2012. I’ve seen the thickets of “low-income housing” which miraculously materialize as luxury condos for foreign investors more times than I wish. Everything else is a sales pitch.

I’m at the United Nations. I didn’t bother picking up my press pass. I went through an entire ordeal to get permissions to bring in my camera to film just to realize that the event I was covering started at 8:30 am but the press office which doles out the passes didn’t open until 9. Whatever. I will just walk in, do my thing, and see what happens.
It wasn’t an issue, I was able to do what I wanted … although I’m slightly disappointed as over the years I just kept hanging my used press passes them on a shelf at my parents’ house until they eventually grew to collection proportions. Adding one from the UN would have been neat — but not neat enough to make me go out of my way for it.
On the way in I was given an admission card for my event, and this was all I needed. I walked through security and then inside the belly of the venerable edifice that is the global headquarters of the United Nations.
I walked in with a group and followed a Chinese guy with a sign that had our event listed on it downstairs to the basement. It was a giant hall with boardrooms lining both sides and a cafeteria in the center. In front of each room was a monitor that had the next event that was going to be taking place there listed upon it, kind of giving the place the feel of an airport terminal. People would come in, have their conference, move out, and the monitor would list the next event. I watched as crowds moved in an out of their respective conference rooms and suddenly didn’t feel so special. Apparently, the UN churns out these kinds of conferences like a factory.
I entered the conference room for the floating cities round table. There was a large circular table lined with stations for all of the participants — the organizations they represent on lit-up signs in front of their microphones. Inside of the circle was a giant model of a proto-type of a floating city. Above that was an array of monitors set up ala a miniature version of a jumbotron in a hockey arena. The participants gradually came in and claimed their positions. I took a seat on the sidelines with the other media goons.
I looked around the room. Who were these people? There was the president of the Explorer’s Club, the director of the National Geographic Society, a Nobel-prize-winning economist, an array of highly-regarded university professors, a CEO from Tencent, the guy who invented biorock, a Hollywood actress who married a famous director who incessantly lectured everyone on the environmental benefits of a plant-based diet (while she lives in a multi-million dollar Malibu mansion with seven bathrooms), and the guy who wrote Waterworld, the Kevin Costner movie where rising sea levels force everybody to live on floating platforms … Hmm…
The roundtable was presided over by the former mayor of Penang, who somehow obtained the post of Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Program. I was in disbelief when I saw her. Penang is one of my best examples of what happens when urbanization goes bad, and I’ve written a slew of articles in major international media about it. Does anybody else here know that her city was environmentally ravaged by irresponsible development practices under her watch? How do you go from having such a spotty record as mayor straight to leading one of the foremost organizations in the world working towards sustainable urbanism?
As with most conferences, some of the roundtable was enlightening, absolutely fascinating, and some of it was nauseating —  the global elite talking about socially engineering the non-elite. However, what is actually spoken at these events isn’t really of much concern to me. What I’m really looking for are characters.
I’m a different kind of journalist. I’m not a staff reporter. I don’t go to these events, jot down some notes, and then deliver my copy by the end of the workday. No, I’m a little more masochistic than that. I hang back during the formal presentations and talks — pondering what’s being said, cracking jokes while selecting individuals to include in my stories who say something intriguing or otherwise appear interesting, who I will then isolate on the sidelines or meet with later on for one-on-one interviews.
My way takes about 100x longer and costs vastly more money, but I’m out to write definitive deep-dives on the topics I cover — evergreen pieces that attempt to present an issue in a complete package that can remain relevant for years. I’m not a beat reporter churning out breaking news. I admire those who do this, but it’s just not my thing. Ultimately, I’m in this profession because I want to understand how things work — I like the challenge of trying to decode complex phenomena and movements. I’m in this for me. I’m just a traveler.
Filed under: Journalism, New Cities, New York City, Urbanization

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3703 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

4 comments… add one

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  • Rob April 20, 2019, 1:43 am

    “The global elite talking about socially engineering the non-elite”. Control, a lot of that going on these days… maybe I’m just late in noticing it?

    This was a good blog, I learned a bit! Thanks.

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    • Wade Shepard April 20, 2019, 4:13 am

      Thank you!

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  • Trav April 24, 2019, 6:28 pm

    What would someone do in one of those cities?

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    • Wade Shepard April 24, 2019, 9:55 pm

      Evolve gills …

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